- Historic Sites
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
I never heard him called anything but Old Man Webb, though he must have had a first name, and maybe a middle name. I never heard anybody mention his relatives. If he had had a wife, she was certainly dead when I knew Mr. Webb. If he had children, they may have been, as we often said, out west somewhere, but they certainly weren’t around Williamstown.
Mr. Webb, when I knew him, if I can truly say that a boy of ten could then or at any other time really know a venerable engineer on the Central Vermont Railway, lived in the Monument House. Hotel rates in small Vermont towns in 1898 must have been low enough to permit steadily employed workmen to board and room there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Webb paid as much as six dollars a week or as little as four dollars a week.
Mr. Webb’s locomotive was a bell-stacked, woodburning affair of the sort seen in pictures of the Civil War. For all I know, this very locomotive may have fought in the Civil War. Its fuel was chunks of wood derived from a woodpile under a big shed beside the tracks between the freight shed and the feed store.
When he got to his engine in the fairly early morning, the fireman would already have steam up. All Mr. Webb had to do was to climb into the cab, sink down into a luxuriously padded leather seat, and open the throttle. He would then back up to the baggage car and coach, or maybe half coach and half baggage car, that made up his train, wait for Conductor Jim Kennealy to give him the signal, and go tooting away to Barre.
Mr. Webb would descend the grade to Barre, back up into Barre station as his schedule required, unhitch his passenger coach and baggage equipment, and spend the day switching in the Barre yards. When his switching was over he would reattach his coach and baggage cars, or car, and go home, up the grade, to Williamstown. He arrived there, I presume, around half past seven in the evening.
In the meantime another train would come up from Montpelier, this time with a coal-burning engine with a small stack, pick up passengers who desired to go out into the big world, and proceed with them first to Barre, then to Montpelier Junction. At Montpelier Junction the passengers changed to the main line of the Central Vermont, over which they could go to Burlington via Essex Junction, or, better yet, to Montreal and the West. With this afternoon train you could scoot clear out of Vermont. With Mr. Webb you were sure of getting home.
But though I did want to be an engineer, pulling on a throttle and watching the world go by, I hardly expected to run an engine as far as Montpelier Junction, let alone Montreal. I was, in my way, a modest boy. I just wanted to be a Mr. Webb. It seemed to me there couldn’t be any life a man could reasonably look for that would be better than the one Mr. Webb led.
I am thinking of one episode that might have made Mr. Webb bite off a few of his own whiskers and swallow them. In spite of the fact that the statute of limitations has probably run its course several times over, I shall not mention the names of those involved. I shall not even suggest that my brother was present.
When a locomotive comes to the end of a branch line it must do one of two things: it must find a way to turn round or it must back up. In Williamstown, as at the terminals of other branch lines, this problem was solved by a simple device called a turntable.
This turntable worked by muscle power. Mr. Webb would drive his engine carefully upon it, taking pains not to keep on into the adjacent swamp. Then the fireman—never, I believe, Mr. Webb—would apply himself to a long lever and walk the engine round until its cowcatcher was where its rear end had been. Mr. Webb would make sure that the turntable track and the railroad track were locked in the correct positions, and then he would drive his engine off again.
This process was a miracle that happened twelve times a week, counting both trains into and out of Williamstown and not counting Sundays, but with myself and my young friends it never grew stale. We watched with bugged-out eyes whenever we had a chance, and we hoped that some day Mr. Webb would invite us into the cab while the miracle was being performed.
The next best thing was to wait till Mr. Webb and other employees of the Central Vermont Railway were out of sight or busy at something else that kept them looking the other way, and then operate that turntable ourselves, though with no engine.
In addition to the rails provided for the locomotive, the turntable had rails to turn on. It was, one might say, a sort of circular railway. Any reader who lived in Williamstown, Vermont, in 1898 could figure it out for himself. If a boy can get his hands on a thing like a turntable, as we did, he is sooner or later going to run that turntable off its track. And this we did—myself and whoever was hanging around with me that day.
I don’t know how we did this, for this turntable must have been built to stand wear and tear. At all events, it gave a shudder, a groan, and a hollow clatter and stuck tight, about halfway round. We worked at it a while, growing uneasy because it was about time for Mr. Webb to pull in from Barre, and usually he turned his locomotive around before supper instead of after breakfast.