The Nerve of Foley

by | Oct 15, 1998

There had been rumors all winter that the engineers were going to strike. Certainly we of the operating department had warning enough. Yet in the railroad life there is always friction in some quarter; the railroad man sleeps like the soldier, with an ear alert – but just the same he sleeps, for with waking […]

There had been rumors all winter that the engineers were going to strike. Certainly we of the operating department had warning enough. Yet in the railroad life there is always friction in some quarter; the railroad man sleeps like the soldier, with an ear alert – but just the same he sleeps, for with waking comes duty.

Our engineers were good fellows. If they had faults, they were American faults – rashness, a liberality bordering on extravagance, and a headstrong, violent way of reaching conclusions-traits born of ability and self-confidence and developed by prosperity.

One of the best men we had on a locomotive was Andrew Cameron; at the same time he was one of the hardest to manage, because he was young and headstrong. Andy, a big, powerful fellow, ran opposite Felix Kennedy on the Flyer. The fast runs require young men. If you will notice, you will rarely see an old engineer on a fast passenger run; even a young man can stand only a few years of that kind of work. High speed on a locomotive is a question of nerve and endurance – to put it bluntly, a question of flesh and blood.

“You don’t think much of this strike, do you, Mr. Reed?” said Andy to me one night.

” Don’t think there’s going to be any, Andy.”

He laughed knowingly.

“What actual grievance have the boys?” I asked.

“The trouble’s on the East End,” he replied, evasively.

“Is that any reason for calling a thousand men out on this end?”

” If one goes out, they all go.”

“Would you go out?”

“Would I? You bet!”

“A man with a home and a wife and a baby boy like yours ought to have more sense.”

Getting up to leave, he laughed again confidently. ” That’s all right. We’ll bring you fellows to terms.”

” Maybe,” I retorted, as he closed the door. But I hadn’t the slightest idea they would begin the attempt that night. I was at home and sound asleep when the caller tapped on my window. I threw up the sash; it was pouring rain and dark as a pocket.

” What is it, Barney? A wreck?” I exclaimed.

“Worse than that. Everything’s tied up.”

“What do you mean?”

“The engineers have struck.”

“Struck? What time is it?”

“Half-past three. They went out at three o’clock.” Throwing on my clothes, I floundered behind Barney’s lantern to the depot. The superintendent was already in his office talking to the master-mechanic.

Bulletins came in every few minutes from various points announcing trains tied up. Before long we began to hear from the East End. Chicago reported all engineers out; Omaha wired, no trains moving. When the sun rose that morning, our entire system, extending, through seven States and Territories, was absolutely paralyzed.

It was an astounding situation, but one that must be met. It meant either an ignominious surrender to the engineers or a fight to the death. For our part, we had only to wait for orders. It was just six o’clock when the chief train-dispatcher who was tapping at a key, said:

” Here’s something from headquarters.”

We crowded close around him. His pen flew across the clip; the message was addressed to all division superintendents. It was short; but at the end of it he wrote a name we rarely saw in our office. It was that of the railroad magnate we knew as “the old man,” the president of the system, and his words were few:

” Move the trains.”

” Move the trains !” repeated the superintendent. ” Yes; but trains can’t be moved by pinch-bars nor by main force.”

We spent the day arguing with the strikers. They were friendly, but firm. Persuasion, entreaties, threats, we exhausted, and ended just where we began, except that we had lost our tempers. The sun set without the turn of a wheel. The victory of the first day was certainly with the strikers.

Next day it looked pretty blue around the depot. Not a car was moved; the engineers and firemen were a unit. But the wires sung hard all that day and all that night. Just before midnight Chicago wired that No. 1- our big passenger-train, the Denver Flyer – had started out on time, with the superintendent of motive power as engineer and a wiper for fireman. The message came from the second vice-president. He promised to deliver the train to our division on time the next evening, and he asked, ” Can you get it through to Denver?”

We looked at each other. At last all eyes gravitated towards Neighbor, our master-mechanic.

The train-dispatcher was waiting. “What shall I say?” he asked.

The division chief of the motive power was a tremendously big Irishman, with a voice like a fog-horn. Without an instant’s hesitation the answer came clear.

” Say ‘Yes’ !”

Every one of us started. It was throwing the gage of battle. Our word had gone out; the division was pledged; the fight was on.

Next evening the strikers, through some mysterious channel, got word that the Flyer was expected. About nine o’clock a crowd of them began to gather round the depot.

It was after one o’clock when No. 1 pulled in and the foreman of the Omaha roundhouse swung down from the locomotive cab. The strikers clustered around the engine like a swarm of angry bees; but that night, though there was plenty of jeering, there was no actual violence. When they saw Neighbor climb into the cab to take the run west there was a sullen silence.

Next day a committee of strikers, with Andy Cameron, very cavalier, at their head, called on me.

” Mr. Reed,” said he, officiously, ” we’ve come to notify you not to run any more trains through here till this strike’s settled. The boys won’t stand it; that’s all.” With that be turned on his heel to leave with his following.

” Hold on, Cameron,” I replied, raising my hand as I spoke; ” that’s not quite all. I suppose you men represent your grievance committee.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I happen to represent, in the superintendent’s absence, the management of this road. I simply want to say to you, and to your committee, that I take my orders from the president and the general manager not from you nor anybody you represent. That’s all.”

Every hour the bitterness increased. We got a few trains through, but we were terribly crippled. As for freight, we made no pretense of moving it. Trainloads of fruit and meat rotted in the yards. The strikers grew more turbulent daily. They beat our new men and crippled our locomotives. Then our troubles with the new men were almost as bad. They burned out our crown sheets; they got mixed up on orders all the time. They ran into open switches and into each other continually, and had us very nearly crazy.

I kept tab on one of the new engineers for a week. He began by backing into a diner so hard that he smashed every dish in the car, and ended by running into a siding a few days later and setting two tanks of oil on fire, that burned up a freight depot. I figured he cost us forty thousand dollars the week he ran. Then he went back to selling windmills.

After this experience I was sitting in my office one evening, when a youngish fellow in a slouch-hat opened the door and stuck his head in.

“What do you want?” I growled.

” Are you Mr. Reed?”

“What do you want?”

“I want to speak to Mr. Reed.”

“Well, what is it?”

“Are you Mr. Reed?”

” Confound you, yes! What do you want?”

“Me? I don’t want anything. I’m just asking, that’s all.”

His impudence staggered me so that I took my feet off the desk.

“Heard you were looking for men,” he added.

“No,” I snapped. “I don’t want any men.”

” Wouldn’t be any show to get on an engine, would there?”

A week earlier I should have risen and fallen on his neck. But there had been others.

” There’s a show to get your head broke,” I suggested.

” I don’t mind that, if I get my time.”

“What do you know about running an engine ?”

” Run one three years.”

” On a threshing-machine?”

” On the Philadelphia and Reading.”

“Who sent you in here?”

” Just dropped in.”

“Sit down.”

I eyed him sharply as he dropped into a chair.

” When did you quit the Philadelphia and Reading?”

“About six months ago.”



I began to get interested. After a few more questions I took him into the superintendent’s office. But at the door I thought it well to drop a hint.

” Look here, my friend, if you’re a spy you’d better keep out of this. This man would wring your neck as quick as he’d suck an orange. See?”

“Let’s tackle him, anyhow,” replied the fellow, eyeing me coolly.

I introduced him to Mr. Lancaster, and left them together. Pretty soon the superintendent came into my office.

“What do you make of him, Reed?” said he.

” What do you make of him?”

Lancaster studied a minute.

” Take him over to the round-house and see what he knows.”

I walked over with the new find, chatting warily. When we reached a live engine I told him to look it over. He threw off his coat, picked up a piece of waste, and swung into the cab.

“Run her out to the switch,” said I, stepping up myself.

He pinched the throttle, and we steamed slowly out of the house. A minute showed he was at home on an engine.

“Can you handle it?” I asked, as he shut off after backing down to the round-house.

” You use soft coal,” he replied, trying the injector. ” I’m used to hard. This injector is new to me. Guess I can work it, though.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t say.”

“What is it?” I asked, curtly.


“Well, Foley, if you have as much sense as you have gall you ought to get along. If you act straight, you’ll never want a job again as long as you live. If you don’t, you won’t want to live very long.”

” Got any tobacco ?”

” Here, Baxter,” said I, turning to the round-house foreman, “this is Foley. Give him a chew, and mark him up to go out on 77 tonight. If he monkeys with anything around the house kill him.”

Baxter looked at Foley, and Foley looked at Baxter; and Baxter not getting the tobacco out quick enough, Foley reminded him he was waiting.

We didn’t pretend to run freights, but I concluded to try the fellow on one, feeling sure that if he was crooked he would ditch it and skip.

So Foley ran a long string of empties and a car or two of rotten oranges down to Harvard Junction that night, with one of the dispatchers for pilot. Under my orders they had a train made up at the junction for him to bring back to McCloud. They had picked up all the strays in the yards, including half a dozen cars of meat that the local board of health had condemned after it had laid out in the sun for two weeks, and a car of butter we had been shifting around ever since the beginning of the strike.

When the strikers saw the stuff coming in next morning behind Foley they concluded I had gone crazy.

” What do you think of the track, Foley?” said I.

“Fair,” he replied, sitting down on my desk. ” Stiff hill down there by Zanesville.”

“Any trouble to climb it?” I asked, for I had purposely given him a heavy train.

“Not with that car of butter. If you hold that butter another week it will climb a hill without any engine.”

“Can you handle a passenger-train ?”

“I guess so.”

“I’m going to send you west on No. 1 tonight.”

“Then you’ll have to give me a fireman. That guy you sent out last night is a lightning-rod-peddler. The dispatcher threw most of the coal.”

“I’ll go with you myself, Foley. I can give you steam. Can you stand it to double back to-night?”

” I can stand it if you can.”

When I walked into the round-house in the evening, with a pair of overalls on, Foley was in the cab getting ready for the run.

Neighbor brought the Flyer in from the East. As soon as he had uncoupled and got out of the way we backed down with the 448. It was the best engine we had left, and, luckily for my back, an easy steamer. Just as we coupled to the mail-car a crowd of strikers swarmed out of the dusk. They were in an ugly mood, and when Andy Cameron and Bat Nicholson sprang up into the cab I saw we were in for trouble.

” Look here, partner,” exclaimed Cameron, laying a heavy hand on Foley’s shoulder; ” you don’t want to take this train out, do you? You wouldn’t beat honest working men out of a job?”

I’m not beating anybody out of a job. If you want to take out this train, take it out. If you don’t, get out of this cab.”

Cameron was nonplused. Nicholson, a surly brute, raised his fist menacingly.

“See here, boss,” he growled, “we won’t stand no scabs on this line.”

” Get out of this cab.”

” I’ll promise you you’ll never get out of it alive, my buck, if you ever get into it again,” cried Cameron, swinging down.

To be continued…

Frank H. Spearman (1859-1937) was a prolific writer of heroic fiction.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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