Fred St Clair

Joseph Mansfield


Remember when freight trains had cabooses?  Of course.  But did you know that you could ride the caboose as a passenger?  Long after most of the old passenger trains were discontinued, at least on some lines one could still buy a passenger ticket and ride the caboose with it.

When I was a child, maybe ten or twelve, a favorite activity in summer, when my Stanfield cousins came to visit, was to ride the caboose on the old freight train.  Dunlap lay on a spur of the old Nashville, Chattanooga, and St Louis (NC&StL) railroad, departing from the main line at Bridgeport, Alabama, and continuing to the end of the line at Pikeville, twenty miles north of Dunlap.  It ran on no set schedule.  We kids would hang around town until we heard the train coming in, then run to the depot, buy round trip tickets to Pikeville, and ride up there and back.  Although the trip was short the train moved slowly and made many stops to drop off or take on cars, so this magic forty mile ride could take the better part of a day, especially if the crew stopped for a leisurely lunch in Pikeville.

The crew made us honored guests on the caboose and we learned a lot about trains.  I remember that a “hotbox” is what you have when a journal bearing goes dry and overheats.  The caboose crew would spot the smoke and use hand signals to tell the engineer that they had a hotbox.  The train would then stop at the next siding and drop off the crippled car.  Word would be sent to a maintenance crew, who would grease up the bearing on their next pass, and the next train would pick up the car and move it on its way.

I also learned that air brakes on a train work just backward from those on a freight truck.  The brakes have springs to force the shoes against the wheels.  Air pressure is applied to hold the shoes away from the wheels, freeing the cars to move.  That way, if air pressure is lost, the brakes automatically go on.  It takes ninety pounds of air pressure fully to release the brakes. 

During the return ride from Pikeville to Dunlap one summer I noticed that the caboose air gauge read 85 pounds, and commented to the conductor that the gauge needed calibration, that it was showing five pounds of brake.  He replied that the gauge was good, that we had the brakes on.  I asked why.  Well, he explained, Pikeville, besides being twenty miles north of Dunlap, is some one hundred and fifty feet higher, so the southbound trip is downhill.  Now railway couplers have several inches of slack in them.  Going uphill, this slack stays stretched out so that all the cars move along smoothly.  But on a descent, it is possible for cars near the end of a train to travel just a bit faster than those ahead, so that when the slack between two adjacent cars is taken up, the rear one hits the front one with a jolt.   If several cars thus “bunch the slack” and “run-in” to each other at the same time, the jolt can be sufficient to derail the train.  Application of a little brake, with the locomotive still pulling, keeps the slack stretched out and avoids a run-in.  (Note 1)

Fred St Clair was a friend of my family.  He was also the stationmaster at Dunlap in the dying years of express service there, when keeping the station had become largely a sinecure.  On many a summer day I would drop in and pass hours with him.  He liked company, he liked trains, he liked to teach.  Nothing pleased him better than for me to ask a question and then sit back for a long answer.

I was particularly fascinated by the receipt of telegrams.  They were received by telephone, not telegraph.  Fred had a marvelous old telephone.  The transmitter was mounted to the wall through a pantograph arm that allowed it to be moved around and placed wherever the operator wanted it.  Along with a headset receiver, this left the operator’s hands free for typing.  The telephone system used the old telegraph wires and was a half duplex system.  That is, one could talk in only one direction at a time, as with walkie talkies.  There was a pedal mounted to the floor under the desk.  Fred had to depress this with a foot to speak, then release it to listen.  All the railroad phones up and down the spur were on a single line.  Selective ringing was accomplished with the use of stepper switches at each station.  The stepper made a gentle thumping sound when it acted, and I learned to count the thumps, so I knew when a call was coming in a second or two before the ring.  I also knew when a call was going through to any other station, and which station that would be.

The telegraph system had been superseded not too long before.  The old telegraph equipment was still in place.  I learned that on a telegraph system, when the line was not in use, the line had to be continuously energized; this was accomplished with a bypass switch at each station which was normally closed—as if the telegraph key were held down all the time.  When someone wanted to send he would open his bypass switch, then send a single letter indicating the destination station of the message to follow.  Dunlap’s address was M.  The message was, of course, audible at every station.  Not much secrecy on a telegraph line in those days.

At one time I could also have told you all the semaphore signals used on the line, and all the whistle signals.  As Dunlap had, in Fred’s time, only one train on the line, the semaphores had been abandoned.  On busier lines they had been replaced by lights.  But the whistle signals were in use, and still are today.  Alas, the only one I remember now is long-long-short-long.  It means the train is approaching a grade crossing.

Well, I’ve told you more about trains and telegraphs than about Fred.  But that is as it should be, for Fred was trains.  He lived and breathed trains and loved his work.  And there was nothing he loved better than to pass hours on end teaching a boy all he knew.

My visits to Fred continued on into high school, but were then cut off when Fred moved away.  He was an old man, perhaps as old as I am now, fifty-eight, which seems pretty old to a teenager.  Perhaps he was a bit older than that when his transfer order came.  In those days it was customary that after two or three short assignments a career railroad man was given a post he could count on keeping, so he could buy a house and settle down.  Which Fred did.  I understood from my grandfather that the railroad had seriously wronged Fred in giving him a transfer, and that he was quite upset about it.  I never knew the details.  I would guess that Fred was about to retire, and I would guess that the railroad may have been trying to harass him, and others, into resigning and losing pension benefits.  But I don’t know.

I do know that when I went to see Fred and tried to sympathize with him he would have none of it.  He just boomed out, “Oh, I’m quite happy with the transfer.  Got a better job!”

And thus I recall him today.  An old man, a brave man.  A man who remained cheerful and buoyant in the face of hardship.


© 2008 Joseph Mansfield

2004.11.06 first draft

2008.06.20 revisions

2008.06.21 posted


(Note 1)  Actually, the conductor only told me that we were going downhill and needed some brake.  In the original draft of this essay I said the brake was to prevent too much speed.  But as I read over the work, some time after posting, I realized there had to be more to it—that there could be a problem with slack.  I checked it out, found that my reasoning was correct, and amended the essay on 2008.08.29.