I recall one of the tricks of the steam engine days was taking cars out of the sidetracks when there was only a facing switch at one end and it was necessary to get the car behind the locomotive. The crew would cut off the train beyond the switch, pull the engine past the switch that would be then be aligned for movement over the side track. They would then pull along side of the car on the adjacent tracks getting the tender even with the rear of the car.
The tender has a stake lying in a cradle beneath the tender. It was about half the diameter of a telephone pole and about six feet long. The brakeman would grab the pole, wedge it against the end of the car and then the engineer would slowly back the tender against the pole while the brakeman held it in place. As soon as it was secured, the brakeman would give the kick signal and jump out of the way as the car started to roll over the switch. They would stop to load the stake back on the tender, line the switch for the locomotive and back onto the car which was then coupled onto the train. It was a job for an experienced brakeman, but it was a dangerous one at any time.
One afternoon on our trip to Hammond, we pulled up to the depot at Shelby where the New York Central crossed the Monon as the agent, Carl Runyon came out swinging his arms for us to stop. He said he had an injured man inside and wondered if we could help. So we walked in and there lying on the floor of the depot was a brakeman off the New York Central Railroad. The New York Central had attempted to stake a car out of our interchange track. While the brakeman held the stake to make the move, the stake suddenly shattered and a broken section speared him in the stomach. It was a terrible sight to see him lying there, he was gasping for breath with this large piece of wood protruding from him. He died a few moments later before any medical help could arrive.No too many months after that, the railroad stopped the practice of staking cars, probably never knowing how many were injured or killed over the years from a work habit that never really needed to be done.
-Jim Strother, as originally written in The Hoosier Line, Volume 13, Number 2-
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