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Lorenzo Coffin

March 2023
3min read

In 1874 an Iowa farmer named Lorenzo Coffin watched the train he was riding hook on to a freight car. A brakeman stood between the car and the train, ready to couple them. He miscalculated, and Coffin saw the man fall to the ground shrieking, two fingers sheared from his right hand.

Anyone would have been disturbed by that brutal vignette, but Coffin was more than disturbed; the brakeman’s misfortune changed the course of his life and, in time, saved the lives of thousands. It was late in the day for Coffin to take up a whole new career. Born fifty-one years before in New Hampshire, he attended Oberlin College in Ohio where, among other things, he learned to be fond of the Midwest, and in 1855 he moved to Iowa. He bought 160 acres of land, worked hard, and prospered. As he prospered, he grew increasingly religious, and took to riding around the state, preaching to those who would listen. He served as a chaplain with the 32nd Iowa during the Civil War, and returned to raise sheep and shorthorn cattle. His farm, Willowedge, had grown to 700 acres by the time he saw the brakeman lose his fingers. Thereafter, farming was only a sideline for him.

He started talking to railroad men, and learned that the accident he had seen was hardly unique. The railroads used link-and-pin couplers, savage devices which were locked by a brakeman dropping a pin between two iron loops as they came together. It was easy enough for a brakeman, darting between approaching cars, to lose his fingers, his hand, his life. Moreover, when the trainmen weren’t coupling cars, they were on top of them, bucking along unsteadily above the roadbed, setting hand brakes. In fact, a trainman had one of the most hazardous peacetime occupations on earth; twenty to thirty thousand were maimed or killed each year.

Coffin, appalled, persisted: Were there no safety devices available to the railroads?

Yes. Eli Janney had already patented an automatic coupler that locked like two hands clasping, and George Westinghouse had developed a workable air brake that could stop a train from controls in the locomotive.

Why weren’t these in use? The railroad officials’ bland, obdurate answer was that their installation was “impracticable”—that is to say, expensive. The dollar and fifty cents a day that the trainman earned made him responsible for his own injuries. Air brakes and automatic couplers cost the lines money; maimed railroad men cost nothing.

As Coffin asked his questions, his interest grew into fanaticism. At fifty-one years of age, he started off on a twenty-year crusade. “My first job,” he wrote, “was to arouse the public to this awful wrong, this butchering of these faithful men who were serving the people at such a fearful risk of life and limb. Why, I discovered that it was taken as a matter of course that railroad men of necessity be maimed and killed.”

The public was not, he found, easily aroused. Coffin appeared in railroad offices, only to be thrown out. In an age when railroads could buy senators, they had little time to spare for a scrawny, bearded do-gooder. Coffin wrote to newspapers, but his stories were rarely printed. Religious and farming periodicals were the only platforms he could find, and there his vivid harangues appeared, in between essays on sheep dipping and accounts of parish goings on.

Coffin kept on the move, traveling around the state, telling horror stories. In 1883 he managed to get himself appointed Iowa’s first railroad commissioner. The commissioner wrote thousands of letters, and attended every gathering of railroad officials that did not forcibly eject him. The railroad managers knew him as the “Air-Brake Fanatic” by now; he had at least attracted enough attention to get his arguments answered. Too expensive to install, a Chicago and Alton official told him once. “But I note,” Coffin yelled back, “that the Chicago & Alton and most other lines continue to pay their eight per cent dividends regularly.”

Changing his tactics slightly, Coffin started badgering the Master Car-Builders Association to test the air brakes on a freight train. Finally, in 1886, the trials were held—and were a total failure. On the second day, Coffin was the only state railroad commissioner left watching. By dint of astonishing persistence and energy, Coffin got another series of tests scheduled the next spring, and George Westinghouse himself came out from Pittsburgh to be on hand. It turned out to be another fiasco, but Westinghouse saw what was wrong with his brakes, and improved them. Soon he announced that he was ready to stop a fifty-car train.

So yet another series of trials was scheduled late that summer. If these failed, they almost certainly would be the last. Again, Westinghouse was there, and Coffin stood next to him on a long grade outside Burlington. A Chicago, Burlington & Quincy locomotive started downgrade with fifty cars swaying behind it. When the train hit forty miles an hour, the engineer put on the air. The freight shuddered to a dead stop with scarcely a jar, and within five hundred feet.

The gaunt old fighter stood watching it with tears on his face. “I am the happiest man in all Creation,” he said.

Coffin’s battle wasn’t over, though. He drafted the first railroad safety appliance act, saw it become state law, and , saw it universally ignored. He kept up the pressure, wrote and spoke, campaigned throughout the country. At last, in March of 1893, a bill requiring all American railroads to adopt air brakes and automatic couplers came before President Benjamin Harrison. The President signed it into law and gave the pen to Coffin.

The next year, casualties among trainmen dropped 60 per cent. 5

The long struggle behind him, Coffin found a new cause in Prohibition, and worked for it with all his old energy until his death in 1915. His farm, Willowedge, is still there, though the barn collapsed a few years ago, and the fields have gone back to weeds and wildflowers. But the graves of Coffin and his family are well looked after; they have been neatly fenced in and are carefully tended by the railroad brotherhoods.

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