The Autobiography of an Individualist: V
IN the autumn of the year 1886, I left East Deerfield and entered upon my new duties in the switch-tower at West Cambridge, Massachusetts. From a position paying forty dollars a month, with a minimum working day of twelve hours, I passed into employment that paid a wage of thirteen dollars a week, with a minimum daily service of eight hours. I went to work at two o’clock in the early morning and, as a rule, I finished my labors for the day when the clock struck ten in the forenoon. The middle man followed from 10 A.M. until 6 P.M., and the third man then finished the round of the twenty-four hours. It did not seem to occur to the superintendent in those days, or to the towermen themselves, for that matter, that this division of the workingday was an unreasonable and unbusinesslike arrangement. It was certainly a hardship for the men at West Cambridge, who lived at some distance from the tower. But then, we were working for a railroad on which duty was limitless, and regulated only by the requirements of the service and the judgment of the superintendent. For several years, under this arrangement, I walked to my work, a distance of nearly two miles, between one and two o’clock in the morning.
This working arrangement at West Cambridge may be taken as a fair illustration of the kind of intelligence, or whatever it may be called, that was engaged in the railroad business in those days. I cannot look upon the situation as reflecting favorably on the good-will or executive ability of managers. The smallest business concern, as well as the largest, appeared to be on the same industrial and moral level in this respect. Nor can the silence or indifference of the worker at the time be judged from the standpoint of to-day, when rights and wrongs of every description are subject to constant and fearless discussion.
Nevertheless, it was certainly an injustice, as l have noted, to request a man to walk to his work at two in the morning, without some stated and clearly understood reason. The superintendent was supposed to have this reason, and there the matter ended. Later, when the intelligence of men, managers, and society broadened, a fairer division of the working day was put into effect.
As a matter of fact, however, the specific instance of inconvenience to which I have referred was only a drop in the bucket compared with the general situation of which it was a part. For various reasons, these hardships were particularly aggravated on railroads, although the employees had actually to be educated to an appreciation of this fact. For example, my shift of eight hours was liable at any time to be extended to sixteen or twenty-four without a cent of extra remuneration. In such cases I simply said to myself, ‘That’s just my luck ’; and I was only one among thousands of employees who took matters philosophically in this way.
Recently, as I was discussing this matter with Mr. E. A. Smith, who was a train-dispatcher and assistant superintendent on the Fitchburg Railroad many years before I entered the service, he remarked, ‘Why, there is Miss Carter the telegraph operator at Athol: she has filled that position faithfully and without mistake of any description for something like fortyfive years. I am well within the mark when I say that hundreds of times during that long period of service, she went to work in that office at six o’clock on Sunday morning and, relief operators failing to appear, she kept it up until midnight on Monday, without a word of protest. During this long work period she handled not only important train-orders and other railroad business, but also all the message work of the Western Union Telegraph Company. This position was worth forty dollars a month to Miss Carter. There were no extras or perquisites connected with her work, but if she happened to be sick for a day the pay for that day was deducted from her salary at the end of the month. From the business of the Western Union Telegraph Company alone the railroad probably benefited to many times the amount of the salaries paid to the operators. Over-time, in those days, was never given a thought. It had simply not been invented, for the same psychological and commercial reasons, I suppose, that the safety bicycle had not then superseded the awkward and dangerous fly-wheel.’
Of course, a situation of this kind could not continue indefinitely in any form of progressive society. Superintendents and others, who were called upon to mingle with the employees and to discuss these conditions, gradually awoke to the injustice of the situation, and in many directions, under pressure, I confess, were the first to initiate reforms.
I call to mind the first payment for over-time I ever received. I was the most surprised individual on the Fitchburg Railroad. The company was installing a switch-tower at Waltham, and I was requested, after my work at West Cambridge was over, to go to that place and break in two or three green men so that they might be ready for their duties on the completion of the new plant. The following week, when I counted my money at the little window in the pay-car, I was simply dumbfounded. I did n’t exactly feel like walking off with something that did not rightfully belong to me, so I raised the half-guilty look with which I was surveying the wealth in my hand, to the countenance of the paymaster. Both he and his assistant were highly amused at my dilemma. Then one of them good-naturedly said to me, ‘ Move on, Fagan, that’s all right.’ But the affair did not end there. Some one of the higher officials, I understand, caught sight of the item on the pay-roll, and called for an explanation. I have good reason for thinking that the matter was finally settled by the superintendent making good the amount out of his own pocket.
But while the industrial lot of telegraph and towermen in those days was particularly distressing, judging it from present standards of justice, the situation in the train service was very much worse. I recall a typical case at East Deerfield. One day, in mid-winter, Conductor Parks walked into my office. His daily routine was to run a freight train from East Deerfield to Ashburnham Junction and return. This was, barring accidents, a reasonable day’s work: under ordinary circumstances he could make the trip in something like ten hours. On the occasion I now refer to, Conductor Parks and his train had been snow-bound and otherwise tied up at various places on the road for forty-eight hours. I told him I thought it was ’pretty hard lines.’ His reply was something like this, ‘Oh, that’s nothing. Look at poor old Hobbs! They took his engine away from him yesterday to help a passenger train up Royalston grade. He is still side-tracked at that point waiting for the return of his engine.’
Before describing my actual duties in the switch-tower at West Cambridge and the features connected with these duties that developed and guided my progress in other directions, I am going to touch briefly on the accident situation in those early days, for the reason that the problem itself had much to do, not only with my own personal career, but with industrial improvement among railroad men in general. So far as responsibility for accident was concerned, the manager, the employee, and the public were all in the same box. There was probably quite as much social conscience concerned in the matter then as now, but it was unorganized and leaderless. There was absolutely no publicity, at the time, in regard to the details of railroad life, either in Massachusetts or elsewhere. In the fierce hurry of the times, the public mind was absorbed in the contemplation of statistics relating to railroad mileage and the expansion of trade.
Nevertheless, it was a very serious state of affairs from any point of view, and during the time of my service at East Deerfield, if the church-bells had been rung every time a human being was killed or injured on American railroads, it seems to me they would have been kept tolling almost incessantly. In my own narrow circle of acquaintances, eighteen conductors were killed or injured in one year, and, on an average, one engineman, one fireman, two conductors, and six brakemen every month in the year. A trainman, in those days, with eight fingers and two thumbs was a rarity.
By common consent at the time, sympathy and interest of every description in this accident situation seemed to be focused on what was known as the ’paper.’ This was a popular collection for the benefit of unfortunates. During my experience on the railroad at East Deerfield, there was hardly a week in which one of these papers was not in circulation in the neighborhood. The pay-car was the headquarters for many of these appeals, and the superintendent himself frequently headed the list of subscribers. Mr. E. K. Turner who, as engineer and some of the time as superintendent, was double-tracking the road at the time, was a strict, disciplinarian, and men were frequently discharged by him simply ‘for cause,’ on five minutes’ notice. But this stern feature of his administration was buried in universal respect for the official who never missed an opportunity to put down his name on these circulars for a ‘five.’
It must not be imagined, however, that this distressing accident situation was the result of wide-spread carelessness on the part of the employees. Both rules and equipment at the time were actually unknown quantities. Everything was in the experimental stage, and every change for the better was nearly always the result or the price of some bitter experience. With the same consecration to duty to-day as then, the modern accident problem would lose its significance. Indeed, as a matter of fact, carelessness in those days was frequently more of a reflection on management, or rather on the science of railroading at the time, than on the conduct of employees. An illustration of this point will not be out of place.
One night at East Deerfield I received orders from the train-dispatcher to get out an extra engine to help train number ninety-four. This engine, with the figures 94 displayed on its headlight, immediately took up a position in the yard awaiting the arrival of that train. Meanwhile another train, number ninety-three, moving in the opposite direction, on single track, had received orders to meet number ninetyfour at East Deerfield. In a few minutes number ninety-three came along, and catching sight of the figures 94 on the headlight of the helping engine, the engineer mistook this helper for the regular train he was to meet and kept on his way. One of the most disastrous freight wrecks in the history of the road was the result. Nowadays, helping engines never display numbers until they are actually hitched to a train. Such, at any rate, is the history of a rule, and its reflection on the foresight or education of management.
It seems to me there was less real carelessness on the railroads in those days than at any time since. It is true the material was crude and inexperienced, and men were turned loose on their jobs without any examination, physical or otherwise, in regard to qualifications. All over the country these men, by the score, were being trapped and killed by the over-head bridge, the ‘link-and-pin’ device, and the open frog. Then, after years of bitter experience, came the automatic coupler, the bridge-guard, and the blocked frog. Meanwhile, out of the débris of this distressing situation, a new and more intelligent class of railroad men was emerging. It is with the history of this new class, then beginning to organize, among whom my own lot was cast, that I am now concerned. Under inconceivable difficulties they served the public and their employers faithfully and well. To these men belongs most, of the credit for pointing out the defects in the service, and thus paving the way for reforms which soon put the railroad business in America, for a time at least, on a sane and safe basis. To accomplish their ends these men, this better class of newcomers, determined to organize.
During my term of. service at East Deerfield, this great labor movement for the bettering of working and financial conditions, or at least its undercurrent, was in full swing. Of course it was not a local issue, but an enterprise of national significance. Already in the western states, under the leadership of the Knights of Labor, it had repeatedly manifested itself in riotous demonstrations. But in New England, though the general aims were similar, the human material engaged in the struggle was different.
As it came under my observation at East Deerfield, the movement was a reasonable revolt against the intolerable state of affairs which I have described, and it was being engineered by men of my acquaintance who were far from being unlawfully inclined. The idea of organization for the common good was taking firm hold of their common-sense and intelligence, and it spread rapidly among enginemen, firemen, conductors, brakemen, and switchmen. These men, at that time, wanted reasonable pay, fair treatment, safety in operation, and, at the same time, in a marked degree, they desired the respect and good-will of the managers and the public. This situation was slowly evolving under my eyes at East Deerfield. From day to day for several years it continued to work out, very unobtrusively it is true, until finally it came to the surface. In the round-house, in the caboose, in the telegraph office, wherever two or three men came together, there was a neverending discussion of the vital issues of conditions and wages. At the same time there was no end of talk and exchange of opinions going on about rules, mechanical and personal safeguards, and the general improvement of the service. In these discussions, loyalty to the old Fitchburg Railroad was an ever-present and distinguishing feature. This was actually the atmosphere in which I worked at East Deerfield.
To interest the public and the management In these betterment schemes, without losing their jobs, was, to begin with, the burden of the railroad labor movement in New England, according to my diagnosis. But management in New England, taking its cue from the demonstrations that were accompanying the movement in some of the western states, was antagonistic to the men; while public opinion, as is usual when a political complication in the distance is foreshadowed, was on the fence awaiting developments.
To-day, however, thinking the matter over carefully at a time when the strike is quite as conspicuously the weapon of the well-to-do and splendidly-conditioned railroad man as of underpaid and otherwise less fortunate workers in other industries, I naturally ask myself what has become of that well-disposed body of men, and of that splendid movement whose beginnings appeared to me, at East Deerfield, so full of industrial and social inspiration. It must be remembered that society and management in those days threw these workers back upon their own resources; and to them, that is, to the employees, almost exclusively belongs the credit for a series of reforms and material betterments on railroads that is probably unexampled in industrial history. If, then, along these same lines of advance, workers all over the country are now taking advantage of impregnable economic positions, and are openly converting exaggerated private rights into pronounced public wrongs, the history of the beginnings of this movement, as it came under my observation on the railroads, and as I am now trying to describe it, cannot fail to be interesting.
During the early eighties, the new era on railroads and elsewhere, with brotherhood and humanity at the helm, was coming on apace. From my individualistic point of view, these ideas of humanity and brotherhood were being translated by the social conscience of America into terms almost exclusively of economic value and significance. That there was, and is, social and industrial danger in this onesided attitude, goes without saying.
It is impossible for me at this time to follow in detail the progress of the labor movement on the railroads, as it came under my observation. But the following account of my service in the signal-tower at West Cambridge will, I think, serve to illustrate and illuminate many of its interesting features. The principal points to be noticed will be the individualistic character of a part of my surroundings, and the careful, conscientious, and socially successful career of employees who were permitted to labor in that kind of an atmosphere.
In the switch-tower at West Cambridge, between midnight and six in the morning, there is usually plenty of time for reading, writing, or study. Outside work of this kind, of course, is not definitely sanctioned by the management. In fact, any practice that interferes, or is likely to interfere, with the towerman’s duties, is an infringement of the general rules of the company. For thirty years I have lived up to the spirit of these rules without paying much attention to the letter. To compel a man on a night job of this kind simply to pose in a waiting attitude, perhaps for an hour at a time, would be profitless discipline.
In a general way the towerman’s duties may briefly be described under a few definite and interesting heads. In the first, place, a thorough understanding of the book of rules and the current time-tables is absolutely essential. This knowledge must be supplemented by unfaltering attention to the clicking of the telegraph wires, and to the ringing of the various track-bells. In reality, these sounds relating to the movement of trains are heard, or rather felt, without any effort in the way of listening, while the towerman is throwing a combination on his machine, or explaining a situation to a trainman. In the same way an expert telegraph-operator, without any effort, can read a message on his sounder, manipulate his key, and answer the inquiries of patrons at the office window.
In my own case, this dissociation of routine work from literary or other enterprises, in which my mind was at the time engaged, is a phase of my educational experience in which I have always been profoundly interested. One day, quite accidentally, it occurred to me that this lever-throwing was, in some curious way, a great intellectual stimulant. Its immediate effect, was to bring my sub-conscious knowledge or ingenuity to the surface. I pursued this inspirational method for years, and, after a while, every attempt of the kind was like an excursion into dreamland. When at a loss for a word or an illustration of any kind, the answer was usually forthcoming after an exciting round or two at the levers. The greater the stress of business, and the louder the rattle of the trains or the ringing of the bells, which a sort of unconscious half of me was attending to with scrupulous fidelify, the keener became the intellectual activity of my other half, which at the same time was busy with other interests. It was simply a sort of singing at my work, and when anything happened to disturb the harmonious progress of the two parallel operations, the charm of course was broken. Immaterial conversation or noises, however, were unheeded. One day, for example, one of the boys exploded a cannon-cracker under my chair. I suppose I heard it, but that was all.
But coming back to the everyday situation, and apart from this mental acuteness which in the exercise of his responsible duties the average towerman acquires, an absolutely faultless manipulation of the levers of the interlocking machine is called for, in conjunction with the exercise of a sound judgment in all matters that relate to the movement of the trains.
There are sixty levers in the switchtower at West Cambridge, each one of which is numbered. A series of these numbers, or the levers they represent, thrown in a given rotation, constitutes a route. Every route that is set up in this way for the passage of a train is isolated, as it were, and protected from trains passing or crossing on other routes. The mechanical intelligence that dominates the situation in the tower, and unites every train and every employee within the tower-zone in a bond of safety, is located behind the machine in a bed of long steel rods and cross-bolts, called the ‘ locking.’ In preparing the routes, and in giving signals for the movements of trains, what may be called the conscience of the machine is frequently brought into play. When the operator takes hold of, and attempts to pull, a lever wrongfully, to which act, in some form, danger is attached, he invariably finds the forbidden movement absolutely locked against his effort. He has been actually detected in an attempt to make a mistake, and the effect on the towerman’s conscience at the time is more acute than a reprimand from his superintendent.
The nervous strain on a beginner in one of these switch-towers is considerable, but when he has once become thoroughly broken in and conversant with the mechanical part of his duties, his confidence in the machine becomes unlimited, and he is able to concentrate his mind, almost exclusively, on the disposition of his trains, and on other matters, according to the nature and strength of his faculties.
But while the above is a fair description of the situation in a switch-tower at the present day, it by no means covered the field of work at West Cambridge at the time I entered the service. The most disagreeable part of the work in those days was out of doors. We were called upon, just when we could, and how we could, to clean, oil, and adjust, the switches. For this purpose we were supplied with a kit of tools. The lamp or signal department was also in our charge. There were something like fifty signal lamps to be cleaned, filled and placed in position on high poles and low standards. In this way a track circuit of two or three miles had to be covered twice a day. To accomplish this work we took flying trips from the tower, between trains, as opportunity offered.
From these signal-tower duties, in which for twenty-five years I was almost continuously engaged, I turn now to the little community of workers at West Cambridge. I divide these workers into two groups. First, the trainand engine-men who were not fixtures, as it were, at that station, but, on train trips and otherwise, were frequent visitors at the tower, and at all times associated with its activities. As I remember these train-employees, and have elsewhere described them, they had been individualists both by instinct and inclination in their early railroad experience; but just about the time I arrived at West Cambridge their condition, financial and otherwise, was improving with almost incredible swiftness. Their organizations were becoming political factors, and political society was beginning to prick up its ears and get busy about them. To illustrate the situation in the case of this first group of railroad men, and its treatment by society in those days of dawning prosperity, I will take the case of Conductor Breakers.
This interesting railroad man was conductor of a train crew that did most of the switching in the railroad territory round Cambridge in the early days of my service at that point. He was a man of the old school, who had been in the fight for better conditions on railroads from the beginning. One day Mr. Breakers said to me, ‘ When I entered the railroad service, thirty years ago, I moved from Charlestown to Cambridge with all my worldly possessions on a wheel-barrow.’ With the passage of time, and as the position of this man, financially and otherwise, improved, a very curious state of affairs in regard to his duties began to develop. The situation simply arose from the application of current business morality to the affairs of a railroad. Just as soon as business and political interests began to move in behalf of the railroad employee, and took notice of his rising importance, his industrial integrity was endangered. For example, it made little difference to the Fitchburg Railroad Company whether factory A or factory B received the first visit from the switchengine in the morning, but as soon as the proprietors or foremen of a dozen factories began to bribe the conductor in order to secure priority of service and other favors, a quiet system of graft was introduced that, finally developed into a most astonishing state of affairs.
For a time the conductor in question avoided and tried to dodge the temptation; but the pressure was too great, and he ended by working the situation for all it was worth, and in his hands it proved to be worth a good deal. Before long, from one of the largest plants in the neighborhood he was in receipt of a regular salary. From other firms, at intervals, he received donations of pocket-money, hams, milk, wood, coal, and ice, according to his requirements; and if he needed anything in the way of hardware or pottery, all he had to do was to visit the factories and help himself. After a while, in collect ing these assessments, in which the whole train crew sometimes shared, the conductor enlisted the service of one of his brakemen. This man had nearly as many side-lines as the conductor; his job on the railroad, however, did not prevent him from being, at the same time, a call member of the Cambridge fire department.
But opportunity and encouragement for enterprise of this kind could not be confined to the limits of a freight-yard, or a single city. The conductor soon entered the political arena. Every once in a while he took a trip to Washington in the interests of a postmaster, a congressman, or a senator. Then the management of the Fitchburg Rail road itself got mixed in the muddle. Just how, no man could tell, for Breakers went round with his finger on his lips saying, ‘Hush,’ to everybody. His little trips to Washington and elsewhere did not interfere in any way with the pay that was coming to him every week as conductor of the switcher. This was certainly a very strange state of affairs. But the most demoralizing effect of political and other interference in the railroad business has yet to be mentioned.
One afternoon, the switch-engine with a few cars, in charge of this conductor, taking a flying trip into the city, hit the rear of an express passenger train ahead, which had slowed up a little at Somerville. It was on the programme to discharge the entire crew, but Conductor Breakers pulled too many strings. Until the men were quietly returned to their jobs, the office of the superintendent, was besieged with delegations, committees and professional people representing, it was calculated, fully a third of the voting population of Charlestown. I was able to keep track of these events pretty closely from the fact that during this period I was acting as clerk to the superintendent of the road, and as such I had charge of the pay-rolls and had every opportunity to take note of the proceedings. But I never met a man who could say that he was able to fathom the mystery of Conductor Breakers and his manoeuvres. His lack of education was a bar to his personal preferment. His specialty was getting jobs for other people, or making them believe he was busy in their interests. This, it seems, was sufficient, in railroad and political circles at any rate, to keep nearly everybody in tow.
This situation, of course, is bygone history, but it gives one a good idea how questionable practices began on railroads. It also illustrates the share which society itself had in the encouragement of practices which are now being so strenuously condemned.
The second group of railroad men at West Cambridge was altogether of a different class, or variety. Surely there must have been something industrially healthy and significant in the situation when we come to consider that, regardless of conditions and wages at this point on the railroad, a dozen workers held together year in and year out, and can now show records ranging from twenty to forty years of unbroken and satisfactory service. A questionable situation, I suppose, to some progressive people, who recognize no condition as sound that is not forever on the jump toward something different, and prospectively better. Such people have little appreciation for conditions or individuals in this world that wisely slow up or stand still for inspirational purposes. But, apart from all comment on the situation, the facts themselves at West Cambridge are decidedly interesting.
All told, there were seven trackmen, two gatemen, and three towermen in this little group. The towermen received about thirteen dollars a week, the others about eight dollars. There were seven days in the working week, but remuneration for work on Sunday, in those days, was definitely forbidden by orders from headquarters. To find the amount that was due for work of a single day, however, the weekly wage was invariably divided by seven.
While the working conditions of the towerman, then, considering the importance of his duties, were not altogether satisfactory, those of the trackman, of course, were very much worse. And yet the results under these conditions, both to society and to the railroad, were certainly remarkable. The record of each individual in this group of workers was about the same as my own, and so I am speaking for the group when I say that, personally, in thirty years’ service, I never received a letter, or was asked a single question that could be construed into a reflection on conduct or work. Industrially, under conditions which in part I have described, the records of these men were all right; socially they were still better.
Of the original group, with possibly one exception, each individual owns, or did own, his little home. One of these men, a trackman, actually built the frame of his dwelling-house himself. The families of these workers ranged from three to ten children to the household; most of these children are now grown up and can hold their own with any, it matters not who they may be, in the community. These children grew up under my eyes. They were well-fed, well - clothed, well-housed, well-educated, and perfectly healthy. It is not too much to say that the best results were derived from the lowest wage and the keenest struggle. Leaving the towermen out of the calculation, the results I have mentioned were obtained on a weekly income, per individual, of less than eight dollars.
Once upon a time one of these men had a case in court. He owned a tenement house in Somerville, and his case had something to do with the collection of his rents. Referring to his low wages and his real-estate holdings, the judge put this question to him: ‘How do you do it?’ The man answered, ‘Your Honor, that’s my secret.’
In industrial circles, as elsewhere, secrets of this kind have usually a good deal to do with the character and disposition of the ‘boss.’ The section foreman at West Cambridge was, and is, in many ways, a remarkable man. As I look at it, the force of his unassuming yet strong personality kept a gang of men together for something like a quarter of a century. He is the greatest living compliment to the principles of industrial honesty that I ever met. He is strict in a way, yet he never scolds. He is a tall, rugged man of the Lincoln type, just as much at home among his men digging out the switches in the teeth of a blizzard of snow, as he is in the company of notables at a masonic gathering. Among his fellows on the railroad, to mention Delvy is to praise him.
Because it will conduct me along the lines of my own progress at West Cambridge, and at the same time throw a little light on the ‘secrets’ of these rugged personalities in railroad life, I shall try to draw a pen portrait of one of Deivy’s men.
Take Dan, for example. His arrival at West Cambridge preceded my own by a year or two. At all times he seemed to have his work on his mind; and at night, in stormy weather, he frequently came down to the tower of his own accord, just to assure himself that everything was in good working order. To begin with, he was a section-hand pure and simple. His duty was, in part, to walk over and inspect a section of track the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.
He and his family had the West Cambridge ‘ secret,’ in a marked degree. It consisted of all sorts of little economies, even to the extent of picking up waste lumber, splitting ties for fuel,and working at all sorts of odd jobs in the neighborhood at break of dawn, and sometimes far into the night. In all kinds of work the children lent a hand. Then there were hens and a little gardening as side-lines; and besides, when it came to a pinch, if I am not mistaken, the boys could cobble their own shoes, and the only daughter in the family could make her own dresses.
It is easy to understand what a quantity of character was wrapped up in a situation of this kind. In the process of improving working conditions by organization and otherwise, is it possible to retain the sterling characteristics for which Dan and his type were distinguished? Will education and industrial enlightenment take care of the issue? The world to-day is asking this question.
In course of time Dan’s duties on the railroad became more responsible, but there was no change for the better in his income. When, thanks to the efforts of their brotherhood, the towermen were relieved of all out-of-door duties at West Cambridge, Dan fell heir to the adjusting tools, the lamps, and the oil-cans. In this way, quite frequently nowadays, the man lower down feels the pinch of a ‘raise’ or a lift higher up. But Dan and his fellows kept right along ploddingly. His natural ability and ingenuity along mechanical lines were remarkable. His educational opportunities, however, had been few. In fact, in some directions, he was decidedly superstitious.
Somehow, I always looked upon this characteristic as one of his virtues. In actual contact with life, his superstition was of as much practical value as libraries of book-learning are to some people. This is philosophy in accordance with the facts. In dealing with his fellow men Dan was as honest as the hills are solid. His superstition had something to do with his behavior. In the course of years of trackwalking, it is no exaggeration to say that Dan picked up, in the aggregate, two or three hundred dollars in the form of cash and jewelry. As it seemed to me, he was always unaccountably restless until the property was safely returned to the owners. Dan’s philosophy of honesty was unique as well as refreshing. One day he explained its fundamentals to me somewhat as follows: —
In the old country, when he was a boy, a gentleman in a hurry thrust a coin into his hand as a fee for carrying a trunk. When Dan got home he found a sovereign in his pocket. As Dan looked at it, the man, in the dusk of the evening, had made a mistake. By rights the coin should have been a shilling. For several days the goldpiece actually burned in his pocket. But what could he do? And besides, he was sadly in need of a new pair of shoes. After a week of mental distress he finally purchased a pair. As he was leaving the store he stumbled over a black cat. This put the finishing touch to his mental agitation. But he could not work in his bare feet, so the boots had to be worn. As Dan tells the story, the first day he wore them the boots were fairly comfortable; the second day they pinched a little; on the third day they were positively painful; and then, after spending the fourth day in agony, he placed the cursed things in a bag with a rock for a weight and threw them into the lake. From that day Dan’s ideas of the sacred rights of property were unshakable.
But Dan was one of nature’s humorists, as well as a preceptor of morals. For years, just before going to work in the morning, he was in the habit of paying a flying visit to the tower to snatch a glance at the newspapers. Dan had a habit of reading the head-lines out loud, with a comment or two slipped in between. He invariably began with the weather report, the heading of which, as Dan read it out, was always, ‘For Boston and vacancy.’
Dan was also the regulator of the tower clock, and once in a while he came in to adjust what he called its ‘penundulum.’ Furthermore, he had some knowledge of herbs and wild flowers, and possessed among other medicinal secrets an infallible remedy for ‘information of the bladder.’
But apart from questions relating to character and its conservation, which naturally come to the front from my description of the rugged and ready material engaged in the railroad business at East Deerfield and West Cambridge, there is another feature of the situation that is also of universal importance: I refer to the conservation of authority.
At a time when the attitude of powerful labor organizations toward discipline on railroads was being freely discussed in the public prints, Mr. Roosevelt, then President, wrote this little sermon on the subject: —
‘The wage-worker who does not do well at his job shows that he lacks selfrespect. He ought to wish to do well because he respects himself. Remember, too, that ordinarily the rich man cannot harm you unless you harm yourself. If you are content with your standard of living until somebody else comes in with a higher standard of living, then the harm the other man has done to you comes because of your own yielding to weakness and envy. If your heart is stout enough you won’t feel it.
‘The labor union has done great, and needed work for the betterment of the laboring man; but where it has worked against his individual efficiency as a worker it has gone wrong, and the wrong must be remedied. On railroads, for instance, we should not tolerate any interference with the absolute right of a superintendent to discharge a man. There should be no requirement to show cause. The man who is a little inefficient or a little careless and is left in the service, is apt finally to be responsible for some great disaster; and there should not be the slightest interference, or attempted interference, with the right of a superintendent to turn such a man out. Where a labor union works to decrease the average efficiency of the worker it cannot in the long run escape being detrimental to the community as a whole, and, in the real interest of organized labor, this should not be permitted.’
In the light of the facts as they are to-day, railroad men will certainly not look upon this little sermon as a very progressive announcement. Be this as it may, I wish to make Mr. Roosevelt’s ideas on the conservation of authority the text of this final section of this chapter.
Of course this autobiography should be, in the main, an experience and not an argument. Nevertheless, the story would certainly lose most of its significance if the writer lacked convictions, or if he failed to take to himself, and whenever possible to impart to others, as best he could according to his light, the lesson to be derived from passing events.
Combining a consideration of public problems then, with the history of my personal progress in the surroundings of a switch-tower, I turn again, very briefly, to what may be called the adventures of Dan. From the early East Deerfield days, this man, representing industrial integrity, was the type which, at any rate, formed the ground plan of the service with which I was associated. Society, of course, is interested in perpetuating the characteristics of this type, and directly in line with the desires and efforts of society in this direction come those problems connected with authority.
Dan, then, was not only socially and industrially successful, but he was also a hero. In the year 1893, I think it was, a heavy freight train crashed into and telescoped a passenger train right in front of the station at West Cambridge. Five passengers were killed, and about thirty were seriously injured. A signal and a flag were against the freight train, but they were both unseen or disregarded. Dan, who lived only a few yards from the station, heard the crash and hurried to the scene. The engine of the freight train ploughed its way clear through the rear coach and was belching a torrent of steam into the next one ahead, when Dan, disregarding the warning shouts of the bystanders, scrambled, with a coat over his head, into the blazing coach. While the crowd hung back, terror-stricken, Dan dragged a number of women and young people to safety through the hissing steam. In after days, notably at Christmastime, he received tokens of grateful remembrance from many of these people, and in this way his personal satisfaction in his own deed has been kept alive from year to year.
To the men in the signal-tower at West Cambridge, however, this collision of trains, with resulting loss of life, was no mystery. They knew all about the signals, the flags, and the conditions under which they were operated. They were also daily witnesses of the efforts of the management, in the interest of safety, to enforce the principle of implicit obedience in the face of a rising tide of aggressive industrial assertiveness which, at the time, was backed up in various ways by public opinion. In this particular instance the coroner, one or two judges, and the newspapers, united in placing all the blame for the accident upon the management of the railroad. The fact was lost sight of that every railroad in the country was suffering from the same trouble at the same time, with similar results.
No substitute has been proposed by these, or any other critics, to take the place of obedience to rules, and the exercise of authority in connection therewith. Be this as it may, this accident at West Cambridge was used as a test case, and authority was driven to the wall. In the words of the then general superintendent of the Fitchburg Railroad, ’The newspapers and the public may know how to run a railroad, but, with such handicaps, I certainly do not.’
Some time after this accident at West Cambridge I left the tower service for a while, and was appointed clerk to the superintendent of the division, whose office was in Boston. I held the position for about eighteen months and was then sent back to the tower. I was removed from this position for the same reason, I suppose, that Mr. Hartwell, the superintendent, was also, before long, relieved of his duties. In a word, we were behind the times. The distinction between the old and the new idea in management was fundamental. For example, Mr. Hartwell, on one occasion, eliminated a man who was in the habit of running recklessly round curves. The new solution of this problem in discipline is to eliminate the curve. Not so long ago an accident at Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the New Haven Railroad, was judged by the courts and the newspapers on the principle that the accident would not have happened if the track had been straight.
Mr. Hartwell, however, was a disciplinarian, and withal a splendid railroad man, from the ground up. In all cases that came up for promotion, he always insisted upon a thorough examination of each candidate. In order to be trusted with a train, every applicant had to pass Mr. Hartwell’s personal inspection. When that old-lime superintendent left the service, a dozen or more men were on his unavailable list. At the present day, thanks to the seniority rule, practically every man qualifies, and accidents eliminate the weaklings.
Some time before Mr. Hartwell’s retirement from the service, a certain train crew, with, or in charge of, a crowded passenger train, left the North Station in Boston. The men neglected to make the air test before starting; consequently the train barely escaped a plunge into an open ‘draw.’ Mr. Hartwell discharged the train crew, just as the law would have deprived a pilot of his license for needlessly running his ship upon the rocks. But the superintendent’s word was not final. A number of influences were set to work on behalf of the men, and in a month the crew was sent back to work by order of the highest executive officer on the railroad, who, by the way, at the time was seeking a military appointment at the hands of the governor, and was soliciting political endorsement. It detracts in no way from the importance of the issues, that managers at times conspire to defeat their own interests.
However, I got it into my head at the time I was working in Mr. Hartwell’s office, that society was deeply interested in these two problems of the conservation of character and authority, and it became increasingly evident to me that the issues were as vitally concerned with education and religious matters, as with the railroad business. So I returned to the switch-tower with the determination to study these problems, and quietly to start a sort of personal campaign in their behalf, with my pen.
(To be continued.)