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.