The Way Station Agent:
Suggesting An Epic


FOR the great American epic we still strive and sigh and pray. Illustrious literati despairingly cry out that the occasion has not yet arisen, the subject is yet undiscovered, which would awaken the inspiration of an American Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Milton or Shakespeare. Paradoxical as it may seem, the occasion is continually present, and we come in daily contact with the subject. He is none other than the humble station agent at an intermediate railroad point: the epitome of all railroad knowledge, the unfailing encyclopedia of general information, the embodiment of the "strenuous life," the concentration of responsibility and personification of total self-effacement. An unswerving fidelity to duty is his morning anthem, his noontime song and his evening hymn late into the night.

The president of our land, the most exalted of all potentates, is relieved of much of his great responsibility by his cabinet, the supreme judiciary, house and senate, governors, State legislatures, the thinking citizen and the conscientious voter; the commanding general of the army has his staff and numerous subordinates down to the tried and true rank and file; the admiral has his captains, cadets, marines, the men behind the guns and the stanch cruisers themselves; the presidents of the mighty steel arteries of traffic have their vice-presidents, general managers, general superintendents, division superintendents, chief dispatchers, train masters, yard masters, train men, down to the last, but not least, the man with the pick and shovel and spike maul. But the agent at a way station, responsible alike for lives and property, bends alone under his onerous burden. He stands for all that is required from station master, agent, chief clerk, bill clerk, baggage master, ticket agent, express agent, telegraph operator and general factotum.

The station itself is regarded and utilized as a public building; the agent is the chief personage in the immediate community, as well as in the burgs and hamlets contiguous and tributary thereto. He is at once the slave and idol of every man, woman and child for miles around. He is the confidant of all the gossips and is unwillingly cognizant of the dangling skeletons in the rural closets. He is the butt of all the trainmen as well as the subject of complimentary comments at every session of the "Stove Committee." His time, early and late, seven days in the week and every day in the year, is devoted to the company's interests and the welfare of its patrons, with never a thought for himself, as he has no affairs and is known to his children as that man who sleeps part of the night at their house.

He must familiarize himself with the official classification and all its supplements, with all tariffs, freight, passenger and express, local, special and joint; with all divisions and per cents for billing to connecting lines and foreign roads, a task as herculean as the memorizing of Webster's Unabridged. He must note contents and strictly comply with all information contained in general orders, general notices, special notices, circulars, etc., properly file them and eliminate or add to daily as requested.

He is easily recognized, for his characteristics proclaim him a generic species of humanity. His gait is far from being a walk, nor is it yet a run, but a sort of a compromise hurried jog. His eyes assume an apparently vacant stare, since his mental concentration, ever at rigid tension, will not permit of visual distraction, but the habitual smiles which illumine the partial gloom of his countenance are the never-failing indicators of his suavity, urbanity and affability.

Mentally drop in on him of a morning and follow his routine of daily duties. He arrives at Six A.M. and proceeds at once to cut in his instruments with a genial "G-M" to the dispatcher. His next move is to slick things up for the day. Oh, horrors! he discovers that during the night marauders have gained an entrance by forcing a rear window. He has no safe-the money and valuables on hand after the last passenger train of the previous evening he carries with him and will safely guard at the expense of his life-but his tickets are strewn about in promiscuous confusion. These he must count and arrange in numerical and station order. Thus fretfully engaged, he is called to the telegraph table and copies a "bunch" of orders for several trains in both directions. Somebody rushes in saying he has fifty crocks of butter and as many cases of eggs for the express east, due in a few minutes. Besides the billing he must tag and label every piece. Somebody else shouts from the freight-room that he has two or three loads of H. H. (household) goods for which he demands an itemized bill of lading to forward on the first mail. He sells tickets, checks baggage, explains several times when the "eight o'clock train is due," quotes the price of wheat, potatoes and other products to inquiring farmers.

One of the trains has "laid down." The dispatcher gets him again, "busts" all existing orders and fills his table with a fresh lot, some to be signed for and others to be handed on to trains going at full speed. Shippers are bringing in shipments of every description, rates must be looked up and waybills must be made out, with five to seven impression copies. He delivers freight to consignors, runs from desk to table to deliver orders and then realizes that the fast mail is about due. Frantically he rushes to the post-office for the pouch, and the twitching of his hands and occasional nervous strides to and fro are the only perceptible evidences of his impatience at the dignified deliberation of "Uncle Sam's" representative. The bag is finally ready; he snatches it, flees as with a fear, and has barely suspended it on the crane when the train goes thundering by.

The morning "local" now pulls up and unloads sufficient to fill an exposition building. Each article must be tallied and checked off by the agent, besides noting with the keenness of a detective the "overs, shorts and damaged." He also sees to loading and checking in of all freight going forward, and reseals all cars which have been opened. The dispatcher again wants him and throwing the armful of waybills on the desk he flies now here, now there and keeps on the jump until the passenger trains, "locals" and three or four through freights have pulled out. He has been undoubtedly "rattled" to a certain extent but his habitual self-restraint saves him from it "going up in the air" entirely. Nevertheless with tingling fingers pushed up through his scant locks and cold perspiration on his brow, he wonders if perchance he made a "miscue" in delivering any of his orders.

He answers his "call" once more and receives a W. U. message collect, for a person who lives just on the verge of the mile delivery limit. He asks to be out the required time, and his pace for that mile would arouse envy in a professional sprinter. He finds his man and presents the telegram, naming the charges. The recipient takes it, twirls it over two or three times and asks the agent if he has read it. The latter replies with unperturbed countenance that he merely transcribed it during transmission and the privacy of telegrams is inviolable. Whereupon the person thanks him, saying that he will hand in the change the next time he is down to the station, and the agent returns, intuitively knowing that this forty-three cents will be entered on the loss side of his individual cash account. When he enters the office he hears his call as usual; the dispatcher warmly asks him where in Halifax he has been and how long he thinks the company will endure having the road tied up to suit his convenience. Another batch of orders follows with the accompanying hustle of signing, grabbing and away.

Next comes a message from the superintendent directing him to proceed at once to a point about two miles distant, where live a couple of people of easy, conscience who, a day or two previously, had appropriated several hogs which had escaped slightly injured from a derailed car. He again arranges to be absent. His instructions are to collect at the rate of four and one-half cents per hundred and to arrive as nearly as possible at actual weight; pushing along he evolves a new meaning peculiar to himself from the railroad expression of "being on the hog." When he reaches his destination he finds the hogs already slaughtered and dressed or rather undressed, as there is nothing on them, or in them for that matter. With the cajolery of a Russian and the adroit directness of a Japanese diplomat he comes to a satisfactory understanding with the embryonic Armours and returns to the station complacently happy.

He locates the trains and says "S. F. D." (stop for dinner) twenty minutes. "Hurry back," is the response. Just think of it, ye epicures, get thee home, dine in the meantime, and hurry back, all in twenty minutes. Through the afternoon and until late into the evening the hours are but a repetition of the foregoing multifarious duties with their attendant vexations, until he finally "cuts out" for the night.

The Way Station Agent may have aspirations for a broader field of action, and as he is usually a man of parts, he may sometimes long for the social enjoyments of a more metropolitan sphere, but he is as much of a fixture as his semaphore, and while wending his way homeward and gazing around upon the limited horizon of his circumscribed environment, only the certainty of duty faithfully performed can cause his heart to throb with jubilant pulsations.

"Let not ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys, and destiny obscure."

Stories Page | Contents Page

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery