Railroad work demanded a bodily knowledge that could register the connections between machines and the physical world around them. In a story he told to show the value of a “seasoned” man, Pinkerton recounted how one day a freight that he worked while serving as brakeman on the Oregon and California was “tipping over the hill into Leland” in Oregon. They were going, Pinkerton thought, “a little too fast for a starter.” As an experienced brakeman, he liked to feel the airbrakes working when they first started down a grade. He began to pinch them up a little, setting four brakes, but with no effect. Only when the whole crew set to work on the manual brakes did they succeed in stopping the train on a flat stretch of track in Leland. The train did not feel right, and as it left Leland, Pinkerton moved from car to car, clutching each brake wheel and looking down to check the angle cocks “the valve by which the air is cut in and out on a car.” On the fourth car, he discovered “some men beating their way by riding on the bumpers between the cars. One of them had his foot on the air pipe, and in endeavoring to steady himself had completely closed the angle cock,” which disabled the braking system to that car and all the cars behind it. When the train stopped Pinkerton opened the valve and restored the braking system to the rest of the train, “[B]ut if my experience had not told me that something was wrong, and we had tipped the hill into Glendale, where we were to meet a passenger train, there might have been a different ending.
From Railroaded by Richard White
My greatest joy as a child was getting to take short rides on the engines my grandfather, Elisha Creel Jacobs, ran: he was an engineer on the Frisco railroad for about forty years.