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The Keeper Of The Key

June 2024
10min read

“Granther” Sweeney worked on the railroad—and if duty demanded it, he’d rather fight than switch

My maternal grandparent. Patrick Sweeney, was indeed a giant among men. To me he was Thor, Atlas, Hercules, Paul Bunyan, and Saint Patrick, all rolled into one. When I knew him, back in the eighteen nineties, he was very old and nearing the end of his time. Still, he was straight as a rod, his lionlike head topped by a mass of rumpled hair, once red but by then a snowy hue. Steel-blue eagle eyes peered keenly from under heavy, frosty brows; a full white beard, worn long but with no mustache, framed his rugged face.

Standing six feet and seven inches, “Granther” had shoulders of yardstick span. Even then, approaching ninety years of age, he was amazingly strong, and I could well believe the stories I heard of his fantastic physical feats when he was younger. During the years 1846 to 1851, Patrick Sweeney had labored mightily in the building of the first railroad along the east-bank, water-level route of the Hudson River from New York to Albany, a distance of some hundred and forty-three miles, thereafter, he became a railway switchman on the Hudson River Rail Road, as it was then known.

Thus it happened that on a sunny morning in April, 1862, Granther was on duty as a switchman at the little river town of Stuyvesant Landing, about twenty miles south of Albany. Despite the turmoil of the Civil War, this was a quiet job, permitting meditation and extracurricular interests. For as a rule there were but two trains north and two south during a twelve-hour stretch of duty, plus occasional wartime specials.

Granther often remarked that this particular April morning was extra fine and quiet. The old Hudson was unrippled, smooth and calm at high tide, reminding him of the River Shannon and the Lakes of Killarney, which he had known in his boyhood. So, Granther said, he just sat in die sun near his switch shanty, smoking his day pipe and watching the river, especially where a big sturgeon had jumped and splash-landed in the cast channel, starting a great, rippling circle on the surface of the water. Granther’s sharp eyes had also spotted a fine stick of timber afloat in the stream. Why not, he thought, try for the sturgeon? The least he could do would be to salvage the drifting plank while he was at it.

But wait—duty came first! The southbound morning train from Albany would soon be along. Granther must switch it from its arrival track over to another, and send it on its way to New York. This waiting, he grumbled to himself, might make him miss his try for that gambolling sturgeon out there; he might even miss that fine piece of timber.

Was the train late? No, there it came, chuffing along toward the switch, its whistle tooting. A double set of rails led south from Albany; from Stuyvesant Landing to New York there was only a single track with occasional sidings to allow north- and southbound trains to pass each other. With more haste than usual, Granther opened the switch between the No. 2 track and the single line of rails.

After the train had gone, Granther closed and reset the switch in neutral, locking it tight and noting that the red-target danger signal was showing. Then, going to his train-sheet log, he entered therein the hour and minute of the day, and the engine number of the southbound train. Likewise, and most important as later events proved, he noted in his log that the train’s engine carried no flags to indicate that any extra section or special train was following in its wake.

Now, his duty done for a while, Granther was free to give his attention to the river, its now ebbing tide practically lapping at his feet. First, he got out his heavy hook and line and baited it well with a thick slab of fat, raw bacon. Then, after knocking the hot dottle from his pipe and spitting on his hands in anticipation, he launched his flat-bottomed skiff and rowed rapidly out into the river, trailing behind him the fat bacon bait intended for the sturgeon.

Soon he was well out into the swiftly moving ebb tide of the east channel. Sure enough, there was his prized stick of timber drifting along to meet him. He made it fast to the skiff with a loop of rope, meanwhile looking about him for signs of the leaping sturgeon. No fish was in sight—but suddenly his wandering gaze fastened with disbelief upon a plume of engine smoke approaching along the shore line from the north.

An extra train, southbound—and he not at his post! Grabbing the two oars, Granther put his powerful back and arms to work, making the skill fairly leap from the water. Damn that southbound train that passed a while ago! It hadn’t carried any Hags for this following special. Now, unless he could beat the second train to the switch, he was indeed in trouble!

Rowing hard and watching, over his shoulder, the oncoming plume of smoke, Granther got within a hundred yards of shore; he began to feel that he had won the race. At that precise moment the giant sturgeon chose to strike the trolling bacon bait.

Ordinarily, Granther would have drawn his boat hand-over-hand along the heavy troll line right up to the madly plunging fish and stunned it with a blow from a pick handle that he carried for the purpose. But time was fast running out. He thought of chopping the fish loose with his boat hatchet, and also cutting the line to the timber he had salvaged. But such wasteful action was against Granther’s nature.

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.

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.”

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