©2017, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
I am the fourth George in a row, although each of us was given different middle names so there are no Juniors, Seniors or Roman Numerals involved. That streak ended at four, by my hand. I explained to my parents years before it happened, "In the unlikely event that I get married, and the even more unlikely event that I have children, none of them will be named George."
The name George hadn't been in the Top Ten of boy's names in the United States since the decade of the 1910s, but that wasn't the point. The point was that I wanted my children to have their own lives and that started with their own names. As a consolation prize of sorts, in the hospital room where my son was born his name was reversed from Kieran Robert to Robert Kieran, a nod to my father's middle name and the fact that with so many other Georges in the family, he was known as "Bobby" for much of his life.
A photo from an unknown date, place and time is one surviving item, perhaps the only one, from the first George in the chain of four.
There are nine men in the photo, posed somewhat informally but all looking out to their right, not directly at the photographer. They are dressed in what would have been workingman's clothes for the time, although that's a lot fancier than we would see today. All but two men are wearing overcoats. No blue jeans, no overalls. No suits and ties either, which would have been the mark of a supervisor or office worker. Each man has a hat of some sort; some engineer's caps, and at least one fedora and one that looks like a top hat but isn't quite tall enough. One man isn't wearing his hat but has it in his left hand. That's my great-grandfather.
They are standing just behind or directly on a railroad track, and behind them is a steam locomotive with a particular design known as a "Camelback." If you're familiar with what a typical steam engine looks like… this one does not. The cab where the engineer and fireman sit isn't placed at the back end behind the boiler, but about halfway along and directly on top of the boiler, the way a rider sits astride a real camel. The design of a Camelback allowed for a wider firebox, which is the place where fuel to make steam is burned, the steam which in turn powers the locomotive. The wider firebox can burn less efficient fuel, for example waste anthracite coal, which saved the railroad money. An engineer could not see past the wide firebox so the cab was moved ahead of it. The fact that the engineer was uncomfortable in a cab that was atop a hot boiler was not a major consideration for the railroads.
This particular railroad was the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western. The Camelback was its Number 16; I see four places where that number is painted on the locomotive or its tender, and that's just on the side that we can see. The Lackawanna was a coal-hauling railroad, first and foremost, though it certainly handled other traffic as well along its line from New Jersey through Northeastern Pennsylvania and on to Buffalo, New York. You might have heard of it as "The Route of Phoebe Snow." Phoebe, a fictional character, was always able to wear white clothes and she stayed clean and neat while riding trains "upon the Road of Anthracite." The Lackawanna's hard coal fuel burned cleaner than that of all those other railroads, so she didn't get dirty from soot and ash coming into the windows of passenger trains.
Phoebe Snow definitely didn't work in the freight yards.
My great-grandfather did. He, his eight colleagues, and the Camelback are all positioned in front of a long two-story brick building, probably a freight house of some sort where boxcars were loaded and unloaded with transfers from wagons, or maybe early trucks. That would have been only one small part of the workings of a freight yard. The principal purposes were to receive inbound freight trains, sort cars for spotting at various customers, and assemble trains for transport to other destinations. On the Lackawanna this could have included Jersey City, Hoboken, Scranton, Binghamton, Sunbury, Syracuse, Utica, Oswego, Buffalo, and numerous points in between.
Arranging and rearranging all of those cars was a lot of work. There could be several locomotives shuffling boxcars and hoppers and flat cars and gondolas all at the same time. Cars needed to be coupled together and uncoupled from each other.
The front end of the Lackawanna's Camelback Number 16 has a version of what is still the standard coupler in use on North American railroads and elsewhere. It was first called the Janney coupler after its inventor, Eli Janney, who patented it in 1873. The Janney coupler looks like a right hand with its fingers curled. When joined to another car, the couplers interlock, and stay coupled until they are released by what's called a "cut lever." Pulling the lever, which is done from the side of the car, not in between cars, releases the couplers from each other.
The Janney Coupler replaced, in North America at least, the link and pin coupler. That design required workers to literally get in between cars and fasten and unfasten pins to and from links between cars. That was, in a word, dangerous.
Adoption to the Janney coupler did not take place overnight. Early Janney couplers had slots and holes to allow what we now call "backward compatibility" with link and pin couplers. It looks like the Number 16 has these. The Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893 required, among other things, all equipment to have Janney or similar couplers installed by 1898. Its adoption dramatically reduced the number of accidents, but not all the way to zero.
This may seem to be a lot of trivia for a simple photograph, but it's important to help date when it was taken. My grandfather, George MacClave Irwin, the son of the George Irwin in the image, was born in 1893. Between that and the prescence of the Janney coupler on the steam locomotive, I know that the photograph had to be taken after that year.
The fundamental operation of a freight yard didn't change with the adoption of these couplers. Workers needed to be vigilant at all times. My great-grandfather was particularly good at maneuvering his way from track to track, mindful of cars being shunted on tracks in front of and behind him, doing his job quickly and efficiently, helping to get trains made up and broken down.
In fact, he was so good at slipping back and forth around the yard that he was given the nickname "Dodger."
One day, though, sometime after the photo was taken, "Dodger" didn't dodge fast enough.
And that was the end of Dodger.
I was told by my late father that Dodger was crushed between two freight cars and met an untimely end.
The rest of this is just conjecture. I've been told that sometimes when workmen were mortally injured on the job, their families would be summoned to bid a final goodbye before death came on. I've heard that men crushed between freight cars might live as long as they are compressed and then expire when the two cars are pulled apart. That would have given enough time for my great-grandmother and, I suppose, the children including my grandfather, to be rushed trackside. I am not at all sure I would have wanted to go if I were given that choice.
But I don't know what happened. I only know that Dodger didn't dodge when he needed to and that was that. It was just another fatality among thousands that year and every year around the turn of the century. Since my great-grandfather was no doubt well-liked, there was probably a well-attended wake and funeral, accompanied by plenty of drinking (he was from Ireland, after all, and the stereotype does carry a bit of truth to it). And then his widow, Susan Amanda Clave, was left to fend for herself.
And I'm left to fend for myself in terms of finding any more information. My great-grandfather might not have rated even a mention in the obituaries. Since I don't know exactly when he died, only that it was likely sometime between 1893 and the early decade of the 1900s, looking that up might be a daunting task. Geneology resources have been unproductive. The people who could have told me more are all gone.
Still, there is that photograph, of Dodger and his eight cohorts, which is more than can be said of many of our ancestors.