Before the successful commercial application of the telegraph in the
late 1840's, the employees' timetable was the supreme authority for
operating all trains on any railroad.
It specified the classes of all
trains, exactly where they must meet and pass and which must take siding, as
well as the superior direction. The timetable's provisions permitted early
railroaders to operate reasonably safely, provided scheduled trains were
always on time and everybody obeyed the rules set forth in the "bible."
Scheduled trains, however, were frequently several hours late.
too, there were always a few impatient and venturesome crews who practiced
"railroading on the other man's smoke."
This meant advancing, on single
track, into an area on another train's time, watching for the opposing
engine's smoke, and hoping the other crew was watching theirs.
moving on "smoke orders" was a highly dangerous practice; but its proper
alternative of abiding by the timetable usually meant waiting for hours in
sidings for overdue, superior trains.
A century ago railroaders carried
their lunches in half-bushel baskets; the lengthy time away from home made
it necessary. Frequent and seemingly endless waiting in sidings accounted
for a great deal of the crews' time on the road.
In 1851 when Charles Minot was superintendent of the Erie, he decided to
do something about these long waits.
Once while on one of his westbound
freights, sidetracked at what is now Harriman, New York, he became extremely
impatient while waiting for a superior eastbound train. After some time, he
went to a nearby commercial telegraph office and had the telegrapher inquire
of the railroad signal operator at Goshen, 15 miles to the west, if the
eastbound train had yet passed. Receiving a negative reply, he then had the
telegrapher send the following message to the operator at Goshen: "Hold
Eastbound Train Until Further Orders. Charles Minot, Superintendent." To
his conductor and engineer, he handed a written