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Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Noisy, dirty, bouncy & subject to temperature extremes"

In many ways, William Cowhey's life paralleled the life of the railroads in America. As I mentioned previously, he was born in New York in 1834 at the dawn of those railroads. According to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania's Railroad History Timeline, this was the same year the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad opened in Pennsylvania. It included an inclined plane, rail and canal route stretching 395 miles across the state.

By 1842, when William was 8-years-old, the Philadelphia & Reading Railway began shipping hard coal from mines in Schuylkill County's southern anthracite field directly to Philadelphia.

Sometime before the 1860's, the Cowhey family had moved to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. By the time 27-year-old William served as a volunteer in the Civil War during 1861, the railroads were part of daily life. They played their own role in the war between the states.

During the heyday of the railroad, the lives of the men who ran the trains were surely never easy.

We know several jobs on the railroad that my great-great-grandfather held, thanks to U.S. Census records and newspaper articles.

At the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, William Cowhey was working as a brakeman at age 36.

Ten years later at age 46 the 1880 U.S. Census shows his occupation as fireman. In this role he would have performed many different tasks, according to a page on the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania website. These included:
  • Making sure the engine's fire stayed hot enough by shoveling coal into the firebox
  • Adjusting the stoker to keep the steam up
  • Keeping the boiler supplied with water
  • Verifying signals with the engineer
  • Filling the tender with water at the water tank
  • Oiling the valves, rods and fittings between runs
  • Working closely with the engineer to keep the train running efficiently and on time
After many years of hard work as fireman an employee of the railroad might eventually receive a promotion to engineer. William Cowhey received such a promotion. The Pottsville Daily Republican newspaper article of November 14, 1892 documenting the account of his fateful accident on the railroad lists his title as engineer.

The job of the engineer, according to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania webpage, required much skill and stamina. I quote:
"Steam engine cabs were very noisy, dirty, bouncy and subject to temperature extremes."
A tough day's work, but one that helped William Cowhey to provide for his wife and their large and growing family.

(Lacking a photo of my great-great-grandfather and his fellow railroaders, I've posted a photo of this Gordon Steam Engine and its team of railroad men from Schuylkill County. )

William Cowhey's life came to an ubrupt end one night on the railroad. The heyday of the railroad itself had a more gradual ending, but it would eventually lose ground to other modes of transportation. The Pennsylvania Railroad ended its use of steam locomotives in 1957. Ironically that was the same year that William's son Charles (also a railroad man) passed away. The heyday of the trains that the Cowhey men had lived their lives in and around was now a part of the history books.

For more information about the history of the railroads in Pennsylvania, see the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Railways, or the Reading Company Technical & Historical Society.

Thanks to Margaret Ringenary for posting the steam engine photo of her great-great-grandfather and his fellow railroaders at the Schuylkill County Scrapbook website.


Apple said...

It's tragic that he died on the ride home. My family has a long history with the railroads which claimed the lives of two cousins.

Janice said...


This is quite an interesting story. My grandfather was a railroad station agent. That type of job was much safer than other railroad jobs certainly. Much credit should be given to those early railroad brakemen and firemen. Thank you for sharing.



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