The Railroad “Wrecker” and His Work
A. W. ROLKER IN APPLEION’S MAGAZINE
It is not so much the actual property loss that makes the railway wreck a costly matter to the company: Delay to subsequent trains, damage claims and general loss of prestige count for much more. To avoid these results in so far as possible necessitates the maintenance of an elaborate system, some of the more interesting features of which are here described.
THE career of a “wrecker” on a big railroad is like that of a fireman in a fire department of a big city, only more strenuous. Like a fireman, a wrecker is on duty all the time, day and night, and like the fireman the wrecker braves blizzards and sleet storms, often facing hardships and cruel suffering and even death for the saving of life and property. But whereas even in emergency the fireman never covers an area greater than the most populous section of a city, the line traversed by the wrecker covers a hundred or more miles, aiid whereas the fireman is in touch with at least such comforts as he may snatch while on his feet, not infrequently the wrecker is landed in the heart of a wilderness miles and miles from the nearest town and the pangs of hunger are added to privation.
Sometimes, when a big wreck has happened and cars and engines are piled high on crushed and mangled bodies, the wrecker is rushed through
darkness and snowdrift to work from twenty-four to forty-eight hours without even a chance to take his cap off ; and just as his “job” is nearly completed, along comes another alarm that sends him sixty or seventy miles in an opposite direction where box cars and coal cars have heaped themselves thirty feet high, paralyzing the road and costing thousands of dollars’ worth of loss in time and prestige almost every hour.
Despite these hardships, the danger, the excitement, and the bustle of the work endear it to the men, and the wrecker who loses his place on a crew is never perfectly happy afterwards. Yet cases have been where these men, goaded to the limit of human endurance by hunger and fatigue and exhaustion, have flatly mutinied, refusing to continue work ; and in one instance, during a blizzard on a western plain, a wreckmaster tried to stand with cocked revolver to keep a crew from deserting.
What it means to the wrecker when a fast express is wrecked is something that no man can appreciate unless he
has seen it. No thousand pounds of dynamite exploded at a given point could wreak more havoc than a train coming to a sudden stop when running sixty or seventy miles an hour. As the wheels of the big locomotive, weighing from ioo to 125 tons, leave the track, there is a cloud of dust and a shower of clay and gravel and stones, a dull, crunching, grinding, rending, splintering crash that may be heard a mile away, and in an instant, before the human brains of those aboard have had time to realize what has happened, all is over. The locomotive, that wonderful machine which a tenth of a second before was almost a breathing thing of might and beauty, the handsome, massive cars, the latest example of the builder’s art in the construction of the modern palace on wheels, are masses of bent, twisted, split shattered junk and kindling.
A hole, three or four feet deep and a hundred or more feet long, has been gouged clean out of the ground as if made by a gigantic chisel. Railroad ties, ground into match sticks, litter the woods and fields. Rails are found a hundred yards away bent and twisted as if they were hairpins instead of the toughest of steel weighing thirty-five or more pounds to the foot. In a twinkling, property representing a money value of more than a quarter of a million dollars has been wiped out clean as if 250 $1,000 notes had been thrown into a roaring furnace. And worst of all, the entire system is as if cut in two. Trains laden with anxious, impatient passengers are held up and stretched one after another, sometimes forming a string two or three miles long. Every hour’s delay, every minute’s delay advertises the gravity of the accident, imprinting it on patrons’ minds, and adds to the confusion of the schedule, which, often, it requires days to straighten out.
This is the time when everything depends upon the grimy maq in cap, peajacket, and overalls, who for a space becomes more important than the president of the road. As a rule he is not the husky, gigantic hero
you might picture to yourself. On the contrary, he is the ordinary type of railroad man whom you have seen leaping from the top of one car to another while the “fast freight” dashes onward at the rate of thirty or forty miles on hour. He may not be able to lift a ton, but he knows how to handle machinery that can lift 125 of them. He may not weigh more than 150 pounds, but so long as his paper of “loose chewing” holds out he can, if necessary, subsist on this and bad words for ten hours at a stretch without thinking of asking for food. Sometimes the roughness of his work creeps into his face and makes it hard ; and the lurch of the train gets into his gait ; also, his hands, this time of the year, are split open with frost, and coal dust and grime and black grease have settled black into the cracks. Altogether he is not the sort of rough-and-ready person you would be anxious to invite to your home ; but he is a brave, hard-working, honest sort of man who earns his bread by the sweat of his brow if ever bread was hard-earned, and whose grim face has appeared to many a man as the face ofa rescuing angel.
The train which may be said to be the home of this man stands upon a siding among a maze of tracks in the unlovely barren yard adjoining the roundhouse or a car shop. A disreputable-looking affair it is—designed for knocks and usage rather than to appear in a glitter of varnish and polished windows—consisting essentially of two flat cars and what seem to be two ancient railroad coaches beneath the coat of grease and dust which is dull paint of a rusty red.
The front of this train is the “crane car”—a marvel of powerful, stump derrick on wheels—consisting of a flat car with a revolving platform under an upright girder eight feet high, bent at the top into a goose neck from which leads a ponderous steel chain connecting with a donkey engine, which can lift a locomotive weighing a hundred tons and swing it clear off the ground just as readily as you might pick up a horse shoe on a coun-
try road. Behind this “crane car” is a flat car with spare trucks and extra rails and ties and switches to repair tracks and to build temporary tracks around obstructions that will take too long to remove. Behind this car comes one of the rusty coaches, bumped, bruised, and gouged without, but within a marvel of systematic order and neat storage. Hydraulic jacks, capable of lifting houses; hawsers, big around as, a man’s calf ; steel chains with links weighing three pounds each, huge blocks and tackles, axes, crowbars, sledges, crosscut saws, picks, shovels, lanterns,, and a hundred and one other tools are compactly arranged in racks and compartments. Every hammer, every nail is in place so that night or day, darkness or light, every man can lay a hand on anything he wants at an instant’s notice. And last, but not least, comes the living car for the crew of twelve or fifteen picked men where, if all goes well, a cook prepares meals of ham and eggs and tinned things, where he makes piping hot coffee Winter’s nights when a sixty-mile-anhour zero gale cuts ears and faces, and icy steel peels skin from bare hands, and where there are bunks to stretch out on after the man have worked sometimes, for days without seeing the inside of a bed.
On the long western stretches of our big roads where trains are few and wrecks proportionally scarce, wrecking outfits are stationed along the line at intervals from 150 to 200 miles, both trains rushing to the scene of any serious accident that may happen in the district lying between them. In these sections, comparatively free from trouble, the wrecker works in machine shops or in roundhouses between smash-ups, and often, to get an engine for his train, the wreckmaster is compelled to rob the first train down the line of its locomotive. But near the terminals, of the big roads, where even the slight derailment of a coal car is felt seriously, there are permanent wrecking crews with trains stationed from forty to sixty miles apart, and a heavy, fast express locomotive is ever in readiness.
The dispatch which flashes into the wreckmaster’s office and starts the whole outfit in motion reads something like this: “No. 389, Engineer Jones, Conductor Black, with fiftythree loads, wrecked two miles west of Varnishwalla. Both tracks obstructed and badly damaged. X.Y.Z.”
Should this come into a station where members of the wrecking crew are attending to various duties about a shop or a roundhouse, three long blasts from a steam whistle sound the alarm ; and if a locomotive is within cannonshot, inside of a few minutes every man is aboard and the engineer opens the throttle. Should the alarm come in at night when the crew must be summoned from its homes by telephone, from fifteen to twenty-five minutes are necessary before the train, entire road thrown wide open to it, gets under way. In any case, night or day, hail, rain, ice, snow, or sunshine, with safety valve snorting, every pound of steam crammed on, and the fireman heaping on coal, the locomotive fairly bounds across the ribbons of steel, taking crossings, tunnels, and cuts just as fast as her gigantic drivers can whirl her, taking tall bridges and sky-scraping trestles like a scared cat along a fence, and never slackeniug until the glimmer of a red light or the flutter of a scarlet flag ahead gives warning.
The trouble may be slight, like a switch engine loafing off an open switch ; in which case a couple of jacks or the crane lifts the engine, and within fifteen minutes sets it back upon the rails. An axle may have broken under a fifty-ton coal car so that it has to be jacked up while the crane revolves, lifts a ponderous four-wheel truck from the flat car behind and deposits it on the rails in front of the car, neatly as you might help yourself to an olive. Or, freight, like steel girders or an entire bridge truss, may have toppled from a passing freight car and landed across tracks.
On the other hand, the wreck may be a serious one with a score of the first cars knocked into flinders, and thirty cars behind telescoped or climb-
ed all over one another or stood upside down or on end, and scattered about the scenery as a boy might scatter a tin toy train by kicking it across his play-room.
Whatever the condition, like so many terriers sailing into a pit of rats, the wreckers dive into the work. There appears to be no head nor tail to the attack, and yet every man knows his place ; the one who is supreme, the one who decides at a single glance what to do, and the one upon whose official shoulders rests this mountain of junk and wreckage is called wreckmaster.
The wreck may be an appalling sight which, it might seem, would require a week to clear. Eut within five minutes after the wrecker arrives things begin to move—not piece by piece or singly, but by heaps and mounds and dozens. If conditions warrant, the wreckmaster sends for the repair gang and within an hour or two from ioo to 200 Italians or Japanese swarm like flies over the landscape laying and tamping ties, spiking rails so quickly that you can fairly see the tracks creep over the ground around the obstruction. And while this temporary switch is going clown, the wreckers are performing miracles in the line of clearing things. While the crane crew burrows and tunnels and crawls beneath the locomotive to pass chains about the big machine to remove this most formidable of all obstructions, the rest of the men have cut off the wreck-train locomotive to put her to work. Hawsers are passed about heaps of wreckage piled high as a barn. A warning “toot” to stand clear and amid a crunching and splintering as if a house were falling in the mountain of tangled, split oak is dragged over rails and ties until it topples of itself into an adjoining field.
What the locomotive cannot pull out of the way, the crane lifts. Within twenty minutes after arrival its donkey engine tugs and puffs and snorts at the bent, battered leviathan weighing a hundred or more tons and lying on its back, wheels in air and nose pointing in the direction it came
from. Up comes the ponderous heap of junk, almost imperceptibly at first but steadily as if an unseen hand were lifting it into space. Wheels, of its car clamped to the rails to prevent capsizing, the » crane groans and trembles under the enormous strain, but in something like an hour the sorry-looking victim, boiler stove in, cowcatcher, cab, smokestack, and pilot truck stripped, and crusted with mud and clay and ashes, is turned right side up and set upon its wabbly legs, where it stands like a mortally wounded giant, ready to hobble on to a siding.
“Clear the tracks at any cost.” This is the unqualified order to the wreckmaster, and under the touch of his wonderful engines confusion vanishes like magic. Anything that can be thrown into a ditch quicker than it can be hauled out of the way is sent flying. There is no time to investigate what is inside of partly damaged cars. Freight cars and coal cars worth $1,000 each, sometimes laden with costly furniture, with pianos, glassware, or art pieces, are sent crashing over and over down forty-foot embankments.
Neither property nor men the wreckmaster spare ; for all may take place while the world sleeps, after the wrecker has spent twenty-four hours of continuous duty elsewhere and fifty or a hundred miles from the nearest town, and while the night is so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your eyes, or eight or ten hours at a stretch the wrecker may crawl beneath shattered cars, planting his jacks, passing chains or hawsers throughout torrential rainstorms, when bridges are threatened and he must grope and flounder through knee-deep mud and icy water, soaked through to the skin, chilled to the marrow and chattering with cold. Or he may work in a blizzard amid blinding snow dust whipped by a seventymile gale of arctic cold that heaps drifts while he lugs frost-nipped chains and bars and staggers up to his knees in snow, sticking to his post for the sheer love of the fight and for the sake of the snowplow stalled on
one side of the wreck, praying to get through. Should the wreck be in the open and merely that of a freight train he thanks his stars. It is the coal wreck with its mountains of coal that must be shoveled away by hand which the wrecker detests. And if this train piles itself up within a cut where throwing overboard is impossible, and from where every stick of timber and every pound of coal must be hauled, sometimes for the distance of a mile, then the limit of the wrecker’s profanity is reached.
Not until he gets at least one track cleared may the wrecker breathe at at all, and not until both are cleared may he breathe easier. Long before then the repair gang with its gravel train and flat cars with ties and rails and switches is at work. But the wrecker may not leave the spot until he has destroyed the wreck, not a bolt, not a brake wheel of which may remain to suggest to the timid patrons of the road that such a thing as an accident ever happened. A barrel of kerosene is rolled out of the tool car, and within ten minutes flames leap high in air, snapping and crackling as they envelop the wreck, consuming every vestige of wood and leaving only fire-rusted wheels and axles and bars to be removed by a section gang, which takes away even ashes and cinders and frequently restores the spot of burnt grass to its former beauty.
There are two distinct sides to the work of the wrecker, and this is especially true of wrecked passengertrain “jobs.” The first viewpoint is the one of business, best illustrated by an anecdote wherein, manifestly, the names of the company may not be used.
A gentleman who made periodical trips between New York and California was known for his preference for the A.C. & L.R.R., one of two roads plying between these points. Recently, instead of coming in on the A.C. & L. he took the S.P. route.
“How is it you have forsaken the A.C. & L. ?” asked a friend.
“Last time I came in I noticed a number of wrecks scattered along the
line of the A.C. & L. and decided the S.P. was the safer,” was the answer.
As a matter of fact, the S.P. had just as many wrecks as the A.C. & L., but its management had the good sense to clear away all evidences of trouble at once.
The other viewpoint of the passenger wreck is not that of the board of directors but of the wrecker. Satisfied and content though the wrecker may be with his strenuous job, there is one thing he dreads, not as if he were a hard-headed, rough man of action, but almost as if he were a woman. This is the pasenger, train wreck when dozens may be killed in the most horrible manner while scores are injured frightfully.
“I’ve put in twelve years on a wrecking crew and I’ve seen many a lively smash-up and spent many a tough night ; but what’s worse than anythin’ about this business is what you see when a 'passenger' goes piling herself up,” said a veteran wrecker recently. “You can get used to working day and night, you can get used to living on half of a bad, cold meal, and you can get used to freezing and to getting soaked to the skin, but what you never get used to is seeing things, all stoved in and flattened, that you pull from under heaps. I've handled ’em so smashed and mashed that you wouldn’t know where to catch hold first. Them’s the sort of things that comes to you nights. I’ve seen a whole crew turn away from grub after a mussy job like that.”
Still, every wrecker knows that just as long as human eyes cannot look inside of steel, just as long as a human brain may fail or a human hand may falter, just as long as the most perfect mechanical safety devices may get out of order, and just as long as lunatics and vicious men remain at large, there will be train wrecks to the end of all time, no matter how conscientiously heads of railroads may try to guard against these catastrophes. The greater the road the more it is prepared for emergency in fatal accidents. All of the big railroads, like the Pennsylvania, the New York Central, the Erie, and the big
companies whose tracks gridiron the vast west, are equipped with hospital cars for this very purpose. These cars are sent out attached to wrecking trains.
In every detail the railroad hospital car is perfect and complete as a ward or an operating room in St. Luke’s Hospital. Every conceivable comfort to make as humane as possible the transportation of those severely wounded, every conceivable surgical instrument, every conceivable appliance to insure proper surgical cleanliness, and every convenience not only for the temporary but for the permanent accommodation of the badly injured, is there. Victims so seriously injured that removal to another hospital might result fatally may remain right in this car for weeks and be attended to either by private nurses or by the trained nurses in the company's employ.
Perhaps the most perfectly equipped hospital car of any railroad is the one recently turned out for the Erie. The body of this car, mounted on six-wheel Pullman car trucks, and provided with the most delicate springs, resembles a combination smoker and baggage car with the usual sliding doors on each side near one end. There is nothing in its exterior to suggest its extraordinary purpose. As you enter, however, a surprise awaits you, for it is as if you were entering a long, narrow ward of an up-to-date hospital. Everything from the ceilings to tne walls and to' the sixteen enameled beds arranged lengthwise each side of the aisle against the windows is of an immaculate ivory white. Light, ventilation, and heat appliances are installed. During Winter heat is maintained continually to have the car ready for immediate service. The floor covering, the curtains screening each bed, even the shades in front of the double windows are of white rubber. Nowhere is there a texture to afford a hiding place for microbes or germs.
At one end of this car, next the big sliding door, is the operating room with its operating table, glass-topped
surgeons' tables, sterilizing apparatus, tanks with oxygen, running hot and cold water, closets for surgical instruments, and drawers full of fresh linens, pillowcases, sheets, towels, and woolen blankets. Everything a surgeon might require for amputation, for the sewing and bandaging of wounds, and for the surgery of bones is found here. In fact, the list of surgical appliances and accessories contained in this car covers three closely typewritten sheets.
Under the body of the car is stored an adjustable stairway to lead from the sliding door to the ground, so the wounded may be transported without danger or jar when lifted. Also, here are stretchers and crutches, and acetylene gas generators, so that the car may be flooded with light should the surgeons have to work at night. Axes, crowbars, and saws and chemical fire extinguishers, everything conceivable with which to rescue victims pinned beneath wreckage is stored under the car—even telegraph instruments, telegraph pole “climbers,” and coils of copper wire so that a telegraph line can be broken into at any point if necessary.
But it is not until a fatal dispatch announces a catastrophe that the wrecker’s train backs in to hook the handsome car to its rusty caboose that the neat, comfortable quiet of this car turns into a hustle and bustle of grim preparation. On the company’s list are six surgeons and as many nurses, who are summoned by telephone the instant the news of a wreck comes in, and who have fifteen minutes’ leeway in which to report. If the injured are very numerous, dispatches are sent to the nearest big town, where the wreckers stop just long enough to pick up additional surgeons and nurses who have been summoned by the local represtntative ; and away goes the hospital at the rate of seventy or eighty miles an hour, while the nurses get out bed sheets and make ready the beds, start the sterilizing apparatus, and whatever else is in their department, while the surgeons roll up sleeves, put on
aprons, and speculate on the work to come.
It is on the humble wrecker, however, that the brunt of the work falls. “Above all, save human life,” is his unwritten order. Dripping with blood, cool-headed and steady amid excitement and shambles that would unnerve the strongest, the wrecker performs ¿he hardest and most grewsome part of the work, often risking his life to save others.
It is into the midst of confusion the wrecker plunges; and from the moment of his coming there is a head and a tail to the rescue, even as a skilful general may change an utter rout of his men into an orderly retreat. Every man in the crey knows exactly where he is at, what he is to do, and how he is to do it. There is no use for the wreckmaster to pass orders among these marvelously drilled men. From six to eight of them leap off the train with stretches and begin to gather the injured, women and children first. Not a moment is to be lost. The men raise victim after victim and bear them to the hospital car swiftly and skilfully, as only a Red Cross squad mav work on a battlefield.
While the stretcher men are at work the rescue detail chops and saws and hews and pries its way, smashing through the wreckage, crawling beneath tottering heaps of debris where the single misstroke of an ax might bring tons of oak and steel crashing down upon them. Sometimes for
hours this work goes on, the men dragging forth wounded with blanched, set faces, fighting down their natural aversion to the dreadful scene. Now and then a wrecker is overcome and has to quit his job, but soon he is back again, swinging ax or sledge, and attacking madly wherever he hears a groan or a cry from beneath the mass.
When the last victim has been cared for and the last body removed, when even idlers have been turned away, sickened by the sights, then the wreckers’ real work begins. The train may be a Sunset Limited or an Empire State Express or a Florida Special, each car worth from $30,000 to $35,000; yet the wrecker goes to work exactly as he did while clearing away the wreck of an ordinary freight train. Compared with the blockading of the road no expense within reason may stand in the way, and no Pullman sleeper, no parlor car, no dining car is spared ; if it can be thrown out of the way quicker than it can be pulled to one side, it is dumped into a ditch to be burned or hurled down an embankment. The crane groans, the hydraulic jacks lift and strain, and the wrecking locomotive snorts and puffs while the wreck mountains move and crunch and topple to one side. Kerosene and the torch do the rest. Within twenty hours after the wreck curious passengers may gaze morbidly from car windows, looking in vain for the least trace of the catastrophe, so thoroughly has the wrecker done his work.