Foot and A-Half

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Reprinted with permission from James B. Stevenson, Publisher, 'THE TITUSVILLE HERALD,' Titusville, Pennsylvania 16354. Submitted by Oscar L. Carson, Route 1, Pleasantville, Pennsylvania 16341.

The little group of denim-clad railroad engineers, their cherry-red faces indicating they had worked near steam and hot fire boxes over many years, read with routine interest the assignment sheet just posted on the bulletin board by the yard master.

It created little surprise and very little comment that 'Foot-and-a-Half' had bid in the newspaper run. Having many years of seniority, he was what was known as an engineer's engineer. This was acquired on the Penny, each hour of which he was earnestly and constantly seeking to combine speed with safety.

Strange Name

Foot-and-a-Half was so nicknamed from having lost all toes on one foot in a wreck. That was before the turn of the century.

One could easily get the idea from the speedy sounding name that the Chicago Express was the coveted run. Far from it. Among engineers in the know, it was second or third choice to the night newspaper run. Thus it was expected that Foot-and-a-Half would get it as he did.

The 1905 Express made many stops all along the line. This alone tossed it aside as a choice run. The men at the throttle prefer them with few stops. The newspaper run stopped only when its water gauge indicated low water in the tender.

Its timetable schedule was marked up for leaving the terminal at 2 a.m., hauling only six baggage cars, each packed with newspapers hot off the big New York presses. It ran to Harrisburg on the first division for its entire run from Trenton, New Jersey, to Gary, Indiana. Average speed was about 63 miles an hour.

Foot-and-a-Half, a small individual with neat gray hair, his shoes polished to a glitter and a smart crease in his slightly faded but freshly laundered overalls, pulled himself up into the engine's cab with the agility of a much younger man. Easing his lean frame onto the cushioned seat on the right side, he spoke softly as he issued instructions to his fireman. At the same time he carefully checked the several gauges, especially the steam and air.

The little hogger, highly respected and envied for exceptional ability to get over the road, had one haunting fear falling asleep at the throttle. He once remarked that more engineers were killed while dozing than through wrecks as a result of faulty signals.

Plenty of Rest

He took no chances on not having enough rest. On several occasions when feeling a little fatigued as he was due for a call for a run, he notified the crew dispatcher he would like to be marked off the board. He preferred to be docked a round-trip from his pay than to take a train out when not fully rested.

As everything checked OK to leave, Foot-and-a-Half leaned out the cab window and peered ahead as he notched the throttle. Slowly the big drivers on the iron horse began to turn as wings of snow white exhaust steam hissed straight out from the cylinders. He expertly avoided spinning the wheels. Within a few minutes the newspaper special, after numerous blasts of the whistle, was out of the Trenton yards.

At Rahway the firemen yelled 'green-over-green' across the pounding boiler to his engineer, receiving an understanding nod. The night lights of New Brunswick loomed up as the special, now hitting 70 mph, roared down the four-track main line.

Papers Kicked Off

On approaching a station the baggage men assorted out the fat bundles of papers billed to that town. They rolled the printed material to the edge of open doors, stood with one foot resting on them as a strong wind whipped their eyes to slits and distorted their features for a few seconds.

The bundles were kicked off 200 feet in advance of the station. Landing on brick or wooden platforms, they bounced high and end over end, finally easing into a skid or a roll close to the station door.

While this was going on Foot-and-a-Half was rocking and rolling in his seat to the rhythm of the pounding drivers and the sway of rounding curves. His left hand tightly clenched the throttle handle as his eyes were glued to two white strips of steel ahead, dimly lighted by a kerosene headlight. His ears instinctively listened to the sound of the water injector.

His drawn-out whistle of two longs and two shorts shattered the stillness of the night near Philadelphia as the sound moaned across the green hills and died out in the valleys. He raced against the approaching streaks of dawn and breezed through town after town on schedule. Then the special eased into Harrisburg yards on the proverbial button, the little locomotive clanking, panting, its cylinders hot from constant chugging.

Annoyed at Delay

One night of early morning Foot-and-a-Half was at the throttle nearing New Brunswick. Annoyed because the New York Herald had delayed him a full four minutes, he was up to 90 mph on a straight stretch to Track No. 3.

Five miles ahead on Track No. 2 a freight train was crawling in the same direction. It had orders to cross Track No. 3 and onto No. 4 and then pull into a siding and wait for further orders.

Two miles in advance of the freight train, a train-operated electric signal providing there was no malfunctioning should have warned Foot-and-a-Half to cut his speed. The color would be glowing yellow. Another mile and a red signal meant coming to a complete stop. The sweating fireman, busily bailing in coal for heavy use of steam, had no time to peer out and check the trackside signals.

Passes Red Signal

It was presumed the Special zoomed past the red signal, like the proverbial pay car passing up a walking hobo.

Just ahead half of the freight was across Track No. 3 as the speeding newspaper run rounded a curve. The Special knifed through the plodding freight cars, causing hoppers, tanks, gondolas and boxcars to pile up amid the sound of twisting metal and splintering wood.

Like a badly beaten boxer staggering and hanging on, the Special kept going for a short distance, swayed for a few seconds and then floundered on its side in a ditch. Both members of the engine crew were killed.

The cause of the accident was never solved.

But indications were that his most dreaded and feared eventuality had at last caught up with the little hogger.

The evidence was strong that Foot-and-a-Half had fallen asleep at the throttle.