Monday, February 10, 2014

Man's Work

I could swear I read somewhere when I was young that the average railway brakeman in the 19th Century had a one in seven chance of dying in bed.  This is surely wrong.  But does sound like the brakeman's job was no day at the beach:
Coupling and braking had been a technical and safety problem for the railroads since their very invention. The coupling between cars involved a crude link-and-pin device that required brakeman to stand between the cars, guide the link into a socket, drop the pin in place, and, if necessary, hammer it down. Not easy, not safe. In the dark, with a slippery oil lantern in one hand, it was even more perilous. It was said that if a man was looking for work as a brakeman and claimed to be experienced, he was asked to show his hands—missing digits were the key to confirmation he had previously worked in the job....Braking, too, was primitive in the extreme. Locomotives had no mechanisms to slow them down apart from putting them in reverse, which good drivers did only in emergency. Instead, once the driver got the signal to slow down, a brakeman had to clamber along the roof of the train from the rear and apply the brakes fitted on each car. Normally, there would also be a brakeman at the front who would work his way toward the back of the train. There was no end of potential for accidents with this arrangement, nOt least the risk to the brakemen themselves. As a former brakeman described the process, it “took nerve, coordination, timing and a perfect sense of balance, to go over the top of a freight car—winter or summer ...  rain, snow, sleet, ice all over the roofs and on brake wheels and handholds.”
 Christian Wolmar, The Great Railroad Revolution 166-67 (2012).   Wolmar makes a few more general points about railway labor in the golden age of railroad construction--say, 1863 to 93.  He shows that the owners were avid for  manpower to chop trees, blast away rock faces, spread gravel and lay track.  Most of these were awful jobs--fit only for Irish or Chinese (sarcasm).  But nobody in those days worried about the end of work. 

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