Perhaps no other occupation ever fetched the American fancy as did that of the locomotive engineer. Not even the cowboy, the Indian scout, the godlike vision of Washington at Valley Forge...quite so effectively captivated the national imagination as the locomotive, its drive-rods flashing obedient to the cross-heads in their guides and the dynamic whole obedient to the visor-capped man at the throttle. His eagle eye pierced the impenetrable storm and saw the furthest horizons, his controlling hand on the air brake lever was the hand of fate itself. The aviator of a later generation, a mere mechanic cleaving his wide blue yonder, was never in the same league with the brave engineer.
What a long, long way the engineer has come—from the poor fellow shivering on that open platform in a New England blizzard—and why the idea of a cab didn’t occur to anyone sooner, we can’t imagine—down past the man who spent his days twisted sidewise on his seat, hurling a heavy Johnson bar back and forth , peering from a smaller and smaller window-slit past a bigger and bigger, longer and longer boiler, and frequently having to poke his head out into the storm, and keeping tab on the increasing number of gadgets on his instrument, to the modern engineer in spotless overalls—he could almost do it in a dress suit—reared back in his red-leather padded chair in his weather proof cab, flicking a lever back and forth, and considering an extremely limited number of miles a day’s work. But he is still the devotee of duty, the man who feels the weight of the whole massive fabric, with its hundreds of passengers, on his conscience and brain and good right arm, and lives up to the best traditions of his profession.
This passage is excerpted from “A Treasury of Railroad Folklore” and is an observation made during the early 1950’s about the icon of railroading, the locomotive engineer. Just like the mighty steam engine he drove, the man whose hand was on the throttle is a symbol of the age of steam, when railroads were still the primary means of land transportation in the United States. Note the suggestion that the engineers of the earliest days of railroading worked under the most difficult conditions and that improvements in locomotive design gradually made life a bit easier.
Questions for Reading 3
- Why do you think the train engineer become such a heroic figure in American culture?
- Can you think of some examples of heroic figures in this century who would be comparable to the steam locomotive engineers of the late 19th and early 20th century?