6. Danger of Rail Work

Edison Studio, Freight Train, 1903. LOC. Edison’s advertising copy admired the “steep grade,” “fine smoke effects,” and “magnificent scenery” in this film clip, but the movie also shows us how outlandishly hazardous railroad work could be. Two brakemen ride through the tunnel on top of the boxcars, standing plainly visible as the train passes the camera. When the train’s descent begins, they will run across the top of the train, jumping from one car to the next, adjusting the brakes..

fancy-divider-520-50px2-webThough no early footage of the Collinwood yards survives,  trains loomed large in the first years of movie making.  In short actuality films—often of one minute or less—movie makers shotEven when movies exalted trains as catalysts of commerce and settings for action or falling in love, they also often showed, without intending to do so, the preposterous hazards faced by rail workers. locomotives pulling into passenger stations, running at speed on open track, and passing through notable scenery.  Cameras positioned at the front of moving trains or with locomotives racing toward them captured a rush of steam, smoke, speed, and power.   In the early 1900s, railroad companies often hired or cooperated with filmmakers, sensing the promotional opportunity that the fast-growing motion picture business presented.  Longer fictional films  such as Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903)  and A Romance of the Rails (1903)  also celebrated trains, linking them to action, adventure and romance.dagger2-web

But even when movies exalted trains as catalysts of commerce and settings for action or falling in love, they also often showed, without intending to do so, the preposterous hazards faced by rail workers.    New Black Diamond Express,Edison Studio, New Black Diamond Express, 1900. according to promotional copy, was “taken at one of the curves on the Lehigh Valley Railroad, along the beautiful Susquehanna River.”  The film, continued the catalog, gives “a vivid idea of the lightning speed at which [the train] is traveling.”  What might seem equally remarkable to a present-day viewer, however, is that the train slows not at all  for the workers driving spikes, who, for their part, are in no particular hurry to get out of the way.  The last man off the tracks begins to raise his hammer for one final strike, but then thinks better of it and stumbles up the embankment, four seconds before the locomotive roars by.  No flag man and no signage warns of workers on the line.  It’s impossible to know whether or not filmmakers  staged this work crew, but similar scenes took place routinely.

In Sarnia Tunnel, Grand Trunk, a train emerges, headed up a cutting  from the Sarnia tunnel.         The film highlights twin triumphs of engineering:  the first tunnel to pass beneath a body of Biograph Studio, Grand Trunk Railway, Sarnia Tunnel, 1903. The first brakeman seen holds a club often used for leverage to make the final turns of a brakewheel. The brakewheels themselves rise on vertical stems at the ends of the boxcars.water (the St Clair River) in North America and the trains that travel through it.   But even in the midst of documenting human mastery, the camera reveals the recklessness of it. For some reason, a group of workers has gathered on the tracks directly in front of and downhill from the waiting train.  Brakemen stand on boxcars, some of them waving happily. As the train traveled down the cutting toward the tunnel, they ran along the top of it, adjusting the brake wheels sticking up from each car as they went.  At points of low clearance such as bridges and tunnels, brakemen could be slammed into walls or iron cross beams as the trains continued on their way.

The turn-of-the-century railroad industry lay tracks for scenic routes and blasted mile-long tunnels under rivers but cared little about safety design.  Headline-grabbing crashes occurred on open track at high speeds with passengers on board, but the complexities of switching, congestion, and rearranging cars made freight yards a far more perilous workplace.    One railyard superintendent summed up perfectly this corporate strategy of indifference to the humanity of workers:   “Men are cheaper than shingles. . . . There’s a dozen waiting when one drops out.”dagger2-web

Advertisements for luxury travel on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern showed passengers enjoying “real, delightful comfort . . . on travel between Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, and Boston.” Railyard workers risking life and limb are hidden from view in these cushy surroundings.  The Outlook Magazine. Nov 7, 1903, np.; Dec 6, 1902,np.


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    1. The Railroad Town
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    2. Improvements
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    3. Collamer Street
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    4. Environment
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    5. Railyard Labor

  • 6. Motion Pictures
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    7. Railroad Trainmen
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    8. Switchback Railways
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    9. A Railyard Morgue
  • back-to-home-transparent-web