Today, the object is a curiosity; two pieces of heavy iron on a museum shelf, the use all but forgotten except by railroad enthusiasts. Couplers, in one form or another, have been in continuous use since the invention of travel by rail. The purpose is basic, couplers hold the cars together. They must be made of strong material to hold the cars together as the train travels over hills, around curves and over rough track. The very first couplers were quite simple and known as the "link-and-pin" (Lincoln pin). An iron loop was fitted into an opening at the end of each car's drawbar. The loop was anchored in place by an iron pin dropped through a socket in the top of the drawbar. The pin passed through the link and through another socket in the bottom of the drawbar.
|Link & Pin Coupler
HCHM Railroad Collection
Prior to 1887, workers manually connected two railroad cars together using the link and pin coupler.
|An illustration depicting an early railroad worker performing
the dangerous task of connecting rolling stock with link & pin couplers.
Historically, the Brakeman held the most dangerous job on the train. They had to walk atop moving cars and manually apply the brakes. The brakeman was also in charge of coupling the cars. He stood between the cars while holding the link in position to slide into the receiver of the car being coupled as it was pushed by an engine. The brakeman held the link in one hand an a second pin in the other while the next car is pushed into position. At exactly the right moment, he must let go of the link and insert the second pin into the pocket of the oncoming car. Early cars had no means of cushioning the impact so if the brakeman's timing was off, he could loose fingers, a hand, or even be crushed completely between the two cars. Links were kept short to reduce slack.
|Demonstrating Link & Pin Coupling
Photo: Hurley, p.7
This system resulted in many severe injuries including loss of limbs and even death. In one reference to the link and pin coupler, it was noted that when transient brakemen and switchmen came to ask for work;
"the yardmaster asked them to hold up their hands in lieu of references. If the applicants had several fingers missing, the yardmaster knew they were 'old timers' and would be able to go on the job as experienced workers."****
In 1887, many began to use the automatic general coupler. The manual link and pin coupler became illegal in the United States on mainline railroads with the passage of the Railway Safety Appliance Act in 1893.
|AT&SF Engine 1863, ca. 1900
Conductor - R.H. Chandler;
Brakemen - A.W. Watson & G.W. McMurray;
Fireman - P.K. Richardson a & Hill.
Photo Courtesy HCHM Photo Archives
Patent diagram of the Janney Coupler that replaced the link-and-pin coupler.
|For more about Janney and his invention see:
Despite improvements in couplers, working with rail cars continued to be a dangerous job as this remembrance from Santa Fe Railroad Conductor, Raymond Oursler, illustrates.
Conductor Oursler was on the Newton - Dodge route on February 3, 1965; everything was proceeding normally. Conductor Oursler communicated to the station at Wright, Ks, via radio, about the work that would need to be completed at the stop. The station then passed on the information to the brakemen. At the stop, Oursler
"walked from the caboose to where the railcars were, placed himself behind the railcars to operate the coupling device. Unbeknownst to him, someone had changed the order of work. As Oursler had a hold of the rear car in a string, another string of cars slammed into the string of cars Oursler now had a hold of. The force threw him down between the rails and the [rail]cars were now rolling over the top of him. The force threw glasses, pencils, papers from pockets. Oursler was now in a fight for his life . . . as railcar after railcar pass overhead he looked ahead at what was coming and realized that some of the equipment hanging down was to low for him to avoid. So, grabbing a hold of some of the equipment he was drug along until the cars stopped. Crawling out, he thanked God to be alive and fully intact." **
Oursler was very lucky. The main injuries he sustained were bruising on his back. He was off of work for ten days, after which he resumed his regular route until his retirement on November 26, 1977. Oursler worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, and later Amtrak, for 38 years.
- **"Raymond Oursler's Railroad Career" as recorded by Terry W. Oursler; handwritten document, HCHM Archives.
- Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives Railroad Collection.
- **** Botkin, B.A. and Alvin F. Harlow. A Treasury of Railroad Folklore: the Stories, Tall Tales, Traditions, Ballads and Songs of the American Railroad Man. New York: Bonanza Books, 1953; p. 313.
- Hurley, L.M. "Mike", Newton, Kansas #1 Santa Fe Rail Hub; 1871-1971. Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1985.
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