- Historic Sites
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
Feeling considerably scratched and bruised, Granther retrieved the key he had tossed out of the window, hung it around his neck, and considered what to do next. The river looked very cool and pleasant, and he had just time for a swim before the next train was due. He was up to his neck in the refreshing water before the thought hit him: the boat! His fine bit of a skiff, with that grand timber and sturgeon hanging onto it! The tide had carried it out; he’d lost the boat!
Striking out in a desperate flurry, he soon cleared a projecting point of land. Ah, there she was, his fine beauty of a skiff! She was riding high and handsome, not more than a quarter mile away, swinging lazily in an offshore eddy. In a few minutes, Granther was hauling himself over the side of the skiff, naked as the day he was born, but proud and pleased at having recovered his craft. Moreover, the big stick of flotsam timber still bobbed at its tether, and the great hooked sturgeon was moving only feebly at the end of the trolling line. Granther pulled the exhausted fish in and dispatched it with one quick blow of his fist.
Rowing back to shore with his trophies, he realized that he had missed his dinner. The Devil take those soldiers! They’d trampled his dinner pail when they tore up his switch shanty. Well, he’d soon be home and eating a good hot meal. Beaching the skiff and tying it well to a willow tree, Granther trimmed, skinned, and cleaned the big sturgeon, washing out the carcass and stretching it on the salvaged plank to drain. Then, dressed again in his red flannel shirt, pants, and boots, he filled his pipe and relaxed on the beach lacing the river, puffing slowly and thinking about the events of the day.
The afternoon trains came and went without incident. Across the Hudson, the shadows gathered on the green, rolling hills of Greene County, reminding him as so often before of old County Donegal in Ireland. His night relief man turned up on time, and after half an hour spent telling the story of the troop train, the timber, and the sturgeon, Granther headed [or home. On one shoulder he carried fifty pounds or more of salvaged plank, with the big sturgeon on top of that.
On the way home, of course, he must stop here and there to retell in graphic detail the day’s happenings, meanwhile slicing off big chunks of sturgeon for awestruck friends and neighbors. So he got home at midnight, to a cold supper—with a bare plank, all the sturgeon gone.
But that wasn’t really the end of Granther’s big day. Apparently, on the way to New York, the officer in charge of the troop train had time to think the whole thing over. He reported the episode truthfully to the Stationmaster in New York, and the story soon got around. One day, a few weeks later, Patrick Sweeney, switchman, received from Samuel Sloan, president of the Hudson River Rail Road, a bank draft for $1,000. Closely following this stunning award—for it was a very large amount in those days—came a day when Mr. Sloan’s private car rolled up to Granther’s switch shanty. The two big men shook hands, had dinner in the private car, and discussed the troop-train matter in detail. Granther even told about the the sturgeon and the timber. Before they parted, Mr. Sloan asked for the old brass switch key—in fact, he took it with him, promising to return it later. Grandfather Sweeney lived for a long time after that, and in mighty good health, too. Still on duty as a switchman in his mid-eighties, he was a kind of living legend in his part of the country, “able to endure [said a newspaper account in 1890] more hard work and more fatigue than any railroader on the line, without reference to age or physique.”
When he finally died in 1898 at the age of ninety-four, the whole town of Stuyvesant Landing turned out for the funeral, and people came from many miles away to pay their last respects. There was a wake—the kind Granther would have liked, with plenty of food and drink, cigars, and a great bowl of loose tobacco for men to fill their pipes from. It went on all night, and many a story was told and retold—including, you may be sure, the story of Granther and the troop train. And when he was laid to rest in his big oaken casket in the cemetery, he had around his neck the finely woven eel-skin thong with the switch key on it, just as he had worn it for forty years. It had long since come back, gold plated, from Mr. Sloan; and on it there had been engraved these words: “To Patrick Sweeney, Switchman, HRRR, 1862, A Brave Man, Keeper of the Key, in Honor, Loyalty, and Devotion to Duty.”