Odd Railroad Incidents
Munsey's—November, 1902
By Herbert E. Hamblen



ONE day last summer I came to town over a line of railroad on which I had once expended some time and much vitality in trying to keep the wheels turning at the desired rate of speed. The superintendent. eventually relieved me of that responsibility, which accounted for the fact that I was now lounging in a chair car, instead of inventing defensive fairy tales up there in the dust, grime, and general pother on the "head end," with which to meet the "old man's" cynical criticism on my arrival.

While languidly noting the changes that had been made since my time, we glided past an old engine coupled to a train of gravel cars on a siding. A big dent in her rusty Russia iron jacket, just above the check on the fireman's side, caught my eye as we passed. I failed to catch her number, nor can I recall it now; but I should have known that ten year old dent had I seen it on the Siberian steppes.


That engine had willfully killed her engineer with a broken side rod, scattering his remains for a quarter of a mile. She was a notable hoodoo, and nobody wanted her. When repaired, the "old man" turned her over to me, with an air and manner that discouraged dissent on my part. How carefully I inspected the old vixen, slightly riveting every bolt on her to prevent the nuts working off! My fireman, wiry, gritty little Danny Cole, helped me. When we had finished I defied her. I pounded and slammed her all over the division that night, and she behaved so well that we agreed that she had been slandered; victim, no doubt, of a bad name and lazy crews.

We started on our return trip early on Sunday morning, when there were few passenger trains on the road. She was making a famous run; I had to sidetrack but once in eighty miles, and we were both in high feather.

When oiling at the water plug, after following the passenger train out of the switch, I caught, the first glimpse of her cloven hoof. The crosshead key on the fireman's side was so nearly out that it could have been lifted clear with a broom straw.

Now, the taper end of the piston rod is forced into a taper hole in the crosshead, and secured there by a taper key driven solidly, point down, through them both. I had never heard of one of those keys coming out, nor do I know of any one else who has. Why the piston had not been blown through the front cylinder head is a mystery to me to this day.

As I drove that key in again, memories of the tales I had heard of her unaccountable deviltries flitted through my mind, and you may be sure I gave her another thorough inspection before leaving the plug. The train crew had become interested, and refrained from setting brakes on the grades, giving me a chance to "get a swing on 'em.'' There was a place where the road dipped sharply into a deep hollow, rising again abruptly on the other side. There was a station down in the hole, but it had a day operator only. As there were block signals at the stations on each side of it, night, freights whooped through there at a lively gait, so as to get up the other side without "doubling the hill." It was daylight now, and the block down in the hole was in operation, but I had bad "clear blocks" all over the road, and knew there was nothing ahead of me, so I let her out and sailed down there. A curve hid the station until I was within an eighth of a mile of it. I glanced back just before I turned the curve, and the way those cars were dancing through the dust was inspiring.

In the very next breath I shut off and blew a call for brakes that brought the boys out of the caboose like a fire alarm. A man was coming down the opposite hill on the run, frantically waving a red flag. There was another curve ahead which prevented me seeing the obstruction, whatever it might be.

Although the men were twisting breaks for dear life on the roofs of the rolling cars, her speed seemed to accelerate, even after she struck the rising grade. I knew by the flagman's antics that there wasn't much clear track ahead of me, so I tried to reverse her. Even with Danny's help I couldn't get her past the center.

The reverse lever is hinged to the frame at its lower end. It comes up through a slot in the cab footboard—made a neat fit to exclude snow and dirt—and describes an arc with its upper end. The reach rod under the engine is connected to the lever by a bolt which, in this instance, came up through the slot when reversing. Despite my riveting precautions, the nut had worked off the bolt far enough to prevent it passing through the slot; so there I was, galloping into something, and unable to reverse.

A desecrator of the Sabbath had hauled two big blocks of granite upon the crossing, dropped a wheel, and dumped his load on my track. The track walker saw it, and it was he who flagged me—not that it mattered much. I plumped into it in fine style, at the top of the hill, and with all hands tearing wildly at the brakes when we passed the station operator.

"Second class trains must not exceed twenty miles per hour."—Extract from book o f rules.

On my return from my enforced thirty day fishing trip I found "the hearse," as Danny had christened her, in worse shape than ever. Nearly all hands had had a crack at her, making one trip apiece and reporting sick on their return. My unwarranted enthusiasm had evaporated; she was her own sweet self, and caused me many painful interviews with the boss.

One day she stalled dead in the middle of the hill. I sat under a tree, relieving my mind according to railroad usage, while Danny labored with the fire. He put, on the blower and sat down beside me, swearing he wouldn't do another stroke till she got to the top of the hill if she stood there till doomsday. She started when she got good and ready, and I threw a stone at her, saying: "Git app, confound ye ! "

Danny approved, and commenced firing stones at her as she gathered headway. It seemed to do her good, so, each on his own side, we stoned her all the way up the hill.

I got aboard and called Danny. He was standing on the low bank with a stone as big as his head, which he threw with both hands as she came along. It made that dent above the check, slid down, and wedged itself between check and boiler. There came a hissing jet of water from behind the cheek, which doubled in volume in ten seconds.

Danny, his sooty face a mere rim about his white eyeballs and gaping mouth, climbed into the tender. I simply said, " Dump your fire, Dan," for all the pumps on the road wouldn't have kept water in her with the check half off the boiler.

Unique reports of "the hearse" no longer aroused curiosity, and as I happened to be solid with the foreman just then, my report that a stud had given out was not questioned.


I was just enough late for the main line connection to make it interesting. The horse of the fellow who flagged me through River Street had gone lame, and the man favored him to such an extent that a truck driver, with whom I had exchanged civilities the day before, backed up to the curb before I could get by. The railroad being an interloper. I was forced to possess my soul in patience until he got his load off.

Trains were often late at the junction but while a mail line man may have a valid excuse, branch trains should arrive on time and not delay the traffic of the road.

No finer night ever shone out of the heavens. The autumnal sharpness was grateful after the long, hot summer, and the half risen full moon, like the golden portal of a great tunnel, lay squarely on the track ahead.

The weather had cleared after a rainy spell, during which the blue clay cuts along the road had given trouble. In some places the clay would melt like brown sugar and drool all over the track. At others it would peel off in huge slices, and either slide down or topple over. In either case it was a nuisance, though, so far, no serious damage had been caused by it.

The country before me was as level as a floor, so I felt my hair pushing my cap off when I saw that either the moon was returning below the horizon or the track was rising ahead of me.

An engineer's fingers will close on the throttle lever, and his elbow will begin to straighten, at every unfamiliar sight. If he refrains from shutting off, it is by an exercise of will power. In this instance I allowed the automatic instinct to prevail. I never shoved a plug in quicker than I did old Helen's that night, and I turned on the wind with equal celerity.

The moon was now obscured, and in the golden halo ahead the ties were wavering and squirming in a most disconcerting manner. I told the fireman to jump as I horsed her over into the breeching. Her nose came up at an angle of thirty or forty degrees, the moon reappeared, she pitched over the crest and returned to level track.

I got down to look her over. The conductor came ahead, and asked what the trouble was. Passengers crowded the platforms and stuck their heads out of windows, to see what I had stopped for. I asked the conductor if he had felt anything in the train. He said the smoker, where he had been riding, seemed to stand almost on end for a second or so, then to pitch over a lump, and presently to resume its normal position. We looked back. The two head coaches were elevated above the others, which sloped away from them in either direction. But they were straightening out again, and within thirty seconds their roofs had returned to the usual perfectly horizontal line.

Of course I was late at the junction. I was sent back with the section foreman to investigate. To my intense chagrin, I was unable exactly to locate the place. The country thereabouts was flat and devoid of distinguishing landmarks, and by the uncertain light of the moon and lanterns we could find no sign of such an upheaval as I had reported.

As a careful scrutiny by the section men, next day, failed of results, the entire train crew "walked the carpet." The superintendent wanted more explicit information than that furnished by the meager official report.

Under the combined influences of elapsed time, the jeering remarks of all hands, and the "old man's" indignation at the palpable thinness of the yarn which he considered we had foisted upon him, the conductor's memory failed. He had thought at the time that something, he hardly knew what, had happened to the train; but he guessed that he might have been mistaken. The brakemen took their cue from him, and the fireman knew only that he had jumped by my advice, and had torn his new overalls.

The others dismissed, the old man "set my packing out" with great severity. He reminded me that while track frequently slid off sidewise, or sank, it never "riz up." He perorated with a broad insinuation that I had been guilty of the unpardonable railroad sin.

I accepted it all with the grace of a man who knows himself to be right, though he can't prove it; but at that gratuitous insult I blazed up. I told him I had been raised in a fanatically teetotal section, and that my inherited prejudice had stuck to me. Encouraged by his tolerance, I pounded the desk and shouted: " The track did rise; I don't care what anybody says. Johnson saw it, too, but finding you didn't believe it, he hadn't the sand to say so," and I flounced haughtily out.

Nearly two years later the superintendent was riding over the branch on the engine of an excursion train. Time had been lost on the main line, so he went ahead to encourage the men by his presence. Sam Billings had her "down among the oil cans" and she was making good time. The super stood behind him, looking over his head and watching operations closely.

In the blue clay cut the engine suddenly assumed a position of acute angularity with the horizon, the track slipped and slewed under her like slimy asphalt under a bicycle, she dug her nose into it, and an avalanche of blue clay, of about the consistency of raw gingerbread, smashed in the cab windows and smothered them from head to foot.

While the work train was hauling off the superfluous clay, to bring the track back to level, the roadmaster went into a long dissertation as to what caused it. The water had percolated through crevices in the clay, which was probably superimposed upon a stratum of—something or other.

"But," I objected, "two years ago you said it was impossible for track to rise in this way; what caused it to do so now?"

"Water, water!"

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