The man whose business is to manage the brake on railways. The brake is a piece of mechanism for retarding or stopping motion by friction, as of a carriage or railway car, by the pressure of rubbers against the wheels. The cut shows the brake generally used in America, and known as “the Stevens Brake.” The hand-wheel, on the spindle A, which is fastened to the platform P of the car, winds up the chain F and pulls the lever B, which presses the brake-block K upon the wheel X and pulls the rod O, which presses the brake-block upon the wheel W, and pulls the rod E, which runs to the other truck, where there is a duplicate of the arrangement shown. Thus, turning the brake-wheel at either end of the car brings an equal pressure upon all the wheels. — Webster, 1882
Killed by the Cars. Last Wednesday evening a brakeman on the Winona & St. Peter railroad fell from the top of a box car of a moving train and was instantly killed. The train was switching at the time and it is supposed he slipped and fell between the cars. — Minnesota newspaper, 1879
The brakes on cars pulled by a steam engine were manually set by turning a wheel at the end of each car. In the case of passenger cars, the passenger brakeman could walk from car to car inside the train to set each brake, but for boxcars, this was done by moving along a car on top of it, setting the brake, and then jumping to the next car. Most trains had two or more freight brakemen who usually rode on top of the boxcars (fine in beautiful weather, but think about the Hard Winter…), at least one man at each end of the train. They had to be ready at a moment’s notice to go to work.
As the train approached a stop, the engineer gave the whistle signal (two blasts) and the brakemen started jumping from car to car towards the middle, setting the brakes as they went and slowing the train. Laura Ingalls Wilder describes this action in The Long Winter (see Chapter 31, “Waiting for the Train”), not as seen by her, but by the men watching and waiting for the train from the depot platform.
It was also the passenger brakeman’s job to help where needed, both outside the train (coupling cars) and in (helping with luggage). In By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapters 3 and 4), it is the passenger brakeman who helps Ma with the satchel and is identified to Laura as being a brakeman. Because he worked inside the cars, the passenger brakeman wore a uniform and special cap, as noticed by Laura. Freight brakemen dressed for the weather!
The freight brakeman’s job was extremely dangerous, as shown in the following bits I found in newspapers while doing research. From 1880: E.W. Shenton a brakeman in the yard of the Winona & St. Peter railroad was run over and killed. While walking along the track he got his left foot into a frog and before he could release himself a freight train that was slowly backing up to make a coupling, ran over him. He only lived about an hour after the accident. On Saturday last Charles White, also a brakeman, came very near meeting a similar fate by falling off at a box car of a moving train. From 1886: Brakeman James Hill was killed by the mixed train Sunday morning. When he went to set the brakes, he slipped beneath the cars and fell. Several cars ran over his body. He pulled himself out a bit as each car went over him, crushing him in a different place. His limbs and one arm were horribly mangled. After the train had passed, his cries were heard. He lived until about eight o’clock; he was nineteen years old.
brakeman (SSL 3-4; TLW 31; THGY 14; PG)
brakeman’s cap (SSL 3)