Whoa Iron Horse whoa. Braking a steam locomotive

steamman

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May 26, 2020
Location
Columbus, Ga
I will start by describing the Brakeman of the pre-air brake Steam locomotive age. The brakes are simple affairs of brakes pressing on wheels. Details later.
Brakes were engaged by turning a wheel, normally at the top of a car. Each car had a brake and each brake had to be engaged. Brakemen had to run across the top of slippery box cars, leaping from car to car, frequently falling to death or serious injuries.

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The Life of a Brakeman


To apply the brakes, the brakeman would turn a large brake control wheel located atop each freight car of the train. Every brakeman carried a thick brake “club” to help give them leverage in turning the wheel. This meant that they would have to run along the top of the railway cars and leap from one to another in order to apply or release the brakes on each car. Generally, the rear brakeman, or flagman as he was also known, would advance from the end of the train whilst the head brakeman or the conductor would advance from the engine to apply the brakes on each car, one by one. On a moving train, especially in bad weather, the application of brakes was a risky proposition, at best. Worse still, a stuck brake wheel might suddenly free up and throw the brakeman off balance. All too often this would result in the brakeman falling between the cars to his death. Riding in the open, frequently exposed to the bitter cold of winter, the brakeman’s job was fraught with danger.


Running across freight car roofs to engage the brakes on each car as quickly as possible was a hazardous affair. In winter the planks atop the freight cars would be slippery with ice and snow. Furthermore, tracks were not always aligned horizontally resulting a rolling motion as the cars passed over uneven areas of track. At a height of 12 or 14 feet above the track grade, the rolling was much magnified and posed a grave danger to the unlucky brakeman riding atop the freight car. In the worst case, the brakeman would be thrown to his death underneath the wheels of the train.


The Brakeman of a Logging Train
An example of a brakeman’s club or hickey.

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Lubliner

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Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
I can't imagine the race being run, after throwing the brake on the first car, and then dashing to the next to throw the brake on it. But I suppose the momentum would slow down little by little until the train halted. Definitely a summer job to be had! Thanks, @steamman.
Lubliner.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
There was a set of whistle signals in a Morse Code style of longs & shorts that told the brakemen what to do. The long, long, short, long signal for a crossing is an example that we are all familiar with today. The axils of parked CW era cars would bottom out, i.e., the lubricant between the axil & hub would be squeezed out leaving metal on metal. In order to start a drag moving, individual cars had to be hitched together one at a time. That process involved a to & fro mechanical dance that was mortally dangerous for the brakemen played to the tune of the shrill whistle & deep throb of the engine.
 

steamman

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May 26, 2020
Location
Columbus, Ga
The locomative was an important part of the braking system by putting in reverse or simply using cylinders pressure to oppose forward motion.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The 2,200 foot tunnel through Monteagle Mountain on the N&CRR must have been really something with CW era brakes. At Cowan there was a pusher district. Engines were & are stationed there to assist the grade in the tunnel. As my RR buddy explained it to me, it is quite a delicate dance. It would have taken every ounce of tractive power for the clapped out CW engines to drag the consist up to the center of the tunnel where it peaks & heads down the other side. Having made it to the top, the engineer would have been signaling frantically with his steam whistle to brakemen to keep from over speeding down grade. If he misjudged or any of a host of other mischances, the engine might be drug backwards over the peak & it was Katy bar the door.

At a certain point the problem is not pulling the cars over the peak, it is keeping the weight of each successive car from driving the engine & consist downgrade at an uncontrollable speed. Even today, occasionally the train will enter a turn on the Alabama side & flip over. During the age of steam, the N,C &StL RR kept four-ten-four pushers at Cowen. Today, the pushers are there to provide breaking power. My friend spent a very long winter in the tunnel working out the radio com issues for the control of engines that are embedded about 2/3rds of the way back in the drag.

During the CW, people who traveled the N&CRR noted the numerous engines they saw laying on their sides along turns in the track. Another hazard on grades was keeping the water level in the boiler at a proper level. One of the decapods in the Cowan pusher district blew up when the water level control was lost. All of the crew was killed except for a man who was on the catwalk when the boiler blew. He had been sent out with a mallet to bang on the sand dome & free the sand up for traction. He was discovered laying in the top of a tree along side the track hours after the event. Improbably enough, he recovered.
 
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steamman

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Joined
May 26, 2020
Location
Columbus, Ga
What I have read is that the brakeman in the caboose would set the brakes there first than set brakes car by car toward the engine. A brakeman or conductor in the engine would set brakes on cars toward the caboose.
 
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