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Story: Description of a railroad train's trial trip - 1840's

Editor's Note: This is an interesting early depiction of how an early train was operated, circa. 1840. Though not necessarily from Michigan, it could have been from our early Central or Southern railroads, or perhaps early on the Detroit & Milwaukee.


The first train ever operated must have been a grand sight. First came the locomotive, a large Babcock fire extinguisher on trucks, with a smoke-stack like a full blown speaking tube with a frill around the top; the engineer at his post in a plug hat, with an umbrella over his head and his hand on the throttle, borrowing a chew of tobacco now and then of the farmers who passed him on their way to town. Near him stood the fireman, now and then bringing in an armful of wood from the fields through which he passed, and turning the damper in the smokestack every little while so that it would draw. Now and then he would go forward and put a pork rind on a hot box or pound on the cylinder head to warn people off the track.

Next comes the tender loaded with nice, white birch wood, an economical style of fuel because its bark may be easily burned off while the wood itself will remain uninjured. Beside the firewood we find on the tender a barrel of rainwater and a tall, blonde jar with wickerwork around it, which contains a small sprig of tansy immersed in four gallons of New England rum. This the engineer has brought with him for use in case of accident. He is now engaged in preparing for the accident in advance.

The Front Brakeman.

Next comes the front brakeman in a plug hat about two sizes too large for him. He also wears a long-wasted frock coat with a bustle to it and a tall shirt collar with a table-spread tie, the ends of which flutter gayly in the morning breeze. As the train pauses at the first station he takes a hammer out of the tool box and nails on the tire of the fore wheel of his coach. The engineer gets down with a long oil can and puts a little sewing machine oil on the pitman. He then wipes it off with his sleeve.

It is now discovered that the rear coach, containing a number of directors and the division superintendent, is missing. The conductor goes to the rear of the last coach, and finds that the string by which the directors' car was attached is broken, and that, the grade being pretty steep, the directors and brakeman have no doubt gone back to the starting place.

But the conductor is cool. He removes his bell-crowned plug hat, and, taking out his orders and time card, he finds that the track is clear, and, looking at a large, valuable Waterbury watch, presented to him by a widow whose husband was run over and killed by the train, he sees he can still make the next station in time for dinner. He hires a livery team to go back after the director's coach,l and called "All aboard," he swings lightly upon the moving train.

Nineteen Weary Miles

It is now 10 o'clock, and nineteen weary miles still stretch out between him and the dinner station. To add to the horrors of the situation, the front brakeman discovers that a thirsty boy in the emigrant car has been drinking from the water supply tank on the tender, and there's not enough water left to carry the train through. Much time is consumed in filling the barrel again at a spring near the track, but the conductor find a "spotter" on the train and gets him to do it. He also induces him to cut some more wood and clean out the ashes.

The engineer then pulls out a draw head and began to make up time. In twenty minutes he has made up an hour's time, though two miles of hoop-iron are torn from the track behind him. He sails into the eating station on time, and, while the master mechanic takes several of the wheels over to the machine shop to soak, he eats a hurried lunch.

The brakeman here gets his tin lanterns ready for the night run and fills two of them with red oil to be used on the rear coach. The fireman puts a fresh bacon rind of the eccentric, stuffs some more cotton batting around the axels, puts a new lynch-pin in the hind wheels, sweeps the apple peelings out of the smoking car, and he is ready.

Then comes the conductor, with hius plug hat full of excursion tickets, orders, passes, and time checks, he looks at his Waterbury watch, waves his hand, and calls "All aboard" again. It is upgrade, however, and for two miles the "spotter" has to push behind with all his might before the conductor will allow him to get on the ride.

This began the history of a gigantic enterprise, which has grown till it is a comfort, a convenience, a luxury, and yet a necessity.


Reprint from Bill Nye, the Chicago News. October, 1886. [AArgus-18886-1013]