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The Keeper Of The Key
“Granther” Sweeney worked on the railroad—and if duty demanded it, he’d rather fight than switch
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
So, bending even more strongly to his oars, with the hooked and struggling sturgeon and the heavy plank acting as stubborn kedge anchors against his aching muscles, Granther finally managed to beach his boat. The unexpected special train was just screeching to a halt in front of the closed switch, sparks and flaming cinders belching from its cone-shaped stack, its brass bell clanging, its shrill whistle tootling peevishly. Heads appeared at the windows of all fifteen wooden cars. They were soldiers’ heads, and Granther realized what this was all about: it was a special troop train taking recruits south for the Union armies.
The soldiers were shouting, whistling, singing, and making other cheerful noises; but the officer in charge—a “big man with whiskers,” Granther recalled—was not in a cheerful mood. He climbed out of the train and confronted Sweeney, who was now standing beside his switch like a large-sized Horatius at the bridge.
“What does this mean?” thundered the officer. “Don’t you know that these are Federal troops, under orders from Washington to proceed to New York without delay? What do you mean by stopping this train?”
Clearly, thought Granther, the officer was unaware that only a single track led south from the switch—or that the regular northbound train was due to come up that track very shortly. He would make the matter plain. “The train ahead carried no signal for yez,” he said. “And there bees an up train on its way.”
The point did not register, “unlock that switch instantly,” commanded the officer; and he drew his sword. “Not a moment’s delay, now! Unlock it!”
“I’ll not,” said Granther.
The officer swung a good kick at the switch padlock—but all it did was to break the high heel off one of his boots so that, as Granther told the story, “he limped around like his leg was shot, cursing a blue streak.” Three soldiers, under orders from the swearing officer, started banging away at the lock with their musket butts; nothing happened. It was known later that a twenty-gallon keg of rum had been rolled aboard the train at Albany; Granther (who was himself a teetotaler) said that the men “smelt of likker to the breath” and aimed their blows haphazardly.
But now things took an ugly turn. The officer demanded the switch key, and when Granther refused it, four soldiers took to pummelling his ribs with their gun butts. Switchman Sweeney was having none of that: with each of his two long arms he rammed two heads together, and all four soldiers went down, their bayoneted guns clattering.
The odds were impossible, however. A dozen recruits now swarmed over Granther, pulling him clown, and despite his flailing arms and legs they managed to pin him across the rails in front of the switch. Prodded by several bayonets, he got to his feet and was forced into his shanty, where the officer again demanded the key. Granther again refused, of course—but then, with bayonet points coming through his clothing and actually drawing blood, he submitted to a search. They found the switch key on a finely woven eel-skin thong around Granther’s neck, buried in the thick mat of his red chest hair.
It looked as if the jig was up—and still Granther’s straining ears did not hear the sound they eagerly waited for: the whistle of the oncoming northbound express. He made one last try. With a lurch of his huge shoulders he broke one arm free from his captors, ignoring the painful rip of a bayonet point across his belly as he moved. He grabbed the key from the soldier who was holding it, ripped it off the eel-skin thong, and flung it through an open window. With much satisfaction, amid the shouting, shoving soldiers, he watched it fall into the riprap of rubble lining the railroad right of way.
And just at that moment there came the high-pitched, whippoorwill whistle of the northbound express! The fracas came abruptly to a halt as everyone stared with sudden comprehension down the stretch of track leading south. There came the express around the bend, and it took little imagination to guess what would have happened if Granther had let the troop train through the switch and onto that single track a few minutes earlier.
Granther said that the commandant of the train, the “big man with whiskers,” never apologized or said a word of any kind to him—“just gimped away in his high boots with his one heel.” But some of the enlisted men were ashamed, apologizing and offering him drinks from their canteens—whether of rum or water he didn’t know or care.
For in Granther’s opinion, all of them were lunkheads—even the Irish among them! Why hadn’t they smashed the switch lock with the big sledge hammer in his shanty? For that matter, why hadn’t they found the spare key, only partly hidden in its cranny between two shanty boards? Farm boys is what they were! Farm boys and lunkheads—and lucky for them they were, or the northbound express would’ve made matchwood out of them!
Well, the ruckus was over, anyway. Granther took the spare key from the shanty, unlocked the switch, arid set it for the waiting northbound train to proceed to Albany; he made the troop train wait until he was good and ready. Then he let it pull oft the No. 2 track and head south on the single track, waving it past not in his regular manner, but with certain disdainful gestures peculiar to railroad men. He got a ragged cheer from the soldiers in return.