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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Conductor: “Captain” of His Ship

The American railway conductor is a nondescript being, half clerk, half guard, with a dash of the gentleman. He is generally well dressed, sometimes wears a beard, and, when off duty, he passes for a respectable personage at any of the hotels, and may be seen lounging in the best company, with a fashionable wife. No one would be surprised to find that he is a colonel in the militia....One thing remarkable about him—you do not catch sight of him until the train is in motion, and when it stops, he disappears. I can account for this only by supposing that as soon as he touches terra firma, he removes from the front of his hat the word blazoned in metal which indicates his office; and so all at once becomes an ordinary human being.”   Such was the description given by a British visitor and rail passenger during the 1850’s. It is cited in a discussion of “trainmen” in A Treasury of Railroad Folklore.  The discussion goes on to confirm that in those days trainmen did not wear uniforms. The conductor wore a top hat, his only badge of office being a metal strip with the word “Conductor” on it attached by elastic. He wore broadcloth, the aristocrat of clothing in those days, and as time went on, in the 60’s and 70’s (of the 19th century!), he might wear yellow or lilac kid gloves when on duty, with wisps of paper money between the fingers of his left hand and plenty of coin in his pockets. His lantern might be silver plated, the upper half of its globe blue or green, clear glass below, with his name or his lodge emblem on the glass. The very swankiest had gold- platedticket punches!
Freight conductors also collected the charges on freight, often by guesswork, as there were seldom any scales in the stations, and quite as often no tariff (price) sheets. For a long time, some railroads got along with very few station agents, and freight conductors often had to seek out the shippers, perhaps far out in the country, to collect charges on a shipment, while the train waited. They collected in advance whenever possible.
The caboose came into widespread use on freight trains in the years following the Civil War, and it was the mobile office and home away from home for the conductor and his crew. It became common practice on many railroads to assign a caboose for the exclusive use of each conductor, detaching it from the train when he and his crew were off duty. The conductor often customized his caboose to make it a more comfortable place to work, eat, play cards, and sleep during a long trip. This practice was eventually discontinued as a cost saving measure, much to the displeasure of many a conductor.
Conductors varied in character and temperament as widely as human beings do in any other walk of life. Inevitably there were some unpleasant trainmen, but there were many of the other sort, too, such as John B. Adams, veteran conductor on the Western Railroad (Mass.), who in 1852 was given a $200 silver tea set by a group of his patrons. And a woman traveling on the New York Central one cold night in 1855 tells of a gracious conductor who “turned a chair into a sofa and lent me a buffalo robe... and several times brought me a cup of tea”. They fell into a discussion of English railways in which he became so absorbed that he “forgot to signal the engine-driver to stop at a station. Looking out the window, he said, Dear me, we ought to have stopped three miles back!” A quick investigation revealed that no passengers were scheduled to depart at the missed station, so while he was chagrined by his oversight, no harm was done.
The conductor was the captain of his ship, and as such he was responsible for making sure that his crew did everything possible to ensure smooth sailing for his passengers. It was a unique and important position, requiring a combination of skills that few could master.
Source: A Treasury of American Folklore, edited by B. A. Botkin and Alvin Harlow
Questions for Reading 2
  1. Why do you think it was so important for a good conductor to have excellent “people” skills?
  2. What do you think was the most enjoyable part of being a conductor during the early days of railroading?
  3. What do you think would have been the most difficult part of the job?

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