274 Switch Keys
by Elton M. Eversole
note: Following is an article by a gentleman who was undoubtedly one
of the original railroad switch key collectors. The article was printed
in the Summer, 1985 issue of Key,
Lock & Lantern but was originally published in the early
1940's. It gives both a glimpse into a long-gone era of railroading and
a picture of what the collecting hobby was like in the early days. Thanks
to Key Lock & Lantern for permission to reprint this -- see note
A very interesting email that was received in October,
2002 is appended at the bottom of the page.]
Fifty-six years ago, the year
I began railroading, I was presented with two brass switch keys at
Dunsmuir, Calif. The man who gave them was a hoghead I worked with,
named John Gardner. One, I remember, had come from the Burlington.
The other could unlock switches on the Chicago & North Western.
I was proud of them. So proud
that I decided to start collecting switch keys from as many different
roads as possible. It did not take me long to find out that switch
keys were hard to get. Officials guarded these bits of metal with care,
and the boomers who carried extra keys seldom could be persuaded to
part with them. They were looked upon as lucky pieces.
Beginning with the pair from
Mr. Gardner in 1887, I have followed my hobby ever since, in and out
of railroading, at the rate of five additional keys a year. I now have
274. This is quite a lot. I am told it represents a larger number of
roads than exist in any other group of switch keys. Of course, I am
unable to check on the truth of this claim. All I know is that I am
familiar with several collections in various parts of the country and
not one is even a third as big as mine.
Plenty of water has lapped
the shores of Lake Michigan since 1887, but my interest in the subject
is still keen. In fact, living now in retirement at the Home for Aged
and Disabled Railroad Employees of America, Highland Park, Ill., I
value these relics more than ever, because they form a link with the
past. They recall the days of youth when I was swinging lanterns, pulling
pins, and tying down brakes. Memories of long ago come trooping back
as I finger these keys, like a monk counting his rosary. Two additional
keys a year! It has taken me more than half a century to accumulate
My first railroad job was
watching work-train engines on construction work for the Oregon & California
line at Simms, California. Our camp was located between Dunsmuir and
Delta. We had about forty outfit cars and approximately 200 men. My
pay was $75 a month, and I earned my board by calling the cooks in
the morning. Pay day came once every two months. That was a long time
to wait. Some of the boys got restless before pay day rolled around
and got drunk for the next few days after it.
We were paid in gold coins.
I had saved a little money before going on the job and my expenses
were low, so on the very first pay day I joyfully sent my mother $150
in gold by Wells Fargo Express. The next pay day I did the same. Mom
was surprised at my ability to send her all my wages for the four months.
One reason why I could do this was that an Indian and I made money
on the side by catching fish in the Sacramento River and selling them
to hotels. We also supplied fish to cooks in the O&C camp.
Shortly before I signed up
as engine watchman there had been a great railroad strike in the Midwest,
and soon the strikers were drifting westward to get work wherever they
could. I had been employed but a few months when one of the strikers,
John Gardner from the Burlington, gave me the two switch keys. A few
other keys fell into my pockets as a result of the same strike.
After I had been watching
engines for six months I was promoted fireman, and was that a thrill!
It was hard work, too. If you ever fired wood-burners you know what
I mean. A diamond-stacked mill could burn up a tank full of cord wood
in no time. But I liked California. It was God's country. Everything
seemed to be new -- everything except the big woods. Dunsmuir was a
frontier rail town, with a new roundhouse and machine shop. The men
on the road and in the shops were a swell bunch of fellows.
A.J. Stevens, who had patented
valve motion that gave his name to locomotives equipped with it, was
at that time the Superintendent of Motive Power at Sacramento; and
when the shops and roundhouse were to be built in Dunsmuir he sent
his son, Fred, to this place as Master Mechanic, with Frank Roberts
Where the track crossed the
Sacramento River the bridges were numbered, the last crossing, the
eighteenth, being just north of Dunsmuir. Those hardy souls who had
built the town must have met some difficulty in finding a site. The
shops and roundhouse stood on the only level ground at the river bend,
while the depot and the Master Mechanic's house were across the tracks
from them. In those days there was only one street, with a hotel at
the north end and the rest occupied by boarding houses, gin mills,
The railroad men with families
bought pieces of ground and built dwellings wherever they could. I
played in luck when I came to Dunsmuir in finding a place to call home.
Two cousins of mine, Fred and Clyde Farmer, had an interest in a house
with some other men. One of them went back to Sacramento to live, so
I bought his share. At that time five of us occupied the house, my
two cousins, a fireman named Archie Montgomery, John Gardner, the hoghead
who gave me those first two switch keys, and myself. Fred was a fireman,
while Clyde was learning the machinists' trade. Both later worked for
the Westinghouse Airbrake Co. and are now retired. Gardner was the
most likable fellow I have ever met. He kept an eye on us young bucks.
This was not too hard, for there was not a drinking man among us.
I had been promoted to a fireman
only a short time when I was called to go on an emergency construction
train to a town called Cottonwood, north of Red Bluff, California.
The Sacramento River had gone on a rampage, washing out several hundred
yards of tracks. As I recall the trip, we had picked up all the extra
gangs as we went along, and were working about fifty hours before we
had a chance to go to bed.
I took a room in a small hotel
at Cottonwood, but was so dead tired that I forgot to wind my watch
before failing asleep. After sleeping all night and part of the next
morning, I woke up, glanced at my watch, and saw it had run down. Then
I heard voices below my window. I opened it and looked down. A Chinaman
was peeling potatoes. I asked him what time it was. The reply was quaint,
to say the least: "Ten minne too muchie for haf pas' nine." I
had to think a couple of seconds before my sleep-befuddled brain gathered
that he meant 9:40 a.m.
Meanwhile, romance had entered
my life in the person of Geraldine. That wasn't her name, but it will
do. I had been working out of Dunsmuir for two years when I met her
there. The girl came west on a visit from Cheyenne, Wyoming. We got
talking together and grew very much attached, I followed her back home
with the idea of marriage. But Gerry's stony-hearted parents had plans
of their own and whisked her away to Platte, Nebraska where they married
her off to a substantial hardware merchant.
That left me in Cheyenne "waiting
at the church." I was ashamed to return to Dunsmuir without a
bride, after having blown off a lot of steam about the girl who was
going to be Mrs. Eversole, so I hit the boomer trail. Luckily for me,
the Union Pacific was short of help, especially firemen and brakemen.
Because I did not like the looks of their coal-burning hogs, I told
the trainmaster at Laramie, Wyoming that I'd had some experience braking
on the Oregon & California Railway, and he sent me back to Cheyenne
to be examined for a brakeman's job.
W.G. Baird, the General Yardmaster
there, was the man who examined train and enginemen on the book of
rules. I went to see him with another fellow, George Curtis, who wanted
to go firing. That was on a Saturday morning. The G.Y.M. asked us a
few questions. Then he gave us each a rulebook and told us to study
it closely and report to him again Monday afternoon.
Well, if ever two young bucks
pored over a volume for two solid days, that was Curtis and me. We
lived at the same boarding house. All we did between meals was study
the book and ask one another questions. We didn't waste much time sleeping.
On Monday we went back to Mr. Baird's office. He led us into a rear
room and put us through an exam which lasted about an hour. At the
end he inquired pointedly, "Are you boys telling me the truth
about the extent of your railroad experience?"
We both answered, "Yes." I
had referred to my work on the Oregon & California Railway, while
Curtis had put in about the same time as a section man and roundhouse
helper at Sidney, Nebraska. Mr. Baird said he had examined a great
many men on the book of rules, and we had passed with ease. He seemed
delighted to note how thoroughly we had studied the book, and was sure
we'd get along all right if we were started off with capable men to
work with. He promised that we'd be put on with a good engineer and
a good conductor, respectively, and we were.
After that, Mr. Baird kept
stepping up the official ladder, one promotion after another. The next
time I had the pleasure of meeting him, years later, he was President
of the Chicago & Alton.
The day after my examination
I was sent out with Ed Bond, conductor, and Jim Sherlock, rear brakeman,
who put me through the paces. All the time I was braking between Cheyenne
and Laramie I worked with but two crews. The other conductor was Clyde
McDonald, who later was appointed Warden of the State Penitentiary
at Laramie. The crews worked first in, first out. While the stock rush
was on, we handled livestock trains to Wendover, out of Cheyenne, over
what was then the Cheyenne & Northern (later Colorado & Southern).
That job was one to be remembered.
I had been used to the Shasta and Siskiyou mountains in northern California,
but the Rockies between Cheyenne and Laramie were quite different.
You climbed the east side 42 miles to Sherman and down the west side
25 miles to Laramie. Sherman was the summit. Mountains in that section
were anything but rocky -- just rolling, grass-covered hills suitable
for cattle or sheep. Very few boulders. The men who had built that
pyramid-shaped railroad monument near Sherman must have used heavy
stones hauled from long distances. It was not easy to hold a train
down Sherman Hill in those days. Some of the cars had only single-connected
handbrakes and old wooden brakebeams. Not more than half the train
was air. The engines had brakes on the drivers. We could run only from
one passing track to another, five or six miles, and then stop to cool
One day I was braking on the
rear end of the train for Bond. We left Sherman eastbound, aiming to
reach Cheyenne before dark. The sky was gray and the weather was chilly,
but I didn't think it was cold enough for me to put my felt boots on
before we started down the grade. After we had gone but four or five
miles, the engineer whistled for brakes, and we went after them. When
we got stopped he whistled cut a flag. I rushed to the caboose, where
Conductor Bond handed me red and white lanterns and a handful of torpedoes.
Walking back, I put down one
torpedo. then I hiked on what I considered a safe distance and placed
two more, expecting to be called in soon. However, I was not called
in soon. After I had been out in the wide open spaces for about an
hour the wind blew stronger, the sky darkened, and snow began swirling
down. I didn't carry a thermometer, but if I had it would have registered
somewhere near zero. I looked around for brushwood to build a fire.
When I had gathered what I thought was enough to keep the flames going
until I was called in, I started a blaze.
My brushwood lasted only about
ten minutes. I gathered another pile. That, too, was burned up in a
hurry. Boy, oh boy, what wouldn't I have given for some of the fuel
I had thrust into fireboxes on O&C engines! All the time it was
getting colder. The gale was blowing more violently. I gave up the
search for wood and hunted a place where I could run to keep my blood
circulating -- a spot partly sheltered from the wind. Finally, after
I had been out what seemed like weeks but was really almost four hours,
a light engine came along to pull our train back to Sherman. The trouble
with our teakettle was that her brakes had heated up the tire on one
pair of drivers. The tire had slipped, and the driver had left the
rail for some thirty yards before the train had been brought to a stop.
Anyhow, when they got me to Cheyenne they found that the toes on both
feet were frozen, and I was taken on to the railroad hospital in Denver.
The switch keys I had brought
from California, with two from the Cheyenne job --Union Pacific and
Cheyenne Northern keys -- made my collection a round dozen, half of
them duplicates. The hospital had a special ward for Union Pacific
men. I was put in that ward. To kill time, I told other patients about
my hobby, and I picked up several more keys from men who had no further
use for them.
One day I showed my collection
to a nurse. She said she knew where there were a lot of the same kind
and perhaps she could get them for me. The following day she came to
the ward with the woman in charge of supplies. The latter said she
couldn't understand why anyone in his right mind would carry around
old keys. She added that she had a box of them which had been left
there by some men who died and others who had failed to remove their
belongings when they were removed from the hospital. Then she gave
me the keys. I often wish I had kept a record of the names of the railroads
represented by that batch of keys.
I had been corresponding with
a cousin in Bloomington, Illinois. When I left the hospital but was
not yet able to return to work, I asked the company for a pass to Bloomington
so I could visit him. Well, I had a nice visit with relatives. One
of them suggested, "Why don't you get a job here on the Alton
or the Illinois Central?"
That seemed like a good idea.
I applied at the Alton's office, but they did not need help at the
time. I then tried the IC. The agent there got in touch with the Superintendent's
off ice at Amboy, Illinois, and they wired me a pass to Amboy. So I
went there instead of returning to Cheyenne.
Arriving in Amboy, I made
a beeline for the trainmaster's office. At that time the Superintendent
was A. F. Jacobs, whose son, "Dude," was trainmaster. Dude
escorted me into his dad's office and announced, "Here's the man
you hired from Bloomington." ' The father replied: "All right.
Put him to work!"
But I didn't report for duty
that day. I first looked around for a boarding house. The following
morning I showed up on the job and was given a coupling knife and
an old iron switch key. Much later, when I finally left Amboy, I took
with me two iron keys.
In 1898, the year of the Spanish-American
War, I went to Alaska. Before going, I entrusted my keys to some
friends in South Chicago who were to keep my collection and other personal
effects until I could call or send for them. Alas, I never saw those
keys again. I regret the loss of them very much, especially because
I have never been able to get another one of those antique iron screw
keys. That type of key was hollow, with screw threads inside. You
put the key into the lock, gave it a twist until it had taken hold of
the screw in the lock; then you pulled, and if you were lucky the switch
would open. I have since written many letters in an effort to locate
someone who had one of those iron keys and was willing to part with
it, but in vain.
Shortly after I went to work
for the Illinois Central at Amboy, we were called for the local north
one morning and a student brakeman was called to go out with us on
the trip. His friends had told him to watch out for jokes that might
be played on him such as sending him to the engineer to get a left-handed
monkey wrench or giving him an oil can and sending him to get it filled
with red oil for the lantern. But he was not prepared for what did
happen, and the conductor had not intended to play tricks on him at
We arrived in Dixon at the
usual time and we all walked up to the head end of the train where
the conductor and the yard master talked about the work that was to
be done. Then the conductor gave orders for the way cars to be placed
at the freight house platform to be unloaded and said, "You fellows
attend to the switching," and that he would take the student and
check the team track. He told the student to go on one side of the
track and call out the numbers of the car seals, and he would be on
the other [side of the track] taking the number of the cars and the
seals on his side.
When they came to the end
of the track they found that the rear car had a pair of wheels off
the track, caused by hitting the bumping post too hard. The conductor
told the student to go to the Crummie and get two frogs out of the
Possum Belly and bring them back here, and we would rerail the car
when the fellows finished the job of switching. The student didn't
say anything but the order was too much for him to understand, and
he figured the conductor was trying to play a joke on him, and his
feelings were hurt. He thought it over and decided he didn't want to
be a brakeman, so he went to the depot and bought a ticket back to
Amboy and told the ticket agent to tell the conductor he had gone back
to Amboy to get a can of red oil for the red lantern.
As oldtimers say, those were
the days -- link-and-pin couplers and handbrakes. In winter time the
car tops were often covered with sleet and snow, hard as glass, but
when the eagle-eye whistle for brakes you had to go after them, even
if you crawled on hands and knees from one brake to another.
My cousin, Clyde Farmer, whom
I had left in Dunsmuir, took a course of instruction with the Westinghouse
Air Brake Co. After working on the instruction car for a while as assistant
he was assigned to Parson, Kansas, as airbrake inspector for the Missouri,
Kansas & Texas. He wrote me a letter saying what a great road the
Katy was. This impressed me so much that I took a trip to Parson with
the idea of getting a job there myself.
First I tackled the Master
Mechanic. No luck. They didn't need any firemen. Then I clumped upstairs
to the Superintendent's office.
"Sorry," said the
Super. "We have all the help we need, here at Parson." I
turned to go. "Wait a minute," he added. "How would
you like to go to Denison, Texas? There's a shortage of men down there,
both in yard and road service. If you say the word I'll give you transportation."
I said the word, and he filled
out a pass. The brass collar also gave me a letter of introduction
to Tom Casey, General Yardmaster at Denison. Casey really needed men.
He put me on in switching service and even helped me to find a boarding
house. I had arrived in Denison at noon. That very night I was working
in the "garden." This was a swell job. It would be harder
to find a finer bunch of "snakes" (switchmen) than the gang
I mingled with. Frank Morrell was in charge of the coach job engine,
Jim Kellen the lower yard goat, and "Bones" Rowan the lead
engine, while Lafe Curry and "Paw" Gates were on the hill
job. I wonder how many of those boys are alive today? Those who are,
I wish they would write to me.
Business was good, but the
yards were small. We all worked twelve-hour shifts at the rate of 25
cents an hour for day helper, 27 for night helper, 27 for day foreman,
and 29 for night foreman. You took your life in your hands when you
did that kind of work. Say that you cocked the pin in the drawbar of
a standing car. When a cut of cars was slammed down at you, you were
supposed to make the coupling, no matter how fast the cut was coming
- and there was no way to slacken their pace.
Well, I remained in Denison
until the summer of 1894. I need not remind the oldtimers what happened
that summer. For the benefit of youngsters I will say that the American
Railway Union, under the leadership of Gene Debs, went on strike in
sympathy with the underpaid Pullman shop workers -- a demonstration
which was broken by the U.S. Army. Grover Cleveland was the first President
of this Nation to call out the regular Army to smash a strike. Cleveland
did this in direct opposition to Governor Altgeld of Illinois, who
protested that he already had the situation well in hand.
The Katy men
did not strike, because the company was not using Pullman cars at that
time. Just the same, the road was completely tied up for lack of business.
Tom Casey, the G.Y.M., advised us to find new jobs wherever we could
but to keep him posted on changes of address so he could notify us
when to return to Denison. Thereupon I packed up my collection of switch
keys and started looking around.
After a while I landed in
the powerhouse of the State Street car line in Chicago, and from there
I went to work for the old Calumet & Blue Island Railroad (now
Elgin, Joliet & Eastern) in a yard job at the South Chicago Steel
Mills. The General Yardmaster was C.B. Swallow, with George Decker
as Night Y.M. I never did go back to the Katy. It was the spring of
1895. Boats were just beginning to come down the lake, for the first
time that season, loaded with ore from the iron mines in Escanaba County.
This was the busiest switching
job I've ever had. Many a time we had to call for help when the rail
mills would change their rolls suddenly to some other class of rails,
which meant that we would have to alter the cars to handle the rails
they were then rolling. They might be turning out stuff for the Northern
Pacific, and we would have the setup with NP cars. Then something would
happen in the mill. The only way for them not to lose time would be
to switch over to making rails for some other road, and we would have
to hustle to change the cars to fit the new rail shipments.
For the first two years I
batted 'em out at nights on this job; then I was given a steady position
as foreman of the old rail mill goat. I had two chums, Jack Boyle and
Bill Noble. Jack and I were big huskies. Bill was the runt of our trio
-- a scrappy bantam. Some of the Chicago old heads will remember James
B. King, Charles Doorley, "Peg" Yingling and Bert Ireland,
all of whom worked in the yard with me. Another man was Fred Olson,
formerly of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fred had a switch key from the
old New York, Pennsylvania & Ohio, known as the "Nip and O," later
taken over by the Erie. I wanted to buy this key for a dollar, but
Fred wouldn't sell it to me under five. One night our crew was ready
to go on duty when Fred claimed I had stolen his NYP&O switch key.
Naturally I called him a liar, and the scrap was on. We had quite a
set-to before the rest of the gang separated us. I was so badly banged
up that I had to lay off for the night to get the sawbones to fix an
eye and ear. The morning after that, Fred Olson quit and I never saw
When I reported for work
again Bill Noble handed me the "Nip and O" souvenir, saying,"It
cost me two bucks to get Olson drunk enough for me to swipe this key.
But you don't owe me a thing. I had a ringside seat at the fight, and
that was a good two dollars' worth."
Well, as I said, I went to
Alaska in 1898. The gold rush had started, and seven of us organized
ourselves for a trek north to prospect for the yellow metal. Two of
the seven came from the mill yard, Arnold Teed and myself. The others
were Fred Osborn, Baltimore & Ohio lighting slinger; Frank Bell,
B&O nut splitter; John Cross, Belt Railway switchman; Robert Ward,
a clerk; and Dick Spaulding, a streetcar motorman. We had about a thousand
dollars apiece, so we bought plenty of warm clothing and other supplies,
and set out by way of Seattle, Washington.
Fred Osborn found a steamboat
man who had just bought a small vessel to put in the trade between
Seattle and Cook's Inlet. He told us that good reports had come out
of the Yentna River Valley up near Mount Russell and said he could
take us up to Idatrode, a boat landing on Cook's Inlet, about 250 miles
from that part of the country. So we packed our outfit on the boat
and sailed for Alaska.
The details of our trip is
a long, long story. Briefly, the mining venture was not a success.
Frank Bell was bitten by a spider and died while we were trying to
get him to medical aid. Someone started a brush fire. Our camp with
all our belongings was burned, and we barely escaped with our lives.
Fred Osborn had both feet burned so badly that a fatal infection set
in a week after the fire. We buried him up there in the gold country.
That was the breakup of the
gang. Three of the fellows went back to Seattle, while John Cross and
I landed in Circle, Alaska, and I went to work in a Chinese hashhouse.
I roomed over the restaurant and had as a roommate, a deputy marshal
named Chester Creighton.
The marshal's office and the
courthouse were just across the street from me. There was most always
something doing at the courthouse in the morning after a wild night.
One evening a gambler known as Little John was killed in a gun fight.
After the inquest the coroner found several switch keys in the victim's
personal effects. Creighton, knowing that I collected such relics,
got the keys and gave them to me. Little John must have been a railroad
man in the U.S.A. He had carried those keys hundreds of miles away
from a railroad up into Alaska. None of his personal property gave
any idea of his name or where he had come from. I wrote several letters
to officials of railroads to which the keys belonged, describing the
man and asking if they could help locate his relatives, but did not
receive an answer to any of them. Even today I am curious to know who
the gambler was.
When I came back to the United
States I landed by boat in Portland, Oregon, and looked for a railroad
job. The first office I hit was that of the Oregon Railroad & Navigation
Co. They needed men pretty badly at La Grande, Oregon, so they shipped
me to the La Grande Division. I have liked that town ever since. If
you ask me where my home town is located, I will probably say "La
Grande." I am still carried on membership lists of the BRT and
BPOE in the La Grande lodges of those orders.
I was conductor of a work
train on the OR&N between Baker and Huntington, Oregon. One day
we had a cornfield meet. Our caboose was smashed almost to kindling
wood. Later, when we were pawing through the debris of the wrecked
crummy for our personal belongings, I found a small box containing
a shaving set and a tobacco rack with several switch keys. This box
apparently had belonged to a former trainman who once worked on the
caboose. But I never learned who he was, so I added those keys to the
ones I had brought from Alaska.
About this time I set out
to locate the people with whom I had left my stuff in South Chicago
when I went to Alaska. The search was fruitless. I never was able to
find out what had become of my trunk full of stuff and my key collection.
I hadn't even written down the names of all my keys before going to
Alaska, but I think I have since collected duplicates to replace all
of those lost at that time -- all except the two old iron screw keys
off the Illinois Central. I am now trying to find a man who has one
of those old keys and is willing to trade it for several other switch
A friend talked me into the
idea that I would make more money and have an easy time writing railroad
accident insurance. Lured by this siren call, I gave up the job at
La Grande -- which I have been sorry for ever since -- and plunged
into work with the Continental Casualty Co. of San Francisco.
Talk about a job of traveling!
The wider an area you covered and the more business you turned in,
the better the company liked you. My territory was so big that two
men had to hustle to get over it to attend to renewals and new business.
From Los Angeles it extended to El Paso, Texas and Portland, Oregon
-- except San Francisco, which was taken care of by the home office.
From Portland it reached out to Salt Lake and to Los Angeles over the
San Pedro & Salt Lake Railroad and on to San Francisco.
The Santa Fe Coast Lines were
handled by a man named Charles Rose, but in the five years I was with
the company I made two or three trips with Rose over the system as
far east as Albuquerque, New Mexico. We sold insurance to night gangs
in the roundhouses, to night car-knockers, and to switchmen on the
night crews. Considering all the men I came in contact with, I picked
up relatively few switch keys for my collection.
Sometimes while I was working
the Santa Fe I wouId find a man who had an old Southern Pacific key,
and he would give it to me. Then when I was on the Espee I might run
across a Santa Fe key. A fellow named Jim Eggleston and I were working
the Western Pacific from Salt Lake to Sacramento, California on one
trip. We rented an uncomfortable room in Winnemucca, Nevada, which
we had to take or sleep in the sandhouse. Being weary, we soon were
in slumberland. I felt well paid for my poor rest, however, when I
discovered three old switch keys in a dresser drawer next morning.
At length I grew so tired
of changing beds two or three times a week and wearing out suitcases
at the rate of one or two a year that I took a job on the Santa Fe
at Los Angeles. But I worked there only a week when I had an ankle
broken while off duty and was confined in the Santa Fe Hospital at
Los Angeles for seven months. I have never been able to railroad since.
However, I again found that
a railroad hospital was a good place in which to hunt for switch keys.
One day I was in a wheel chair when Dr. Tierce, making his rounds of
the wards, saw me looking at two or three old keys. He questioned me
about them and then said he thought he knew where there were several
that he might get for me. Next day the doc told me that he has asked
the engineer of the hospital to let me pick over a cigar box full of
keys that were in the boiler room and take what I wanted for my collection.
I don't remember the number, but I think there were about a dozen switch
keys in that box. Most of them were duplicates of what I had.
I have many friends who are
familiar with my hobby. Some of them knew of a man named John Golden
who had died in the Methodist Home at Chicago, leaving a small collection
of switch keys. These good people gave the Methodist Home my name and
address. Later the matron wrote me that I could have the keys if I
called, which I did. I found there were fourteen different keys, eleven
of them similar to keys I owned.
The "Nip and O" key,
over which I had the fight in South Chicago forty-five years ago, has
just been replaced in my collection by a gift of several keys sent
me by the secretary and president of La Grande lodge, BRT. There are
now 136 different keys in my collection. I am proud of the many nice
letters sent to me by railroad officials, conductors, brakemen, switchmen
and many others from coast to coast and Canada to Mexico.
I am told that my collection
is the largest of its kind in which all the keys are different. I am
not acquainted with a single collector who has a switch key to sell.
Not even one! Some have duplicates, however; and the only way to get
one of these is to swap one of your own duplicates for it. The trade
must add a different key to the man's collection.
When the United States got
mixed up in World War One, I tried a lot of ways to get a chance to
go overseas and get in the mix-up. Finally, I landed a chance to go
over by getting a job with the Y.M.C.A. in the Commissary Department,
handling supplies for the Huts in France.
I went to Buffalo, New York
and took two weeks' instruction in their method of handling supplies.
Then, with some of the officials and a crew of ten men who were to
have charge of Huts in France, we went to Hoboken, New Jersey to load
supplies on the ship "Lord Devonshire" which was being loaded
with a cargo for Cherbourg, France.
We were ten days at Hoboken
and that sure was a madhouse, because we were a green crew, and the
stevedores would hinder us instead of helping us, but we finally got
all our merchandise on board except a shipment of mule harnesses.
I don't remember who made
the shipment or where it came from but it was consigned to the Y.M.C.A.,
and we had to unload it on the platform, and it was still there when
we sailed for France.We had a terrible trip, poor accommodations, rough
weather and everybody terribly seasick.
We landed in the offing at
Cherbourgh, and the "Lord Devonshire" being of too deep a
draught, we had to lighter all of the merchandise from the ship to
the docks, and that was an awful job and new work to all of us. We
would have played in worse luck only that I met a French railroad man
who hunted up some of the officials of the Railroad company, and they
got us several carloads of tier and bridge timbers which were placed
on the ground to make a platform for our goods. The dock people would
not let us use the docks because our stuff was not going to be shipped
out right away. We finally got our load off the ship and were trying
to get organized with our housekeeping in some tents with the aid of
some French cooks. Stuff was coming in on other ships, and we had to take care of it and store
it on our ground platform. One shipment was five thousand pounds of cheese
given to the Y.M.C.A. by a chain store owner in the United States, and that
caused us a lot of trouble because we had to guard it 24 hours a day and try
to keep it from spoiling by wetting the canvas covering it several times a
I had broken my left ankle
a year before this trip overseas, and one day a brass hat stopped and
asked me what was the matter, and I told him I had hurt my foot, and
he told me to report to the medical center and have them look it over.
Well, I didn't go. Two days after that he jumped me again asked me
why I hadn't done as he told me, and I said that I hadn't the time
He called to his driver and
told him to take me up to the medical center and have them look at
my foot. My ankle was always swollen after I had had it broken, and
it did not look very good, and the doctor sent a bad report back to
the brass hat. He asked me a lot of questions and the next day came to me and said, "You
will have to return to the United States on the next ship as we don't want
any men who are not physically fit at the front camps," and he saw to
it that I did take next boat back to the U.S.
I landed in Philadelphia and
in few days I had a job in Hog Island Ship Yards in an electrical warehouse,
handing out supplies. I wrote to my sister as soon as I came back and
told her why they had shipped me back home. About three weeks after
my return, my sister got a notice that I was reported missing in France.
I told her not to pay any attention to the notice and let them look
for the body. I added to my railroad switch key collection by picking
up three French railroad switch keys while I was in Cherbourg, France.
This, then, is the story of
switch key hobby and the years railroading that lay behind it. There
is nothing I would like better than be able to add to this collection.
When I wrote this original story, I had only 136 different railroad
switch keys. Now I have a grand total of 274, the largest known collection
of this kind in the country. I lost the two old Illinois Cental iron
screw keys that I had years ago, but now I have another one of the
old I.C. screw keys and also one from the Cumberland & Pennsylvania
These old iron screw keys
are prized very highly by collectors, and I do not know of another
collection that has two of these old keys. There are several known
collections that have one of them, but my collection has two, and I
think the record will hold because those keys were discarded more than
fifty years ago.
I have the collection in two
frames, one frame with 210 all different switch keys and 21 all different
caboose, coach, baggage, Pullman, and dining car keys, The other frame
has the emblems of railroads made by the Lee Company of South Bend,
Indiana. These emblems are fastened in the frame, but I have only 66
keys to hang under the emblems and need 14 more all different to make
the frame of 80 complete." [End of Original Article]
Since this article
was written fifty-some years ago, you have to wonder whatever happened
to Mr. Eversole's collection? In late 2002 we received an email that
sheds more light on this. It is presented below with minor editing
and all names omitted. We thank the individual who sent this to us.
I found E M Eversole's online article about his switch key collecting.
At the end of the article the question was asked about whatever became
of Mr. Eversole's collection of switch keys. Maybe I can give you a
few clues that might answer your question. Mr. Eversole's story of
his switch key collecting appeared in an issue of Railroad Magazine
in the early 1940's. As best as I can remember this version was much
shorter than the one in the KL&L. In the 1940s I was a teenage
railfan and I wrote Mr. Eversole asking him if he would sell me a few
keys. He wrote back
saying he would. He was living in a home for retired railroad employees somewhere
around the Chicago area. To make a long story short, I bought several keys
from him, as much as a teenager in the 1940s had money for, which wasn't much
I might add.
In the early 1950s
I needed money more than I needed switch keys. Apparently Mr. Eversole
and [name omitted] of Massachusetts were corresponding, and Mr. Eversole
probably said he had sold some of his keys to me. Mr. [name omitted]
contacted me and I agreed to sell them to him. He came all the way
from Massachusetts to Ft Smith, Arkansas to get the keys. I would strongly
suspect that [name omitted] wound up with the Eversole collection of
switch keys. I understand he worked for the B&M RR. I do not have
his present address."
time to time we are reprinting articles originally published in Key,
Lock & Lantern's magazine with permission from that
organization. See organizations
or the KL&L website for information
on joining KL&L.