PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Workin’ on the Railroad: Reminiscences from the Age of Steam

by Richard Reinhardt

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003

327 pages. Ilustrations, glossary, footnotes, reading list, and index

$19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8061-3525-5

For many years as a child, this reviewer rode the Erie Lackawanna from Meadville, Pennsylvania to Kenton, Ohio. That childhood experience cemented a passion for “riding the rails.” Alas, her knowledge about railroading history remains limited. Reinhardt helped to fill in the gaps and provided concrete facts. Depending on readers’ backgrounds, the preface to each chapter provides the background or history to better understand the following tale. Reinhardt’s information at the beginning of each chapter also pushes the reader to consult other sources for more information or to check the facts included by the author. Workin’ on the Railroad does an excellent job of informing the reader about the first century of the steam engine and the early railroads. The author capably keeps the reader’s fascination and interest with his portraits of the courageous and hard working railroad men.

In his introduction Richard Reinhardt cites the dearth of the railroad man in literature, writing that “the railroad man, for all his historic importance, his archetypal stature, and his economic power, has achieved only a minor position in American literature (14). Workin’ on the Railroad adds to the literature with first-hand accounts and resources for further reading about the men who worked on the railroads in the Age of Steam. This title brings the human side of steam powered railroads to the bookshelf. Reinhardt draws in the reader with his historic information in the Introduction and continues to educate with the segments that precede the actual accounts. The readers will learn about all aspects of the age of steam. If we were already fascinated by the railroad, Reinhardt’s book will reinforce that fascination. For the rest, we will learn and laugh, or cry, with each selection. After reading the book, the lonesome whistle or a thundering train will bring visual images of the men working on the railroad during the beginning decades.

The Introduction provides vital historic information from the beginnings of the Age of Steam in 1829 to its demise in 1934. These facts and chronology of events emphasize the trials and tribulations of the first steam engine. Upon reading the Introduction, readers may be surprised at the chronology of the railroads in the United States. The first chapter, “Three Witnesses at the Birth of the Iron Horse,” gives dates, locations, and the people involved, as well as the names of the three earliest engines, Stourbridge Lion, Rocket, and Tom Thumb. The chronology for the early railroads leaves no questions as to the first successful run. As Horatio Allen stated, “I had never run a locomotive or any other engine before; I have never run one since; but on that eighth of August, 1829, I was the first locomotive engineer on the continent--and not only engineer, but fireman, brakeman, conductor, and passenger” (24). Learning that the Baltimore and Ohio was not the first railroad was somewhat of a surprise; however, it does have the distinction of being the first westward bound railroad. Reinhardt’s detailed history adds to the knowledge of the steam railroad era, setting the stage for the oral history of the men who worked during the Age of Steam.

Two valuable additions to the 2003 edition are the glossary and index. These two additions add to the book’s value as a research tool. For those readers who are less familiar with the history and terms used in railroading, the glossary, “Reading on the Railroad,” provides essential information for each section. The glossary provides a quick reference point for those terms coined by the railroaders themselves. For Chapter Six, entitled “Hogger at Work,” the glossary defines hogger as “the engineer on a heavy-duty freight engine [who] took his name from his machine, the hog” (319). The reader would benefit more from the index if there were more consistency. As a case in point, the Delaware and Hudson Canal is found under the name Delaware and Hudson Canal; however, the story on the Baltimore and Ohio is found under “Baltimore,” not Baltimore and Ohio, which is the correct name of the railroad. The many locations mentioned throughout the book in the index are in alphabetical order by city or town under “Place names.” Finding a certain city or town would be easier if the index used the name of the state and then the cities or towns.

Reinhardt follows a specific chronology in the order of the chapters. He begins with “Three Witnesses at the Birth of the Iron Horse” for the history of the early railroads. The author uses the seventeen chapters to cover many aspects of railroading and to initiate the non-railroader into the mystique and pull of the railroad. Chapters address subjects including technology and its foibles, weather, rogues and cooks, professional advice from the old-timers to the new men, locomotive firemen and engineers, locomotive mechanics, railroad towns, removing snow from the tracks, telegraph operators, track labors or section gangs, mail service, feeding the passengers, switchyard and its dangers, conductors, Pullman service, and derailments.

Chapters often include more than one vignette. At the start of each, Reinhardt provides the reader with historic facts for each of the personal memories included in that segment. Reinhardt’s historic or geographic background provides the visual images for the readers as they read the words of the railroad men themselves. Added to the visual image the words create is the author’s selection of original illustrations used throughout the book. These illustrations aid the reader in visualizing the dangers, variety of jobs, and working conditions for the railroad men. All illustrations are from the period and include the caption, source, and date for each illustration.

The chronology of the first steam engine, along with the breakdowns and frustrations, add credibility to the men’s stories. The readers quickly realize that the evolution of the first steam engines and railroads were not without disappointment and exhilaration. These are not tales of fiction but the reality of the early railroaders. The various chapters read like oral history or reminiscences of the railroad workers. Although some readers may feel that this is not an authentication of history, others will find satisfaction in reading how things really were instead of the more academic side of railroading. These “histories” tell the story of working on the early railroads; the loneliness, the dangers, challenges of the work itself, the excitement when riding the rails, and more.


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