Days When Hand Brake Setting Was An Art

Regular contests were held by train crews to determine the strongest brakeman on the run

By T. R. Jones, Former Superintendent Sacramento Division

Southern Pacific Bulletin, September, 1920.

In the August issue of The Bulletin Mr. Jones told of his experiences as a telegrapher in the early days. In this article he relates other interesting details in the way trains were moved over the mountains and the means used to meet the many obstacles nature had thrown in the way of the pioneers.

At Colfax a large number of passengers got off to take stages for Grass Valley and other Nevada County towns, while a large number entered the depot. Here they were smilingly welcomed by big Dennis McCarthy. He knew nearly everbody by his first name and everybody seemed to know him. Busy as a bee, he was passing out glasses and bottles and taking in the money. From his appearance and the way he was greeted I considered him the biggest and most popular man I had seen on the division.

Alta was the next stop, where the passengers had supper and the engines were wooded up. "Senator Bon" appeared to be as popular as Big Dennis. Lou Bonvard, then a curly-headed youth wearing a military cap, son of the Senator, now a veteran telegrapher at Sacramento, was an operator there.

Alta, during the season, was a summer resort for a bevy of school-marms and he had something of a Don Juan reputation. I heard he was occasionally laid off for going on trains to Sacramento without getting permission from the train dispatcher and a pass. After being introduced as one of the C. P. family by Conductor Marshall I had supper, for which no charge was made because I was a C. P. employee traveling. After supper I went up to the head end to view the work being done there. I saw half a dozen passengers cheerfully helping the crew to wood up. They were throwing the sticks on the tenders faster than the firemen could tier them, and one asked for help from the wood pitchers. I volunteered, and like all volunteers I found myself more in the way than efficient.

Barney Kelly, the engineman, invited me to finish my trip riding on the fireman's seat and to ring the bell when necessary. I enjoyd my first ride in the cab of a locomotive as a novelty I had never expected to experience. So many things interested me that it seemed no time at all before we entered the snowsheds at Emigrant Gap. From there the ride became so monotonous and I inhaled so much smoke that on arrival at Summit I went back to the coach.

Welcomed Because Sober.

On arriving at Truckee I reported to James W. O'Brien, the day operator, now a veteran of the Salt Lake Division. He was anxiouly awaiting me. I was sent to take the place ofthe night operator, who had on the previous night kicked a lighted lamp off a table and nearly caused the office to burn. I think on account of me being sober Jimmy gave me a hearty reception. As I expected to stay there temporarily he invited me to share his bed. He slept in a room back of the office. I think the bed was composed entirely of blankets. When he got out in the morning and turned back the blankets that had covered him I was ready to get in under them and pull them over me. As he was immune to Truckee temptations and sports he went to bed early, soon after I got up. I don't think the bed was made over once while I was there. The blankets were not disturbed more than was necessary for us to get in and out, and they were never unoccupied long enough to lose their human body warmth.

Now, meeting the trainmen and other employees of the Wadsworth as well as the Sacramento Division, who loitered, when off duty, about the depot hotel and telegraph office, I soon became aware they were loyal to the company in their work, ambitious and polite.

These were the days when the engines burned pine wood and were wooded up en route by the crews; when the trains were controlled by muscle and hand brakes; when the link and pin coupling was in use on both passenger and freight cars; when the rear brakeman with his red flag and torpedoes was the only block system; when oil as a fuel, air as a braking power, the automatic coupler and block system were undreamed of on the division, yet the employees were more contented and less critical than they are now.

How Wood Was Stored.

The wood burned in the engines was pine, cut in two foot lengths. About seven cords could be piled on a tender. On an eastbound freight train between Rocklin and Truckee the engines would have to be wooded up five or six times; from three to five cords thrown on at one time. The woodsheds were placed at convenient places along the division, mostly at sidings, but several were on the main line. They were all filled in September and October with a winter supply. About 100 flat cars fitted with racks were in constant use and Chinese gangs on work trains did the loading and unloading of these cars. The principal points of supply were near Emigrant Gap and Tunnel 13. Long V flumes were built by contractors into the canyons near the line of the road and the wood was floated down them and piled alongside of spur tracks. The longest one of those spurs was called Champions, named after the agent at Truckee, who was also a big wood contractor.

Fires occasionally destroyd some of these woodsheds. After a fire got a start it was impossible to do anything that could stop it, and it burned for hours. It was always an unfortunate occurrence when one of these big woodsheds burned at the beginning of winter after they were filled, as they sometimes did. A fireman had to be well developed by nature with muscular arms and a back to throw twenty to thirty cords of wood into the firebox on a trip, as they often did.

A source of annoying delay in the movement of trains occasionally was from the netting in the smokestack of the engines developing holes through which they began "throwing fire" and thereby endangering the safety of the sheds. When the netting was all right small sparks, not dangerous, were thrown out so the dangerous large sparks were not always quickly seen. Some disastrous fires occurred that were attriuted to this cause. When reported as "throwing fire" the engine was cut out at the first siding and the train was either reduced or held for needed power. As the sidings, except Summit, would hold but one train vexatious delays and inconvenience resulted.

When one of these occurred we understood that A. J. Stevens, superintendent of motive power and shops, would make the capable master memechanic, Menzo Cooley's hair stand on end and he was likely to become bald-headed at an early age.

Fires Always a Menace.

Fire was the arch fiend that the division had to contend with. Not only were all the station buildings and sheds built of lumber, but all the trestles with timbers. The right of way in many places was thickly covered with inflammable brush and small pines, while forest fires started several miles away, fanned by a north wind or a still south breeze would sweep up the canyons and mountain sides causing a desperate fight to save the sheds and woodpiles. Since then the trestles have become fills, the bridges are of steel, the Red Mountain lookout and fire alarm system in the snowsheds have been established and the right of way has been cleared. Fires, small and big, during the summer and autumn months totaled a heavy loss.

Another cause of delay was when an engine got a tender load of green wood as unseasoned wood was called. As steam pressure went down it had to stop and "blow up" and so continue a spasmodic movement until the next woodpile was reached.

The brakemen while in Truckee mainly discussed their probability of promotion to be conductors. They seemed to think it was a sort of a lottery where luck was more of a factor than worth. There was no seniority rule. When a conductor laid off, was disabled or fired and another had to be made, the most available caboose brakeman was advanced and a man had to be in the right place at the right time to have promotion lightning strike him. The brakeman who had a reputation of muscle that could set a hand brake so tight it could not be let off by others without using a club, and on the other hand, the brakeman whose reputation was favorable to his ability to let off any brake any other brakeman could set was regarded with envy and admiration. These "armstrong" men stood in the estimation of the twisters as do prize ring champions with fight fans.

I found there was an ambition with the passenger crews to be the best brake handlers and train stoppers on the division. The station baggagemen were the judges. They wheeled there trucks each day to a certain spot ahead of the arrival of the passenger train. If the stop was made with the baggage car door opposite the truck it was a perfect stop, but if the truck had to be again moved it was bum. The crews were as anxious to obtain and keep up the best record as the volunteer fire engine companies were of holding the [word?] for getting water on a fire first. The freight crews were ambitious to be considered the fastest in wooding up their engines and thereby making time.

No such thing as a claim for overtime was thought of. A trip was a trip, no matter how many hours it took, and to ask to tie up on the road for rest would have been considered as showing a lack of stamina. Crews coming in late were frequently ready to return without asking for stated hours of rest. When an emergency came and things were moving wobbly, everybody got in and did their best to regain a normal condition.

Formalities Were Few.

We night operators, when we received a "flag and hold" order; after its "13" and "O.K." would light a red globe lantern and place it in front of the office to stop the intended train. We wrote our train orders on ordinary clip paper. The original copy the conductor and enginmen signed, and after we got "O.K." to it we made copies on clip paper for those who had signed it. Comparison was made by the conductor and enginemen by reading their copies aloud and all checking word by word with the original.

Only the through freight trains, Nos. 5 and 6, were scheduled to run on Sundays, and we had a dull night then. To relieve the monotony and keep awake the "owls" in the snowshed offices played checkers. Each office had a checkerboard with the squares numbered and the games were played by tapping on the wire the number of the squares moved off and on. We who were not playing could follow the game by moving on our board as the moves were wired. Many interesting games were thus played. Special trains were infrequently run and were a sort of event; when they did. Usually a "23" message addressed to "all concerned" the day before announcing the time of its expected start and stating its kind, whether silk, tea, etc. The purpose of the message was to advise section foremen, work trains and shed gangs likely to be away from telegraph offices so that they would not have the track up or otherwise delay the movement of the special. Subsequently all train orders, given to special trains ended with the admonition, "Whistle at all curves and obscure places." It can be imagined the number of times an engineman, obeying the order, would toot on the Sacramento Division, yet this was necessary to stop, if possible, handcars being struck.

Side tracks like telegraph offices were few and far between, compared to what exists today on the Sacramento Division. One cause of delay and annoyance to trains was the Cisco siding, then the only one between Emigrant Gap and Tamarck. It held only twenty two of the company's thirty foot freight cars, two engines and a caboose. Occasionally, on account of freight trains having foreign cars of different and longer lengths in their trains the dispatcher would be taken by surprise and the trains meeting there would not clear. They were then compelled to saw by, This would cause a delay, consuming a lot of time and causing a lot of profanity.

"Fixing Up" a Train Order.

I learned at Truckee that I was the beneficiary of an undeserved popularity among the trainmen. About a week after I began work at Rocklin, No. 8, the night freight train, left Blue Canon about an hour late. The conductor, after directing the caboose brakeman to drop the train at a certain speed an hour, not having a pin to pull en route, laid down on his bunk and fell asleep. It was due to arrive in Rocklin at 4 a.m. Shortly after 2 a.m. Jerry Creedan, the night yardmaster, who was taking a nap on the office counter, awoke with a start, as we heard a locomotive whistle coming from the east. "What's that?" he exclaimed. I did not know. I had not heard Colfax, the only night office between Rocklin and Blue Canon, report anything special coming west, so Jerry told me to ask Sacramento. Fortunately for all concerned Sacramento did not respond. Jerry went out to investigate. He returned shortly and in a hoarse whisper said, "Never mind. It's all right. It's No. 8." Shortly afterward, I heard Jerry and the conductor conversing outside the office door, and Jerry saying, "He's a new man, he's all right."

Not thinking it strange I should be discussed I gave his remarks no attention. At the proper time the conductor handed me his "soup ticket" showing No. 8 arrived and departed on time, which I "27'd" to Sacramento. The caboose brakeman had obeyed instructions, for after the train had made up its lost time he kept the steady drop until it arrived in Rocklin, about an hour and a half ahead of time. I, on account of my inexperience, did not know that there was anything wrong with the train arriving ahead of time. I learned that now I stood high in the estimation of the trainmen as being all right, and a man who would not give a trainman away or tell all he knew. I had noticed that Jeb Calderwood, Fred Turner, George Crocker,Tom Allister and other freight conductors had a kindly greeting when we met, but I did not know the reason why. A wreck near Summit one night tied up the road. The westbound passenger train was held at Truckee. Attached to it on the rear was Governor Stanford's private car. I did not know of this as the outgoing conductor had not yet registered the train.

In the morning, while I was on duty, Governor Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, with his private secretary came into the office to ascertain the cause of the delay. I did not surmise at first that the Governor was an official of the company, but it was easy to see the secretary was one. The Governor thanked me in so appreciative a manner that it would seem I had done him a great favor to give him the details of the accident and answer in a civil manner his questions, as I would have done for anyone else entitled to know.

He remembered me when, several months later, I met him in the dispatcher's office in Sacramento, where I had been unexpectedly transferred to work as night operator.

No wonder we employees all loved him.


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