The fireman was busy loading the fire box, stoking the small flames back to life. He stood near the box gaining some warmth.
“Move!” gruffed the fireman to him.
He stepped down off the walkway. It was such a cold morning that his fleece jacket and mittens and cap weren’t quite enough. He had stood close to the engine with the remaining coals offering a few degrees of warmth. Technically he was not allowed on the engine but when a human has a need, technicalities fall aside and today was a human need for warmth.
The sun had yet to rise but the railroad crew was busy preparing for departure to Hill City with a load of lumber from the mill. He was waiting for the kitchen to open for breakfast before the trip to town and tried to gain a few moments of warmth near the fire box. He had left the bunkhouse earlier than most of the crew where the fire in the potbelly stove was still warm. Here in the frosty morning, his breath wafted around him as he stomped around the tracks and watched for the kitchen door to open. This run should be a quick trip down with a change of freight cars to head back later. He and another fella were due to make the run together and he was waiting for Buggie to arrive. He pulled the collar of his sheepskin coat up higher around his neck, thankful that he picked up extra work to save for this fine bit of winter protection. The sleeves were long and currently turned up at the wrist to make room for his heavy gloves. The cap offered nice protection with its bill buttoned up and its earflaps covering his ears.
Slam! He snapped a look to the main house and saw the Post Mistress grabbing bits of wood to stoke the wood stove from the pile on the back porch. He quickly started towards the bridge with an idea forming. Within several long strides, he clopped over the wooden bridge and reached the flagstones on the other side and reached the back porch. Once there, he grabbed an armful of kitchen wood and knocked on the kitchen door. She opened the door to him and stepped back to allow him room to enter with the offering of wood.
“There,” she pointed to the wood bin beside the kitchen stove. “And thank you.”
“Ma’am,” he replied touching his brow with his gloved hand.
“Might as well get started,” she offered nodding toward the tin plates on the bench.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he managed.
She may be a spitfire but she can cook, he thought to himself as he removed his hat and gloves to take a plate. The smells in the warm kitchen were a mix of coffee and biscuits and gravy. He quickly dished up his portion and went into the side room to eat. The other men in the crew would be over soon and he would rather not join them for the meal. He applied his fork to the vittles with certain determination.
“Another biscuit?” She asked as she set a plate of hot biscuits in the center of the table.
“Yes Ma’am,” he choked.
He polished off his plate with a few more quick mouthfuls and returned his plate to the kitchen, he paused.
“Need water?” he asked gesturing to the water pails under the side table.
“Please,” she called as she bustled into the side room with a large pan of gravy in her arms.
He took the two pails from under the side table and stepped outside. No sign of the crew yet so he hurried down the flagstone path to the bridge with the pails swinging with every step. He took the side trail to the spring. After a careful step down onto the plank across the spring, he had hoped for more sunlight into the narrow gulch to better negotiate the water level, dipped both pails with little effort careful not to spill any on the plank to freeze. Back onto the bank, he strode back to the main house. She met him at the door where he easily replaced the now full pails of water under the side table.
Before she could respond he backed out of the kitchen and closed the door. He was hoping to avoid the noisy crew and their rambunctious chatter. He quickly headed back to the train on the rails where he hoped the fireman was done stoking the firebox and he could wait next to the fire box. The sun was beginning to show a bit brighter in the east and the early birds were starting to call to each other.
The crew for the blacksmith shop and the sawmill were beginning to leave the bunkhouse dressed in their own winter wear complaining about the cold temperatures. He looked for Buggie among the men, his partner today.
“Hey!” He turned to look up at the engine walkway at the person who had spoken. “There you are. Get up here!” It was Buggie standing on the walkway next to the firebox. There are certain privileges provided to some and Buggie was one of them. His eyes were squinting, which meant he was smiling which was hard to determine as his face was a mass of mustache and beard and hair. He scrambled up the ladder and sidled over to the fire box.
A few more minutes passed.
“Let’s go,” sighed Buggie, hopping down to the ground. “Get your club.”
He grabbed his hickory club and followed Buggie, who also wore a heavy sheepskin coat with a tall collar and long cuffed sleeves. His own coat was a copy of the one Buggie wore as he was reminded that good winter gear was essential to his life as a Brakie. The two of them walked the line of cars checking each connection coupler and taking stock of the number and location of the wheel dogs. When Buggie was satisfied, they waited on the ground next to the engine.
Train brakes were set individually by hand for each car. If a train were to come across a semathore with both arms outstretched, the engineer must blow the whistle once. The brakie from the engine would walk back toward the rear of the train setting the brakes of each car by hand while making his way down the length of the cars. He would operate a lever with a short hickory club about three feet long and place it within the spokes of the wheel to maintain leverage on the wheel while he would kick a wooden dog into place thus locking the wheel. The wheel in the locked position would scream against the rail. At the same time the brakie from the caboose would be walking from the end of the train, performing the same task and eventually meeting somewhere in the middle. Each freight train would require a different amount of time and distance to brake and the brakies would know what it took to slow down or stop the train. Usually, it took a mile to stop a train using the hand braking system. Two whistles meant release the brakes and the brakies would walk along the train and kick out the dogs from their position and allow the wheel to operate once again.
After the double whistle, he and Buggie, at opposite ends of the train, would kick out the wooden dogs from the wheels. Then the train would start to roll off and the Brakies would climb to the rooftops and atop the freight loaded on the cars. He and Buggie would remain atop the train, club in hand listening for two whistles. After the freight cars and box car were unloaded in town, another set of cars were arranged and hauled back. The second portion of the trip would begin much the same way with a single whistle which was their direction to remove the wooden dogs from the wheels and the train would begin again. It wasn’t long until the train was ready, and he and Buggie climbed up the sides of the caboose and waited on top. Departing was uneventful and a bit glorious as the sun began to show a few rays through the steep timberline casting dagger shaped sunbeams onto the cold dark surroundings at the bottom of a steep gulch. The steam vapors from the stack swirled in a mesmerizing pattern as the train lurched at each coupling joint. The locomotive movement smoothed out and the first of many bridges was crossed. An uneventful trip to Hill City where the heavy loads were unloaded, and other cars were coupled up. A double whistle alerted the Brakies of the upcoming departure, and like clockwork, one Brakie starts at the front end and the other at the rear walking and kicking out wooden wheel dogs from their wedged positions. Same process on the return trip, though the exit from Hill City takes quite a vigorous run to make the climb out of town.
A trip that began with a clear morning turned into a windy, snowy, moist trip back. The weather change was rather unexpected and as he looked out the window, he furrowed his brow. He had some flat land experience, but Buggie was teaching him many things along the narrow gauge and about being a Brakie in these parts. A turn in the weather allowed for another opportunity to polish his skills. He was thankful for his heavy coat and hat along with his gloves but he did hope that one day his whiskers would grow thick and protective like the ones Buggie was sporting this season as sitting exposed on the freight cars in this weather left frosty edges along his coat and collar. The train swayed along the tracks and even though it was cold on his nose, there was a peace in the rhythm but he was anxious with the cold and darkness falling to head back to the caboose for the remainder of the trip. Buggie would go forward to the engine.
“Let’s get inside. All looks good for now,” Buggie directed him getting up carefully with the icy surfaces around them. The frosty icy bits in his beard below his mouth and his frozen mustache making it hard to be heard.
“See ya,” he replied and headed just as carefully to the caboose.
A few more hours and the train would arrive in the Mystic Depot, and with this weather, he hoped without any need for his skills.
He enjoyed the silence in the caboose and was fairly comfortable in his layers and his coat now with the cuffs turned down to add protection to his gloved hands. Then the single whistle sounded and he peered out the icy window to check their location. He could see the ground and feel the series of tight turns indicating their soon arrival to the depot. He left the shelter of the caboose and began the process of jamming his club and kicking dogs into the wheels along the length of the train. It seemed to him that the train was taking longer to come to a stop and when he passed the point where he met Buggie earlier in the day he became concerned. As he worked further up the train and closer to the engine, the train finally rolled and screamed to a stop. The supervisor and engineer hustled off the engine with a bit of a blustery attitude.
“Why did you overshoot the platform,” they both shouted at him, and looking around continued “and where is Buggie?” He scanned the area breathing hard from his efforts while the Boss Man from the main house hollered from the other side of the train.
“Help! He is over here!” yelled Boss Man. The men scrambled across the coupling to the other side and were met with a tremendous site: Buggie hanging from his coat collar where it caught a nail in the side of the freight car. He was covered in ice and frantically waving his arms and loudly protesting his predicament. He was securely caught on the nail by the fine quality of his sheepskin coat. By God’s goodness and favor this man survived.
Or at least that is how I imagined it could have happened as I sit along the trail near the first bridge out of Mystic. The railroad is now a public trail called the Mickelson Trail from Edgemont to Deadwood. Components of the story are real, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, lumber mill, Post Mistress, and the railroad. The name of this particular man is lost to history as near as I have been able to research but I hope you enjoyed it nonetheless.
Brakies really did set the brakes by hand, one car at a time. This particular incident was related to myself by Russel Frink who grew up in Mystic and had many adventures in and around the area. The time of this story was early 1900’s and the story was related to him by his father, Geo. Frink. George saw the man hanging alongside the car firmly caught by his sheepskin collar on a nail protruding from the side of the car. He had been busy setting the brakes when, in the icy conditions, he slipped from the top of the car and slid down its side.
Later, George Westinghouse, who is better known for his electrical inventions, invented air brakes as the braking systems for the trains. I am sure there were many cold and grateful brakies who applauded his braking systems. Written by Dawn Madsen