Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Dangerous Railroad in 1890

Thousands killed and injured

Passenger Train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway,
around 1895. Image from Wikimedia.
In 1890, my great-great grandfather Almus Hill, a railroad brakeman, was killed on the job. He slipped while pulling a pin between moving train cars, fell under the train, and was run over.

It was a hideous accident, but not an uncommon one. Coupling and uncoupling cars was part of the job for brakemen, and it was dangerous. 

Researcher Evgenia Shnayde reports that brakemen often lost fingers when the couplings jammed or the cars lurched.
Lost fingers did not end careers. They became the mark of a brakeman; you could recognize one by their missing fingers. Considering the fact that one out of every 120 trainmen—-a railroad category that mostly included brakemen-—died on the job each year, it is not surprising that the majority of trainmen considered the loss of a finger to be a "minor" injury.

Source: A 2010 report, "When the Loss of a Finger is Considered a 'Minor' Injury", by Evgenia Shnayde for the Stanford University Spatial History Project

The truth is that all railroad work was dangerous, including railroad construction. And of course, it was dangerous to jump onto a moving train (as tramps did). But it was also dangerous to ride a train properly or even to be on railroad property. I'm not exaggerating. Here are some astounding statistics about railroad accidents in the United States during the year before Almus Hill was killed:
During the year 1889, accidents on railroads involving human life were:
   Passengers killed: 315
   Passengers injured: 2,138
   Employees killed: 2,070
   Employees injured: 20,148
   Other persons killed: 2,997
   Other persons injured: 8,602
   Total persons killed: 5,282
   Total persons injured: 25,888

But the reports do not cover the total mileage of the country; only 92.792 per cent of it. If the accident rate was the same on the roads not reporting, the total number killed was 5,693, and the total injured 27,888. These are the returns made by the railroad companies themselves, and they cannot well be suspected of exaggeration.

Source: I didn't record (and can't relocate) the source of this clipping, but I saved it from an old newspaper while I was searching for a report of my grandfather's accident.


Collagemama said...

Colquhoun, Kate. Murder in the first-class carriage : the first Victorian railway killing.

You might like this book, Gen.

RunAwayImagination said...

My grandfather William Reed (1893-1977) started working for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad out of Eli, NE in 1915. The next year he came to Gordon, NE as a Section Foreman and later became Roadmaster for Section One out of Valentine, NE. Granddad Bill was missing the little finger on his right hand as a result of a railroad accident. I can still recall feeling the little stump of his finger when we shook hands.

RunAwayImagination said...

My namesake Arnold Lee was trampled to death in 1909 by a horse team that was spooked when a train came along just as they had finished crossing a bridge. Life in those days was full of dangers.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for the book suggestion, Collagemama. I suppose I could tear myself away from one of the five books I'm currently reading, each in its own location. Or maybe just add a new reading location? As you may imagine, I do best with books that I can read a chapter at a time.

Genevieve said...

RunAway, I visited Eli, Nebraska, about ten years ago. There were only a few buildings left, at that time. My mother taught school there during World War II. I think at that time they had a two-room schoolhouse.

Deaths like that of Arnold Lee were probably some of the "Other" railroad deaths (the largest category of all, did you notice?)

Anonymous said...

My Great Grand Father Michael Weitzman was a brakeman for the Long Island Rail Road. In March of 1899 while working at the Long Island City rail yard he suffered mortal injuries when his feet were caught in a frog (track switch) at a crossing. He tugged away, but was caught fast. He had to wait there until a passing train came along and released him by cutting off both his legs. When he was found, he was quite unconscious and when brought to begged to be killed to end his misery.

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