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The Railroad Branch of the Y.M.C.A.

BY G. J. WARBURTON

 

WHETHER considered as an expression of the generally pervading altruistic spirit, a manifestation of the American eagerness for self-help, or as an evidence of the vitality of the religious forces of our times, the Railroad Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association is deserving of recognition and study. It has been called the largest club of working men in the world. It is doing a welfare work of sufficient size and success to put it in the front rank among such enterprises, and on the railroad it has made a permanent place for itself and is generally regarded as a desirable, and in most cases an indispensable, agency for good. Its status may be seen by the fact that companies controlling eighty per cent of the railroad mileage of the United States support the associations of which there are now 202 with a membership of 65,000, and annual current expenses of $625,000, of which the companies contributed forty per cent and men sixty per cent. The number of secretaries now employed is 337, and the value of the buildings more than $1,800,000.

In nearly all parts of the world some kind of good work is being done for railroad employees. In Russia a splendid system of pensions is in operation, and besides cooperative stores there are schools of various grades as well as churches with attendant priests devoted entirely to the use of railway employees and their families. In Germany also pensions are paid to old employees and to the widows and orphans of those deceased. Homes and rest rooms of various kinds are provided with baths, libraries and kitchens, and besides these things a large number of associations composed of railroad men conduct various kinds of welfare work. In Great Britain the Railway Mission is aggressive as an evangelistic agency and pushes its work in halls, goods sheds, stations, and wherever groups of railroad men are found. It has also extended its activities to South Africa, India and Japan.

The Young Men's Christian Association began its labors among railroad men in 1872 in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, through the agency of an employee who had been discharged for drunkenness but who had recently reformed and entered upon a life of active Christian service. He invited a minister to preach to railroad people in the waiting room of the station, the officers of the companies controlling it having placed it at his disposal. Crowds of people attended, a revival broke out among the men, and as a result of it and the difficulty of managing it, the first branch of the Young Men's Christian Association composed of railroad men was formed. It was not long before a reading room was opened and the organization properly housed in the Union Depot. The first outreach of the new society was to men along the line of the Lake Shore Railroad, and great meetings in round houses, led by delegations of earnest men, were a feature of that period. The secretary was a man of unquenchable zeal, and devoted his time largely to the visitation of the sick, the distribution of religious literature, and the conduct of the evangelistic meetings. One of the earliest friends whose influence was a great aid in those early days was General John H. Devereaux, then the president of the C. C. C. & I. road and a prominent citizen of Cleveland. He afterwards testified that in the strike days of 1877 it was through the influence of the Christian work done among the men in Cleveland that they stood out against riots and disorder.

In 1875 the Cleveland men felt that they must visit other important railroad centers to tell what had been done and to induce other railroad men to band themselves together and other managers to give their assistance. New York City was one of the first places visited. The Grand Central Depot had become the headquarters of the New York Central system, and the officers of its affiliated lines then, as now, made frequent business visits to it. General Devereaux had spoken of the work in Cleveland to members of the Vanderbilt family. "Young Cornelius," as he was then called, had entered the treasurer's office of the Harlem Railroad as a clerk. He was an active worker in St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church and had recently become a member of the board of directors of the Young Men's Christian Association of New York. The visitors from Cleveland found him deeply interested in their story, which was a thrilling one, and which was told with all the fervor and fire of zealous advocates of a good cause. Soon a basement room was found for a reading room, and the work was established in the commercial center of the New World. New York assumed a very influential relation to the movement partly on account of its place of leadership in railroad matters but chiefly owing to the devotion of Mr. Vanderbilt to the cause, a devotion that continued up to the time of his death in 1899. The International Committee, of which the late William E. Dodge, Morris K. Jessup and Mr. Vanderbilt were members, secured a secretary in the person of Edwin D. Ingersoll, a natural promoter and one of the original group of Cleveland association leaders, and the work was urged upon the railroad officers of the country and their support enlisted. In one of his early reports Mr. Ingersoll says:

"A library for railroad men was established by officers of the Passumpsic Railroad Company at St. Johnsbury, Vt., in 1850, another by officials of the Vermont Central Railroad Company, at Northfield, Vt., in 1852, and another by Messrs. Peto, Beets and Brassey, contractors, while building the Victoria Bridge at Montreal, in 1854. Many others have since been established throughout the country. A few of them survive. The great majority of these library organizations are dead, and in many cases nothing can now be found to show that they ever existed . . . . . As a rule, they were used only by men of good habits and of some literary taste. There was not sufficient social or other influence connected with them to draw men away from evil resorts; there was no aggressive reformatory force."

The railroad branches supply this reformatory force. As a recent writer has put it, "they introduce the psychological motive of religion."

Mr. John P. Green, first vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, has said: "To accomplish any great work there must be some strong, guiding, impelling principle behind it. . . . . We believe that in having the Young Men's Christian Association back of our work we have secured cooperative force that is always pushing to the front, and is making us do this great work not only for ourselves, but for the community and the world which we are trying to serve."

I have given this brief sketch of the beginnings of Railroad Young Men's Christian Association work as a background against which to put the varied activities and recognized successes of these later years. Originating among the men, it was not always understood, and by the intensity of its religious fervor (in which it was merely reflecting the conditions of the period in which it was born) it estranged some. Railroad officials were not generally sympathetic. They doubted its practical value and, when they had been won, many of the men gave but lukewarm support. Gradually the activities of the associations assumed most practical shape. To the reading and lounging room were added the library, evening classes, lectures, baths, rest rooms and dormitories, and later restaurants. Railroad companies were led to invest larger sums of money, to furnish better equipment. At first rooms in the station, over a freight shed, or in a round house, were provided, and the experiment went on with increasing success. One test that has always been applied has been the ability of the association to keep railroad employees out of the saloon, the brothel and the gambling resort. Railroading in the old days attracted a type of men to whom vices of various kinds made a strong appeal. It was a common thing for them to be woefully lacking in good morals. Many were dissolute, and the location of a terminal in a town was considered a calamity because of the undesirable men who would thus be brought into it. It is also true that the restraints that are around the working man of the same social grade in other employment are lacking in a railroad man's life. His hours are generally irregular. Much of his time must be spent away from home. His labor is exhausting to physical and nervous force to such an extent that the desire for stimulants is stronger in its appeal than it might otherwise be. Yet the nature of his responsibility is such that he must be alert, sober, trustworthy. The rules of the railroads prohibit the use of liquors while on duty. In fact the railroad employees of the country constitute the largest army of temperance men in the world. The brotherhoods, too, deserve much credit for their attitude on the drink question. But it would be useless to prohibit drinking and then force men to the places where liquor is sold by compelling them to seek their food and rest in the cheap hotels that are always found near terminal stations and yards. It is here that the association serves both railroad officers and railroad men. It competes with the saloon for the patronage of the engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and the others, and it offers them all of the needful things for which they must seek.

The social rooms with games of various kinds are as free from unnatural restraint as they can be made. The restraint is one of atmosphere, not of rules. Mirth, sometimes of a boisterous nature, abounds in such places. The "Stove Committee" may meet and talk about bow the road should be run, with the confidence of a commuter, and no one will be harmed. The engineer and the fireman from the "head end" may smoke and chat with the men who punch tickets, handle trunks or help the ladies on and off at the platforms of the cars. Profanity and obscenity are tabooed. It is a club. It is better than the saloon and cheaper. There is no gambling, no drinking, but a wholesome, manly enjoyment of those recreative features that bring freshness to the jaded body and new vigor to the weary nerves.

The lunch rooms and restaurants furnish food at cost prices and the patronage of some of them is very large. At Madison avenue, New York, between seven and eight hundred meals are served daily. The dormitories are very popular, and for a dime a member may have a bed with clean linen and be sure to be called in time to go out on his run. The reading rooms and libraries are supplied with current literature and the best books; in some cases traveling libraries are employed, and men at stations on the line are supplied with books by train service. This is a great boon to the solitary station agent who must also serve as telegraph operator, baggageman, and express messenger, but whose work is miles from the nearest public library, Practical talks upon such subjects as "The Book of Rules," "Locomotive Repairs," "Reports and How to Make Them," as well as evening classes on subjects of value to railroad men, are useful and measurably popular.

In the religious meetings your typical railroad man appears at his best. He has slight regard for conventionalities but goes straight to the heart of things in his talk. Railroad phrases are numerous and brighten into vividness speeches that might otherwise be prosaic. The engineer speaks of men who lack "sand," whose "drivers slip," whose "headlight isn't burning." He tells of "throwing her over" and shoving her down into the notch. The conductor declares that there are no sleeping cars on the gospel train but that every passenger travels on a pass! Flashes of wit follow bursts of real pathos. Stolid and self-contained as railroad men appear to the public, they are companionable and brotherly within their own circle. Their sorrows and their joys are shared by their fellows. They do not readily open the doors of their natures to outsiders, but to be a railroader insures a friendly welcome. Big burly men are often child-like in the depth and simplicity of their emotional life. They hate shams and have an unusual power of discrimination in reading men. The conductor spots the short fare passenger, his place and his future depend to no small degree upon his alertness, memory and tact. Every man must be, ready for any emergency. Difficulties are to be overcome and not to stop the train. The man who can only tell why he -didn't do a certain thing will soon be crowded out.

The active agency in the extension of the railroad association work has been the International Committee, and in several states strong committees of railroad officials have pushed the work within state lines. There are now seven international railroad secretaries at work. Railroad centers are visited, the men and the companies interested and organizations effected. Nearly all railroad managers now welcome the association's cooperation and the men are easily induced to enter the membership and to work on the various committees. The labor unions are friendly and in many cases their members actively -co6perate, though it is always understood that the association has no direct relation to labor questions except as its teachings tend to promote good feeling and its social and other work actually brings employers and employees together and increases mutual respect. This in itself is not a small contribution in these days of gigantic corporations with the number of employees running into the tens of thousands.

This solidification of the association work by means of a central committee is further carried out by great conferences of delegates, the last of which was held at Topeka, Kansas, in April, 1903, and was attended by more than fourteen hundred delegates. President Roosevelt made an address.

The faces of the delegates were a most interesting study. They exhibited intensity, alertness, discrimination, sympathy, firmness, confidence, expectation, in varying degrees. Some showed signs of hard knocks in the battle of life. Firmly set jaws, and eyes that looked out of cavernous depths, indicated natural force and assertiveness. These were men who in the round house, the conductor's room, the switch man's shanty, the caboose or the shop, would compel attention. They would be likely to arouse opposition because of their aggressiveness. They never would be "ciphers in the midst of the figures." Each man would count for one. There were faces there that indicated innate refinement, and gentility which was more than a veneer. These men were enjoying the heritage of a gentle mother and of a home life where the sweetest influence prevailed. The chisel of time had only served to bring out the fine lines. If you could trace their pedigree you would discover that, like Timothy of old, they had sprung from a stock which had been sanctified and polished by an affectionate acquaintance with the word of God. Of course there were some men in whom the sensual and brutish were extremely strong. Their faces showed it. Waves of passion which had swept through them had left their mark on lip, and brow, and eye. They had been driven by appetite and showed signs of that devilish master. Yet it was not hard to see in such men unmistakable evidence of a new kingship and of the presence of a mightier power which held the baser man in check.

Among those officers of railroads whose support has been most generous and influential have been Cornelius Vanderbilt, George B. Roberts, Chauncey M. Depew, A. J. Cassatt, M. E. Ingalls, Lucius Tuttle, E. P. Ripley, W. H. Baldwin, Jr., George W. Stevens; E. V. W. Rossiter, W. C. Brown, George J. Gould and W. H. Truesdale. Miss Helen Gould has given large sums of money towards the general work and for buildings and libraries upon the Gould lines.

Students of social progress may well regard such an enterprise hopefully. It furnishes a platform upon which employer and employee may meet and it has in it at least a suggestion as to the way in which religion may be related to the actual life of men and wage-earners be led into a better understanding of Him who was, as Hugh Price Hughes was fond of calling Him, "The Mundane Christ."


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