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June 2024
3min read

In a thousand tank towns and junctions across the land, he was a man boys wanted to be when they grew up. Wherever the railroad had come, depositing a lonely depot in its wake, he was a fixture—and a most important one: Stationmaster, telegrapher, flagman, ticket salesman, and express agent rolled into one—a man who spent, it often seemed, an unconscionable amount of time just sitting peacefully in the sun or jawing with anyone who happened by to pass the time of day, but who carried out his assorted tasks as efficiently as any responsible executive would. His hours, when he was working, were busy ones: when he was not—well, time was what people had most of in 1876 in the town where he lived.

The railroad and everything associated with it fascinated boys endlessly. At the very apex of their dream of glory and ambition was the engineer—that intrepid, keen-eyed man in overalls who leaned out of his cab to wave as the monstrous black engine thundered past in a violent swirl of hissing steam and clanging metal. Keeping one hand on the throttle (there was no problem of steering, of course, so a man could take in the sights that lay along his route), he raised the other in salute, his goggled, sooty face breaking into a grin at the moment he flashed by: then, focussing his eyes on the tracks ahead, he would release a stream of tobacco juice expertly to leeward and roll on toward the horizon, an imperial figure of never-to-be-forgotten splendor. Certainly, he was a man who had everything the world could ofter.

Then there was the stationmaster—somewhat lacking in the heroic qualities, to be sure, but then not everyone could get to lie an engineer. And the next best thing was to be in charge of a station: to know, before anybody else in town did, when the 9:44 would actually arrive, or what the news was down the line, just by listening to the click of the telegraph key. A boy could put his ear to the rail and wait for the faint, thin hum, gradually growing stronger, that meant a train was coming: but thesStationmaster knew. And as custodian of all the engines and the freight and passenger cars that stopped off at his depol, he possessed all other kinds of important knowledge, too.

What this paragon had to be, whether or not small boys realized it, was a Jack of all the many trades related to his job. Ticket-selling does not seem an unduly onerous task, but few practitioners before or since performed the job more deliberately or with a keener eye for the bunco man passing a phony five-dollar bill than the small-town stationmaster who had to account for every penny received. It was his studied conclusion that no one ever arrived at the station to buy a ticket until the long wail of the train whistle could be heard down the tracks: and this, of course, was the very time he had to move around like a one-armed paper hanger in a swinging door. Usually someone wanted baggage checked through: as like as not he would have to sec to a widow woman’s household effects—all of which had to he checked, weighed, tagged, and tied up. At least once a week a 200-pound trunk would appear on the platform, waiting to be moved; there would be a sewing machine that was certain to come loose from its stand unless he found a way of securing it before it was shipped: frequently he had to locate a freight car for a lot of pigs or cattle on the way to market and then help the fanner get them aboard. As agent for the express company, he must manhandle oyster kegs and chicken crates and barrels of beer between trains, and he had to keep all the records on these and other shipments. In some depots, he served also as switch tender and crossing flagman.

Inevitably, as a train chuffed into the station, the dispatcher’s click would come over the wires with a telegram for the conductor. The stationmaster would write down the message with an almost invisible pencil stub and then, inclining his pear-shaped figure forward, extend an arm across the cluttered table on which the copper and brass telegraph key sat, shift his pipe in his mouth, and deftly and effortlessly—moving nothing but the first two fingers on his right hand—tap out a terse acknowledgment. After making out a ticket for the last anxious passenger he would jam a cap onto his head and hustle out to the platform to get his baggage and freight aboard. There he greeted the conductor with the telegram and a few wry words, waved to the engineer, and watched as the driving wheels started to spin. The engine would give off several long sighs, whoosh once or twice, then start to move, disappearing before long around a bend in the tracks and settling into a steady puff-puff-puff that slowly receded out of earshot.

It was of such humdrum moments that the stationmaster’s life was comprised, but as Henry David Thoreau observed, these events had a broader meaning for the whole community. “The startings and arrivals of the cars,” he wrote, “are now the epochs of the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country.”

Richard M. Ketchum

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