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A LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEERESS
By Bella Lee Dunkinson
Frank Leslie’s   POPULAR MONTHLY — June, 1888

IN glancing over some discarded jewels of earlier years the other day, the memory of a daring girlish exploit in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee became vivid, designed to be perpetuated by the little coral necklace, yet cherished, given to me by the miners of that region for what they were pleased to consider as a timely and providential exhibition of presence of mind, while in reality it was only one of those strange freaks occurring in the lives of us all, and which may be ascribed to the accidental or miraculous.

The act commemorated by this souvenir of those rough and hardy men of toil was in my being called upon to take command of a locomotive drawing a heavy train up the circuitous slopes of that range, under circumstances, as I view them now, quite interesting and startling. The facts were these: At the time when sectional feeling ran high in the Border States, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, many Northern families went to Western Tennessee to assist in opening the mining industries of that rich region, which promised very large returns for those who embarked effort and capital. When I say many, I mean in proportion to the sparse population scattered over the mountain slopes. Those who went there were generally venturesome spirits, fond of the semi-wild life "way up" in that summit world; but they were not near enough together to found any intersocial relations, for activity, ceaseless by day and by night, reigned in each little mining hamlet, and the young of both sexes were as enthusiastic in the solution of all physical problems in the subterranean galleries as the wise heads and sturdy arms directing the operations for gain. What, therefore, were the opportunities of a young girl gifted with a light heart and a sound digestion, in the way of everyday enjoyment? Sunday-schools, crochet parties, roistering hops, tea and slander combined, musings over the fashionable poet of the day—these and many other forms of distraction for the average village maid were impossible. Even had social intercourse been possible with the native inhabitants—barred, of course, by the hostility prevailing against all those of Northern birth and proclivities—there was little to tempt the girl fond of her piano and the lighter accomplishments taught in our Northern seminaries. Hence I fell to a wild, outdoor life, following all the sports there prevailing, and mingling daily with the miners, talking their lingo, watching them in their daily excavations, and a personal friend and chum of every one of them. Although, perhaps, it may seem that this kind of existence was not exactly in keeping with the strict lines of behavior laid down for the sex in general, yet I am certain that those years of boundless freedom and outdoor life, high and low, not only led to a robust constitution, of great importance in meeting the pestiferous airs of other climes, but were far more valuable to me than any experiences in the polished circles subsequently had in different countries of the world. Dolls, toys, baby paraphernalia, girlish amusements of all sorts, I chose to discard, and, true, to the narrative, I had an ambition to be a man —to be like one of those heroines so powerfully drawn by "Ouida." So it happened that among other habits which I formed was to ride almost daily on the locomotives which hauled the trains up and down the mountain-sides over heavy grades and around sharp curves, and in this way I became a favorite, and not unfrequently a useful, assistant of the engine-drivers. And often it was, too, that I handled the, machinery, proudly directing the iron horse on its upward or downward flight between the railway termini. This roadbed ran from Cowan’s Station in the valley, up a distance of twenty-five miles, to the very, mouth of the mines.

On one of these trips up to the deep shaft which formed the entrance to the mines occurred my most dramatic experience in those regions, and which came near, being a tragedy not often paralleled in modern catastrophe or romance.

A train laden with merchandise and lumber for the miners’ cabins started on its upward trip from Cowan’s Station, one hot evening in August, just as the sun was falling below the timber of the valleys. As I was to accompany the engineer, John Hardiman, on the locomotive the regular fireman or stoker was permitted to remain at his home at the foot of the mountains, although it was contrary to the rules of the company. We steamed up the grade with seven cars, a caboose, a single brakeman, and our unusually heavy load, and the natural duration of the run was an hour and ten minutes. Presently John said to me: "I'm afraid, Belle, there’s not enough steam in her to carry her through. We’ve a heavy load, sure, and a big storm gatherin’. So if anything happens, you stand by her, and I'll look out for the track."

We sped on, not at any very encouraging pace, as both of us could perceive, and John began to pile on the coal to make more steam, while be intrusted me with the command of the machinery. All of a sudden there came rapid and vivid flashes of lightning, followed by terrific peals of thunder, and then a down-pour of rain such as I had never before witnessed in those mountains.

Fearing now that we were on a journey sufficiently perilous, I knew enough to estimate that the added danger was of no small consequence in driving the engine up steep grades, around sharp curves, by heavily encumbered sidings, through a thick, gloomy forest whose overhanging boughs made all progress through an almost literal tunnel of dripping foliage. Nor were we long in discovering it was a solemn fact that it was only a miracle that would prevent us from becoming stationary on the rails, even if the solitary brakeman at the rear could prevent us from losing command of the train, in which case it would start on the inevitable backward and downward journey which might land us in some deep gulch by jumping the roadbed in all of the horrors of that terrible stormy night. And among the agonizing features of the situation was the fact that we were soon unable to tell whether we were making any progress up the grade or not. The thunder and pelting storm came in such choral crashes that we were uncertain whether the wheels beneath us were simply revolving on their axles, or whether we were in reality going up, for the leafage overhead was so dense that the lightning was no beacon. But, suddenly, there was an open space skyward, and the brilliant flashes above us made John exclaim, "Great God! we are, standing still!"

It was at this moment that the cool-headed engineer signaled the brakeman to down brakes, and, giving me encouragement and admonition, jumped from the engine to sand the track.

As may be imagined, I never felt a greater responsibility in my life, and, besides, there was something in the cool confidence with which he trusted in my nerve and discretion, that I felt it was the proudest moment of my varied existence in the Cumberland Mountains.

No sooner had he dismounted than I knew by the flashes in the now perceptible sky that we were moving down the incline, and that the brakes were powerless to stay the slow movement backward around the curve. It was, therefore, now or never to turn on all steam, although the engineer, could not again ascend, to his station. It was a literal case of make or break, of life or fearful death.

We must at this moment—the vital one of the whole ride—use all the steam-power in that boiler or soon be a wreck down a fearful plunge among the crags and treetops and watercourses, thousands of feet below. The train was then, probably, some eight miles from Cowan’s Station, and I at once let the engine have all steam, for the fire on the grate had come to a white heat, and, if sufficient water had been vaporized, all would be well. There was a momentary lull in the storm, and I could feel and perceive that the monster locomotive was laboring to save the train, the big traction-wheels flying around with frightful rapidity.

Soon I knew they had caught a purchase on the rails. It was the sand that Hardiman had scattered there to save us from destruction. We began to move, with loud and stertorous breathing from the nostrils of the huge machine—so often heard when the locomotive is in powerful exertion to draw a heavy load—and there I stood, all excitement, as it were, at the bridle of the engine, bound on a dangerous flight through the dark mountain forest, uncertain as to where the landing might yet be, for the curves were abrupt, the ascent steep, and I must be content with the coal in the fire-box, and cautious in speeding the train over the shaky trestles and uneven road-bed. But on went the winding file of wagons with the merchandise for the miners, and I in supreme command. The principal dangers, perhaps, after I obtained headway, were the switches and sidings, because in those days, in Western Tennessee, railroading was a science still in its infancy.

But on went the train without accident or serious incident until it rolled up within a few hundred yards of the mouth of the shaft, where there were many laden cars standing on the sidings. But there I found more than one hundred of the miners with their nightlamps flashing in the dark, apprised by telegraph from below that disaster might occur, and, as I brought my command to a stand at the very entrance of the shaft, a rousing cheer was intermingled with the artillery-like thunder; not for me, but for Hardiman and the safety of their household effects. But when these honest, brawny fellows gathered about the engine to invite John Hardiman to a bumper, and they found it was not he, but their "Belle of the Mines and Mountains," their enthusiasm was great indeed. And if there be any egotism in relating this incident happening in those young years of my girlhood, I am willing to suffer the accusation for the thrilling memories of that experience, as, I write it for the public eye.


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