In the years around 1900, unskilled Eastern and Southern European laborers came to Collinwood, looking for employment in the railroad boom town. They followed already establishedYou don’t have to die to win. . . .You lose a hand or a foot, you get your insurance, just the same. communities of mostly German and Irish immigrants. If those able to navigate the complexities of the town’s new economy profited from its growth, new arrivals with few marketable skills and no fluency in English lived in crowded poverty, an unhealthy, hand-to-mouth existence with tenuous employment often doing extremely dangerous work. Even more established immigrants and native-born workers with specialized training–railroad engineers and brakemen, for example–worked perilous jobs that came and went with the ups and downs of a volatile economy.
The uncertainties and dangers in Collinwood appeared in railyards throughout the country. Before 1910 corporate officials did very little to alleviate D.L. & W. R.R. Yards, Scranton, PA, 1890-1901 (detail). LOC. Two brakemen ride on top of box cars in the top third of this image. In the foreground, an engineer oils his engine, his back turned to a working track with very little clearance behind him. hazards, generally preferring to risk men rather than spend money on safety. Railroad companies, for example, often chose not to maintain adequate air brakes for freight trains as they grew longer and heavier. To slow a train as it entered a yard or traveled down slopes, brakemen ran across narrow boards on top of moving box cars, jumping gaps between them, turning brake wheels as they went. A misstep dropped them under or to the side of trains, a common cause of dismemberment, brain damage, and death. Rain, snow, and ice made the brakeman’s job even more spectacularly dangerous.
Sorting, switching, and coupling freight cars in the tangle of railyard tracks maimed and killed thousands of workers annually. By 1900, federal regulations mandated automatic couplers, so that,Broken Rails. From Annual Report of the Railroadman’s Home for the year 1908. Each of these residents at the Home for Aged and Disabled Railroad Employees of America has lost at least one arm. The man in back wears prosthetic hooks. Credit: Larry Buchan, Internet Horology Club. http://ihc185.infopop.cc/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/6366042471/m/5753980387 in theory, yard workers no longer had to position themselves between rail cars moving toward one another to hitch them. But, when a coupling failed to mesh, trainmen ventured in, getting hands crushed, legs mangled, or worse. In 1903, even after the nearly universal adoption of automatic couplers, coupling accidents in the United States killed 253 men and injured 2,788 more. Disfigured and hobbled rail workers walked the streets of Collinwood and other railroad towns, casualties returning from a nearby battle. G. G. Fitting pleaded with fellow workers in Collinwood to join him in the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, a union that negotiated contracts and provided modest insurance for dues-paying members: “You don’t have to die to win,” said Fitting. “You lose a hand or a foot, you get your insurance, just the same.”
But workers did die, sometimes in spectacular bursts of gore. Rails, railroad ties, gravel, and stray lumber made for treacherous footing. Men jumped on and off of slow moving cars to get around the yards, and bad timing led to mortal injury. The roar of discharging steam, dumping coal, and moving trains must have led to epidemic hearing loss, but even without that, discerningPD, Oct 10, 1913. People walking along and crossing tracks also died with shocking frequency. Grade-level crossings throughout the city presented particular dangers. In this report, a train runs over the child of a man hospitalized after an accident at the Collinwood shops. the direction of sound in the clangor was no simple matter. Given the noise, activity, and complex tangle of traffic, railyard workers too frequently found themselves in the way of trains. At times, they sidestepped one locomotive and were obliterated by another. In Collinwood, George Dowling suffered precisely this fatal confusion. He dodged a switching engine only to be slammed and dragged by a larger, faster moving train. “Fragments of his body,” said a written report, “were strewn along the track for a quarter mile.” In August of 1908, one train ran down two “Greiner” laborers in the Collinwood yard and then another person at a crossing in Cleveland. “In neither case,” reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “did the engine crew seem to know that they had struck anyone .”
The combined death and injury rate for rail workers from 1903 to 1907 averaged about 4% per year. A worker who managed to stay employed in the Collinwood yards over that five-year span likely saw twenty percent of his co-workers suffer death or significant injury. Critics wrote with outrage about the carnage, but improvements came slowly or not at all. The Chicago Daily News called it “slaughter on [the] railroads.” The Chicago Tribune compared rail work to the battle of Gettysburg. William Ryan, a US congressman, presented statistics to show that working on the railroad was more hazardous than fighting Britain’s turn-of-the-century war in South Africa or America’s war in the Philippines .
The railroad and the walking wounded of Collinwood taught residents daily and brutal lessons about bodily risk, suffering, and loss. None of that prepared them for the carnage of the school fire.