Cy Warman

Snow on the Headlight

A Story of the Great Burlington Strike
Published by Good Press, 2019
EAN 4064066145125

Table of Contents



Table of Contents

Here is a Decoy Duck stuffed with Oysters.
The Duck is mere Fiction:
The Oysters are Facts.

If you find the Duck wholesome, and the Oysters hurt you, it is probably because you had a hand in the making of this bit of History, and in the creation of these Facts.



Table of Contents


Table of Contents

Good managers are made from messenger boys, brakemen, wipers and telegraphers; just as brave admirals are produced in due time by planting a cadet in a naval school. From two branches of the service come the best equipped men in the railroad world—from the motive-power department and from the train service. This one came from the mechanical department, and he spent his official life trying to conceal the fact—striving to be just to all his employees and to show no partiality towards the department from whence he sprang—but always failing.

"These men will not strike," he contended: "The brains of the train are in the engine."

"O, I don't think," Mr. Josler, the general superintendent, would say; and if you followed his accent it would take you right back to the heart of Germany: "Giff me a goot conductor, an' I git over the roat."

No need to ask where he came from.

As the grievance grew in the hands of the "grief" committee, and the belief became fixed in the minds of the officials that the employees were looking for trouble, the situation waxed critical. "Might as well make a clean job of it," the men would say; and then every man who had a grievance, a wound where there had been a grievance or a fear that he might have something to complain of in the future, contributed to the real original grievance until the trouble grew so that it appalled the officials and caused them to stiffen their necks. In this way the men and the management were being wedged farther and farther apart. Finally, the general manager, foreseeing what war would cost the company and the employees, made an effort to reach a settlement, but the very effort was taken as evidence of weakness, and instead of yielding something the men took courage, and lengthened the list of grievances. His predecessor had said to the president of the company when the last settlement was effected: "This is our last compromise. The next time we shall have to fight—my back is to the wall." But, when the time came for the struggle, he had not the heart to make the fight, and so resigned and went west, where he died shortly afterwards, and dying, escaped the sorrow that must have been his had he lived to see how his old, much-loved employees were made to suffer.

Now the grievance committee came with an ultimatum to the management. "Yes, or No?" demanded the chairman with a Napoleonic pose. But the general superintendent was loth to answer.

"Yes, or No?"

Mr. Josler hesitated, equivocated, and asked to be allowed to confer with his chief.

"Yes, or No?" demanded the fearless leader, lifting his hand like an auctioneer.

"Vell, eef you put it so, I must say No," said the superintendent and instantly the leader turned on his heel. He did not take the trouble to say good-day, but snapped his finger and strode away.

Now the other members of the committee got up and went out, pausing to say good morning to the superintendent who stood up to watch the procession pass out into the wide hall. One man, who confirmed the general manager's belief that there were brains among the engine-men, lingered to express his regrets that the conference should have ended so abruptly.

The news of this man's audacity spread among the higher officials, so that when the heads of the brotherhoods came—which is a last resort—the company were almost as haughty and remote as the head of the grievance committee had been.

From that moment the men and the management lost faith in each other. More, they refused even to understand each other. Whichever side made a slight concession it was made to suffer for it, for such an act was sure to be interpreted by the other side as a sign of weakening. In vain did the heads of the two organizations, representing the engine-men, strive to overcome the mischief done by the local committee, and to reach a settlement. They showed, by comparison, that this, the smartest road in the West, was paying a lower rate of wages to its engine-men than was paid by a majority of the railroads of the country. They urged the injustice of the classification of engineers, but the management claimed that the system was just, and later received the indorsement, on this point, of eight-tenths of the daily press. Eight out of ten of these editors knew nothing of the real merits or demerits of the system, but they thought they knew, and so they wrote about it, the people read about it and gave or withheld their sympathy as the news affected them.

When the heads of the brotherhoods announced their inability to reach an agreement they were allowed to return to their respective homes, beyond the borders of the big state, and out of reach of the Illinois conspiracy law. A local man "with sand to fight" was chosen commander-in-chief, and after one more formal effort to reach a settlement he called the men out.

On a blowy Sunday afternoon in February the chief clerk received a wire calling him to the office of the general manager. He found his chief pacing the floor. As the secretary entered, the general manager turned, faced him, and then, waving a hand over the big flat-topped desk that stood in the centre of his private office, said: "Take this all away, John. The engineers are going to strike and I want nothing to come to my desk that does not relate to that, until this fight is over."

Noting the troubled, surprised look upon the secretary's face the manager called him.

"Come here John. Are you afraid? Does the magnitude of it all appal you—do you want to quit? If you do say so now."

As he spoke the piercing, searching eyes of the general manager swept the very soul of his secretary. The two men looked at each other. Instantly the shadow passed from the long, sad face of the clerk, and in its place sat an expression of calm determination. Now the manager spoke not a word, but reaching for the hand of his faithful assistant, pressed it firmly, and turned away.

There was no spoken pledge, no vow, no promise of loyalty, but in that mute handclasp there was an oath of allegiance.

At four o'clock on the following morning—Monday, February the 27th, 1888—every locomotive engineer and fireman in the service of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company quit work. The fact that not one man remained in the service an hour after the order went out, shows how firmly fixed was the faith of the men in the ability of the "Twin Brotherhoods" to beat the company, and how universal was the belief that their cause was just. All trains in motion at the moment when the strike was to take effect were run to their destination, or to divisional stations, rather, and there abandoned by the crew.

The conductors, brakemen and baggagemen were not in the fight, and when directed by the officials to take the engines and try to run them or fire them, they found it hard to refuse to obey the order. Some of them had no thought of refusing, but cheerfully took the engines out, and—drowned them. That was a wild, exciting day for the officials, but it was soon forgotten in days that made that one seem like a pleasant dream.

The long struggle that had been going on openly between the officials and the employees was now enacted privately, silently, deep in the souls of men. Each individual must face the situation and decide for himself upon which side he would enlist. Hundreds of men who had good positions and had, personally, no grievance, felt in honor bound to stand by their brothers, and these men were the heroes of the strike, for it is infinitely finer to fight for others than for one's self. When a man has toiled for a quarter of a century to gain a comfortable place it is not without a struggle that he throws it all over, in an unselfish effort to help a brother on. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had grown to be respected by the public because of almost countless deeds of individual heroism. It was deferred to—and often encouraged by railway officials, because it had improved the service a thousand per cent. The man who climbed down from the cab that morning on the "Q" was as far ahead of the man who held the seat twenty years earlier, as an English captain is ahead of the naked savage whose bare feet beat the sands of the Soudan. By keeping clear of entangling alliances and carefully avoiding serious trouble, the Brotherhood had, in the past ten years, piled up hundreds of thousands of dollars. This big roll of the root of all evil served now to increase the confidence of the leaders, and to encourage the men to strike.

At each annual convention mayors, governors and prominent public men paraded the virtues of the Brotherhood until its members came to regard themselves as just a little bit bigger, braver and better than ordinary mortals. Public speakers and writers were for ever predicting that in a little while the Brotherhood would be invincible.[1] And so, hearing only good report of itself the Brotherhood grew over-confident, and entered this great fight top-heavy because of an exaggerated idea of its own greatness.

[1]"I dare say that the engineers' strike will end, as all strikes have hitherto ended, in disaster to the strikers. But I am sure that strikes will not always end so. It is only a question of time, and of a very little time, till the union of labor shall be so perfect that nothing can defeat it. We may say this will be a very good time or a very bad time; all the same it is coming."—W. D. Howells, in Harper's Weekly, April 21, 1888.

The Engineers' Brotherhood was not loved by other organizations. The conductors disliked it, and it had made itself offensive to the firemen because of its persistent refusal to federate or affiliate in any manner with other organizations having similar aims and objects. But now, finding itself in the midst of a hard fight, it evinced a desire to combine. The brakemen refused to join the engine-men, though sympathizing with them, but the switchmen were easily persuaded. The switchman of a decade ago could always be counted upon to fight. In behind his comb, tooth-brush and rabbit's foot, he carried a neatly folded, closely written list of grievances upon which he was ready to do battle. Peace troubled his mind.

Some one signed a solemn compact in which the engineers bound themselves to support the switchmen—paying them as often as the engine-men drew money—and the switchmen went out. They struck vigorously, and to a man, and remained loyal long after the Brotherhood had broken its pledge and cut off the pay of the strikers.[2] In this battle the switchmen were the bravest of the brave.

[2]At the annual convention held at Atlanta, in the autumn of that year (1888) the engineers dropped the sympathy-striking switchmen from the pay roll, at the same time increasing the pay of striking engineers from $40.00 to $50.00 a month.

At the end of the first month of the strike the lines were pretty well drawn. There was no neutral ground for employees. A man was either with the company or with the strikers.


Table of Contents

"Good morning, John," said the general manager coming softly through the little gate that fenced off a small reservation in the outer office, and beyond which the secretary and his assistants worked: "How goes the battle?"

"Well, on the whole," said the chief clerk, gathering up a batch of telegrams that made up the official report from the various division superintendents; "it was a rough night. Three yard engines disabled in the Chicago yards, freight train burned at Burlington, head-end collision on the B. & M. Division, two engineers and one fireman killed, ware-house burned at Peoria, two bridges blown up in Iowa, two trains ditched near Denver, three—"

"Well! well!" broke in the general manager, "that will do." The clerk stopped short, the office boy passed out through the open door and a great swell of silence surged into the room.

After taking a few turns up and down the office, the manager stopped at the secretary's desk and added: "We must win this strike. The directors meet to-day and those English share-holders are getting nervous. They can't understand that this fight is necessary—that we are fighting for peace hereafter; weeding out a pestilence that threatens, not only the future of railway corporations, but the sacred rights of American citizens—the right to engage in whatever business or calling one cares to follow, and to employ whom he will at whatever wages the employer and employed may agree upon. Let these strikers win and we shall have a strike as often as the moon changes. When I endeavor to reach an agreement with them, they take it that the company is weakening, and the leaders will listen to nothing. I shudder to think what is in store for them and what they must suffer before they can understand."

With that the general manager passed into the private office and the chief clerk, who had been at his post all night, turned to a steaming breakfast which the porter had just brought from a café across the street. The postman came in, grave-faced and silent, and left a big bundle of letters on the secretary's desk. Most of the mail was official, but now and then there came letters from personal friends who held similar positions on other roads, assuring the general manager of their sympathy, and that they would aid his company whenever they could do so secretly and without exciting their own employees.

Many letters came from stockholders protesting vigorously against a continuation of the strike. Some anonymous letters warned the company that great calamity awaited the management, unless the demands of the employees were acceded to and the strike ended. A glance into the newspapers that came in, showed that three-fourths of the press of the country praised the management and referred to the strikers as dynamiters and anarchists. The other fourth rejoiced at each drop in the stocks and called every man a martyr who was arrested at the instigation of the railroad company. The reports sent out daily by the company and those collected at the headquarters of the strikers agreed exactly as to date, but disagreed in all that followed.

The secretary, somewhat refreshed by a good breakfast, waded through the mail, making marks and notations occasionally with a blue pencil on the turned down corners of letters.

Some of the communications were referred to the general traffic manager, some to the general passenger agent, others to the superintendent of motive power and machinery. They were all sorted carefully and deposited in wicker baskets, bearing the initials of the different departments. Many were dropped into the basket marked "G. M." but most of the matter was disposed of by the secretary himself, for the chief clerk of a great railway system, having the signature of the General Manager, is one of the busiest, and usually one of the brightest men in the company's employ.

The general manager in his private office pored over the morning papers, puffing vigorously now and then as he perused a paragraph that praised the strikers, but, when the literature was to his liking, smoked slowly and contentedly, like a man without a care.

Such were the scenes and conditions in and about the general offices of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company when a light foot-step was heard in the hall and a gentle voice came singing:

"Always together in sunshine and rain.
Facing the weather—"

"Good morning, Patsy," said the chief clerk, looking up as Patsy paused at the gate, removed his hat and bowed two or three short quick bows with his head without bowing his body.

"I beg your pardon," said Patsy, "I thought you were alone."

"Well, I am alone."

"No you're not—I'm here. Always together—"

"Come! Come! Patsy don't get funny this morning."

"Get funny! how can I get funny when I'm already funny? I was born funny—they had fun with me at the christening, and I expect they'll have the divil's own time with me at the wake. Always—"

"Sh! Sh!—Be quiet," said the secretary, nodding his head and his thumb in the direction of the door of the private office.

"Is the governor in?" asked Patsy.


"Now that's lucky for me, for I wanted to ask a favor and I want it to-day, and if the governor was not in you would say, 'I'll have to see the governor;' then when I came back you would say 'The governor has left the office, and I forgot it,' but now that the governor is here you can do it yourself. I want to go to Council Bluffs."

"All right, Patsy, you can go if you can persuade those friends of yours to allow us to run a train."

"On the Q?"

"That's the only line we control."

"Not on your salary."

"Then you can't go," said the clerk, as he resumed the work before him.

"What's the matter with the North Western?" asked Patsy in an earnest, pleading tone.

"You ought to know that we can't give passes over a competing line."

"I do know it, but you can give me a letter over there. Just say: 'Please give Patsy Daly transportation, Chicago to Council Bluffs and return;' that'll do the business. You might add a paragraph about me being an old and trusted employee and—"

"A bold and mistrusted striker, Patsy, would be nearer the card."

"Now don't bring up unpleasant recollections," said Patsy with a frown that didn't make him look as cross as some men look when they laugh: "It will be a neat way of showing that the Q is big enough to be good to her old employees, even if her stock is a little down. What do you say—do I get the pass—does mother see her railroad boy to-night?"

The door that was marked "Private" opened slowly and the general manager came in. The chief clerk shuffled the letters while Patsy made a desperate effort to look serious and respectful.

"What brings you here, Patsy?" asked the head of the road, for he was by no means displeased at seeing one of the old employees in the office who was not a member of a grievance committee.

"I want to get a pass, if you please sir, to run down to the Bluffs and see the folks."

"Patsy wants a request for a pass over the North Western," said the clerk, taking courage now that the subject was opened.

"Ah! is that all? now suppose I ask you to take a passenger train out to-night, will you do it?" asked the general manager, turning to Patsy.

"What's the matter with the regular conductor?"

"Joined the strikers," was the reply.

"But the papers say the strike is over."

"It is! but a lot of you fellows don't seem to know it."

"I'm glad of it, and now I must hurry back, so as to be ready to take my run out. Do I get the pass?"

"And you expect, when the strike is off, to go back to your old place?"

"Sure," said Patsy, "I don't intend to quit you as long as you have a brake for me to turn."

"There's a lot of brakes that nobody is turning right now; come, you young rascal, will you go to work?"

"Now," said the young rascal, "you know what it says at the bottom of the time-card: 'In case of doubt take the safe side.' I'm waiting to see which side is safe."

With that the manager went back to his desk and closed the door behind him, and the secretary went on with his work.

Patsy stood and looked out at the window for a while, and then said half to himself, but so the clerk could hear him: "Poor little mother, how she will miss me to-night."

The secretary said nothing, but leaving his desk entered the office of his chief, and when they had talked over the business of the hour and read the story prepared by the passenger department for the press that day, he asked what should be done for Patsy.

"Oh! give him the letter, I suppose, but he's the only employee on the road I would do so much for."

"And he's the only one with nerve enough to ask it," said the secretary.

"Yes, he is a bit nervy, John; but it isn't an offensive sort of nerve; and then he's so happy. Why, he really rests me when he comes in. He's smart, too, too smart to be a striker and he may be of some use to us yet."

In a little while Patsy went singing himself out just as he had sung himself in. The general manager sat watching the happy youth from the outer door of his room until the song and the sound of footsteps died away in the wide hall. Turning to his desk he sighed and said: "Ah, well! the English poet was right when he wrote:

'The world that knows itself too sad
Is proud to keep some faces glad!'"


Table of Contents