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Time Was Everything To Early Railroaders

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, I hope you’re having a good week.

My condolences to the Gurner family in their loss. I didn’t know Doug, but I’ve known Jack, Sr. for over 60 years and Jack, Jr. since I started this column. I have really appreciated the pictures from his files that have been included lately.

The late Bruce Gurner and my uncle, Charlie Badley, were good friends for many years and Bruce contributed several things when I began this column. Also my Dad and B.G. Gurner were fellow railroaders and good friends.

Jack, Sr. has done such a great job with the museum in preserving our railroad heritage. Since we’re the last generation with a direct connection to the Illinois Central Railroad, that connection is so important. Future generations will have to rely on the museum or the written word to realize what a vital part the railroad was in Water Valley’s history.    

Following the War Between The States until about 1925, Water Valley was the town to come to for a good job. The population in the early part of the 20th Century was almost ten thousand with about one thousand employed in the shops, plus the administrative, road men and section crews.

The Mississippi Division offices were on the second floor of the old depot and the Railway Express was on the south end. A.D. Caulfield, Barron’s grandfather, was Division Superintendent for many years and had a Packard automobile modified to run on the rails for his use. As a small child I remember seeing that car running down the tracks.

Since the road through here was a single track line, the schedules were so important and the watch played a vital role in this. The watch was a part of the railroad man’s equipment and shame on the man who didn’t have it on his person with an up-to-date comparison if the Trainmaster asked to see it.

Only authorized watchmakers could work on those watches. For many years only pocket watches were authorized and the overalls the men wore had a watch pocket in the bib. It was only in the last 50 years that wrist watches were finally allowed. Most of the watches were Ball, Illinois or Hamilton and the first wrist watches had a face exactly like the old pocket watches.

The engineer and fireman hung out each side of the engine as a steam locomotive was, in reality, a boiler on wheels and that was the only way they could see ahead. In those days, cows and horses and even hogs might be running loose and get on the tracks.

The Panama Limited hit a cow near Sardis, threw it into the switch and derailed into the woods killing the engineer and fireman. The biggest fear they had in a wreck was escaping steam and many would jump rather than risk it.

The old steam engine had no speedometer, so the engineer would time it with his watch using the mile posts to calculate his speed. Old habits die hard and I’ve seen firemen and engineers hanging out the side of diesel engines even though it had a windshield complete with windshield wipers. It was a dirty, dangerous job, but it held an allure like no other to the men who worked it.

I’m only sorry that the constraints of space don’t allow me to go into more details but as usual I tend to return to previous columns from time to time, so be patient. Your input is always welcome and used whenever possible so let me hear from you. My email address is or write me at P.O. Box 613189, Memphis, TN 38101 or call me at 870-636-2503 and have a great week.

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