Workday Wednesday is a daily prompt at Geneabloggers that encourages family historians to document their ancestors’ occupations (they weren’t all farmers) through photos and stories of ancestors at work.
Of my 30 ancestors who worked for the railroad, 3 were conductors but only 1 was an engineer. These are probably the most well-known and prestigious positions in the food chain of railroad jobs. But what’s the difference?
My great-grandfather Joseph Calhoun Rucker and two distant cousins Decatur Breeden and John Wesley Breeden were conductors for the Norfolk & Western railway in the first half of the 20th century. They would probably claim to have the most important job because they were in charge of everything and every member of the train crew, including the engineer.
|Joseph Calhoun Rucker, 4th from left - conductor on #685|
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People
As conductors, Joe, Decatur, and Wesley had to coordinate with the engineer, dispatcher, and any other parties including the yardmasters and trainmasters who were involved in the operation of the train. They needed to be alert to wayside signals and the position of switches affecting the movement of the train as well as its safety. They assisted the engineer in testing the brakes and gave the signal when to start moving and when and where to stop. Since they were the conductors, Joe, Decatur, and Wesley also kept records of the journey whether on a passenger train or freight train.
|Seated: Johnny Coleman|
However, my distant cousin John Coleman probably thought his job as an engineer was the most important. After all, the train didn’t move without him. He was in charge of driving the train, not just controlling the speed and braking but also all mechanical operation of the train. He was responsible for preparing the equipment and checking the train’s condition. Johnny needed to understand the incline and decline of the right-of-way, and how to adjust speed so as not to arrive too early or too late. Knowledge of track geometry and signal placement helped to prevent derailment and train separation which together helped ensure everyone’s safety.
In simple terms, a train can move without a conductor, but it can’t move without an engineer.