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Old 01-24-2013, 04:07 PM
Location: Nescopeck, Penna. (birthplace)
13,475 posts, read 8,298,376 times
Reputation: 17517


Some of you I've met in other threads know that I'm a lifelong railroad buff who was also lucky enough to work in the industry for a short time. I grew up in the late Fifties and Sixties, time enough to get just a brief taste of that most fascinating of all vehicles, the steam locomotive, and i spent a lot of my time in some of the signal towers that once were a fairly common sight.

But as late as 1930, rail employment still supported over two million American families, and that was sufficient to allow for a small genre of fiction revolving around those who knew and loved the craft. The syntax of the system of rules, schedules and written orders that permitted safe operation in a time of dispersed management and limited communication was the same wherever these men (perhaps 15% of the industry) worked.

Harry C. Bedwell (1888-1955) was the dean of railroad fiction writers. Born in Iowa, he literally worked his way west as a "boomer" itinerant telegrapher in the last years before the industry stopped growing and employment stabilized, and eventually settled in Southern California, and supplemented his income from the Southern Pacific and its Pacific Electric subsidiary as a "stringer" for the Saturday Evening Post.

Bedwell's central character was an "op" (Now you know where my own "handle" comes from ) named Eddie Sand -- a character somewhat akin to Hemingway's Nick Adams. Eddie appears in a whole series of short stories, many of those later compiled in a paperback called The Boomer, which was brought back into print about five years ago. When World War II caused a traffic surge on the rails, Bedwell took Eddie out of retirement as part of "The Old Soft Metal Gang" -- gold in our teeth, silver in our hair, and lead in you-know-where.

Occasionally, a novel or short story turns up today dealing with the rail industry, but Hollywood in particular, in travesties line Unstoppable and Disaster on the Coastliner (made for TV in 1979) takes far too much liberty with a technology which, overall, has an excellent safety record. P. D. Deutermann's Train Man, and James McCague's Fiddle Hill (1958) are about the only works I can cite which paint a reasonably true picture.
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Old 01-24-2013, 04:53 PM
Location: Nantahala National Forest, NC
27,091 posts, read 7,254,874 times
Reputation: 30347
Excellent post and fascinating as well!
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Old 01-28-2013, 02:15 PM
Location: Old Mother Idaho
23,581 posts, read 16,021,713 times
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Very interesting!

The term 'boomer' was used for a lot of itinerants who possessed an uncommon skill. Traveling sign painters, electricians, teamsters, and equipment operators have all been called boomers. I've heard the term used all my life, but never before for telegraphers. A telegraph operator would sure fit- all they needed for equipment could be easily carried around in a small bag, and they could always go to work anywhere.
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Old 01-28-2013, 02:53 PM
1,833 posts, read 2,901,423 times
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My dad was a railroad fan - worked for the railroad, collected memorabilia, was involved with model trains - so I grew up around trains. I have enjoyed reading David Baldacci's The Christmas Train during the holidays many times. I'm sure it's not really so much a part of good railroad fiction, but it's a fun read at the holidays when I am especially missing my dad.
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Old 01-29-2013, 02:38 AM
Location: Nescopeck, Penna. (birthplace)
13,475 posts, read 8,298,376 times
Reputation: 17517
Thanks for the complements; allow me to digress just a bit more.

What made the operator's trade valuable was a uniform set of rules whch allowed for safe operation under near-identical standards in every part of North America.This code even had a reference book, known as Rights of Trains, and two men, Harry Forman and Peter Josserand, served as edtor (and "Court of Last Resort" when fine points were to be formulated), for more than half a century.

Essentially, regular freight and passenger trains were manadated to hold to a strict schedule, and when operating on a single-track line, had fixed points at which they were expected to meet; a train could not occupy the track until all "superior" scheduled moves had passed, or been otherwise accounted for.

Of course, timekeeping was never perfect, so these schedules could be over-ruled by written orders when necessary. Saftey was always the prime concern, so much so that numbers had to be spelled out (nine-seven rather than 97) in both verbal and telegraphic communication. Time was at a premium, so a deliberate and uniform syntax was mandated for all written orders. And a lot of the jargon found its way into Mr. Bedwell's work because in those days, a much larger proportion of American men understood it.

Radio and the use of remote or "centalized" traffic control has made this practice much safer, and the entire set of rules were updated in the 1980's, but something very similar to what has been described above remains in effecct on lightly-trafficked lines.

So "19 and copy 5" (Take down a Form 19 order -- Form 31 had to be signed for, but "19 orders" could be passed via a lineside staff or on a hoop held up by the "op" -- and make five copies) is still understood by much of the Fraternity of the Iron Horse.

Last edited by 2nd trick op; 01-29-2013 at 02:57 AM..
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