SO, day by day, the work at the dispatchers’ office went on in its
accustomed routine. Always there was the clatter of the keys, always the
trains pulling in and out of the yards, always the coming and going of
men like a mighty and well-disciplined army. They were servants of the
mightiest industrial force in the world, the thing which had done most
for the development of commerce, the advancement of trade—the thing
without which, in a word, the world of to-day would not be possible. Few
people realize the tremendous business done by the railroads of the
world. In the United States alone, in a single year, besides the eight
hundred million passengers carried, a billion and a half tons of freight
are moved, the total passenger and freight mileage reaching the
inconceivable total of two hundred and forty-two billion, for which the
roads received nearly two and a half billion dollars, or more than twice
the amount of the national debt. Figures like that, of course, make no
impression on the mind—they are too vast, too grandiose for human

And the gigantic task of moving this freight and these passengers goes
on from day to day, from hour to hour, in the usual course of things,
just as the sun rises and sets, almost as though operated by a law of
nature and not by man’s exertion, by the law of gravitation and not in
defiance of it. And just as people grow accustomed to the miracle of
sunrise and cease to wonder at it, so they grow accustomed to the
miracle of steam. Only those who, day by day, do battle to keep the
great machine in operation realize fully what a desperate battle it is.
Allan West was soon to have a personal experience with a vital part of
the mechanism with which he had never before come in contact.

“Allan,” Superintendent Schofield said one morning, stopping beside his
desk, “we’ve got our new time-card about ready, and I wish you’d arrange
to-morrow so you can come and help us string the chart.”

“String the chart?” repeated Allan.

“Yes. It’ll interest you—besides, it’s something you ought to know.
We’re going to throw Number Two half an hour later, and make one or two
other changes.”

Allan knew that the “time-card meeting” had been held at Cincinnati a
few days before. Indeed, Mr. Schofield had talked over with him the
projected changes, and the reasons for them.

For it must be understood that railroads everywhere are striving
ceaselessly to arrange their time-cards to meet the needs of the public
and to secure the greatest possible economy of operation. It is foolish
for a road to run two trains when one will do, but while the number of
trains is cut to a minimum, they must be run at such hours as will be
convenient to the public which they serve, otherwise they won’t get the
traffic. A certain number of people, of course, have to travel every
day, whether the trains run at convenient hours or not; but with a much
greater number travel is a matter of pleasure, of choice, and with them
convenience has great weight—much greater than one would suppose.

Thus, in the vicinity of a great city, there must be locals going in in
the morning and coming out in the afternoon, so that “commuters” may get
back and forth to work, and shoppers may be accommodated. These trains
must be sufficient in number to meet the demand, and must be run at such
hours as will suit the different classes of people they serve. If the
train-service is bad, the “commuters” will move, if they can, to a place
where it is better—where they can get to and from work more cheaply and
easily. Rents will go down in the district which is badly served, real
estate will decrease in value, an undesirable class of people will move
into it, and the traffic from it will drop away to little or nothing. So
the road, by carelessness at the beginning, brings its own punishment
surely at the end.

Further, it is immaterial as to the time that the through trains pass
these points, since they gather practically no traffic from them. A
through train considers only its terminals—when is the best time for it
to leave New York and arrive at Cincinnati. Can such a train be arranged
to leave New York after business hours and arrive at Pittsburgh before
them? Two great roads are at the present time running trains between New
York and Chicago with the boast that one can go from one city to the
other without losing an hour of the business day.

So with through trains, the most important object is to shorten the
running time as much as possible. The “locals” can take care of the
short-haul traffic, and their hours can be accommodated to it; but the
through trains must get from terminus to terminus, with regard only to
the time of leaving and arriving.

In consequence, time-cards are constantly changing. Perhaps a curve has
been straightened, or a tunnel completed that saves a long detour;
perhaps a grade has been lowered, an old bridge replaced with a new
one—such changes as these every road is constantly making. And
time-cards change with them.

Or perhaps faster and heavier engines are purchased, and a complete
change of time-card is at once rendered necessary. For every through
train runs as fast as it can run with safety. And as a road grows older,
and time-card after time-card is made out, the running time of the
trains is made more and more perfect, until there are long stretches
where the engineer does not have to touch his throttle, so exactly does
the running time of the train correspond with the best the engine can
do. The passenger who remarks to a companion upon the smoothness of the
running, and who glances with approbation at his watch as the train
pulls into its destination exactly on time, does not know what patient
and long experimenting it took to achieve that result.

* * * * *

“Ya-as,” drawled old Bill Williams, sarcastically, when I read the above
paragraph to him. “Ya-as, that’s all very pretty in theory—but how about
the practice, my boy?”

I had to confess that I was weak in practice. But I knew that Bill was
strong, for he had served over forty years at the throttle before an
affection of the eyes had caused him to retire from active service and
to open a railroad boarding-house, by means of which he still managed to
keep in touch with the life of the road.

“Wa-al,” he went on, taking a deliberate chew of tobacco, and putting
his feet up on the railing of the veranda which ran across the front of
the Williams House, “theory an’ practice air two mighty different
things. Time-cards is usually built on theory, an’ it’s up to the
engineer t’ maintain ’em in practice. The trouble is that time-cards is
made out fer engines in puffect condition, which not one in ten is. So
the engineer has to make up fer the faults of his engine—a good deal
like a good rider’ll lift his hoss over a five-barred gate, where a bad
one’ll come a cropper every time. So when y’ see a train that’s come a
thousand mile, pull in on time to the minute, don’t you go an’ make the
mistake o’ thinkin’ it was the engine, or the time-card, or even the
dispatchers what did it, ’cause it wasn’t. It was the crews what brought
thet there train through in spite o’ wind an’ weather an’ other folkses

* * * * *

Nevertheless, even Bill would admit, I think, the necessity of carefully
and intelligently prepared time-cards, and certainly there was no one
item in the operation of the road to which the officials gave such close
and continued attention. Two or three meetings were held at the general
offices at Cincinnati, at which all of the officials of the
transportation department, as well as the general officials, were
present. Here, with data carefully collected, it was decided how many
passenger and freight trains were to be run, what changes of time were
desirable, and at what hour and minute each train was to leave and
arrive at the termini of the division. It now remained to provide the
meeting-points for these trains, and this task was left to the division
officials at Wadsworth. It was this ceremony, known as “stringing the
chart,” at which Allan had been invited to assist.

The chart itself was a large map about five feet high by eight wide,
covered with numberless parallel lines. Across the top and bottom of the
board, at equal distances, were twenty-four numbers, representing the
twenty-four hours. They began at twelve midnight, ran up to twelve noon,
and then to twelve midnight again. From top to bottom of the board,
connecting these numbers, perpendicular lines were drawn. The space
between the numbers was then divided into twelve equal parts, and
lighter lines drawn connecting them. The space between every two of
these lines therefore represented five minutes, and there were 288 of
them running across the board from top to bottom.

On each side of the board at the top, and on a line with the top row of
numbers, the word “Cincinnati” was printed. At the bottom of the board,
on either side, and in line with the numbers there, was the word
“Parkersburg.” These are the termini of the division, and they are 195.3
miles apart. Then along each side of the board the names of all the
stations of the line were printed, the distances between them and the
termini being carefully figured out so that the distances on the board
should be exactly proportionate to the real distances. Horizontal lines
were then drawn across the board, connecting the names of the same
station, and the time-chart was complete.

Usually it was stored in a back room, out of the way, carefully covered
so that it would be kept clean. On the morning in question, however, it
was uncovered, carefully wiped off, and then wheeled into the
superintendent’s office, where the ceremony of stringing it was to be
performed. Mr. Schofield was there, and the train master, and Allan,
eager to see the process. On the superintendent’s desk lay two balls of
string, one white and one red, and a note-book in which had been jotted
down the time assigned to each train.

“Well, I guess we’re ready to begin,” said Mr. Schofield, picking up the
white ball and stepping before the chart. “We’ll string the east-bound
trains first,” he added.

Let it be said here that east-bound trains are always indicated by even
numbers and west-bound trains by odd ones. Thus, on any road, “Number
Four,” for instance, will always be an east-bound train, and “Number
Three” will always be a west-bound one. In addition to which, it should
be remembered that east-bound trains always have right of way over
west-bound trains of the same class. That is to say, when an east-bound
and west-bound first-class passenger train meet, it is the west-bound
train which runs in on a siding and waits until the other sweeps by on
the main track.

“Now,” continued Mr. Schofield, “we’ll begin with Number Four, which has
rights over everything. Look at those notes, Allan, and tell me at what
time it is to leave Cincinnati.”

“At 12.15 P. M.,” said Allan, picking up the note-book.

“Correct. Now this line running up and down across the centre of the
board is for twelve o’clock noon. This third line after it is for 12.15,
five minutes for each line. This line across the top of the board is for
Cincinnati, so I drive a pin there and loop the end of this cord around
it, so,” and he suited the action to the word. “Now, at what time does
Number Four reach Wadsworth?”

“At 3.05,” answered Allan, looking at the notes.

“Well—see, here is the 3.05 line, and here, running across the board,
about midway down, is the Wadsworth line. I drive another pin at the
intersection of these two lines, draw the cord tight and loop it about
this second pin. And now what?”

“The train stops at Wadsworth five minutes to change engines,” said

“So I drive a third pin right out along this Wadsworth line at the
intersection of it and the 3.10 o’clock line. Now, what time does it
reach Parkersburg?”

“At 5.50 P. M.”

“Well, here’s the 5.50 line, and here, at the bottom of the board, is
the Parkersburg line. I drive a fourth pin there, draw the cord tight
and tie it. Then I cut it off, and tie at the end this little tag marked
‘Number Four.’ Now what does that cord indicate?”

Allan, looking at the board, saw a line that ran roughly like this:

[Illustration: (For complete time-table, see diagram facing page 60)]

“Why,” he answered, after a moment, his eyes shining, “the cord
indicates the exact time that the train passes every station along the

“Exactly,” assented Mr. Schofield. “Now, just by way of illustration,
we’ll put on a west-bound train next,” and he picked up the red ball.
“We’ll take Number Three. At what time does it leave Parkersburg?”

“At 11.40 A. M.”

“So I drive the pin here. When does it reach Wadsworth?”

“At 2.20 P. M.”

“So the pin goes here. It stays there five minutes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes—just like Number Four.”

“So another pin goes here. When does it reach Cincinnati?”

“At 5.35 P. M.”

“And here’s the fourth pin—and there’s your red string across the board,
indicating Number Three. Now look at them.”

Here is what Allan saw:

[Illustration: Time-Table]

“You notice the two strings cross at the 2.45 line,” continued Mr.
Schofield, “between Musselman and Roxabel. What does that mean?”

“It means the trains will meet there.”

“But they can’t meet out there on a single track. They’ve got to meet at
a station where there’s a siding. So we’ve got to hold Number Three at
Musselman three minutes until Number Four can get past—in other words,
we’ve got to change the red string a little, like this,” and he drove
another pin on the 2.42 line at Musselman, and tied the red string to
it. “That provides a meeting place for those two trains. Now let’s go
ahead with the others.”

White strings representing all the east-bound passenger trains were put
on the board in the same way. All of them ran more or less parallel with
each other, the faster trains inclining more toward the perpendicular
and the slower trains more toward the horizontal. To each string was
attached a little tag bearing the number of the train, and that being
done, the superintendent declared it was time to adjourn for lunch.

An hour later, the work of stringing the west-bound passenger trains was
taken up, the red cord being used to represent them. As they necessarily
ran in the opposite direction, these strings crossed the strings
representing the east-bound trains, and each of these crossings
indicated a meeting-point. When the strings were first put on the board,
it was found that many of them, as had been the case with those
representing trains Three and Four, crossed between stations, and as it
is against the rules of all railroading to permit two trains going in
opposite directions to meet on the same track, the running time of the
trains had to be so altered that the meetings occurred at a station, or
at least at a place where there was a siding, so that one train could
pull in out of the way of the other. The through passenger trains, which
are given preference, were so timed that they could run from end to end
of the division without getting out of the way of anything; the
accommodations usually had two or three short waits, but so carefully
were these timed that their passengers would never notice it. In fact,
wherever it was possible, the running time of the train was extended a
few minutes, so that the delay would be only a minute or two.

After all the passenger trains had been placed on the board and the
meeting-points provided for, the freight trains were added.
Meeting-points with the freight trains had also to be arranged, but this
was comparatively easy, as it was simply a question of the freight
heading in at the last siding it could reach in advance of the
passenger, and then waiting for the passenger to go by.

When every train had been placed on the board and every meeting-point
provided for, the time at which every train arrived at and left every
station was carefully noted down.

“And that’s done,” said Mr. Schofield, with a sigh of satisfaction.
“It’s a big job, and I’m mighty glad we won’t have to do it soon again.
What do you think of it?”

“It’s great,” Allan answered. “Who thought it out?”

“I don’t know. It’s been in use for a long time—practically all roads
‘string the chart,’ just as we have done. It’s the safest system that
has ever been devised.”

[Illustration: On this chart only the more important trains are shown.
Dotted lines have been used to represent white cords, or east-bound
trains, and solid lines to represent red cords, or west-bound trains.]

“I don’t see how any could be safer,” said Allan. “And I’m awfully glad
you showed me how it works.”

“Oh, I’d do that, of course,” laughed the superintendent. “I want you to
know everything there is to know about railroading. It will all come in
handy some day. Now, I’ll turn these notes over to the printer, and
we’ll have another bout when we get the proofs.”

In a few days, the first proof of the new time-card was returned to Mr.
Schofield, and he and Allan went over it carefully, comparing it with
the chart to make certain that there was no error in figures and that
every meeting-point was provided for. With the chart to go by, it was
impossible that any meeting-point could be overlooked. A second proof
was treated in the same way, and finally O.K’d. Then the time-cards were
printed—not at all in the form with which the public is acquainted with
them, but as large oblong pamphlets of twenty-four pages,—distributed to
the road’s employees, and at twelve o’clock midnight on December 21st,
the new card went into effect. All the public knew of it was a few lines
in the newspapers announcing that this train or the other would arrive a
few minutes later or earlier than it had been doing, and most people
wondered, if they thought about it at all, why it had been necessary to
get out a new time-card at all for changes so unimportant.

THE installing of a new time-card is not so simple a thing as one might
imagine. For that one night, every engineer and conductor has to bear in
mind two schedules, the old one and the new one. For, though the new one
goes into effect, technically, at midnight, it is, of course, impossible
that it should do so in reality. A train, for instance, which started
under the old schedule at 10.50 P. M. and which, under the new one,
would start fifteen or twenty minutes earlier, could not, once it was
out on the road, make up that time, so it was compelled to run by the
old schedule until it had finished its trip, even though that carried it
over the time after which the new schedule went into effect. In other
words, every train which was on the road at midnight, must continue
under the old schedule until it reached its destination.

So that night was always one of anxiety. Trainmen, who often get mixed
on a single schedule, are only too likely to do so on a double one!

It so happened, however, that the exciting events of that night were not
due to forgetfulness, but to a danger which no one could foresee or
guard against, and which is, in consequence, one most feared by railroad
men. And it developed the latent heroism in two men in a way which is
still talked of on the rail, where these tales are passed on from mouth
to mouth wherever trainmen congregate.

The night was a cold and windy one, with a swirl of snow now and then,
just sufficient to obscure the slippery track ahead, and yet not dense
enough to cause the engineer to abandon in despair the task of trying to
see what he was driving into. As a consequence, Engineer Jim Adams,
pulling first section of through freight No. 98, had strained his eyes
until they ached, in the effort to descry track and signals. More than
once his hand had trembled on the throttle, as he fancied he saw another
headlight gleaming through the mist ahead, but which, at the last
instant, resolved itself into a reflection of his own. So when an
unmistakable red glow did appear there, he waited an instant and batted
his eyes savagely once or twice before he threw on the brakes.

“It’s the Jones Run bridge!” yelled the front brakeman, who, perched on
the fireman’s seat, had seen the glare at the same instant. “Git out o’
here!” And jumping to the floor of the cab, he balanced himself an
instant in the gangway and then sprang out into the darkness.

The fireman took one look at the swirling flames ahead and followed him.
Then the engineer, having set the brakes and closed the throttle, also
leaped out into the darkness. But even as he leaped, he suddenly
realized that the train had just impetus enough to carry it to the
bridge. It would stop there, be consumed, and the loss to the company
would be thousands and thousands of dollars.

By a supreme effort, he landed on his feet, and then, running a step or
two, managed to catch the hand-hold on the first freight car, as it
passed him. In a minute, he had clambered up the ladder, over the coal
in the tender and down into the cab again, where he released the brakes,
opened the throttle wide, and started on a wild run for the bridge. In
an instant, the flames were around him and he felt the bridge shake and
sway, but it held, and the train crossed in safety.

Meanwhile, back in the caboose, a strange scene was enacting. The
brakeman and conductor, who had been cosily sleeping in their bunks,
were suddenly thrown out to the floor by a terrific impact, and every
loose object seemed to be hurling itself toward the front end of the
car. It took a minute for them to disentangle themselves and get to
their feet again. Then they made a simultaneous rush for the door, just
as the brakes were released and the train jerked forward again. The
conductor opened the door and started to put his head out to see what
was the matter, when he suddenly found himself surrounded by a swirl of

“Gosh all whittaker!” he yelled, and slammed the door shut again. Then
he jumped for the box of fusees which every caboose carries.

The brakeman, who was green, was too frightened even to be interested.
Otherwise he would have seen the conductor jerk out two fusees, and
then, opening the door again, drop off the train just as it cleared the
bridge. He scrambled down the bank, and, holding the fusees high over
his head, plunged into the icy water without an instant’s hesitation,
and then, stopping only to light one of the fusees at a glowing ember,
raced wildly away down the track, waving it above his head. For he had
remembered the second section following close behind; he knew that the
bridge would be so weakened that another train could not cross it;
feared that, in the swirling snow, the engineer might not see the flames
until too late; and instantly took the only effective means to stop the
oncoming train.

Stop it he did, of course, and after making sure the bridge could not be
saved, both trains flagged their way to the nearest stations to give
word of the disaster. Ten hours later, a temporary bridge replaced the
old one, and traffic was running as usual.

An investigation of the cause of the fire followed a few days later, but
nothing definite concerning it could be discovered. It might have
started, as so many do, from ashes dropped from the fire-box of a
passing train; or it might have been set on fire by tramps, either by
accident or design. Orders were at once sent in for an iron bridge to
replace the wooden one, so that a repetition of the accident would be

One thing, however, resulted from the investigation—the indication of
possible carelessness on the part of another engineer. Half an hour
before the first section of ninety-eight had passed, the evening
accommodation had crossed the bridge. It seemed impossible that the fire
should have got such a headway in that time, and the presumption
strongly was that the bridge was on fire when the passenger train
crossed it, and that the engineer was not attending to his duties, or he
would have seen it. The fireman, engaged in shovelling coal into the
fire-box, and blinded by the glare of the flames, would probably not
have noticed it, and on a passenger train no brakeman rides in the cab;
but it could not have escaped the eyes of the engineer if he had been
watching the tracks. It was, of course, possible that he had seen it,
but had not stopped his train or given warning through some motive of
hate or personal revenge; and inquiry, indeed, developed the fact that
there was a bitter quarrel of long standing between him and Jim Adams,
the engineer of first ninety-eight—but this may have been merely a

At any rate, Mr. Plumfield hesitated to think that any man would have
passed the fire from such a motive, and preferred to believe that the
engineer of the accommodation had merely been remiss. The engineer, a
burly fellow named Rafe Bassett, stoutly denied that this was the case,
and declared that he had noticed the bridge especially and that it was
all right.

Something in his demeanour, however, aroused Mr. Plumfield’s suspicions.
Bassett was perhaps a trifle too emphatic in his denials. At any rate,
he was suspended without pay.

The day after this happened, Mr. Schofield paused beside the train
master’s desk.

“What was the trouble with Bassett, George?” he asked.

“Well, I can’t say, exactly,” answered Mr. Plumfield. “But he struck me
as being not altogether on the square. You know he’s been in trouble
before,” and he brought out the little red book.

Mr. Schofield nodded.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I’m afraid this is going to make trouble,” he
added, after a moment. “You know Bassett is a great brotherhood man, and
is one of those big-mouthed agitators who are always talking about the
wrongs of labour. His lodge is calling a special meeting to-night to
consider his case.”

“Is it?” asked Mr. Plumfield, grimly. “Well, I suppose there’ll be a
grievance committee to wait on me in the morning.”

And there was. Scarcely had he seated himself at his desk next day, when
three engineers, cap in hand, appeared at the door and requested an

“All right, boys; come in,” said the train master. “What’s the trouble?”

“It’s about Bassett,” explained the spokesman. “He’s laid off, I hear.”

“Yes,” said the train master. “Laid off till further notice.”

“What for?” asked the spokesman.

Mr. Plumfield hesitated. It was rather difficult to formulate the charge
against Bassett.

“For knowing more about the burning of the Jones Run bridge the other
night than he’s willing to tell.”

“Do you mean he set it on fire?” inquired one of the men, incredulously.

“Oh, no; but I think he ran past it after it was on fire and didn’t stop
to put it out, as he should have done.”

“Does Bassett admit it?”

“No, of course not.”

“Why should he run past the fire?”

“Maybe he was asleep and didn’t see it.”

“And have you any evidence?”

“None but his manner,” answered Mr. Plumfield frankly.

“Well,” said the spokesman, twirling his cap in his hands, “all I can
say is that that’s mighty poor evidence, it seems to me. We had a
meetin’ at the lodge last night, and we was appointed a committee to see
you and demand that Bassett be reinstated at once.”

“All right,” said Mr. Plumfield, “I’ll consider it.”

“And when can we have our answer?”

“This afternoon at three o’clock,” answered the train master sharply.

“All right, sir,” said the spokesman of the committee, and the three men
filed out.

Mr. Plumfield looked over at Allan, after a moment, with a little laugh.

“I’m afraid those fellows have got me,” he said. “I’m morally convinced
that Bassett’s crooked, but there’s no way to prove it. I’m afraid I’ll
have to back down. I made a mistake in suspending him in the first
place, but the man’s manner irritated me.”

And so, that afternoon, when the committee reappeared, it was informed
that Bassett had been reinstated as requested.

They filed out with ill-concealed triumph on their faces, and Mr.
Plumfield felt uncomfortably that his mistake had been a serious one. In
gaining a victory, Bassett had enthroned himself more firmly than ever
in the confidence of his associates.

Three hours later, in the dusk of the early winter evening, Mr.
Plumfield left his office and started toward his home. As he crossed the
tracks, and came opposite a saloon which occupied the corner nearest the
station, the door suddenly swung open and two or three men stumbled out.
They were talking loudly, and as they came under the glare of the street
lamps, Mr. Plumfield saw that one of them was Bassett. The engineer saw
him at the same moment.

“Why, here’s the train master,” he cried, lurching forward. “Well, so ye
had t’ crawfish, didn’t ye, me bird? An’ well fer ye ye did!”

“Bassett,” said Mr. Plumfield, quietly, “you’re drunk. Take care, or
you’ll get a dose a good deal worse than the last one.”

“Oh, I will, will I?” cried Bassett, coming closer. “Well, you jest try
it! You jest try it!”

“All right,” said Mr. Plumfield. “You don’t need to report any more.
You’re not in the employ of the P. & O. any longer.”

“Ain’t I?” cried Bassett. “Well, we’ll see what the boys say to that!
You heerd this, boys—”

But without waiting to hear more, Mr. Plumfield went on his way. This
time, he felt, he would have to stick to his decision, no matter what
happened. And he felt, too, that he was right.