What It Was Like - Life at the Depot
Train time was an event at the depot for, aside from travelers, it brought news, mail, and merchandise. Sedalian's came by foot, carriage, wagon, or trolley to exchange political views, gossip, and news from afar. Watches were set by the station clock and telegrams were dispatched and received at the depot. It was a scene of continuous activity.
The train depot was a separate little world, revolving on its own axis. Everything and everyone from bicycles to brides, from plows to prostitutes, from caskets to cowboys arrived and departed through the depot doors to ride the rails to and from, destinations, both far and near.
At the depot one could retrieve a letter or a sewing machine, send a quilt or a mule harness, board a train or meet a husband returning from a job in the city. Busier depots remained open around the clock, providing shelter and accommodations for weary travelers. Some even provided an all-night lunch room, where a body could find a tasty bowl of soup or sandwich and a cup of coffee to sustain him or her, during the wait.
But the depot was more than just a collection point for passengers and cargo, it was the nerve center of the railroad. In that capacity it served two primary purposes. It was a place where train movements were coordinated and it promoted the company’s business by selling tickets.
Trains don’t just roll down the tracks. They are rigidly controlled through formal orders and signals. When a train leaves a depot the engineer has a strict set of orders that allows the train to move only a few miles. Before it can proceed it must receive the authority to move on and another set of orders. This procedure developed gradually and at great expense during the early years of rail systems when several trains used the same single track in both directions. Train movement is controlled from the depot. Before this system was put in place, train wrecks were commonplace and hundreds of people were killed annually during the 19th century, by trains colliding head-on and by other disasters.
From the depot a railroad employee could use the telegraph to communicate constantly with other stations up and down the line, to report progress and position of every train, and to keep trains safely separated at all times. The ability to communicate by telegraphy was a mandatory skill for depot operators until the 1980s.
While life at the depot was a relatively peaceful, but exciting experience for those catching or waiting for the train, the daily life of the railroad’s employees was as hectic and task oriented as the behind-the-scenes activity of those who operate today’s airlines. The size of the depot staff depended largely on the volume of the depot’s traffic. In smaller depots, the station’s agent, operator and telegrapher were sometimes one person. In remote areas, the railroads sometimes housed this individual and his family in a small apartment above the depot to provide 24 hour staffing.
Controlling the switches and signals that determined the movement of the trains was a complicated business. It required many tasks and mounds of paperwork. This job was the primary responsibility of the station’s agent, who was the man or woman in charge. What can be accomplished today by a few strokes on a computer involved an operator writing down the train orders as they were received over the telegraph and handing the orders up to the engineer when the train arrived at the station. Generally, there were three copies of this order, one for the train crew, one for the dispatcher and another for the agent’s records. Some orders required that the train be halted for the receipt of these orders to be signed, while others could be picked up by the crew as the train passed. The operator then had to telegraph back to the dispatcher that the order had been delivered.
In addition, the agent had many other duties. He or she distributed the payroll and listed the number of tickets sold and the money received for which a monthly summary report had to be issued. Later, a detailed report had to be written of all cash transactions. The agent also made routine weather observations, including temperature, wind speed and direction and barometric pressure which had to be sent daily to the dispatcher or railroad office. This information was considered essential in anticipating the need for crews to repair wash-outs or clear snow. Since the depot kept cash on hand, a revolver was kept in special drawer at the depot. In case of robbery, the agent was authorized to ‘shoot it out’ with the robbers. In small depots, it also became the agent’s responsibility to attend to the freight business as well as keep the station clean.
The intricate web of rail systems required constant monitoring. A dispatcher along the line had to keep track of where all the trains were at all times. He kept track of how each train was progressing, and if all the rains went along according to schedule and when and where they would meet and pass each other. The telegraph operator had to keep abreast of when trains were delayed or sections were added. Extra trains could mean three trains running on a section of track usually occupied by one, making it necessary for the lead trains to display flags and lights on the locomotive and the caboose to indicate that additional sections were following. Maintenance crews were needed to keep the tracks in running order.
So, depots were more than just a place where the train stopped. Even the design and the equipment of the train station represent facets of a unique cultural phenomenon. Everything from the brakemen’s lantern to the building’s solid structure, was calculated to make travel by rail, a safe, comfortable and expeditious adventure.
In a true sense, the daily life of the railroad, began and ended at the depot.