Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Workday Wednesday: Brakemen and Firemen

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.

The Norfolk & Western railway in Page County, Virginia had many of my ancestors on its payroll.  Besides the storekeeperconductors and engineers, my family provided five brakemen and two firemen.

Left: Clyde Strole, brakeman
Right: Millard Davis, storekeeper
My great-granduncle Walter Newman Rucker, his son Franklin, and two sons-in-law Willie Strole and Russell Bumgardner along with Willie’s brother Clyde, who was the husband of one of my distant cousins, were all brakemen for the steam railroad in the first part of the twentieth century. 

The main responsibility of the brakemen is obvious:  operate the brakes.  But they also assisted in switching the train to a new track, and releasing hand brakes when cars were added to or subtracted from the train.

When the train was moving, they assisted the conductor by keeping a lookout for potential hazards on the train itself such as shifting loads.  They protected the train by “flagging” behind and ahead if there was a possibility of collision.

When a caboose was used, the senior brakeman rode in it.  My great-granduncle Walter Rucker must have ridden the caboose because he is listed in the 1920 US Census as a “flagman” which was historically the term for the rear brakeman.

Two very distant cousins (whose names were so unfamiliar I had to look them up in my database) were firemen.  Jessie Roach and Ira Caldwell did just what the job title suggests:  stoked the fire and maintained the boiler’s steam pressure.  Most firemen were also apprentice engineers who could run the train while the engineer supervised. 

Norfolk & Western Railroad apprentices 1923
scanned from Shenandoah: A History of Our Town and Its People

After diesel engines entered the scene and were perfected, the fireman’s job was phased out.  Jessie must have seen that day coming because he left the railroad and went to work for the textile mill.

©2014, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.

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