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Death by Hand Car

If not respected, handcars are a deadly device. If operated safely hand cars are no dangerous than a bicycle. However, if you position yourself at the front of the car, in front of the handles you risk death as happened to many section men over the years.

Being Cold is Better Than Being Dead
On February 22, 1889 James Pickner met his fate while returning home from a day of maintenance while working on the Indiana, Illinois, & Iowa Railway along an unidentified Indiana rail line. It was a cold winter day with a brisk head wind blowing against the hand car. Propelling a hand car against the wind is exhausting and the men were only able to move the car at 4 mph. In an effort to stay warm, James Pickner turned himself around so that he was facing backwards on the front of the car as it moved along. Without warning, the wood handle he was using to propel the car snapped on the upward stroke, and James lost his balance, throwing him to the track in front of the car. The car ran over him, and he died from his injuries.

A subsequent investigation showed that the ash handle was fabricated just six weeks earlier and contained an internal defect that was not noticeable to the carpenter that turned the handle. Had Mr. Pickner been riding forward behind the handle, he would have most likely not lost his balance and fallen off the car. Accidents happen, but in most cases precautions could be taken to prevent such mishaps from turning deadly. In this case, keeping warm by operating the car backwards was not a safe practice.

Indiana, Illinois & Iowa Railway Company vs. Snyder, Indiana Supreme Court January 23, 1892

Don't Substitute a Crow Bar
One particular section crew saw no harm in using a crowbar as a pump handle after their wooden one snapped three weeks earlier. They replaced the former handle with a five foot long crowbar. One day a quickly approaching train resulted in five men taking position on the extra long handle in an effort to pump the car to safety. The strain was too much, and the lever assembly broke, resulting in one of the men that was precariously positioned on the end being thrown onto the railroad tracks. He died as a result of his injuries from the fall.

New York State of Appeals 1891

Deadly Child's Play
On a Sunday afternoon on July 21, 1907 a section foreman assign to a District at Macom Lake, Arkansas sent his men aboard a hand car to fetch a keg of water. Being a Sunday afternoon several kids were hanging out around the station and asked for a ride aboard the car. The gang obliged, and several of them climbed aboard the hand car. The group proceeded to the water source, filled the keg and reversed direction to return to the section house.

Among them was a 12 year old boy named Joe Robinson who positioned himself in front of the handle, facing backwards in the direction the hand car was moving. Testimony suggested the hand car was traveling at a high rate of speed, perhaps 20 miles per hour. When the brake was applied, Joe lost his balance and fell forward, resulting in the hand car running him over. He died the following day as a result of his injuries.

St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway Company vs. Robinson
Arkansas Supreme Court, May 2, 1910

Let the hand car go!
Iowa 1895, three men were on their way home from a job site aboard a hand car when an extra unscheduled freight train appeared from behind. Two of the men jumped to safety, while the third man, the section foreman stopped the car and attempted to remove it from the tracks. He did not make it as the train smashed into the handcar before he removed the car from the tracks. As a result, he perished from his injuries. The rule of the era dictated that a man should always be positioned to watch for an approaching train from the rear, which this section head chose not to follow.

Century Edition of the American Digest, West Publishing Company, 1902, Pg 1352

Control Your Crew
On April 11, 1899 a Texas and Pacific Railroad foreman by the name of F.S. Smith was supervising a large track gang of 14 men in the Eagle Ford area. At the end of the day the men climbed aboard two hand cars to make the four mile trip back to the crew base. The rear most car was a standard sized hand car, while the lead car was a larger Roadmaster hand car. Smith took a seat atop a water barrel situated on the very front of the hand car. After all it was customary for the gang to do the pumping while the boss looked on. Each car carried six men, so both were quite crowded.

About a mile and half into the trip the cars crested a grade and began the descent towards Eagle Ford. As the cars rolled downgrade, they reached speeds of 10-12 miles per hour. As the track leveled the rear car smashed into the slower moving Roadmaster's front car carrying the boss. The resulting impact threw Mr. Smith forward and onto the tracks. As has happened a number of times in the past, Mr. Smith was run over and killed by his own hand car.

Railroad Reports, Volume III, The Michie Company, Charlottesville, VA 1902 pg 228

Don't Get Too Close
On the evening of September 28, 1916 Joseph Waymire with four other men were pumping a hand car after a hard day of section work on the Santa Fe Railway in Douglas, Kansas. When they arrived at the station there was a train, with another entering a siding. The hand car picked up the brakeman who had just finished lining the switch, and the six men followed the train into the siding. Three car lengths from the train, the hand car stopped to stay clear of the train departing on the main. The brakeman walked up to the head end of the train. Without notice, the train backed up, smashing into the hand car. The other men were uninjured so it is assumed they jumped clear. Unfortunately, Mr Waymire died from his injuries.

According to the train crew the accident was caused by slack action, but an investigation revealed that the train backed up without rear protection. One sad point was that Mr. Waymire's wife had come to watch the arrival of her husband and witnessed the accident that took his life.

Supreme Court of Kansas Pg 90, VOL CVIL

Reckless Foreman
On July 29, 1905, a surfacing crew was working a site three miles north of Liberal, Missouri on the Missouri Pacific Railroad resulted in a catestophic event that destroyed two hand cars and killed one man.

Each morning for the previous three weeks at about 7 o'clock a surfacing gang led by section foreman Lee Mead departed for a work site about three miles away. This particular morning was particularly foggy and visibility was only about 150 feet to the front and rear.

The foreman rode the lead hand car with two other men, Tom Mulligan and Charles Boyd, both section hands. Mead was a rather reckless foreman, with a history of not following the rules by sending a flagman ahead of the hand car in blind curves, cuts, and during foggy weather to ensure that no train was approaching. On this particular morning, Mr. Mulligan told his foreman that it was a good day to send a flagman ahead into the cut to ensure safe passage. The foreman ignored his request and directed the crew to enter the cut.

Once in the cut, Foreman Mead caught sight of an approaching freight train traveling along at thirty miles an hour. One man jumped on the brake, while the other two swung the front end of the car off the track while it was still moving. Charles Boyd lunged to grab the front of the car that was still fouling the track, and instead fell on the track. He tried to get up, but fell. Boyd was first run over by the following hand car that had been abandoned by its crew, and then killed by the freight train coming the opposite direction that also destroyed both hand cars.

Boyd left behind a pregnant wife, and four children that depended upon his $1.40 a day wage. However, his wife Jennifer Boyd received a judgment of $10,000 in compensation from the railroad that was appealed, and confirmed by the Missouri Supreme Court seven years later.

Supreme Court of Missouri, Boyd v. Railroad, March 28, 1913

Copyright 2012, Mason Clark