Social Centers For Railroad Men

The Chautauquan Magazine—June, 1904

A HOME-LIKE place to bathe and rest in, a practical social center for railroad men capable of serving the interests of family and neighborhood, a common meeting place for discussion, entertainment and enlightenment, things pleasant and things worth while to read, means for self-development of character and efficiency—these are the provisions which have made the Santa Fe Reading Rooms noteworthy. The company now appropriates some $15,000 a year for maintaining the reading rooms, and the genius behind the chain of institutions is Superintendent S. E. Busser.

Take your map and note the stretch of country traversed by the rails of the Santa Fe system from Kansas, through Indian Territory, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to California. Besides the (omnipresent) railroad branches of the Y. M. C. A. at Argentine and Topeka, Kansas; Cleburne and Temple, Texas; locate Emporia, Newton and Dodge City, Kansas; Purcell, Indian Territory; Woodward, Oklahoma; La junta, Colorado; Raton, San Marcial and Albuquerque, New Mexico; Winslow and Seligman, Arizona Territory; Needles, Barstow and East Yards, California. At these fourteen places, some of them popularly dubbed as "jumping-off places" so far as civilized comforts go, one finds the company reading rooms, localizing a moral, social and intellectual movement in many respects unique in railroad management.

There are separate structures costing as much as $8,000; in other cases extensions of company buildings have been utilized. Each reading room is in charge of a librarian, a salaried employee selected with an eye to his intellectual and personal qualities. The equipment begins with a reading room supplied with the periodicals and a circulating library of books; card rooms, billiard rooms, bath, toilet and wash rooms, sleeping rooms and bowling alleys being included in complete structures. The privileges are free to all employees who are regularly on the company's pay roll. Only nominal charges are made for bath supplies furnished and use of billiard tables.

That these institutions are a part of a system does not mean that they are stereotyped in form or spirit. Fundamentally the idea has been to find out the human needs of the men under the conditions obtaining at any given point, and having found those needs plans have been adapted to them. In other words no taint of Pharisaical charity on the part of the company, has marred the work, and the men have felt free to make known their special interests in the kinds of literature to be supplied, technical or otherwise, as well as in the character of instruction by lectures and the extent of social activities and home talent entertainments. The growth of cooperation between official and men in this way has been one of the most striking effects of the innovation.

One cannot even briefly talk with Superintendent Busser without discovering a living embodiment of this spirit, and fortunately his enthusiasm is contagious. He will tell you that the success of the experiment should be credited to President E. P. Ripley's belief in more intelligence as a means of securing better service—the essence of the policy which has been inaugurated. And then he will tell you with equal delight how Santa Fe men, in audience assembled, have questioned some of the most expert authorities to a standstill on their own specialties when they least expected it. So is comes about that only first-class speakers and entertainers, eminent educators and specialists, interpretative readers and technical experts are taken over the line to appear before the men, and one sees a remarkable adaptation of the old lyceum or the newer extension lecture system to modern industrial conditions. Practical talks on such subjects as the care of the teeth, hygiene, memory training, etc., as well as scientific, historical, biographical and literary topics are given.

Wives and daughters have days of privilege at the reading rooms, and social clubs have been organized in connection with them.

To repeat, the theory underlying these establishments has been epitomized in the phrase, "give every man a chance." And the objects have been further summarized as follows:

"To aid the employees and their families in self-development.

"To surround them with influences by which their lives would be brighter and more hopeful.

"To give them an opportunity of making themselves worthy of promotion to higher spheres.

"To put a new value on a man's life, and emphasize brain and conscience power as a factor in railroad operation."

In regard to the reading matter selected and supplied, both instruction and entertainment are kept in mind. After a certain period magazines, weeklies and dailies are sent out from the reading rooms to the trackmen for their homes. It is stated that of the books (the libraries are circulating under reasonable regulations) forty per cent are fiction, fifteen pet cent historical and fifteen per cent biographical, ten per cent technical and ten per cent general literature, besides reference books. About fifteen per cent of the books are in use all the time. Furthermore the men buy books for their own homes; they send lists to the superintendent who delivers them free anywhere on the system, bills for purchase at trade discount being paid through the librarians.

The writer has interviewed a number of railroad officials who uniformly declare that the greatest need of the modern railroad is to discover men who are fit to assume higher posts in the service. To the credit of the Santa Fe reading rooms is to be placed the fact that special aptitudes have been discovered and developed through them which have led directly to promotions in the service. Again, it is plain to be seen that such a physical betterment of conditions, since railroading at best is hazardous and difficult, fosters better spirit and service among employees. And, wholly from the company's standpoint, the fact that constant enlargement of the work is being planned for, affords the best evidence that the investment is considered a good one.

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