Monday, August 20, 2012

A Dangerous Ride - Installment Seven

By August Hutchinson

Trainmen led dangerous lives. From 1890 through 1900, collisions annually, on average, killed ~232 and injured ~1,334 employees. In that same decade, derailments annually, on average, killed ~162 and injured ~845 employees. And, as explained, they suffered tremendously from coupling and braking incidences. And, as Mark Aldrich writes, “accidents routinely occurred in the machine and repair shops and the roundhouses. Exploding boilers, crude tools, unreliable machines, primitive forges, scattered pieces of metal, and the very bustle of activity...took their toll. Shop men received serious burns and bruises and were in constant danger of losing limbs.”

Railroaders routinely engaged in other dangerous activities on the track. For example, employees would have to perform flying switches, which usually involved jumping off a car, detaching some of the cars while the whole train was still in motion, waiting for the portion still attached to the engine to speed up, and then making a railroad switch to change the direction of the detached cars. Obviously, people executing this task were running all sorts of risks, especially in the link-and-pin coupler days. Station Agent H.G. Grover of the Norwich & Worcester learned this the hard way on 10 July 1872 when he made an effort, slipped, and was run over by the detached car. Another dangerous practice: while a locomotive travelled at full speed, a fireman had to walk out on a running board (a very thin walkway stretching from one end of the boiler to the other) and then lubricate valves located at the very front of the engine. Then he would have to walk back to the cab and do the same thing on the opposite side of the boiler. This practice existed until the 1880s, when a mechanical lubrication device operable from the cab was devised.

Speaking of boilers, trainmen working on locomotives were threatened by boiler explosions. Like most railroad problems, these had a long history, stretching back to the South Carolina Railroad in 1831 and the B&O in 1834. Because boilers could be especially precarious in the early days, some passenger-hauling lines would place a car or two full of sand bags between the locomotive and the customers. Though this irritated the customers who wanted to keep a close eye on the men driving the train, it had lifesaving potential. Unfortunately, men on the locomotive received virtually no protection, and sometimes died brutally.After one boiler explosion in 1839, a reporter wrote, probably without exaggeration, that “the chief engineer was blown to pieces. His legs went into Union Park, his arms on to a pile of lumber on the other side of the avenue, and his head was split into two parts. His abdomen was also burst, and his intestines scattered over the road.” As railroad technology improved with time, boilers became more reliable, but they were far from perfect. According to the Railroad Gazette (which is much more likely than the ICC to underestimate the national count of a certain sort of accident), an average of fifteen boiler explosions occurred annually between 1873 and 1886.
This Locomotive's Boiler blew up, illustrating just how powerful such an explosion could be.
Even though these appear to have been less frequent than collisions or derailments, railroads still wanted to fix the problem. In the 1870s, they began introducing steel to boiler shells, as well as other parts of their engines, such as fireboxes and flues. But, as mentioned earlier, the steel refinery process was limited, and impurities significantly weakened the metal. It wouldn’t be until chemical analysis of steel became more common and the refinery process became more advanced that the railroads truly benefited. More immediately successful were railroad advancements in lubrication. Switching from animal- to petroleum-based oils reduced the chances of failure for small but crucial parts (e.g. crank pins). Railroads also set water quality standards and their labs began testing water for purity, because they learned that boiler scale would clog injectors and hold in heat. This damaged the engine and caused the boiler metal to overheat, weaken and potentially explode.

The government, a tad slow to deal with the problem this time, finally passed the Boiler Inspection Act of 1910. As one writer summarized it ten years later, “this act provides that it is unlawful for any common carrier...subject to this act, to use any locomotive moving interstate or foreign traffic unless the boiler of such locomotive and appurtenances thereof are in proper condition and safe to operate...All boilers shall be inspected from time to time [by] a department of boiler inspection.”
Exhaust Issues: Because locomotive boilers were placed in front of the cab, exhaust
could enter the cab and, in rare cases, suffocate someone inside. So some locomotive
manufacturers started putting the cab in front of the boiler to eliminate the risk.
Long working hours were even more harmful to trainmen. Though complete national statistics from the early days aren’t available, the B&O reported in 1854 that “for two months [April and May] the entire equipment of the Road was in constant use; extra trips without number were made by the engines, and the men in charge as enginemen and conductors were for weeks deprived of needful rest.” In that same decade, on the B&O, even clerks were expected to work twelve hour shifts, and shop workers ten or eleven hours, five to six days per week. John Work Garrett, President of the railroad from 1858-84, added that freight trainmen would often work sixteen to twenty hour shifts. This issue was hardly unique to the B&O - various railroad trade journals during the 1870s reported that train crews were regularly on duty for fifteen or more hours at a time.

Labor unions had fought for shorter work days for years. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed an 1884 resolution insisting that within two years’ time, “8 hours shall constitute a legal day’s work.” In May 1886, after little progress was made, hundreds of thousands of workers protested in the street. Similar efforts had been and would be made, but the railroad managers were extremely resistant, even though worker drowsiness harmed their companies. It wouldn’t be until 1907 that Congress passed the Hours of Service law. Among other things, this forbid working for more than sixteen consecutive hours or more than sixteen hours in a twenty-four hour period, and required a minimum of ten hours of rest for someone having worked sixteen consecutive hours. Then, in 1916, Congress finally passed the Adamson Act, granting laborers the prized concession that they’d sought for so long. It declared that “eight hours deemed a day’s work...of all employees who are now or may hereafter be employed by any common carrier by railroad, except [independent] railroads not exceeding one hundred miles in length, electric street roads, and electric interurban railroads.”

Railroad employees, drowsy or not, also put themselves and one another into danger through mistakes and gross negligence. Even though the B&O’s 1866 rulebook, a representative sample from the era, states that “disobedience of orders, negligence or incompetency, will be sufficient causes for dismissal,” a noticeable number of engineers blatantly disregarded station orders. And even though the same book says that “all persons [were] required to exercise the greatest care and watchfulness to prevent injury to persons and property,” drinking and driving wasn’t an unknown practice among engineers. The frequency of such infringements led Matthias Forney to accurately conclude that the proliferation of discipline on the railroads “would be almost like a revolution.”

Railroads would intensify the frequency of errors on their lines by (often inadvertently) hiring inexperienced people, though they made sure to absolve themselves of most responsibility by saying, as the B&O’s 1866 rulebook does, that “each liable to be held legally responsible for injury to persons or property caused by his negligence.” Take the example of John Lynes. In 1907, he held back a California Fast Mail Train at a Kansas station to allow another train to pass. Then a dispatcher asked him to hold it back for a second train. He accepted the order and began to copy it down; as he did so, he saw the Fast Mail Train pulling out. So, without stopping his writing, he reached out and operated the signal control board with divided attention. The train didn’t stop, so he ran out to the platform and realized with a sinking heart that he didn’t put up the right signal. After he waved around his lantern to no avail, he realized that a crash was inevitable and fled. About thirty-one people died. It was learned later that the day of the accident was Lunes’ fourth day ever as an operator, even though he claimed to have six years of operating experience. He also claimed to be 23 when he was 18.

Railroad officials were also responsible for a slew of signaling-related accidents. In 1889, the U.S. Commissioner of Labor surveyed sixty of the nation’s largest railroads. He concluded that eight months was the duration of employment for the average engineman, seven for the average conductor and flagman, five for the average fireman and telegraph operator, and ~four for the average brakeman. This phenomenon was caused largely by stringent firing policies and the frequent hiring of men as temporary hands. So railroad men moved frequently from one railroad to the next, but most railroads had very different signaling systems. The U.S. Commissioner of Railroads reported in 1881 that, among whistle signals, only one had the same meaning on most railroads, while others had up to forty different meanings across railroads. And according to a New York Railroad Commission report, while the color denoting caution on most roads was red, on others it was green, and on others it was blue and white. So it would be very difficult for people like enginemen to keep all their signals in order. After this caused much confusion and plenty of accidents, the American Railway Association finally developed the 1884 Standard Code of Train Rules, which the Railroad Gazette urged carriers to adopt. By 1889, ninety carriers controlling about ~42% of the nation’s rail (~66,000 miles) did so.

Come back next Monday for the final installment of A Dangerous Ride. You’ll learn about the ways in which trainmen were compensated for injuries and about the development of the railroads’ unique branch of medicine.

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