The dangers of link and pin couplers
Something I overheard the other day prompted me to wonder what we really know about the dangers of link and pin couplers.
We've all no doubt heard the story about railroad superintendents asking to see the hands of prospective brakeman, with the punch line that the number of missing fingers revealed their work experience. As we've all no doubt come to realize, many of the stories we hear about the past are false-perhaps invented to make a good point, but not actually true. So, what do we really know about this?
In my years of reading old newspapers looking for stories relating to the railroads and railroaders, I don't recall a single story about smashed hands or fingers. True, this may only mean it was so commonplace that it didn't merit reporting. (Though I do recall a newspaper story about fingers cut off in a sawmill.) But there are countless stories in the press about brakemen and switchmen being run over and maimed (or killed). A story from my family tree is of an ancestor who served in the Civil War without a scratch and subsequently lost his foot the first week he worked for the Wabash-a foot, not a finger.
It seems to me the ancient railroaders were as smart (or smarter) as their modern counterparts. And brakemen were generally armed with a club-for adding leverage to the brake wheel. The only time I ever coupled a link pin coupler I used my club to hold the link-and I'd think the real brakemen would have done the same. (And you could always hold it with the pin itself).
I wonder if the real issue with link and pins was with uncoupling, not coupling-trying to uncouple a moving train so as to kick a car off into a siding. What I overheard (and I don't know that it is true) is that one of the first improvements with the link and pin was a lever to lift the pin-specifically to make it easier to uncouple a moving train. If true, that would imply that brakemen were indeed trying to uncouple moving cars. Scampering along the ties between moving cars-especially if there was the added complication of a switch nearby-while reaching to pull a pin would have been a significant danger.
Anyway, I ask if any of you have really seen evidence of the smashed finger(s) and what can be offered about the facts in the matter.
Wendell W. Huffman
Curator of History
Nevada State Railroad Museum
2180 South Carson Street
Carson City, NV 89701
(775) 687-8291 v
(775) 687-8294 f