Home  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ST. NICHOLAS—OCTOBER, 1901

THE LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEER.

STORIES OF ACCIDENTS AND ESCAPES
FAST RUNS AND FAMOUS TRIALS OF SPEED BEATING THE RECORD
GOOD-TEMPERED AND CRANKY ENGINES
CAPTURING A LOCOMOTIVE
HOW A WOMAN SAVED A TRAIN
EVERYDAY HEROES AND THE HABIT OF COURAGE.

By CLEVELAND MOFFETT.

THERE is a place in New York—the very last place one would think of—where stories without end may be heard about locomotives and the men who run them. It is not a place of grime and steam, but a quiet and luxurious club spreading over the top floor of a very tall building on Forty-second Street, and here every day at luncheon-time railroad officials gather: superintendents, managers, and various heads of departments, men who may have grown prosperous and portly, but are always proud to talk about the boys at the throttle, and re-call experiences of their own in certain exciting runs.

In the wide hall near the entrance of this Transportation Club is a driving-wheel, green painted, from the "De Witt Clinton," the first locomotive that drew a passenger-train in the State of New York. It is scarcely larger than a wagon-wheel, though it is of iron, and an inscription sets forth how it made the historic run from Albany to Schenectady on August 9, 1831. The walls show many pictures, famous locomotives, scenes of accidents, and there are' thrilling memories here in abundance if one have with him some veteran of the road to recall them.

"It is not always the most serious accidents that frighten a man most," remarked a high official of the New York Central, one day, while the rest of us listened. "One of the worst scares I ever had was on a freight train when there really wasn't anything to be scared about. We had just pulled out of Ottumwa, Iowa, one dark night, with a caboose full of passengers, when rump-ump-bang-rip! You never heard such a racket. First one end of the car was lifted up off the rails and slammed down again, and then the other end was treated the same way; up and down we went, bump, bump, bump! and smash went a window, and out went the lights. Now what do you suppose it was?—Well, it wasn't anything alive, but it got us into a panic all right. We waved a lantern like fury to the engineer ahead, but it seemed an age before he saw it, and we just bumped along, expecting every second to be split into kindling-wood.

"We stopped at last, and found it was a beer-keg—yes, sir, an empty beer-keg that had got caught under the caboose between the rear axle and the bolster of the truck and had rolled along over the ties with the car balanced on it like a man riding a rail. It wasn't broken, either; no, sir, not a bit; and we had to chisel through every separate hoop before we could get it out. Talk about making things strong! That beer-keg was a wonder."

"I had a more exciting experience than that," said another official—he was in the freight-handling department. "It was a long time ago. I remember getting out at a station near Cincinnati for a hurried lunch, and before I knew it the train started. I was up by the engine, and as the drivers began to turn I jumped on the pilot. You see, I had often ridden there, being a railroad-man, and the engineer knew me.

"Everything went well for a few miles, and I sat on the bumper enjoying the rush of air, for it was a hot summer's day; but presently, as we swung around a curve, the engine gave a fearful shriek, and just ahead I saw an old white horse on the track. He seemed not to hear the whistle; at all events, he paid no attention to it until we were right on him, and then he was too dazed to do anything. I saw it was too late, and I drew my legs up off the bumper, and leaned back against the end of the boiler. I must have made a picture as I crouched there. And the next second—"

"Well?" said somebody.

"Well—I think you wouldn't care to hear how things looked the next second. We struck the white horse, and, wonder of wonders, it didn't hurt me, but it was an awful experience. I can tell you this: I've never ridden on the pilot of a locomotive since that day, and I never shall again."

There followed some talk about fast runs, and all agreed that for out-and-out excitement there is nothing in railroading to equal a man's sensations in one of those mad bursts of speed that are ventured upon now and then by locomotives in record-breaking trials. The heart never pounds with apprehension in a real accident as it does through imminent fear of an accident. And so great is the nerve-strain and brain-strain upon the men who drive our ordinary fliers that 3 hours at a stretch is as much as the staunchest engineer can endure running at 50 or 60 miles an hour. And the same is true of firemen, and, indeed, of locomotives, so that the fast mail and express service between New York and Chicago requires relays of fourteen engines and fourteen engineers and fourteen firemen for a single round trip of a single train. And many a time, it appears, when an engineer has faced the rush of one of these terrible fliers to the end of his relay, say 150 miles, you will sometimes see him climb down from the cab weak and unstrung. He has been under a tension there at the throttle like that of an athlete springing from the high trapeze, or that of a pilot as he turns his craft into some furious rapids, only his tension has lasted for hours. What wonder, then, that three days are counted a full week's work for the men who drive such trains as the Empire State Express! Every alternate day they must spend in resting, and even so it is only the flower of a company's engineers who can stand the strain at all.

"So you see," said one of the officials, "the problem of higher speeds than we have at present involves more than boiler power and strength of machinery and the swiftness of turning wheels: it involves the question of human endurance. We can build engines that will run 150 miles an hour, but where shall we find the men to drive them? Already we have nearly reached the limit of what the eyes and nerves will endure. I think we'll have to find a new race of men to handle these locomotives of the future I that they talk so much about."

He went on to consider the chance of colorblindness in an engineer, and told how the men's eyes are tested at intervals by experts, who put before them skeins of various-colored yarns and make them pick out green from, red, and so on. It is not pleasant to think what might happen if an engineer's eyes should suddenly fail him, and he should mistake the danger light for safety and go ahead at some critical moment instead of stopping.


After this one of the group gave his memories of the famous speed trial on the Lake Shore road, when five locomotives in relays, driven by picked men, set out to beat all records in a run of 510 miles from Chicago to Buffalo. This was in October, 1895, and I suppose such elaborate preparations for a dash over the rails were never made. All traffic was suspended for the passage of this racing special; every railroad-crossing between Chicago and Buffalo was patrolled by a section-man—that alone meant thirteen hundred guards; and every switch was spiked half an hour before the train was due. The chief officials of the Lake Shore road proposed to ride this race in person, and, if possible, smash the New York Central's then recent world's record of 63.61 miles an hour, including all stops, over the 436½ miles between New York and Buffalo. They had before them a longer run than that, and hoped to score a greater average speed per mile; but they wished to come through alive and were taking no chances.

It was half-past three in the morning, and frosty weather, when the train started from Chicago, with Mark Floyd at the throttle, and various important people, general managers, superintendents, editors, etc., on the cars behind. There were two parlor-coaches, weighing 92,500 pounds each, and a millionaire's private car, one of the finest and heaviest in the country, weighing 119,500 pounds, which made a total load, counting engine and train, of something over 200 tons.

The first relay was 87 miles to Elkhart, Indiana, and the schedule they hoped to follow required that they cover this distance in 78 minutes, including nine "slowdowns." Eighty-seven miles in 78 minutes was well enough; but the superintendent of the Western Division had set his heart on doing it in 75 minutes, and had promised Mark Floyd two hundred good cigars for every quarter of a minute he could cut under that time. But alas for human plans! Between up grades and the darkness they pulled into Elkhart at five minutes to five, 85 minutes for the 87 miles-not bad, but 7 minutes behind the schedule, and Mark bad to console himself with his pipe.

One hundred and thirty-one seconds were lost at Elkhart in changing locomotives, and it was three minutes to five when big "599," with Dave Luce in the cab, turned her nose toward the dawning day and started for Toledo, 133 miles away. Great things were expected in this relay, for about half of it was straight as a bird's flight and down grade too, so that hopes were high of making up lost time, especially as Luce had the reputation of stopping at nothing when it was a question of "getting there." He certainly did wonders, and 5 minutes after the start he had the train at a 62-mile gait, and 19 minutes later at a 67-mile gait. Then they struck frost on the rails and the speed dropped, while the time-takers studied their stop-watches with serious faces.

At ten minutes to six they reached Waterloo and the long straight stretch. As they whizzed past the station Dave pulled open his throttle to the last notch and yelled to his fireman. Here was where they had to do things. Butler was 7½ miles away, the first town in the down grade, and they made it in 6 minutes and 40 seconds—nearly 68 miles an hour. In the next 7 miles Dave pushed her up to 70 an hour, then to 72½ and then he let her out in a great burst which made the passengers sit up, and showed for several miles a topnotch rate of 87 miles an hour. Nevertheless, taking account of frost and slow-downs, they barely finished the relay on schedule time, so that for the whole run they were still 7 minutes behind time, and the schedule they had set themselves called for such tremendous speed that it seemed almost impossible to make up a single lost minute.

The third relay was 108 miles to Cleveland, and they did it in 104 minutes, including many slow-downs and a heartbreaking loss of 4 minutes when a section-hand red-flagged the train and brought it to a dead stop from a 70-mile gait because be had found a broken rail. The officials were in such a state of tension that they would almost have preferred chancing it on the rail to losing those 4 minutes. There is a point of eagerness in railroad racing where it seems nothing to risk one's life!

The train drew out of Cleveland 19 minutes behind the time they should have made for a world's record. Every man had done his best, every locomotive had worked its hardest, but fate seemed against them, and hopes of beating the Central's fast run were fading rapidly. The fourth relay was to Erie, 95½ miles, and some said that Jake Gardner with "598" might pull them out of the hole, but the others shook their heads. At any rate, Jake did better than those who had preceded him, and he danced that train along at 75, 80, 84 miles an hour, so the watches said, and averaged 67 miles an hour for the whole relay.

"It's the kind of thing that makes you taste your heart, and packs a week into 10 minutes," said the superintendent, telling about it. "You may take one ride smashing around curves at 70 miles an hour, but you'll never wish to take another."

Still, in spite of these brave efforts, they pulled out of Erie 15 minutes late, and started on the last relay with gloomy faces. It was 86 miles to Buffalo, the end of the race, and they must be there by eleven thirty-one to win, which called for an average speed of over 70 miles an hour, including slow-downs. No train in the world had ever approached such an average, and their own racing average since leaving Chicago was much below it. So what hope was there?

There was hope in a tall, sparely built man named Bill Tunkey, about whom nobody knew much except that he was a good engineer who ran a rather clumsy ten-wheel locomotive not considered very desirable in a race. All the other locomotives had been eight-wheelers. Still, the new engine had one advantage: she carried water enough in her tank for the whole run, and need not slow up to refill, as the others had done. She had another advantage: that she carried Tunkey, one of these men who rise up in sudden emergencies and do things, whether they are possible or not. It was not possible, everybody vowed, to reach Buffalo Creek by eleven thirty-one. "All right," said Tunkey, quietly, and then—

Within 40 rods of the start he had his engine going 30 miles an hour, and he pressed her harder and harder until 11 miles out of Erie she struck an 80-mile pace, and held it as far as Brockton, when she put forth all her strength and did a burst of 5 miles in 3½ minutes, one of these miles at the rate of 92¼ miles an hour, as the watches showed. "And I never want any more of that in mine," said the superintendent.

The next town was Dunkirk, where a local ordinance put a 10-mile limit on the speed of trains. Tunkey smiled as they roared past the station at more than 80. A crowd lined the tracks here, for the telegraph had carried ahead the news of a hair-raising run. That crowd was only a blur to staring, frightened eyes at the car-windows. The officials were beginning to realize what kind of an engineer they had ahead this time. Whisssss! How they did run! Wahr! Wahr! barked the little bridges and were left behind! H-o-o-o! bellowed a tunnel. And rip, whrrr! as they slammed around a double-reverse curve with a vicious swing that made the bolts rattle in the last car. Men put their mouths to other men's ears and tried to say that perhaps Mr. Tunkey was getting a little over-zealous. Much good that did! Mr. Tunkey had the bit in his teeth now and was running the race alone.

At eleven-six they swept past Silver Creek with 29 miles to go and 25 minutes to make it in. Hurrah! They had made up time enough to save them!

At eleven-twenty they passed Lake View.

"Twelve miles more, and 11 minutes," yelled somebody, waving his hat.

"Toboggan-slide all the way," yelled somebody else. "We'll do it easy. Hooray!"

They passed Athol Springs at eleven twenty-four, all mad with excitement. They had 7 minutes left for 8 miles, and were cheering already.

"We'll make it with half a minute to spare," said the only man in the private car who was reasonably cool. He was 4 seconds out of the way, for they crossed the line 26 seconds before eleven thirty-one, and won the race by less than half a minute, beating the New York Central's record per mile on the whole run by the fraction of a second, and beating the whole world's record in the last relay by several minutes, the figures standing—Tunkey's figures—86 miles from Erie to Buffalo in 70 minutes and 46 seconds, or an average speed of 72.91 miles an hour.

"Do?" said the official. "What did we do? Why, we—we—" He paused helplessly, and then added, with a smile: "Well, if you'11 excuse the slang, we didn't do a thing to Tunkey!"

Another fine place to pick up lore of the engines and stories of the grimed men who drive them is the "Young Men's Christian Association Car," which stands near the roaring roundhouse at Mott Haven, and is not a car at all, but a dingy shed built of four cars, and serving as lunch-room, wash-room, reading-room, and sleeping-room for men of the trains. This is a homely refuge spot, where any morning we may meet veteran engineers resting after a hard night's run or making ready to go out again. Let us drop in and join one of the groups.

Here is a man telling about the mad run "Big Arthur" made the other night down from Albany. We get just the tail of the story: "So the superintendent he ripped around about how they were 27 minutes late, and Big Arthur he sat in the cab and never said a word. 'Now,' says the superintendent, rather sarcastic, 'I suppose you know this is the Empire State Express you 're running?' 'Yep,' says Big Arthur. 'Well, do you know what time she's supposed to pull into the Grand Central?' 'Yep,' says Big Arthur again, and that's all he did say; but, holy smoke! how they went. Had those porters on the private car scared green! A hundred miles an hour some o' the way, and they came in on time to the dot. Oh, you can't beat these new engines with the fire-box over the trailer; but say, wasn't that great when Big Arthur snapped out 'Yep' to the 'old man'?"

I asked if I might see Big Arthur, and one of the engineers said he'd be along pretty soon, and in the meantime he told me about the individuality of locomotives: how one is good-tempered and willing, while another is cranky; how the same locomotive will act differently at different times, just as people have whims, and how some locomotives are fated to ill luck, so that nobody wants to drive them.

"Take these ten new engines the company's just put on. They 're the finest and strongest made, a whole lot better than the ones we've thought were wonders on the Empire State. They 're beauties, and all exactly alike, measurements all the same; but every one of those ten engines has its own points, good and bad. One will go faster than another with just the same steam. One will pull a heavier load with less coal. And very likely there'll be some kind of a hoodoo come on one of 'em. Takes time, though, to find out these things. It's like getting acquainted with a man."

Some other men came in then, and the talk changed to accidents. I asked if an engineer plans ahead what he will do in a collision. It seemed reasonable that a man always under such menace would have settled his mind on some prospective action. But they laughed at the idea, and declared that an engineer can no more tell how he will act in an emergency than the ordinary citizen can say what he would do in a fire, or how he would meet a burglar. One engineer would jump, another would stick to his throttle, and the chances of being killed were as good one way as the other. The only thing a man wouldn't do is reverse his engine, for that would make the driver slip and set the whole business to skating ahead instead of stopping.

The mention of a burglar led one new-comers to tell of William Powell's adventure with some Sing Sing convicts. Powell was the oldest engineer on the New York Central. He died a year ago, and this thing happened back in the seventies. It seems there was a trestle over the track about half a mile below the Sing Sing station, and on this trestle the convicts working in the quarry used to run little cars loaded with stone and dump them into the larger cars underneath. Of course, they worked under the surveillance of well armed guards.

On one occasion, however, four or five convicts outwitted the guards by dropping from the trestle upon, the tender of a moving locomotive, and the first thing the engineer knew he was set upon by a band of desperate men, who covered him and his fireman with revolvers. At the same moment half a dozen shots rang out and bullets came crashing through the cab sides. These bullets came from the rifles of the armed guards who were firing at random after the fleeing engine. Altogether it was quite the reverse of pleasant for William Powell.

"Out you go now, quick," said the convicts to the engineer; "we'11 run this engine ourselves."

The engine was No. 105, Powell's pride and pet, and he could not bear to have unregenerate hands laid upon her, so he spoke up very politely: "Let me run her for you, gentlemen; I'll go wherever you say."

They agreed to this, and some distance down the line left the engine and departed into the woods. "And the joke of it was," concluded the narrator, "that the revolvers those convicts had were made of wood painted black, and couldn't shoot any more than the end of a broom! It was a big bluff they had played, but it worked that time all right."

"Wasn't any bluff when Denny Cassin got held up at Sing Sing," said another engineer.

"Convicts had revolvers all right that trip, and Denny threw up his hands same as any man would. That was twenty years ago, on engine 89. It was right at the Sing Sing station, and three of 'em jumped into the cab all of a sudden and, told Denny to open her up, and he did—indeed! Then they told him to jump, and he jumped; but first he managed to fix her tank-valves so she'd pump herself full of water and stop before she'd gone far. That was Denny's great scheme, and he walked along, laughing to think how mad those convicts would be in a few minutes.

"It turned out, though, that Denny spoiled a nice trap they'd laid up at Tarrytown to catch those fellows when they got there. You see, the telegraph operator wired up the line that a runaway locomotive was coming with three escaped convicts on her, and the train-despatcher at Tarrytown just set the switch so the locomotive would sail plump over a twelve-foot stone embankment down into the Hudson River. That's what would have happened to those convicts if Denny had left his tank-valves alone, but of course 89 got waterlogged long before she reached Tarrytown; she just kicked out her cylinder-ends a few miles up the track and stopped. Then the convicts climbed down and skipped away. Two of 'em got caught afterward, but there was one they never caught."

Presently somebody reported that Big Arthur was out in the roundhouse getting "2994" ready to take out the Empire State. It was clear enough that Big Arthur was an important figure in the eyes of these begrimed men, and I set forth across the yards to find him. What a strange place a roundhouse is to one who approaches it unprepared, especially at night!—a place where yellow eyes glare out of deep shadows, where fire-dragons rush at you with crunchings and snortings, where the air hisses and roars! Here in this demon-menagerie I found Big Arthur, torch in hand, looking over his deep, purring locomotive against the dangers of the run. Another engineer was discussing a theory of some of the boys that a man can run his locomotive by his sense of time as well as by a watch.

"Denny Cassin says he'd agree to take the Empire State from Albany to New York and keep her right on the dot all the way, and bring her in on the minute, just by feeling. What d' ye think of that?"

"That's possible," said Big Arthur. "A man can feel how fast he's going. He's got to judge big speed by feeling, for there ain't any speed-recorder that's much good, say above 90 miles an hour."

I had an opportunity presently to explain to Big Arthur and his friend that I would very much like to draw upon their experience for some thrilling incidents in engine-driving.

"Tell him about the time when you went in the river," suggested Big Arthur.

"That was way back in '69," said the other, "when I was firing for 'Boney' Cassin, the brother of Denny. It was in winter, a bitter cold day, and the Hudson was so gorged with ice that part of the jam was squeezed over the bank and tore away our tracks. So pretty soon, when we came along with a train of merchandise, twenty-three cars, in we went, and the old engine 'Troy' just skated ahead on her side into the river, smash through the ice, down to the bottom, and pulled thirteen cars after her.

"You couldn't see a piece of that engine above water as big as your hand, and how I got out alive is more than I know. Guess I must have jumped. Anyhow, there I was on the broken floe, and I could hear the old Troy grinding away in the river, churning up water and ice like a crazy sea-serpent. She struggled for nearly a minute before her steam was cold and her strength gone. Then she lay still, dead.

"I looked around for Boney; and at first I didn't see him. I thought he'd gone down sure, and so he had; but just as I was looking I saw a big black thing heave up through the ice and I heard a queer cry. Well, that was providential, sure! It seems the engine had ripped her cab clean off as she tore through the ice, and here was the cab coming up bottom-side first, with Boney inside hanging on to a brace and almost dead. I hauled him out, and then we scrambled ashore over the wrecked cars. They were full of flour, and the barrels were all busted, so by the time we reached the bank we looked like a twin Santa Claus made of paste, and three quarters drowned at that."

"But Boney stuck to his throttle," I remarked.

"Yes," said the other; "he stuck to his throttle. We generally do."

Here Big Arthur's fireman whispered something to him, and the engineer nodded: "That's so; that's a good story"; and then he told how an old lady of seventy-five saved a New York Central express some years ago at Underhill Cut, about a mile south of Garrisons.

"She's a relative of my, fireman, so I know the thing's true; besides that, the company gave her three hundred dollars. You see, it all happened one winter night, and this Mrs. Groves—that's her name—was the only person near enough to do anything She lived in a little house beside the Underhill Cut, and about four o'clock in the morning she heard a fearful crash, and there was a freight-train wrecked right in the cut, and cars piled up three or four deep over the tracks! She knew the express might come along any minute, and of course it was a case of everybody killed if they ever struck that smash-up. So what does she do, this little old lady, but grab up a red petticoat and a kerosene lamp and run out as fast as she could in her bare feet, right through the snow. That's the kind of a woman she was.

"Well, she went down the track until she heard the express coming, and then she took the red petticoat and held it up in front of the lamp so as to make a red light. And, what's more, it worked. The engineer saw the danger signal, slammed on his brakes, and stopped the train a few car-lengths from the wreck yes, sir, only a few car-lengths!"

Big Arthur nodded thoughtfully and climbed into the cab; it was time to go.


Stories Page | Contents Page

Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery