On several trips to the mid-west in recent years we passed through a small Ohio town named Suffield. Each time as we crossed the railroad tracks and I saw the name on the little station, it faintly rang a bell somewhere in the recesses of memory. As far as I could recall I had never stopped there, nor did I know anyone at Suffield, yet there was a familiarity about the name that haunted me but which I could not identify, try as I would. It was a disconcerting experience each year to be thus annoyed, and for miles as we proceeded along our journey I would search the pigeon holes of memory for some kind of a clue. Sometimes I would seem to be on the verge of having the answer, but it would always elude me, and my traveling trance would usually end by Carrie saying: "You'd better get your mind on driving; I don't want to end up in the ditch," or some substantial advice of a kindred nature. So I would forget about it until the following year when the same experience would be repeated.
However, a few months ago the riddle of Suffield was solved. As we approached the tracks a train was coming, and as I still like to watch trains go by, I graciously yielded the right of way and waited for a long drag of empty coal cars to pass. "That's it! I've got it now! That's the Nickel Plate Railroad!" I almost shouted above the roar of the train.
"What's so remarkable about that discovery?" Carrie asked. "Anyone would know that. It's painted all over the train!"
"That used to be the old Wheeling & Lake Erie before the Nickel Plate took it over. Suffield is the station next to Mishler where I had my first job as a night operator," I replied. "Mishler is only two miles from here, and I think I'll just take time out to see what the place looks like after forty-eight years. Maybe it's quite a town by this time."
"I thought you were so anxious to get fishing. We still have quite a way to go," I was reminded.
"I wouldn't miss seeing Mishler again — for all the fish in the Sandusky river," I replied; and turning off on a side road, we headed in the direction of Mishler. As we drove along a narrow country road, my thoughts went back nearly half a century when I had started out to lick the world. Time had done much to purify and soften my recollections.
* * *
It was a snappy, late autumn day in 1905 when I heard the conductor call out: "Mishler! Mishler! Next stop Suffield!" and a few moments later I swung from the steps of the north bound local, suitcase in hand. I was the only passenger to alight, and no one boarded the train, which was soon on its way. I had been wondering about the size of the town, and had hoped that I could find a nice quiet place to board in some private family rather than at a hotel, away from the business section and noise, factories and passing trains, as it was a night job and I would have to sleep days. In this respect Mishler was ideal, my anxiety had been quite unnecessary, and I couldn't have asked for more. It was a quiet place; a very quiet place. It was the most forsaken and lonesome place I had ever seen! Just one human habitation there, the house across the road where the agent lived, the nearest dwelling being a farm house half a mile down the road.
The station was the tiniest I had ever seen, its only architectural dignity being a bay window — and a very dirty bay window at that. Be it ever so humble, every railroad station had to have a bay window so the operator could see the trains approaching, but I doubted if anyone had seen trains through that bay window for some time. I went into the station and introduced myself to the agent, a one armed man by the name of Curt Sells who liked to argue politics, as I soon learned. I explained to him that it was my first job, and that I knew very little about railroading, having served my apprenticeship in a commercial telegraph office, and would appreciate any pointers and help he could give me.
"Well," he said, "as soon as you get settled here you can wash the windows," explaining that he was somewhat handicapped, having but one arm. Later, when I washed them, I discovered that I used only one arm. He further enlightened me on railroading by a long discourse on the evils and corruption of the Mark Hanna political machine. I would find a place to board, he told me, at Noah Colors, a half mile down the road. The Book of Rules was in the desk drawer, and I would have plenty of time to study up, and the timetable was pinned up right over the instruments in plain sight. "And now you better get down to Noah's and get some dinner so you won't be late to relieve me," he concluded. With this helpful and valuable information added to my vacuum of railroad experience, I made my way down the dusty, country road to the farm of Noah Colors.
They were very nice people of the Dunkard faith. I knew nothing about their beliefs other than that Mrs. Colors believed in setting a bounteous table for three dollars per week, which appealed to me as trying to do the right thing. I later observed that many of the men, including the younger ones, wore full beards, and dark, broad-brimmed hats with rather low crowns.
My flaring, peg-leg trousers, as they were then called, which were quite the vogue in more urban communities, were in rude contrast to their somber attire, but they were there first, and we pursued our respective pathways of salvation in harmony and with mutual respect.
After dinner Mrs. Colors packed a generous midnight lunch for me and I started for 'downtown' Mishler and duty. When I arrived at the station Mr. Sells asked me if I voted the Republican or Democratic ticket, and I told him that I had voted neither as I was but 18. "Well," he said, "just be patient; your time will come. You'll be able to vote at the next presidential election. Three years will roll around fast. Our economy sure is gummed up now, and it's going to be up to you new voters to save the country. I've tried to do my part, but we old timers can't do it all. When we drop by the wayside of life and the torch falls from our hands, you'll have to pick it up and carry on." And thus it went, Mr. Sells waxing eloquent. He was worrying how the country was going to get through three more years, while I was worrying how I was going to get through the next twelve hours. He left finally, and I was on my own.
Although I had learned to telegraph reasonably well for a beginner, and had been privileged to spend a week in the dispatcher's office with Billy Sherwood, I was totally unfamiliar with this division of the road. I did not know the names of the stations and office calls, train numbers, and other information that is acquired only by experience and which gives one the feeling of being 'at home' on a job, so I began studying the time table and memorizing the calls. I had figured it would be pretty lonely, but soon through the grime of the windows I could see the faces of several farmer boys grinning at me. Lonely kids from down the road craving a little excitement, but I was in no mood for an audience. "Why don't those kids go home where they belong?" I thought to myself, trying to ignore them. But they remained, wiping the grime covered window panes with their sleeves to get a better view inside. Then they would race around the station only to come back and grin at me again. When they started climbing the semaphore ladder I felt it was time to assert my authority, but before I could say anything, one of them shouted: "Say, Mister, it's getting pretty dark. Hadn't you better be putting up the semaphore light?" It was the duty of the night operator to clean, refill, and put this signal in place, but Mr. Sells had been too busy talking politics to inform me. One of the boys offered to do it for me, but I insisted on doing it myself, as I felt it would be fatal to encourage them in any way. This being done, I started for the coal shed to replenish the night's supply of fuel, and again, assistance was offered, but I thought it best to do my own lugging of coal. When I returned some minutes later one of the boys said: "Mister, you better get in there and answer your call. The dispatcher is calling 'MS' like a house afire. Old Gurley is working this trick, and he's an awful crab. He gets awful sore if you don't answer right off!" All of this was terribly embarrassing. Here were farmer kids who knew more about railroading and making trains run on time than I did. As I later learned, the previous night operator had permitted them to take care of the semaphore light, the stove, and had taught them some of the rudiments of telegraphy, to the extent that they could recognize the station call and knew not only the names of the dispatchers, but the kind of dispositions they had! Fortunately,
I had no difficulty with Mr. Gurley. Although he seemed to live in a perpetual state of irritation, he was a slow 'sender,' and I easily got his train orders down on paper. But with Mr. Maloney, a fiery Irishman, it was an entirely different matter. He was a notoriously fast sender, and I had to sweat blood to keep up with him. A single train order might cover the meeting points of half a dozen different trains, which the dispatcher must arrange and visualize in his mind's eye and send out simultaneously to as many different stations along the line — all of which calls for concentration of the highest caliber. The order is not written into his own records until the various operators repeat it back to him for verification. To interrupt, or 'break' him as it is called, and ask to repeat, is considered quite unorthodox, as I was to learn on several occasions. Maloney just didn't like to be interrupted — period! When he would get too far ahead of me and I would miss something, I would leave the space blank and fill in the missing words when the order was repeated by the other operators. This system worked wonderfully well until one night when he asked me to repeat first, and I had to ask him: "No. 32 is to meet what train where?" — Just a simple question, but I am sure that Mr. Morse never would have approved the use to which his invention was put by Mr. Maloney that night!
Train orders were taken down in manifold, sometimes as many as nine or eleven copies, with carbon between each. This did not make a very firm writing surface, and one would have to bear down hard to make the impression go all the way through. It was somewhat like trying to write on a feather bed. I would get behind, and nervous, and my hands would perspire, and the pad would become moist and damp. My stylus would poke through and tear the paper, and it was of little help to have several trainmen, waiting to get their orders, reading each word aloud over my shoulder as I put it down, and bumping my chair. town. "My, my, how Mishler has grown," I said, and as we passed a farmer on the road I remarked: "This is Mishler, isn't it?"
But as I had more experience, I improved. I did not remain at Mishler long, but was given a better job in a larger place on my home division of the road.
* * *
Such were my recollections of Mishler as we drove along what seemed an interminable distance, but finally we approached quite a town.
"My, my, how Mishler has grown," I said, and as we passed a farmer on the road, I remarked: "This is Mishler, isn't it?'
"Gosh, no, this is Hartville. You passed Mishler about four miles back."
"That's funny," I said, "I didn't see it."
"Not very funny," he replied. "There just ain't anything to see any more. They tore down the station years ago, and one night Curt Sells' house burned to the ground, and that's all there ever was to Mishler."
We drove back and I found the location — nothing to indicate that there had ever been a station, or that I had ever worked there. It wasn't even a ghost town — just a ghost out of the past.
As we tarried there looking at nothing, Carrie made a very sensible suggestion. It was so practical and logical I am sure I would have thought of it myself, had she but given me enough time.
"I wouldn't want you to miss anything for the world," she said, "but when you have seen all there is to see, it might be a good idea to get on with our trip."
"I'm afraid you do not fully appreciate Mishler, especially as I knew it in its heyday. I'll admit it isn't much to look at now, but it was a school of learning, a modest and humble one perhaps, but still a school of experience and discipline. The fact that it has disappeared from the face of the earth is no reflection upon its grandeur. Look what happened to Eleusis, and Samothrace, and Ephesus. Where are they today?"
"I don't know," Carrie replied, "but I'd like to be in Fremont before dark." It wasn't a bad idea at all, so we drove on.
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We are escorted on every hand through life by spiritual agents, and a beneficent purpose lies in wait for us. We cannot bandy words with Nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons. If we measure our individual forces against hers we may easily feel as if we were the sport of an insuperable destiny. But if, instead of identifying ourselves with the work, we feel that the soul of the Workman streams through us, we shall find the peace of the morning dwelling first in our hearts, and the fathomless powers of gravity and chemistry, and, over them, of life, preexisting within us in their highest form. — Emerson, On Nature