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Adventures of a rookie brakeman

Life was anything but dull on Florida's Apalachicola Northern in the 1940s
An old GE doodlebug provided passenger services on the Apalachicola Northern in the 1940s.
Classic Trains coll.
I’m clutching the grab iron on the back of a steam locomotive cab, my feet on the apron between the engine and tender. I’m vibrating head to toe, with the heat from the boiler all over me. How did I get here?

Green — I was the greenest brakeman ever to ride the rails of the Apalachicola Northern Railroad. Let me tell you of the trials and tribulations of a brand-new inductee into railroading. I was 21 and just out of the service, feeling lucky that the AN had taken me on.

This was the mid-1940s, when steam on the AN was hanging on by the skin of its hissing and puffing. The railroad was 102 miles of 60-lb. rail in Florida’s Panhandle; Port St. Joe was the southern terminus. The yard was filled with pulpwood cars, lumber flats, and boxcars for the paper products that would be going north.

My first run was from Port St. Joe to Chattahoochee, the northern end of the line. The call was for 4 p.m., so with lunch pail and a whole bundle of nerves, I introduced myself to the conductor. After I stowed my gear aboard, he showed me how to get on and off a moving train. Then, with the soon-familiar two blasts of the whistle from the 2-8-0 on the head end and the rattle of slack running out, we were moving. I soon learned that freight crews didn’t just ride in the caboose and look at the scenery — there was paperwork to do, 30-plus cars’ worth. That finished, it was up in the cupola to watch for hotboxes. We stopped several times to drop off empty pulpwood racks. I had it easy on this job, because the head-end brakeman took care of everything. Arriving at Chattahoochee, the conductor and I took the paperwork into the office and picked up our new manifest for the return south.

On the way back to Port St. Joe, we had to double over a hill (Florida may not be mountainous, but it isn’t totally flat, either!). It was the rear brakeman’s job to protect the rear of the train. When we stopped to cut the train in two, in the middle of nowhere, the conductor made sure to tell me that we were parked next to an insane asylum. With a smile on his face, he told me how some inmates would come down to the fence and try to escape, figuring they could get a ride on a train. He had several stories that put chills up the spine of this 21-year-old city kid.

On my next trip the conductor was up front, and I was by myself in the rear. You’re supposed to be a couple of hundred feet behind the caboose to protect the train. Needless to say, my estimate of the distance required was measured in very small feet. When I heard the slack being taken up, I didn’t need an invitation to get back into the caboose. Before the echo of the second blast of the whistle ended, I was on the back steps, swinging my lantern.

A couple of months later, I was assigned to the AN’s passenger train, a daily turn from Port St. Joe to Chattahoochee and Climax, Ga. (the final 30 miles to Climax was on Atlantic Coast Line trackage). Nos. 1 and 2 consisted of a “doodlebug,” a diesel-powered car with a passenger compartment, towing a second car with a baggage area and a Railway Post Office section in the rear. The run included a trip down the 3-mile spur to Apalachicola; it was a reverse move in, so we would be pointed the right way for the balance of the trip north. At Climax we met the
South Wind streamliner from Chicago and exchanged passengers, Railway Express, and mail. The round trip was carded for nearly 14 hours, so we had to move along to avoid the 16-hour shut-down law.

Railroaders will say that passenger service is dull and routine, but I didn’t find it so. One night we came upon a freight blocking our line. My conductor got out to investigate and came back to tell me to give them a hand. To do what? Well, the trailing truck on the freight’s engine had derailed, and the freight’s three brakemen were putting rerailing frogs down. Two guys were struggling on one side and the third was by himself, so I was to be the third’s partner. Dirt, steam, and the lack of elbow room made it a messy job, plus every time you raised your head, a piece of the locomotive was right there to chastise you. Finally we got it done, and the cheers were louder than the whistle as the freight moved out of our way. Getting back on the “bug,” I was such a mess I had to stay out of the passenger compartment.

Routinely on the return from Climax, as we entered the yard at Chattahoochee, I had a switch to throw. The yard crew would put it back for me so I could keep on going with the train. One night we were late getting in, too late for the yard crew to help me out — but I didn’t know that. After we dropped off the passengers and turned the train, the engineer and I were in the back part of the engine room doing something. There was a bunch of screaming and hollering, so the engineer told me go see what was up. People were running away from us and pointing to the front of the car. I turned to look and saw what seemed to be the biggest steam locomotive in the world standing inches from our front end. Its engineer had approached the switch expecting it to be in its usual position. Instead, it was still lined for our track, and he got stopped just in time.

We get accustomed to the way things work and don’t allow for changes. One day, the doodlebug was in the shop for repair, so we got a Pacific and a passenger car for our run. Well, coming out of Apalachicola, I got off to close the mainline switch and waved a highball to the engineer. I usually had time to trot up to the baggage door before the motor car got going, but I wasn’t ready for the fast pickup of the steam locomotive. Looking up from locking the switch, I saw the marker lights fading into the distance. The RPO clerk was hollering, “Run, run!” The vision of spending the night with the alligators spurred me on. The clerk opened the rear door and held out his hand to me. He helped me aboard, and I had to crawl through the small, floor-level mail door to get back into the baggage area.

So here I stand in the cab of the Pacific, pounding down the rails, heat blasting in my face, fingers numb from clutching the grab iron. WOW!

First published in
Winter 2010 Classic Trains magazine.

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