Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Conductors--Masters of the Train

Western History/Genealogy Dept.
Denver Public Library
In my coming-soon, historical western novel, A Tarnished Knight, the hero travels on a few trains during his quest to capture the heroine. On each trip, Ryder manages to have a run-in with the conductor.

While the various conductors in my story are minor characters, the actual conductors who rode the trains from one end of the country to the other were vital to the efficiency of the railroad.

Since my story takes place in 1874, I’d like to share a bit of the research I uncovered in order to write these interactions between the conductors and my hero, Ryder MacKenzie.

Known as “masters,” “captains,” or “chiefs” of the train, the conductor was responsible for the entire train, passengers and crew. He was also in charge during any emergency. These maritime references came from the 1830’s during the earliest days of the railroad when the first conductors had been captains on steamboats and coastal packets.

At the time of my novel, he would have worn a pocket watch on a chain which he would check constantly as it was his duty to make sure the train was on time. This would be railroad time, for each railroad line ran on its own time schedule, because prior to 1883 time hadn’t yet been standardized.

Not only did the conductor decide what time the train left the station, he decided when it was safe to leave the station and signaled the engineer when to start or stop moving the train.

In the early 1870’s the conductor probably would have worn a long, double-breasted frock coat and had a distinguished beard or moustache. On a western train he would probably be wearing a soft, dark, slouch hat. If not, he’d have had on a straight-sided pillbox type hat with a leather bill and a stiff band which ran around the base of what was referred to as a trainman’s cap. This band had a brass plate marked, “Conductor.”
Smithsonian Inst., Photo by Richard Strauss
His shirt would have a stiff, turned down collar and a bow tie with the ends tucked under.

In addition to his watch, each conductor carried a ticket punch to cancel the stub of the passenger’s ticket as well as the half of the ticket he kept. Each conductor’s punch made a different shaped hole. This way if there were any questions the conductor who cancelled the ticket could be identified.

Smithsonian Inst., Photo by Richard Strauss
Dated 1860's or 1870's
He kept these ticket stubs in a locked case with some cash for when, in an emergency, a passenger needed to purchase a ticket from him. Once the fares were collected he began his accounting.

Not only was he responsible for all the passengers’ needs, the conductor was accountable to the railroad for an accurate record of ticket income, consignment notes and shipping documents. He also kept a log of the trip.

He made sure any cargo or additional cars were picked up and dropped off. He opened and closed doors, and carried out any running repairs. There were no radios, so all signals to the engineer and fireman had to be clearly communicated.

In the early days of the railroad, collisions and derailments were common so railroad companies quickly developed a rule book with a set of standards and procedures for each member of the crew. As the conductor was responsible for the safety of the train he made sure all safety rules and practices were followed. He also had to be alert to signals and switch positions or other conditions which might affect the safe movement of the train, such as weight, rain, or ice on the tracks which would cause the wheels to slide or affect braking. He had to know what to do in the case of unscheduled stops or delays in departing stations, as there were other trains following.

His every day decisions and his capability in dealing with unique situations were based on his own skills, intuition, and judgment. The train was his responsibility and he took great pride in his ability to keep it running efficiently.

A Tarnished Knight—Coming Soon from The Wild Rose Press


Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West, A Fully Illustrated Guide, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc, 2007

American History on the Move