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How He Brought His Engine Down

by Charles Barnard

It was one of the most difficult parts of the whole line. A range of high hills lay directly north and; south, and the railroad ran nearly east and west; that is, the stations on each side of the range of hills lay east and west, but to cross the range the road wound about in the most complicated and curious fashion. At the summit of the range, where the line crossed, there was a water tank, and a cross-over switch, and a house for the line-man. This place was eight miles from the station, on the east side, as the crow flies; by rail it was seventeen miles, a steady up grade all the way. All the west-bound trains had to have help in getting over this seventeen-mile grade, and for this service there were several pushing-engines kept there to go behind the trains, and help them up the grade. When the top of the grade was reached, the trains went on, for there were no passengers to be taken or left there. The line-man's house was the only house within five miles, and all the rugged hills round about were covered with deep woods. The pushing-engines that came up the grade usually stopped for a moment or two for water, took the cross-over switch, and ran back on the down track without using steam, as it was down grade all the way. Of course all east-bound trains, both freight and passenger, came down without help, and, in fact, without using steam, except to get a good start at the top.

One day a long freight train moving west came to the foot of the grade, and took on an extra engine to help it up the hill. This extra engine stood on a siding, and when the freight had passed, it drew out on the main line, and took its place behind the train. It was not coupled to the train, as its duty was merely to push behind. There were about thirty-five cars in the train, chiefly empty grain cars going west, and with a "caboose" behind. There were half a dozen brakemen and the conductor scattered along the train on top of the cars. All these points you must remember, to understand what happened soon after.

The line for the seventeen miles up the grade is very crooked, with several high embankments and very sharp turns. Not a nice bit of road for a fast run with a heavy train. Nearly all the distance is through thick woods, so that the brave engineer's deeds were not seen by any one save the few men who were on the train, and in the greatest peril.

The two engines and long line of cars crept slowly up the grade, and without accident, till almost at the top. The forward engine reached the top, and kept straight on; there was no need to stop; and when the train fairly passed the summit, and began to descend the grade on the western side of the hills, the pushing-engine merely stopped, and was left behind. Just then something very singular happened. The engineer reversed his engine, and started to run back to the cross-over switch that was just below. He intended to take the down track, and return to the station, seventeen miles below. The station-master was at the switch, and had already opened it. Suddenly the fireman gave a cry, and the engineer looked out his forward window to see what had happened. The train was still in sight up the line, but it was moving down instead of up. It had broken apart. A coupling had given way, and some of the cars were rolling down the grade right on to his engine. He could see the men on top waving their hands for him to get out of the way. The freight-cars had broken loose, and were running away. The men on top could not stop them.

Where would it end? Where would the cars go? Would they ever reach the bottom of the long grade without jumping the rails at some sharp curve, only to plunge into the woods down some lofty embankment? No time to think about that. The thing to do was to get out of the way, and prevent the runaway train from dashing into the engine. He whistled to the station-master to close the switch, and give him the clear line. He must run away from the runaway train. He put on steam, and started down the grade. The station-master seemed to understand what had happened, and promptly closed the switch. Faster and faster rolled the cars, and the engine shot ahead to keep out of the way.

Now for a race for life and death. If he kept ahead, he was safe—safe from collision, but not from running off the line at the terrible curves below. On and on the engine flew, down and down through the woods, till the trees seemed to whirl past in a dizzy dance. Faster and faster came the train gaining speed at every rail. How the woods roared with the rush of the runaway cars, and the engine flying on before! The cars swayed from side to side, and the men on top sat down, as if calmly waiting their dreadful fate. They swept round a curve, and the engineer had a chance to look back up the line, and saw to his dismay that there were more cars behind. A second and shorter train was fast following the first. The train had evidently broken into three parts, and two of the parts, one of eighteen cars, and one of nine cars, were tearing down the grade at forty miles an hour. It was a killing pace, and growing worse every second. It was sure death to all to keep it up much longer. Something must be done to save engine, men, and cars.

The engine was using steam, and kept ahead of the cars; but it could not do so much longer. What if he let them gain on him, and then time the speed till they collided? It was a desperate experiment, but he would try it. Slowly and very carefully he took off the steam, and ran slower. In a moment he had the speeds just alike. Then he made the pace of the engine a little less, and a little less, while the roaring and swaying train came nearer and nearer. Both were still flying down the grade at a fearful pace. The men on the cars watched the engine sharply. They saw what the engineer meant to do. If he succeeded, he would save their lives—provided he could let the cars strike the engine, could hitch on, and then pull ahead before the train behind smashed into them from the rear. On and on flew train and engine. Slowly they drew nearer, and at last they bumped with a gentle jar. The fireman was on the pilot all ready to couple on. He dropped the pin in the coupling, and the men on the car gave a ringing cheer that was heard above the roar of the train; and the engineer opened the throttle wide, and away they dashed down the grade, just in time to escape the train behind.

The men wanted to climb down on the engine to shake hands with the engineer, but he motioned them back. The danger was not over. One of the men stood on top of the caboose, with his back to the engine and his arms extended. One of the others held him up, for the cars swayed frightfully in the terrible pace they were going. He watched the train following behind, and with his hands made motions to the engineer to run slower and slower, till, with a crash, the two parts of the train came together. This feat was not so successful as the first, as the engineer could not see the rear cars. The engine was reversed, and the brakes put on, and they came to a stop—not a wheel off the metals, and not a man hurt. Two of the cars badly smashed, but that was all. What had threatened to be a fearful disaster, with a loss of men, engine, and cars, was only a slight splintering of two cars that the carpenters could repair in a day. They had a general shaking of hands alone there in the woods over the engineer's splendid feat; and for months it was told to listening men in every flag station and freight-house along the line how the brave and cool engineer brought his engine down the seventeen-mile grade.