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The Brakemen of Logging Trains

Brakeman holding his hickey

Brakeman holding his hickey

The head brakeman was the most important member of the logging train crew. His job was dirty and very dangerous. There were no air brakes on logging trains for many, many, years. Each disconnect, log car had its own brake and each one had to be set individually. The brakeman decided how the train was to be made up and laid out the work for the train crew. It was his job to figure out how to control the loaded trains on the often heavy downhill grades. Where there was a method of dispatching in use it was the brakeman who maintained contact with the dispatcher.

Brakeman showing how hickey is used to tighten the brake

Brakeman showing how hickey
is used to tighten the brake

The “hickey” was the badge of the brakeman. It was a short iron bar designed to be inserted through the spikes of a brake wheel to provide leverage in tightening up the brake. Manipulation of the brakes on the disconnect trucks was a highly specialized art. They were set by hand at the top of the grade, and they often required attention during the descent. If the train was moving slowly the brakeman could hop off the footboards of one log car and catch the next “hole” as it came by. But, if the train was moving too fast, or if he had to make his way forward, he had to walk along the swaying logs like a circus performer.

Brakeman sitting in the “hole” adjusting the brakes on two logging disconnects

Brakeman sitting in the “hole” adjusting
the brakes on two logging disconnects

The brakeman had to plan his many switching moves with the minimum of available trackage. He had to make sure that the most secure loads were in the lead. Nothing but gravity held the consist together and in a long train there was a tendency for the disconnects to pull apart when going downhill. The brakeman had to look them over and decide on their stability and consider just how much braking power he must apply without pulling the consist apart. Once his train was made up and he was headed down the hill, he tried to balance his braking so that the locomotive must exert a small effort to keep the cars rolling downhill – and yet, his brakes must not cause the wheels to slide.

Brakeman holding hickey designed to work with a vertical brakeBrakeman holding hickey designed to
work with a vertical brake

Brakemen were also required to watch the train when it was underway to look for signs of a hot box, (a dangerous overheating of axles.)

As rail transport technology improved, the brakeman's duties were reduced and altered to match the updated technology. His job became much safer than it was in the early days of railroad logging. Individually operated car brakes were replaced with automatic air brakes, eliminating the need for the brakeman to walk atop a moving train to set the brakes. Link and pin couplings were replaced with automatic couplings, and hand signals were replaced by two-way radio communication.

Disconnect with a vertical brake

Disconnect with a vertical brake

Brakeman watching his consist on a downhill grade from the “hole”

Brakeman watching his consist on
a downhill grade from the “hole”