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Workin' on the Railroad: Reminiscences from…
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Workin' on the Railroad: Reminiscences from the Age of Steam

by Richard Warren Reinhardt

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The subtitle of this book is “Reminiscences from the Age of Steam” is an excellent short summary of the book. Reinhardt has collected a series of excerpts from a large number of first person accounts of working on the railroad and assembled them in 17 chapters. The focus of the stories in each chapter is a single aspect of railroad work.

The chapter titles are:

Three Witnesses at the Birth of the Iron Horse – experiences with the Stoubridge Lion and the Tom Thumb
Whale Oil, Pitch Pine, and Ingenuity – railroad technology and engineering
Pathfinders and Rock Pushers – surveyors and their efforts
The Brakeman’s Glorious, Rowdy Life – accounts of the hazards and work of braking
Head End, Left Side – what it was like to be a fireman
Hogger at Work – descriptions of the life of an engineer
Roundhouse and Shop – stories from the mechanical force
Railroad Town – what it was like to live and work in one of these now vanished places
Bucking Snow – the hazards of snow removal
The Kingdom of the Keys – telegrapher/dispatcher accounts
Section Gang – the work of keeping the actual rails of the road in working order
Certainty, Security, and Celerity – railway mail service
A Cake and Coffee Stop – how to feed a passenger
Dance of Death in the Switchyards – the hazardous work of “shuffling the deck” in a rail yard
Tickets, Please – conductor stories
Lord of the Pullman Car – what the porter saw
The Brave Engineer – A single account of what can happen when thing go very wrong.

Many of Reinhardt's sources are familiar to the reader of first person railroad accounts – End of Track, No Royal Road, The General Manager’s Story, Railroadman, From Cab to Caboose: Fifty Years of Railroading, Clear the Tracks, Forty Years on the Rail, Mail by Rail, etc. However a number of the excerpts are from articles, biographies, and other writings which would not be classed as accounts of railroad life.

I think Reinhardt chose his selections well. This book is essentially a sampler of this kind of writing/history and it is an excellent introduction to this area of the literary landscape. (Text Length - 315 pages, Total Length - 318 pages.) ( )
1 vote alco261 | Jan 26, 2013 |
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For my father, Emil Reinhardt - not because he is especially fond of railroads, but because I am especially fond of him.
First words
Introduction: The age of the steam railroad lasted here in North American for 104 years, nine months, and eighteen days, give or take a few weeks for disputed historical claims.
Several years ago a weekly magazine that dotes on quaint and picturesque detail made a conscientious effort to pin down the origins of Santa Claus - not Nicholas of Myra, the Christian saint, but Jolly Old St. Nick, the Santa Claus of commerce, the bearded New Amsterdam burgher who works in department stores at Christmas time.
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The track ahead was but a thin stripe upon the earth’s white expanse. And upon this band of steel the hundred men, like animated tumbleweeds, bent and twisted, bored and scratched. Upon the white bosom of American earth we engraved a necklace of steel – set in tie plates, clasped with bolts and angle bars, brocaded with spikes. And there it lay secured to the earth, immovable. I had always thought that the building of a railway was a complicated business, as mysterious as the building of a steamboat or a locomotive. And I had believed that we would be carrying the steel while others – Americans – would be doing the skillful work. Now a hundred erstwhile plowmen and shepherds tore off the old track and built it anew as fast as they tore it up, and the whole thing struck me as too simple to be true. There was the feeling in me that the hundred men, adults though they were, were just children pretending to be building a railway, over which maybe a toy train could pass, but no real one. There was not an engineer in sight, nor an American, to lend credence to this thing, to impute reality to what was being done. The boss was an Irishman with the fantastic name of Pat – just Pat. Could a man named Pat build a railway? Wrapped in a bearskin cloak which reached to his galoshes, and with a beehive fur hat upon his head, Pat walked up and down the track, from the claw bars to the spike malls, doing nothing, saying nothing. Around eleven o’clock, when some sixty or seventy new rails had been strung upon the line, Pat called a stop. The men lay huddled like a flock of sheep while Pat and Chris took over the business of temporarily closing the track. This was the first chance I had had to see Vasil, who was on a spiking team in the rear. “Is this all there is to building a railway, Vasil?” “It’s simple enough here in a straight line but gets plenty complicated on curves, bridges, and switches.” “Why did we close up?” “I think for the Fast Mail. That’s the train which carries the U.S. mail from St. Paul to Seattle. It’s the fastest train on the line. If Pat stopped it for one minute, we’d have a new boss tomorrow morning. Freight trains you can hold.” “So a train will pass over this track we just built?” “And how!” “Why is it forbidden to hold the Fast Mail?” “Because it costs the Great Northern one thousand dollars for every minute the Fast Mail is late getting into Seattle. It’s in the contract. It comes cheaper to the company for us to wait a whole day than for the Fast Mail to be one minute behind schedule. Nobody can hold the Fast Mail.” Chris and Pat walked up and down the track. The ground wind, which had winnowed the snow, had died down, and the plain, as if in hushed expectation of the Fast Mail, lay in frozen quietude. Only the telephone wires moaned continuously. “We’re getting paid for doing nothing,” I remarked. “It’s the only rest we get,” replied Vasil. “Except when we come to switches and the Irishman will be scratching his head to figure out the position of the frog and the head block. But switches here are far apart. In the summertime there’ll be more trains – stock trains, fruit trains, specials. Stock trains you don’t hold either. They’re as important as the fastest passenger trains. The animals lose weight in travel and the faster you get them to Chicago stockyards the more money they bring.” The things this Vasil knew! Pat’s thin voice announced the approach of the train. The men stirred, picking up their tools as they stood up. I looked up ahead to the east. And there, where the track vanished, a bundle of black smoke was visible. That and nothing else. But this was the Fast Mail. That patch of black smoke on the steel-gray horizon began to rouse the plain. We could detect a faint sound emitted by the rails. By and by the bundle of smoke assumed the shape of an inverted cone, with its apex spinning on the edge of the plain. And soon I saw the engine, a black point upon the rim of the horizon. There was now a distinct vibration upon the rails, with the emission of an occasional sound as when you pick at an over-stretched wire. The men, holding claw bars, line bars, line wrenches, spike mauls, adzes, tongs, and standing upon the embankment, looked like an armed savage tribe watching a vessel steam up to the shore of their island. The approaching train seemed the only living thing upon this broad expanse of lifelessness. I watch the locomotive grow bigger and bigger as it left more and more of the plain behind it. With reduced speed the locomotive rolled on, the head of it rearing higher and higher. Pat stood in the middle of the track signaling to the engineer to continue on with caution. Two short blows of the whistle acknowledged Pat’s signal, and he stepped out onto the embankment. The engine appeared immense. Its cowcatcher was sculptured in ice, but its stack belched smoke, for there was a fire in the heart of the engine which no cold could stifle. And as long as the wheels stayed on the rails, the engine was a mighty power. It moved with earth-shaking ponderosity. The pistons shuttled like gigantic arms bending at the elbow to propel the wheels. The locomotive was still over old track, and the wheels turned slowly, cautiously, feeling their way, as if suspicious of the new track ahead, laid by us. The engine itself sniffed, scented, its many valves spurting out jets of vapor. The men withdrew farther down toward the ditch, and I too stepped back with them; but my eyes were on the front wheel, watching it come closer and closer to the point of connection. High up in the cab the engineer had slid open a section of the glass that enclosed him, and his goggled eyes held to rail below like a pair of binoculars. My heart thumped as the front wheel turned onto the switch point. The next instant it was on the new rail, and then upon the joint which I had made secure with bolts and fishplates, and on it rolled, over the new track. I gave out an involuntary cry and brandished my line wrench like a mace. And then a chorus of a hundred voices waked the plain from its frozen lethargy. There was warmth and cheer in every voice, as if the locomotive were a rescue party from a peopled world come to us forsaken upon the nakedness of a cold and desolate America. The engineer gave out a prolonged, heartening whistle, and the train gathered speed upon the new and firmer track. I watched the Fast Mail disappear into the unknown West. I felt less alone now, less cold. “All right, men, rip her up now,” Pat yelled in his high-pitched voice. A new energy seized the workers. The claw bars clamped the spikes with iron fangs and jerked them out like frozen worms. The tongmen slung in the new thirty-three-foot rails with the lightness of sticks. I unclasped the metal hooks of my sheepskin-lined coat so as to breath more freely, and I took off my mittens that I might touch the steel with my bare hands. And then I felt as if a candle were suddenly lit inside me, glowing within me and warming my body. In crowded St. Louis I had never felt so close to America as I did now in this pathless plain. I knew that as I touched the steel, linking one rail to another, I was linking myself to the new country and building my own solid road to a new life.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0806135255, Paperback)

“The mighty railroad occupied the undisputed center of American public life. The railroad founded cities, populated states, created governments, destroyed the wilderness. It was the great speculator, the political tyrant, the recruiter of immigrants, the opener of new lands, the cynosure of poets and pioneers, the symbol of adventure, opportunity, escape, and power. . . . Yet, the railroad man, for all his historic importance, his archetypal stature, and his economic power, has achieved only a minor position in American literature.”--from Workin’ on the Railroad

In Workin’ on the Railroad, Richard Reinhardt presents firsthand accounts from engineers, brakemen, porters, conductors, section men, roundhouse workers, switchmen, telegraphers, surveyors, and other neglected pioneers who worked the railroad during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Age of Steam.

 

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:37 -0400)

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