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IN WRITING the following account of my brief experience as a locomotive fireman, I feel apologetic toward the thousands of men who knew much more about railroads, had many times the experience, and moved mountains of coal with the expectation of eventually being set up to the right-hand side the depression when few railroadmen were employed. I can only say that my experience was in the period when the largest locomotives were hand-fired (many of them were later to be equipped with mechanical stokers), and that this is a record of a way of life which no longer exists except in the memories of a dwindling number of men.
F. L. JAQUES artwork/THE AUTHOR
WHILE toddling from a west window to an east window, intent on seeing a passing train, I tripped over a door jamb and, since I had two teeth, one upper, one lower, bit a hole in my tongue. I have been watching trains for some 70 years since then. By watching carefully, one can see a lot of trains in 70 years.
The Rock Island double track ran at the foot of our lot through a small town in western Illinois. A slight sag nearby often caused the trains to stall. They backed up, tried again, doubled the hill, or not infrequently, broke in two. Broken links were in evidence about the yards not far away.
My family moved from Illinois to Kansas, and here we were near the Missouri Pacific. Its track was really primitive. Without ballast, it was laid on slippery gumbo, which was heaped up between the rails to give drainage. When the ties slipped, which they frequently did in wet weather, stakes were driven in at the ends to keep the track in place.
A good share of the town's population met the trains and somebody carried the mail to the Post Office. Sometimes I was that somebody. (At the next station a dog took the mail to the P.O.)
My boyhood trains were exciting, and the fascination of railroading and railroads survives the years.
IN the early spring of 1913, at Proctor, Minn., headquarters of the then Duluth, Missabe & Northern, a young fellow low in spirits and low in financial resources appeared to look for a job firing. I was that young fellow. Boomers and old-timers were there in numbers hunting for work, but "They're not hiring" was the usual reply.
I found I would have to spend an indeterminate time as a "wiper" before I could hope to become a fire
So I became a wiper.
The memories of that spring are all mixed up with the smell of steam. The atmosphere of a railway waking up from its winter hibernation was thrilling. Mallets were whooshing by, picking up speed into the yards after climbing the 7 miles of 2.2 per cent grade from the docks with empty ore cars, or easing by with loads, backing down to the docks.
These Mallets, numbered from 200 to 207, were built in 1910. They were hand fired. Their low pressure exhaust a continuous roar either music or an annoyance to thousands of people in West Duluth for years. Since much of the 7-mile track was visible from most of West Duluth, the great columns of black smoke together with the exhausts left little doubt that there was a train on the hill. These engines worked almost exclusively on the hill for many years. I'm sure their ghosts can be heard still on a dark night.
Wipers in 1913, when I became one, didn't wipe anything but the spout of the oil can. The only wiping I ever did was to remove with waste a spot beneath the cab window so the engine number could be seen. Wipers filled the sand dome, filled the tank with water, the oil cans with oil; but principally they cleaned fires.
Wipers worked in pairs. Someone would poke his head into the dark sandhouse (the only warm place in the yards, with nice soft sand to lie
on) and shout, "Hog for Kelly!" Kelly and his helper would go out into the night and clean or "kill" the fire, leaving the grates clean and the boiler with enough steam to get the engine into the roundhouse.
Cleaning the fire consisted of pulling the good fire to the rear of the firebox, firebox, shaking the ash through the front grates. This often meant removing clinkers, great hot sheets which had to come out through the firedoor and be dumped overboard. By this time the far end of the hook, or rake, was red hot and so soft as to be useless. You took it out and pounded it over something till it was reasonably straight, and let it cool. Your end, which you had to handle, was pretty hot too. Gloves didn't last long.
The good fire was pushed forward and the rear grates cleaned. This left all the fire in the front of the firebox. It remained so, with additions of fresh coal, until the engine was called for service and the fireman took over and spread the bank.
Nobody on the Missabe worked on Sunday - well, hardly anybody. The wipers did: 12 hours. On Sunday the engines those not in the roundhouse -were spotted in long lines with their fires banked.
On my first Sunday I- who 48 hours before had never been on the deck of a locomotive - was given a long line of engines under steam to look after. The job consisted of going down the line, climbing up on each engine in turn, putting on the blower to raise steam, starting the injector to keep the crown sheet covered, and putting a few scoops of coal on the banked fire. After midnight Sunday
the engines began going out on the They went literally through the yards road again.
A wiper's job wasn't glamorous. After a few long, hot nights I began to feel I wasn't cut out to be a railroadman and pulled the pin. But don't go away. I'll be back soon with a scoop.
A FEW DAYS after I had quit railroading forever I turned up at Two Harbors, 27 miles from Duluth, headquarters of the then Duluth & Iron Range Railroad. I was looking for a job firing. And I got it.
By popular definition, a locomotive fireman was someone who needed a strong back and a weak mind. I qualified in part.
Next morning in the yards, I reported to an engineman named Vanvolkenberger (Vanvolk on the board) as a student fireman. I had one student day in the yards.
The following morning I showed up for work as the youngest man in point of seniority, and was promptly bumped from my one-day job and found myself scheduled to work nights.
I didn't start off very well the first day. We stalled with the first cut of loads to be shoved up onto the docks. How much it was my fault I'm not sure. Enginemen could beat you out of steam when you least expected it. It was a sort of initiation. They shouted to the world for someone who could really fire a locomotive all very embarrassing. The rest of the day passed without incident.
Nights were worse. The standard "day" in the yards was 12 hours.
The yards at Two Harbors were unique. The tracks fanned out to the five docks (now reduced to three).
and through a confusion of red and green switch lights where a half dozen other engines were working. You shoved a cut of loads on whose head car a switchman stood with a light one light among many. You watched that one light weaving through the yards and hoped you kept on watching the right one.
The loads had to be spotted exactly right over the pockets in the docks. The pockets were the same length as the cars, and the cars were slowly pushed ahead until the first car was over the last pocket. Then the switchman pulled the air. This was an emergency application and it was hard on the docks, so the practice had to be stopped. Then it was much more difficult to spot the cars correctly.
Much of a tallowpot's duty was relaying signals to the engineman. "Back up," "Go ahead," "Kick 'em," "Easy," "Three cars," "Two cars," "One car," "That'll do." Farm boys said, "Whoa" - which wasn't good, even if it was an iron horse. "Stop" was too much of an order. You don't order an engineer to stop; you sort of ask him to stop. So "That'll do" seemed best. Except, of course, in an emergency, when it was "Dynamite!" or "Big hole!" When you referred to an emergency stop later, you said he "wiped the clock."
PERHAPS this is a good place to describe the world of a fireman of 1913. Working extra. You caught a different job, a different engine, and a different engineman nearly every trip. And the trips depended on a regular man laying off, which might be for a variety of reasons. This meant
There was the caste system. engineman's seat was softer than the fireman's, but the head brakeman's folding seat, just ahead of the fireman's, was the hardest. And I'll say a good word for the head brakeman. Many of them had wide experience, were good firemen, and if you were really in trouble they would put in a few fires. Enginemen sometimes would do that too.
Now the fireman's equipment.
In front of you was the firedoorimportant. There was a chain on the firedoor. There was the scoop (and, let's hope, another one back on top of the tank), a coal pick, a rake, a broom, and a jug. You'd better fill the jugwith water, too!
Removable sectional wooden coal gates were between you and the coal, which was banked against the gates head high. You soon had to remove those gates and pull coal forward so you could reach it with the scoop.
Over the firedoor on a shelf was the engineman's long-spouted oil can, a can of valve oil, and the engineman's torch. In the left-hand seat box were two lanterns, spare water glasses, matches, torpedoes (guns), flares, sticks of hard grease for the rod bearings, and perhaps an extra pair of canvas gloves for an emergency. Better take a lunch.
On either side of the boiler was an injector. The injector could deliver upwards of a quarter of a ton of water a minute. The flow could be cut to half that amount. The injector had to be on steadily whenever the throttle was open on the road. To boil that much water required up to 100 pounds of
coal per minute. Sometimes you used both injectors!
There was the blower, to blow up the fire while standing, and a hose coupled with the injector (with which you washed the deck).
The lights burned oil and the cab lights usually went out when you backed up. If you forgot to light the headlights and markers just before dusk while standing, you went out and lit them while running, which wasn't easy. You used matches, lining them up so each head would ignite the next one. Used up quite a lot of matches. When you were in the hole, meeting another train, you put out the headlight by moving a sheet of metal from behind the light to a slot in front of it, or you could hold the scoop in front.
The bell was rung regularly approaching road crossings or wherever people were about. It was heavy, and ringing it was a chore in itself unless it had been recently oiled. To do that, the bakehead crawled up on the boiler with the oil can.
The water glass on many of the engines was still the simple exposed glass tube which was dangerous and broke frequently. You cracked the valve below it to see if it was telling the truth, and checked the water level with the pet cocks.
Day or night a record of a fireman's work was written on the sky. In the daytime the very color of the smoke was diagnostic. Anyone in the know, anywhere within sight, could tell whether or not you had a good fire. If the stack was clear they could count your scoops of coal by the black puffs in the sky. To look back and see them was good. At night, if the bakehead
was "fanning the fire" the number of scoops of coal could be counted by the glare of firelight on the sky. That could sometimes be seen for a long distance.
I'll try to describe "fanning the fire." The trick was to get the coal in without the firedoor being open much. An open door cooled the fire and, in excess, resulted in leaky flues. Personally, I think putting in your 8 or 10 scoops as fast as you could was just as good, but it wasn't the approved method. You got a scoop of coal, pulled it toward you, grabbed the chain with the left hand and yanked the door open, threw in the coal, grabbed the chain and yanked the door shut. The trouble here was that the chain, gyrating madly, sometimes was not there when you grabbed for it. If you had plenty of coal where you could reach it, a variation was to put in your scoop of coal, grab the chain, yank the door shut, hang onto the chain with the left hand, yank the door open again, and by that time you had swung the scoop around with the right hand and had another scoop of coal ready. I think this was right. After all, it's been 48 years!
If you had a good thin fire, and the engine was well drafted and a good steamer, you could often see the whole fire. Or you could hold the scoop in the firedoor, directing the draft to one side, and see some of the coals.
Most of the coal was burned along the sides or the rear corners, but if a good clear fire wasn't sufficient to supply enough steam, then you had to overfire, which resulted in a less efficient fire requiring still more coal, and usually in a bad fire. The surface of a bad fire was hard to see. since
air from an open firedoor created a brilliant flame. (Better keep one eye shut at night, so both wouldn't be fireblinded.) The hook was called the "joy prong" because raking the fire would bring up the steam pressure. But the use of the hook also caused clinker. You couldn't win!
Some engines formed clinker just as a matter of course, even if you did have a good fire to start with. Actually I didn't have much trouble with clinker on road engines. My difficulty was in overfiring light engines working a light throttle. I just didn't have the patience to wait for the fire to burn.
That reminds me of a favorite railroad story, published many years before TRAINS was born. It told of a boomer fireman fighting an assemblage of scrap iron in passenger service. When it got too much for him on a grade, he put on both injectors, threw the hook and the coal pick and the broom and the scoop in the fire, and when the engine stopped he climbed down and walked away into the woods!
A tallowpot's pay for a round trip on ore ran from $5 to a little over $6, depending on time and miles: standing time (10 miles per hour) plus a rate for actual road miles. The pay was flat; there were no deductions for retirement funds or fringe benefits. There was no featherbedding. But the company had a scheme of its own. A worker starting the first of the month wasn't paid until the middle of the following month. If my calculations are correct, the company had my money an average of three weeks before I got it, and drew interest on it. This was possibly because of a delay