In the early days of railroading the railroading journals were full of odes dedicated to brakemen. The job of the freight train brakeman was not glamorous and it was dangerous. Before the use of airbrakes in the late 1800s, trains were stopped through the application of brakes on each of the train’s cars. Even after airbrakes came into use, the brakeman still had to be ready to climb on top of the cars and manually set the brakes either when the airbrakes failed or when a section of cars had to be cut from the train.
Sometimes there were three brakemen; front middle and rear. In the interest of safety, if there was a middle brakeman he would ride on top of the cars in order to be ready to manually apply the brakes if needed. Middle brakemen were used on long freight trains as well as on local freight lines where freight cars had to be cut loose or added on a regular basis.
To apply the brakes, the brakeman had to turn a large wheel located on top each freight car of the train. Every brakeman carried a brake club to help give them leverage in turning the wheel. This meant that they would have to run along the top of the cars and leap from one to another in order to apply or release the brakes on each car.
Generally, the rear brakeman, or flagman as he was also known, would advance from the end of the train and the head brakeman or the conductor would advance from the engine to apply the brakes on each car. On a moving train, especially in bad weather, this could be extremely dangerous. The brakeman could easily fall to his death between the cars. This could be even more dangerous at night and in bad weather. Running across car roofs could be slippery with rain or ice and snow. Add rocking cars and brakeman could be thrown to his death even in good weather.
In parts of the country where there were railroad tunnels, the tunnels themselves could pose lethal hazard. Besides the possibility of falling rocks, thick black coal smoke and steam from the engine would linger in the tunnel. F the train had to stop in the tunnel for any reason, a stay inside the tunnel would expose them to toxic fumes.
Before the advent of an enclosed cabin for the brakemen, they would ride on metal ladders on the sides or ends of the rail cars. Even after the brakemen’s cabin arrived on the scene in the 1880’s, the cabins were open to the elements so that the brakemen could hear the braking signals from the train’s whistle. Exposure was also bad for engineers and firemen who rode on an open platform at the rear of the smoke and steam spewing engine.
Besides the responsibilities of the brakes, the brakeman also was responsible for coupling and uncoupling the train’s cars. In the days of link and pin coupling, switching cars was dangerous because the brakeman had to stand between two cars. The risk of being crushed or having arms or fingers cut off while lining up pins was always present.
Even after automatic signals came into use, when a train had to stop it was the brakeman's job to display a flag or lantern at night some distance generally two miles back (!), from the end of the train. In foul weather it was a dangerous and unhealthy job.
Throwing switches was also the brakeman's job. This often required running ahead of the train to throw the switch. At the rear of the train, the rear brakeman would have to jump off the train, close the switch and then run back to the train and jump on board. Running alongside the tracks and over the rock ballast then climbing aboard a moving train had hazards of its own.
The brakemen was often require to perform a risky and dangerous procedure called the “flying switch” where cars were uncoupled and allowed to roll onto a siding. This required split-second timing by both the engineer and the brakeman. Needless to say, getting killed was a very real possibility. If you were a brakemen, buying life insurance was almost impossible. At some point unions set up insurance plans for their members.