Down in the scrub oak country
to the southeast Texas Gulf
There used to ride a brakeman,
a brakeman double tough.
He worked the town of Kilgore,
and Longview twelve miles down,
And the travellers all said
that little East Texas Red
he was the meanest bull around.
If you rode by night or the broad daylight
in the wintery wind or the sun,
You would always see little East Texas Red
just a sportin' his smooth-runnin gun.
And the tale got switched down the stems and mains,
and everybody said
That the meanest bull
on them shiney irons
was that little East Texas Red.
Woody Guthrie East Texas Red
Prior to 1880:
Back in the day, this job actually involved walking along the tops of the cars and manually turning the brake wheels to stop the train. The brakeman also handled car couplings and track switches. This was a dangerous job in terms of life and limb. In addition to the routine hazards, the Railroad Brakeman is the train employee most likely to get into a Traintop Battle.
From 1880 to 1950:
Most trains during this period were equipped with one or more Brakeman's Cabin's. These are like itty bitty closets at the back of a traincar, equipped with a chair and the braking apparatus. On some freight cars, the Brakeman's Cabin would be the only enclosed structure.
You'd sit in your closet with your head out the window and watch for signals from the Railroad Engineer at the front of the train. As these little closets were unheated and open to the elements, in bad winter weather your life was still endangered.
Eventually this job was made rather safer with the invention of air brakes and automatic couplings. Brakemen still exist, effectively being assistants to the Railroad Conductor, who now coordinates them via two-way radio instead of anyone sticking their head out a window.
The Brakeman also had a significant role in ensuring the security of the train and was thus the nemesis of hobos hoping to sneak a ride and appears as a villain in a significant number of American Folk songs (Woody Guthrie's East Texas Red … as cited above … being a good example). Presumably they would also be responsible for guarding the train against anyone trying to steal the cargo. Anything obviously valuable would likely have additional armed guards (perhaps Pinkertons agents or something similar), but those determined to meddle in general cargo might have only the brakeman to worry about.
Game and Story Use
- The Railroad Brakeman is the train employee most likely to get into a Traintop Battle, especially in The Wild West.
- Naturally, this happens at exactly the moment the train needs to be stopped because there's something on the tracks.
- Hobo PCs trying to catch a lift to the Rio Grande - or more better-off PCs who've lost their tickets - need to dodge the brakeman.
- In more exotic settings, there may be worse things than hobos trying to jump your train.