Solitary and dangerous was the life of a railroad brakeman in the 19th century. It was easy to identify an experienced brakeman by his hands – if he had all his fingers he was a greenhorn. Life was so dangerous that one in four men lived to tell the tale. Unfortunately, in those days, they just replaced a body with another. One of the duties of a brakeman was to stop each car by manually turning a brake wheel atop each railroad car – in good weather or bad, the brakeman would run from car to car atop the train turning those brake wheels. It was especially dangerous at night when the cars were iced over or slick with rain, but a brakeman did his duty to feed his family. If the brake wheel got stuck extra force was needed, and if by chance the wheel suddenly freed itself up, it often tossed the brakeman between the cars of a moving train. The railroad tracks were not always aligned, which gave the cars a rolling motion – a brakeman had to be like adaring man on a high-wire just to navigate from car to car. Tunnels were also health hazards for obvious reasons, but also because of the toxic fumes from the coal-burning engines. Coupling and uncoupling cars was not an easy (or safe) task. The first coupling system was a simple link and pin. While the train was moving, a brakeman would stand between the cars and, once aligned, would drop the pin to attach them (he had to act fast to escape from being crushed between the cars or losing fingers or limbs). Coupling caused severe injuries and often death, for a fragile human body could not withstand the force of a moving train. It was not until 1908 when the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) forced employers to create a safer workplace and offer financial help to the disabled workers and their families. The working man was no longer just a replacement cog – FELA was the start of a man being thought of and treated as a human being in the workplace.
SharLeigh has an inquisitive nature – she is interested in current events, history, science and many more subjects, including things that go bump in the night! Since 1997, SharLeigh has scoured the internet, looking for interesting, fun and timely topics covering all sorts of human-interest subjects for her articles from her home in Fontana, CA.