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Southern Railroad Man: Conductor N. J. Bell's Recollections of the… (1896)

de James A. Ward

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Nimrod J. Bell worked as a conductor for several southern railroads in their formative period, from 1857 to 1894. After his career was cut short by an accident, he wrote his memoirs detailing his first glimpses of some of the earliest trains in the South and his thirty-eight years as a conductor. Published in Atlanta in 1896, his book offers a firsthand account of working conditions on the railroads, operational procedures, wartime railroading, and passenger travel during Reconstruction.… (més)

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Nimrod J. Bell worked as a conductor on various southern railroads between 1857 and 1895. He published his story of railroad life in 1896 titled “Railroad Recollections for Over Thirty-Eight Years.” The book was privately published and quickly disappeared from view. A copy of his work was re-discovered in the late 1980’s. After some editing and annotation by James A. Ward it was re-issued under its current title “Southern Railroad Man.”

As a conductor Bell was in an excellent position to observe the changes in the general railroad scene and the passengers in his charge. It is obvious from his writing that he paid close attention to both. His descriptions of people, events, and places are well written and convey an understanding the times in which he lived. Ward’s contribution to the book consists of footnotes and annotations which serve to clarify references and terms not part of today’s general discourse and provide verification in the form of additional citations concerning things, places and events. Ward also recognized, as does the reader, that Bell changed his form and focus of writing approximately 2/3 of the way through the text. The former being a description of his experiences and the latter being a collection of general observations about life but not just about railroad life. To that end Ward split the book into two sections – “Bell’s Career” and “General Observations”.

In his opening chapter Bell provides the reader with a brief biography of himself and the sequence of events that led up to his choosing railroad work as a career. Chapters 2-5 provide details of his Civil War experiences on the Western and Atlantic, the East Tennessee and Georgia, and the South Carolina Railroad. Chapter 6, titled “After General Lee Surrendered 1865-1868” give the reader a sense of the southern railroad scene in the immediate postwar years and Chapter 7-11 detail Bells experiences on the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, The South and North Railroad of Alabama, and the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad.

Chapters 12-15 are “General Observations.” The topics are Railroads and Employees (12), Passenger Trains and Conductors (13), Old Stories and Other Things Connected with Railroads (14) and Right and Wrong (15). Bell’s book provides a rare glimpse of the 1850-1890 trackside/station-side/ railroad scene. I would recommend his book to anyone interested in eyewitness descriptions of the times. Some examples of his writing style are provided in Common Knowledge. (Text length - 182 pages, Total length - 194 pages) ( )
  alco261 | Jul 27, 2013 |
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It was in South Carolina, Anderson District, now country, where I was born, away back, half a century or more ago.
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When a box-car was used for a caboose, a large rope was thrown over the top of the car, and each end roped around a crosspiece at the top of the door inside of the car, and the ends of the rope hung down on each side, so one could get in and out. I once got a hard fall by my rope breaking. Only one who has had such experience can imagine how one suffered in such cars in cold weather without any fire. Many times my hands have been so cold that I could not handle my waybills when I arrived at a station, until I warmed them.
I was sent out of Chattanooga once after a heavy rainfall with an engine, a few box and flat cars, a baggage car and two coaches, and was instructed to go through to Meridian if I could possibly get over the road. I was early one Monday morning. I made pretty fair speed until I got west of Birmingham, when I found a place I thought not fit to run over I would have it repaired. I had about twenty or twenty-five negroes on board, who were going to pick cotton in the Mississippi valley. I would hire them to help me and would also pick up section men when I could find any. I found the track torn up and embankments washed out in many places after I passed Tuscaloosa. Some places where I could get timber I would have trees cut down and build pens out of logs so as to put the track across the washout. I would pay my men off every night. I worked day and night until I got to Meridian. When I arrived there I went to an office, took a seat near a desk, crossed my arms on the desk, dropped my head on my arms and went to sleep and slept about four or five hours. When I awoke I started back to Chattanooga. I had not been in bed the whole week.
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Nimrod J. Bell worked as a conductor for several southern railroads in their formative period, from 1857 to 1894. After his career was cut short by an accident, he wrote his memoirs detailing his first glimpses of some of the earliest trains in the South and his thirty-eight years as a conductor. Published in Atlanta in 1896, his book offers a firsthand account of working conditions on the railroads, operational procedures, wartime railroading, and passenger travel during Reconstruction.

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