Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The KCS and Heavener (Part 4)

OK, because some of you asked for it, here is another blog about the KCS.

Of the three major parts of a railroad train only one remains today in essentially the form it was in during the 1940s—the cars (tankers, boxcars, gondolas, flat cars, etc).  And even they have had a significant change in that the journal bearings have been replaced with roller bearings (see last paragraph below).  In previous blogs I wrote about the locomotives that pulled the trains.  In this one I will talk about the part of the train that has disappeared—the caboose.

The engineer, the fireman, and the head brakeman operated from the locomotive.  The caboose was the workplace of the conductor and the rear brakeman. 

The interior of the caboose was a very sparse site.  Only the essential tools to allow the conductor and the brakeman to function were inside the caboose.  (See picture below,)

Most cabooses had a pot bellied stove.  It was used to keep the rather poorly insulated caboose livable for the men working there in the winter.  In the summer their only recourse was to open both windows and the doors on the caboose.  However, this created such a draft that it made it hard for the conductor to do his paperwork. The conductor had a small desk on which to write and store his papers. His chair was usually loose and sometimes it was even a swivel chair that made riding over rough tracks very interesting.   The bay windows located on either side of the caboose were used to view the train but afforded a good view only when the train was going around a curve.  Toilet facilities were primitive and consisted of an opening through the bottom of the caboose to the tracks below.

Life in a caboose had some challenges.  Each coupling on each car has some slack in it.  The slack in each coupling is on the order of 2 to 4 inches.  Now when you consider that there were sometimes 150 cars in a train, the total slack added up to 300 to 600 inches or 25 to 50 feet.  When the engine began moving it started one car at a time so by the time the caboose started moving the engine had traveled 25 to 50 feet and was moving at speeds close to 10 miles per hour.  The caboose then got a near instantaneous acceleration to that speed and imposed a vicious sudden jerk on those inside it.  I rode on a caboose a few times and learned to brace up whenever I heard the slack being taken out of the train in front of me.  I remember my father coming home one day with a severely swollen ear caused when he fell as the caboose began moving.  He slid across the floor until his head was jammed under the stove.  Fortunately it was summer time and the stove was not in use.

Railroad men were (and probably still are) great practical jokers.  The desk in the caboose provided my father with a chance to play a practical joke on his rear brakeman.  This particular brakeman had made the mistake of letting the rest of the crew know that he was deathly afraid of snakes.  So one day on one of the local runs the crew happened to spot a rattlesnake near the tracks while switching cars.  The brakeman could not stand being near the snake so he moved to the other side of the train.  Dad then looked until he found another snake nearby—a blacksnake.  He caught the snake and took it inside the caboose and put it in the desk drawer.  Some time later he asked the brakeman to get something out of the desk drawer.  He told me he was highly amused the sight of the brakeman trying to decide if his chances were better to remain in the caboose with the snake or to jump off the train which was moving at about 35 miles per hour.  Not content with scaring the brakeman once, a few days later Dad made a simulated rattlesnake rattle.  You have all probably made something similar.  A rubber band is passed through the holes on a button.  The band is then stretched between the sides of a hairpin and the button is twisted until the band is tight.  The whole thing is then placed in an envelope so that the button will not untwist the band.  Having made one up, Dad then told the brakeman that there was a letter from the Trainmaster in the desk addressed to the brakeman.  Of course when he opened the envelope he heard the simulated rattle and once again contemplated leaving the caboose.

In the midst of all the kidding around the crew did perform useful duties.  One thing they had to do was to look for hot boxes.  Old time cars used journal bearings packed with oily string to provide lubrication.  If the amount of oil in the packing got too low the bearing would begin to heat up.  Eventually it would be running red hot if not caught soon enough.  By using the bay windows on each side of the caboose they scanned the length of the train for smoking or glowing journals.  A few years later a series of infrared scanners was located at axle height to automatically scan each journal as it passed.  Technology eventually eliminated the problem by the use of roller bearings.


At December 23, 2008 at 8:46 PM , Blogger Bill Hinds said...

Glen I throughly enjoy your blogs about the KCS. I remember many tales I have heard about incendents on the caboose, which of course were subject to those telling the tell.

You give much information regarding the functionality of the trains and I was never availed to all of that even tho my Dad was a Railroader.

At December 23, 2008 at 11:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, I enjoyed the blogs on the KCS and Heavener. Like I said, I was never around trains much, so I never had any knowledge of everything you've written. All the blogs were interesting. Thanks for sharing them.

At December 23, 2008 at 11:45 PM , Blogger Chuck Hudlow said...

Me too, Glen, (what Bill and John said).

You mentioned the Conductor doing "his paperwork" at the table in the caboose. What kind of paperwork did he have to keep on a freight train. When I think of a Conductor, I think of the guy that stood at the door of the car in movies and called out "all aboard" (did they really do that?) and walked the aisles taking tickets. I guess the guy that does that is the "ticket taker", huh?

At December 24, 2008 at 6:44 AM , Blogger Glen Lazalier said...

For each freight train there was a manifest that listed all the cars in the train and specified their individual destinations. If they were to be "set out" at a location (e.g., at an intersection with another railroad, e.g., the Rock Island at Howe or the MKT at its intersection, or at a particular industrial siding) the conductor was responsible for ensuring that it was done. In addition, there was some paper covering the movement of the entire train. All this paper was usually the third or fourth carbon copy and not very easy to read. Additionally, the manifest listed the contents generally of many cars. All this is done via electronic transmissions and computers these days.

At December 24, 2008 at 6:52 AM , Blogger Glen Lazalier said...

Old time conductors did indeed call out "All aboard." In addition they were responsible for the entire train and its services. Perhaps the best modern analogy is one of NASA's shuttle flights. There is a Mission Commander (conductor), a Pilot (engineer), and various Mission Specialists (brakemen and fireman).

At December 25, 2008 at 10:43 PM , Blogger Chuck Hudlow said...

Thanks, Glen. That was very enlightening. I have a much better understanding of the hierarchy on the trains now. I always figured the "driver" was in charge, but I see that it's the Conductor that's ultimately responsible for the trains' movement.

Living where you do, you would have no reason to buy a Texas Monthly magazine, but the January issue has a really nice description of a train Engineer's daily activity.


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