Literature in these days throws light into many an out-of-the-way corner. It is rapidly making us all acquainted with one another. A locomotive engineer in England has recently written a book upon his art, in order, as he says, „to communicate that species of knowledge which it is necessary for an engine-driver to possess who aspires to take high rank on the footplate!” He magnifies his office, and evidently regards the position of an engineer as highly enviable.
„It is very natural,” he remarks, „for those who are unacquainted with locomotive driving to admire the life of an engine-man, and to imagine how very pleasant it must be to travel on the engine. But they do not think of the gradations by which alone the higher positions are reached; they see only on the express engine the picturesque side of the result of many years of patient observation and toil.”
This passage was to me a revelation; for I had looked upon an engineer and his assistant with some compassion as well as admiration, and have often thought how extremely disagreeable it must be to travel on the engine as they do. Not so Michael Reynolds, the author of this book, who has risen from the rank of fireman to that of locomotive inspector on the London and Brighton railroad. He tells us that a model engineer „is possessed by a master passion – a passion for the monarch of speed.” Such an engineer is distinguished, also, for his minute knowledge of the engine, and nothing makes him happier than to get some new light upon one of its numberless parts. So familiar is he with it that his ear detects the slightest variation in the beats of the machinery, and can tell the shocks and shakes which are caused by a defective road from those which are due to a defective engine. Even his nose acquires a peculiar sensitiveness. In the midst of so much heat, he can detect that which arises from friction before any mischief has been done. At every rate of speed he knows just how his engine ought to sound, shake, and smell.
Let us see how life passes on a locomotive, and what is the secret of success in the business of an engineer. The art of arts in engine-driving is the management of the fire. Every reader is aware that taking care of a fire is something in which few persons become expert. Most of us think that we ourselves possess the knack of it, but not another individual of our household agrees with us. Now, a man born with a genius for managing a locomotive is one who has a high degree of the fire-making instinct. Mr. Reynolds distinctly says that a man may be a good mechanic, may have even built locomotives, and yet, if he is not a good „shovel-man,” if he does not know how to manage his fire, he will never rise to distinction in his profession. The great secret is to build the fire so that the whole mass of fuel will ignite and burn freely without the use of the blower, and so bring the engine to the train with a fire that will last. When we see an engine blowing off steam furiously at the beginning of the trip, we must not be surprised if the train reaches the first station behind time, since it indicates a fierce, thin fire, that has been rapidly ignited by the blower. An accomplished engineer backs his engine to the train without any sign of steam or smoke, but with a fire so strong and sound that he can make a run of fifty miles in an hour without touching it.
The engineer, it appears, if he has an important run to make, comes to his engine an hour before starting. His first business, on an English railroad, is to read the notices, posted up in the engine house, of any change in the condition of the road requiring special care. His next duty is to inspect his engine in every part: first, to see if there is water enough in the boiler, and that the fire is proceeding properly; then, that he has the necessary quantity of water and coal in the tender. He next gets into the pit under his engine, with the proper tools, and inspects every portion of it, trying every nut and pin within his reach from below. Then he walks around the engine, and particularly notices if the oiling apparatus is exactly adjusted. Some parts require, for example, four drops of oil every minute, and he must see that the apparatus is set so as to yield just that quantity. He is also to look into his tool-box, and see if every article is in its place. Mr. Reynolds enumerates twenty-two objects which a good engineer will always have within his reach, such as fire implements of various kinds, machinist tools, lamps of several sorts, oiling vessels, a quantity of flax and yarn, copper wire, a copy of the rules and his time-table; all of which, are to be in the exact place designed for them, so that they can be snatched in a moment.
One of the chief virtues of the engineer and his companion, the fireman, is one which we are not accustomed to associate with their profession; and that is cleanliness. On this point our author grows eloquent, and he declares that a clean engineer is almost certain to be an excellent one in every particular. The men upon a locomotive cannot, it is true, avoid getting black smudge upon their faces. The point is that both the men and their engines should be clean in all the essential particulars, so that all the faculties of the men and all the devices of the engine shall work with ease and certainty.
„There is something,” he remarks, „so very degrading about dirt, that even a poor beast highly appreciates clean straw. Cleanliness hath a charm that hideth a multitude of faults, and it is not difficult to trace a connection between habitual cleanliness and a respect for general order, for punctuality, for truthfulness, for all placed in authority.”
Do you mark that sentence, reader? The spirit of the Saxon race speaks in those lines. You observe that this author ranks among the virtues „a respect for all placed in authority.” That, of course, may be carried too far; nevertheless, the strong races, and the worthy men of all races, do cherish a respect for lawful authority. A good soldier is proud to salute his officer.
On some English railroads both engineers and engines are put to tests much severer than upon roads elsewhere. Between Holyhead and Chester, a distance of ninety-seven miles, the express trains run without stopping, and they do this with so little strain that an engine performed the duty every day for several years. A day’s work of some crack engineers is to run from London to Crewe and back again in ten hours, a distance of three hundred and thirty miles, stopping only at Rugby for three minutes on each trip. There are men who perform this service every working day the whole year through, without a single delay. This is a very great achievement, and can only be done by engineers of the greatest skill and steadiness. It was long, indeed, before any man could do it, and even now there are engineers who dare not take the risk. On the Hudson River road some of the trains run from New York to Poughkeepsie, eighty miles, without stopping, but not every engineer could do it at first, and very often a train stopped at Peekskill to take in water. The water is the difficulty, and the good engineer is one who wastes no water and no coal.
Mr. Reynolds enumerates all the causes of accidents from the engine, many of which cannot be understood by the uninitiated. As we read them over, and see in how many ways an engine can go wrong, we wonder that a train ever arrives at its journey’s end in safety. At the conclusion of this formidable list, the author confesses that it is incomplete, and notifies young engineers that nobody can teach them the innermost secrets of the engine. Some of these, he remarks, require „years of study,” and even then they remain in some degree mysterious. Nevertheless, he holds out to ambition the possibility of final success, and calls upon young men to concentrate all their energies upon the work.
„Self-reliance,” he says, „is a grand element of character: it has won Olympic crowns and Isthmian laurels; it confers kinship with men who have vindicated their divine right to be held in the world’s memory. Let the master passion of the soul evoke undaunted energy in pursuit of the attainment of one end, aiming for the highest in the spirit of the lowest, prompted by the burning thought of reward, which sooner or later will come.”
We perceive that Michael Reynolds possesses one of the prime requisites of success: he believes in the worth and dignity of his vocation; and in writing this little book he has done something to elevate it in the regard of others. To judge from some of his directions, I should suppose that engineers in England are not, as a class, as well educated or as intelligent as ours. Locomotive engineers in the United States rank very high in intelligence and respectability of character.