The Zulu
by Fred Wishart

The place: A small county seat town in the Missouri River valley.
The time: Night of February 28, 1898, when our story starts.
The family: Father, yclept Dave; his wife, Jean; two sons, Fred and Blaine; two daughters, Agnes and Margaret Mae.

All day, my father, whose name was Dave Wishart, and his neighbor Sam DeWitt, who lived just across the street, had been hauling household goods, some chickens, a cow with calf at her side, several Poland China pigs, and various farm implements down to a box car which was standing in the railroad yards by a loading dock.

The last load had been stowed away by nine o'clock. The team unhitched, then led into the car, and tied up in a makeshift stall alongside the cow with the pigs and chickens all in one end of the car. The household goods were stowed in the other end. One side door was closed and bars nailed across the other side door. Sam bid my father and me Godspeed before leaving for home. On some hay that had been spread between the doors, Father made a bed down for the two of us.

With the three children who were aged seven, two, and one year respectively, my mother, Jean, would be following by passenger train in a couple of days, thus giving my father a chance to get all the plunder out to their new home, which would be on a farm five miles out from another county seat town located in a different state and over a hundred and fifty miles west of where they had lived for a number of years.

As there was no night man at the station, the agent had called the dispatcher over the telegraph wires that the westbound night freight was to pick up a Zulu car, number so-and-so, and so destined for station number 769. The agent then put the waybill for the Zulu in the "westbound" box for the conductor.

It had been a busy day for me so it wasn't long before I was sound asleep. It must have been one o'clock when we were both awakened by a bump and the sound of a man's voice saying "Here it is," and then the sound of the pin being dropped into the coupling. This was in the Link and Pin days long before trains had the Janney automatic coupler. The car was pulled off the siding, then backed down and coupled onto the train. The brakeman highballed the engineer and we were on our way to station number 769.

Things had been pretty tough in the midlands during the preceding six years -- the last year of Harrison's administration, all of Cleveland's, and then on into McKinley's. Father with his growing family had been hard hit in business due to the fact that people who had bought furniture from him and his partner were unable to pay their bills. Also he had invested some money in land and store building. The renters failed to make ends meet so income was short indeed. There was one case where a renter simply turned over his stock of boots and shoes to my father to square up the rental.

My father, Dave Wishart, was quite a trader both in land and stock (mostly horses). In one trade he got hold of a quarter section of land out west and having sold out the stock of shoes he decided to try his hand farming again. So after having made a trip out to the new location to put in some fall wheat the previous fall, he moved out bag and baggage the next spring.

(Here we have left that Zulu car standing on the main line, just starting to roll. Let's get the cars rolling.)

By the time the crew had us coupled onto the train, I was wide awake and very much excited over it all, for it was my second train ride that I could remember. The first one when I was three years old and that for only nine miles each way. Like a great number of other lads in those days, I wanted to be a RAILROAD MAN when I grew up. Here I was on a trip of nearly two hundred miles and I was not going to miss a thing if I could help it.

The engineer pulled his whistle cord twice and away we went out across the country rolling along at what must have been all of twenty miles an hour over track that had little nor no ballast under it. I crawled over to the door that was partly open, leaned across the top bar that held the door in place and watched the countryside as it slipped by. The train made two or three stops to set out or pick up cars at different stations then pulled into what was the largest town in our section of the country [editor's note: Beatrice, Neb.]. By the time the crew got the cars set out and had picked up the loads that were to go with us it was getting along toward morning but as it was just the first day of March, it was still quite dark. Now the countryside was coming to life. Here and there, I saw the lights dimly glowing from kerosene lamps in the houses while the farmer himself was swinging a lantern as he moved around the barnyard. Although the time was hardly five a. m., I was sure it was breaking day and called to my father that it was so. Father sleepily informed me that it was what is commonly called false dawn and tried to get me to come back to bed but there was too much interest outside to think of going back to bed.

Daylight was really breaking as our branch train pulled into the Fairbury main line yard. When the train stopped the "crummy" -- caboose to those who are not railmen -- was close to the yard office. My father, with me at his heels, went in to see the yardmaster and made inquiry as to how long it would be before we would pull out. "His Nibs" said the mainline freight would be pulling in from the north shortly and that it would take the Zulu to Belleville forty miles farther on. There was a cafe close by so the two of us went over and ate breakfast, getting back just as the mainliner pulled in.

The rail route taken from Pawnee City, NE, when the David Wishart
family relocated in 1898 to their new home, a farm near Smith Center, KS.

The Zulu was put into the train just ahead of the crummy, so Father and I rode the cushions over to Belleville. Here again was something new for me, so I was all eyes. One thing that took my eye was the stove, a coal burner with a flat top which had two lids. A big coffee can or pot set on the stove and was wired to the stove pipe. I wondered why, but soon found out. For when the train started up with its thirty cars, the slack run out and the little old crummy jumped like a scared rabbit. But the coffee pot stayed put.

As noted previously, this took place in the Link and Pin era of railroading. Cars were coupled together by two cast iron pins, one for each car. The link with the pins in place hooked the cars together. When coupling up, the link and one pin were in place. The second pin being balanced above the coupling of the second car, the brakeman gave the "slow" signal to the head end and the cars were supposed to come together gently. Often the brakie would reach in to steady the pin, but too much of a jolt would catch the brakeman's hand with the result that he lost at least one finger.

Quite often during the first thirty years of this century a conductor, as he came by to collect your ticket, was short one or more fingers. You could rest assured that he belonged to the Link and Pin Club.

Naturally there was some slack between each car. So that even though the engineer started to feed the steam gently into the cylinder heads, still by the time the slack ran out in the line of cars, the crummy got the full impact.

Air brakes too were just a dream in the mind of the inventor. The engine and each car had brakes which had to be set by hand. If the engineer had to set the brakes on the engine suddenly, it could be catastrophic for the cars and people, too, on the train. Most of the railroads built across the prairies had very little grading. Whenever possible the ties and the rails were laid on the ground. Father used to tell about the building of the Union Pacific up the Platte valley in Nebraska. He said that two furrows were plowed, one in each direction. The dirt from the furrows was thrown toward the center with the furrows about seven feet apart. The ties and rails were then placed on this roadbed. As this valley is quite flat for many miles, good time was made with construction. The streams that flowed into the main river were usually nothing more than creeks with little or no banks.

Promoters had a heyday in the midlands through the 1870's and on into the 80's, too. A township could vote bonds for the building of rail lines, so in many instances the promoters simply laid a ruler across the map drew a line that would bisect as many townships as possible. Get bonds voted, then get the landowner to deed them a right-of-way. Townsites were laid out and the lots sold at private or public auction. Sometimes the railroad was built, but lots never got past the promotional stage. Many townships were still paying off these bonds years afterward without one shovel of earth being moved!

Though many rail lines never materialized, still the midlands became a crisscross of lines which were used as feeders for the larger systems. The rails were the only means of getting farm products to market for many years.

(No, we haven't lost track of the train taking our heroes on their western trip.)

Looking out the caboose window, one could see that the train was coming into Belleville. The time was nearly eleven a. m. when we rolled to a stop.

Again, the train stopped near the yardmaster's office. In company with the conductor, the two of us went into the shack. This time, though, there was no promise as to how quickly they would be on their way again. With my help, Father watered the livestock, then filled the water barrel in case we had to water the stock again before arriving at #769, our destination.

Our chores done, we again got a meal at the yard restaurant. Then we went back to the yardmaster's office to await developments. About one o'clock, "His Nibs" told us that they would run an extra west shortly with carload lots only, and that the train would make good time and should be in #769 early in the evening. It was nearly two before we got away, and with nearly seventy miles to go. It looked doubtful as to getting through before dark. But his time the conductor was a ball of fire. He must have had a date at the other end of the run because no time was lost getting station work done.

For instance, the crew had a car to set out at Station #749. The car had been set out, the engine backed up and coupled onto the train when the operator called the conductor in informing him that he dispatcher said he had an eastbound train at the next station and for the west man to take siding.

"You tell that so and so that we are pulling out right now, and have that fellow get off the main line for us!"

All jumped aboard and hightailed it out of there. When we came to the next station, the eastbound train was over on the passing track. So we went through without stopping as the board was clear.

Thirty minutes later the train pulled into our destination. The car was uncoupled and switched alongside another loading platform and we were on our own. When the car had been loaded, Sam had helped my father with the heavy work. But now, I had to bend my back in helping to get the wagon out of the car.

We had landed there right at five o'clock as the conductor had promised we would. The sun was setting as we two commenced to unload. First, the front wheels of the wagon, then the wagon tongue, now the rear wheels and the coupling pole that connected the front and rear. The wagon was eased down the ramp backwards which gave the two better control. The running gears were then pulled alongside the ramp. The wagon box was quite heavy so a couple of rollers were used to get the box out of the car, across the platform, then slid down onto the running gears. The brake was hooked up. The doubletrees and neckyoke placed for the horses at the end of the tongue.

Once the wagon was set up a stove was loaded with some food and cooking utensils so that we two could get breakfast next morning. Enough bed clothes for the night, a couple chairs and a small table to eat off of. Then the pigs and calf were loaded. Next on the agenda was to harness the team, hitch them up, and tie the cow to the back of the wagon.

After stopping at a restaurant uptown, where we got a bite to eat, we headed north five miles to our new home. It was at least nine before we headed into the side road that led to the house and barn of our new abode. First the gear for the house had to be unloaded ,then the team and wagon, with the pigs, chickens, cow and calf taken to the barnyard and some feed given them.

Back at the house it didn't take long to set up the stove then a bed made down on the floor as the bedsteads were still in the box car which had been padlocked for the night. Doubt if there ever was a sleepier boy than me that night after the long day I had put in along the way. it seemed like just a few minutes when I was awakened by Father telling me it was time to be "up and at them." Father got breakfast for us, while I went to the barn, fed the animals, and watered them. Shortly afterwards, Jake Hosmer and his son came driving a wagon up to the house. Dave had made arrangements with Jake, who lived on the farm just north, to help haul the household goods from the car.

In a few minutes both wagons were on the road for town. Most of the day was required to get everything out to the house and placed around until my mother, Jean, and her three other children arrived the next night.

As a matter of fact, the three-room house with a lean-to kitchen was not the most commodious house by any stretch of the imagination.

What is meant by Zulu, you ask? All I can say is that it was the name given to emigrant cars by the railroaders -- no other reason seemed to cover.

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