Tamping Track

A maze of track and switches in a rail yard, circa 1900. The task of tamping all that track is much the same today as it was back then. (From Old Time Railroad Stories)

When I was first out of the Army, some 40 years ago, I went to work, briefly, as a trackman on the Missouri Pacific. I worked with a track crew in Neff Yard, in Kansas City’s east bottoms.

All day long we tamped track. It was summer time, and hot. The first lesson I learned was that there isn’t any shade in a rail yard. I envied the guys in the switch engines. They had shade in the cab–and a water cooler. We had a water cooler that we dragged along on a trailer behind our motor car, but we couldn’t go for a drink unless the foreman gave us permission. Our tough old foreman was a product of the old school of railroading. If you ever saw the movie, Cool Hand Luke, it was much like that. No drink without first asking, “Getting a drink here, boss?” Often as not, the answer was, “No!”

Tamping track involved leveling the rails by means of a heavy jack and a bubble level. Also, the foreman would put his face on the rail and check it visually. Wherever he pointed out a sag in the track, I would dig a hole under the rail and set the jack in place. The foreman would indicate how high to jack up the rail. Then the tamping machine would come along and push the ballast under the ties to level up the track. Just before the machine reached the jack, I would yank it out of there and trot down the line to the next sag and dig another hole.

The problem was that the tamping machine could not work where there were switches. And a rail yard has lots of switches. There we had to do it by hand–or rather by foot–for we would use our shovels and our feet to force the ballast under each cross tie. We would kick the shovel repeatedly, thus forcing the crushed stone to fill the void under the ties–every single tie.
Sometimes we would have to vacate a track for a few minutes so the yardmaster could send a cut of cars down our line. If we were lucky, those cars might sit there for five or ten minutes before being shuttled somewhere else. And if we were really lucky there might be a string of cars sitting on an adjacent track. And we could stand in the thin line of shade that they cast and lean on our shovels and wipe the sweat from our faces.
I was young and in a hurry. I didn’t stay with that job for long.


For nearly a century most railroads governed the movement of trains by a set of rules known as Time Table & Train Order (TT & TO). In it’s simplest form, it meant that trains ran according to a time table when applicable. But when a train was late, or ran as an extra movement, then its progress was governed by written orders generated by the dispatcher.

If a given order was missed or forgotten, it often resulted in dire consequences. That possibility is addressed in some of the tales in Old Time Railroad Stories.

The written train order itself was known as a Form 19 or Form 31 (depending on whether or not the train crew had to stop and sign for the order.) The form was printed on tissue-thin paper so that it could be read at night by holding it in front of a lantern light. The light would shine through it and illuminate the words. Because of the thin paper, a train order was often referred to as a flimsey.

This train order went to the conductor and engineer (C & E) of Rock Island Extra 2630 West. It instructs the crew that the first section of train 98 (an opposing eastbound train) will wait at various locations until a given time.

The TT & TO system is no longer used on the railroads. Flimseys like the one above are now collectors items. They are part of a fascinating hobby known as railroadiana.

Entertaining New Railroading History Released in Kindle Edition

Great River Publishing is pleased to announce that the KINDLE release of
Michael Gillespie’s entertaining new railroad history is now available online. 

RAILROAD STORIES..True Adventures, Humorous Tales, and High Melodrama from the Days of Steam [Kindle Edition]

Click on cover image to explore a sample edition ONLINE or to download a sample directly to your Kindle!
In this 340 page collection of old railroading stories, Michael applies his generous wit, dry humor, and historical insights to the school of railroading literature at the height of the steam era … journals, press reports, trade magazines all produced stories meant at the time to entertain readers… but which today offer a compelling folk history from the early days of railroads.

Watch Where You Sit!

A friend of mine, a retired railroad signalman, tells this story about a hapless signalman on the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad–

It seems that a signal gang was working at a certain location on a warm summer’s morning. This was before the days of long welded rail; the GM&O rails consisted of 39-foot sections, with each section bolted to the next by joiner plates.

The steel rails would contract slightly during the night, leaving a small gap between the rail ends. By mid-morning, with the sun bearing down, the rails would expand suddenly, with a pop.

On this particular morning, one of the signal workers sat down on the track, exactly at the point where two rails joined. There came the usual pop of the expanding rails, followed by the howl of the unfortunate worker. It seems that the rail ends pinched a bit of his tender behind between them. And he couldn’t remove himself from the trap; his fellow workers had to cut a bit of his skin off to extricate him.

I don’t know if the story is true or not, but later when I worked a summer on a track gang, I always avoided sitting on a rail joint!

Rail joints every 39 feet. Watch where you sit!

Stopping a Train

It seems incredible that prior to 1900 most freight trains relied on brakemen to stop or slow down a train. The brakemen would walk the rooftops of the cars–one brakeman moving forward from the caboose, the other making his way back from the engine–and set the handbrakes of each car as they went.

Beginning in 1900, federal law required that a train be equipped with airbrakes on enough cars so that the engineer could stop the train from the cab. But even that was a slow process inasmuch as the earliest type of airbrakes were slow to apply throughout the length of the train. So what could an engineer do in an emergency?

According to the popular press of the day, the engineer would throw the engine into reverse for an emergency stop. But that generally-assumed technique doesn’t jive with the facts.

According to an article written in 1908, any engineer who tried to reverse his engine in an emergency was liable to be fired. The approved way to make an emergency stop is told in the story entitled, “Remarks by the Wife of a Locomotive Engineer,” in Old Time Railroad Stories.