December 25, 1900, 6:35 pm,
P&A Train Depot, Chipley, Florida
May 21, 1898 edition of The Chipley Banner. The story about the fire takes up most of the third page of the issue. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov
The Chipley train depot is a long, gray-and-brown, rectangular wooden building that looks very much like the other Pensacola & Atlantic stations along the line. There’s nothing remarkable about it other than the fact it has been rebuilt a few times; it was one of the casualties of the Great Fire of 1898 which burned down most of the business district.
The depot has a waiting room outfitted with benches, a spittoon with lots of stains on the wall and flour around it; and a coal-burning stove in one corner. There’s two entrances: A passenger entrance on the front side of the depot facing the tracks, and another for freight and packages, which has scales and other equipment to load large loads, barrels, bales of hay, and so forth. The outhouse is further away behind the depot; a vile thing that you can smell even from a distance, especially if the day is hot and there is a breeze blowing in a certain direction. Inside is not much better; in Winter, the atmosphere is hot and stale because the coal stove in the waiting room gives off fumes.
Wade Hampton Blake. Source: findagrave.com
Wade Hampton Blake was at the ticket window when Paul and I walked into the depot. Blake is a tall man, with dark eyes and hair and a touch of gray at the temples.
He is only two years older than Paul and me, but he is sharp; smart beyond his years. He trained Julian and me to manage the station when we were 13; he taught us both Morse Code and telegraphy. Blake is specific, focused, no nonsense. I’ve always liked him because he doesn’t bother with a lot of small talk or inconsequential topics.
Julian and I were hired together to work at this depot; our first real jobs. Working for the P&A appealed to me because it offered a chance to earn regular employment at a decent wage in rural Florida, where, unless you owned a successful farm or business (or were a lawyer like Cephas), regular work and good pay are inconsistent at best. But most valuable to me was I saw it as my ticket out of Chipley; to go somewhere important, to be someone important.
To be someone else.
My brother and I started out sweeping floors, bringing in coal for the waiting room stove. We helped passengers with their baggage on and off the train. We loaded parcels and other deliveries onto carts. We politely answered the same question 200 times a day: “What time is the next train?” even when the schedule was neatly written on the huge, prominent chalkboard in the waiting room, and you could clearly hear the whistle of the next train only about five miles down the track, as it was coming into the Chipley station.
It didn’t matter that our older brothers Meade and Frank, who were well known conductors on the L&N line got the jobs for us, or that Grandfather had once been the president of the Pensacola & Montgomery Railroad after the War for several years. Blake made it known to Julian and me the first day that we had to prove ourselves worthy, or we’d be out lickety-split; that there was plenty of others who could and would come in and do our jobs.
Kate Langley Jordan Wilson, or Mother Kate.
Julian and I would work anywhere between 12 and 16 hour days, without complaining — well, Julian and I complained to each other, but we knew enough to keep it to ourselves, and to never say or act any way ungrateful about working for the railroad outside of home. Even around Mother Kate — who would occasionally say something about how tired we looked after a long shift — Julian and I would never complain about the work or the long hours. We didn’t want to chance her repeating our comments to someone outside the family.
Within a year, we were both promoted. Julian went to live with my brother Meade and his wife in Pensacola, to train in baggage and parcel management, and I was to train as assistant manager of the Chipley depot. I soon proved myself so responsible, that I was trained to be a ‘brass pounder,’ a telegrapher, which was the most important job of all at any depot. When I say that it was considered the most important job in the depot, I am not exaggerating: Telegraphers were responsible for ensuring signals were correct up and down the line, especially if there were last-minute track changes, or emergencies. A telegrapher was partially responsible for the safety of the travelers and the trains. An incorrect message about an incoming train, or, perhaps, a weather advisory affecting schedules on down the line could mean accidents on the railroad — death. That never happened to me on my watch.
A telegraph machine in the holdings of the Chipley Historical Society museum. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Odom.
I enjoyed decoding the dots and dashes of the Morse language. It made sense. It was orderly, logical, unemotional, precise. It was easy and felt second-nature; Blake once told me he’d never had someone pick it up so easily under his tutelage as I did, nor so accurately.
The responsibility and importance of holding down the telegraph key was glamorous and exciting — the smooth, brisk tapping, clicking of the key as messages in Morse code pulsed via electricity through the wire, from Marianna, from Montgomery, from Louisville, and from thousands of miles away from big cities like Chicago or New York.
Holding down the key at the station, as we called it, came easily to me. Once I became proficient, I could recognize who was on the other end of the telegraph, even though I had never met the other telegrapher, and he was a thousand miles away. Some brass pounders wrote streamlined, elegant messages; others were more clumsy, less accurate with their coding. It got to the point that I would hear the tapping of the code in my dreams; or in nature, as I walked across the country lanes and wooded paths around Washington County on my days off. My life as a telegrapher was solitary but respected, because I was accurate, and paid attention to detail.
After I became expert at sending and receiving wires, I was eventually sent out to manage small, rural train stations up and down the P&A line by myself. I’d be gone for a week, maybe two or three weeks at a time; often serving as night manager, which meant I’d be on duty, alone, from 8 pm until 8 am the next day. I was paid well, given room and board at mediocre hash houses. And when one worked out of town, there were liberties after hours — I mostly behaved myself, as I did not want bad behavior reported back to either the manager, my brothers, or my father, but I did what other young men did on their own: Have a few drinks, enjoy a few of the girls who would hang out at the depot for that purpose. I kept my mouth shut. I did my job well without complaining, I earned good money, and I followed directions. I think my Father was proud of me, and my work.
Blake glances up as Paul and I pushed open the double doors of the empty depot, and wishes us a Merry Christmas.
“Anything I can do for you?”
“No. Just stopping by to see if anything was going on over the wires,” I said.
“Nope, no news,” Blake responds briskly. “How has your holiday been so far?”
“Fine,” I said.
“Number two mail train due in a few minutes,” Blake said, consulting the clock over the doorway in the waiting room. “You’re welcome to stick around.”
We nod, glancing around the empty waiting room. We walk over to the benches where there were several out-of-town newspapers. Paul offers me another cigarette, which I decline.
“Say, Emmett,” Blake called out of the ticket window. “You wouldn’t have any free time this week to hold down the key for a shift or two? We’re kind of short handed.”
I hesitated. “Can’t you get some of the younger boys to come in?”
“I could, but I’d prefer to have someone on hand who’s accurate. I can raise your money a little bit,” Blake adds.
I shrug. “Sure. I’m in town only through the week though, as we’re headed back to Tallahassee for school.”
“Suits me,” Blake said. “Sure appreciate it, Emmett.”
“You sure you want back in the saddle again for a few days?” Paul asks.
“I can use the money. It will be nice to be a little bit ahead when we start back to school in a few weeks.”
Paul nods, then points out an article in one of the papers about Walter Kehoe and a case he had been working on before Christmas. We talk about it for a few minutes until we hear the whistle of the P&A eastbound from Pensacola, about two miles outside of town. Soon, we’d feel the rumble of the train as it pulled into the station, vibrating the wooden building slightly; the engine full of steam and power, slowing as the brakes squeal and creak to a slow stop, then the hissing of the engine as it vents one last blast of steam.
We both stand as the train pulls in; Paul puts the paper down, and we amble to the open doors of the station. We stand outside slightly to the right of the doorway, so as not to block the passengers who have business in the depot with Blake. There weren’t many people detraining; mostly businessmen with small satchels and carpetbags, who stood about looking for the nearest hotel— which is the only hotel in Chipley — the Central Hotel right across the street. There were only a few women deboarding the train, who were met at the station by family members in wagons and buggies.
We watch the small group of new arrivals walk about, get their bearings, and head toward their destinations. There wasn’t anything else going on here, so we began walking towards the corner of 6th and Railroad Streets, for home.
We had gone only about half a block, when I hear someone behind us yelling.
Paul and I turn to see Blake rushing to the end of the depot sidewalk gesturing anxiously towards us. Paul and I glanced at each other, then walk quickly back to the depot.
“Emmett! Quickly,” Blake said.
We follow Blake around to the side of the depot, which is not visible to the street or to passengers boarding or detraining, and there, a train conductor and a porter are holding up a man between them — my brother, Frank — barely conscious.
“Frank!” I said, anxiously. I go over to take my brother off of the porter’s shoulder and Frank leans heavily on me. I can barely hold him, so Paul, the porter, and the conductor help me ease Frank on to a bench, and where we lay him down.
“What happened?” I ask, panicky, looking at my brother’s face. Frank only gives me a glazed expression. He is very pale, listless, his head wobbling.
“Frank!” I yell at him. “Talk to me!”
At which point Frank passes out.
“What happened?” I try not to sound panicked, but the hell is scared out of me. “What is wrong with him?”
“Well, son, it’s simple. He’s obviously drunk himself to incapacitation,” the porter replies with a smirk.
Blake narrowed his eyes at the porter. “This looks like more than a simple drunk to me.”
“Well, that’s what we got. He smells like a brewery, or worse.”
Blake turns to Paul. “Do you think you could get help? I can’t leave the depot and you two can’t get Frank to the house in this state.”
Paul nods. “Emmett, I’ll get your Father. I’ll be right back.” We watched as Paul ran, his lanky body disappearing down 6th Street. I knew he would run the entire six blocks to my Father’s house.
I crouch back down, to get a closer look at my brother in the lamplight of the depot. Frank did, indeed, give off a foul, revolting smell. I involuntarily turned my head aside for a second, but turned back to my brother. His clothing — his conductor’s uniform — had oily stains on it, and his white shirt was dingy. I cannot believe this is my polished and professional older brother, a man so proud of his longtime status with the P&A; a man who worked his way up from a luggage handler to one of the main conductors on the railroad; a man who holds a position of prominence in local Pensacola politics.
I reach into his coat pocket, took out his pocketbook. I open it. There is Frank’s railroad identification; a letter addressed to him from Mae McKinnon; an IOU for $150 at Moog’s, a liquor distributor in Pensacola. I frown — the debt is equivalent to several months’ wages. It is not like him to borrow that much, or to borrow from anyone, and from a liquor distributor?
Source: The Chipley Banner, March 31, 1900. From ChroniclingAmerica.gov
The conductor crouches down next to me, and looks at Frank a few moments. I say to him, “I can’t believe this is Frank. How long has he been like this?”
“I don’t know,” the conductor said.
Frank was pale, and an odd yellowish color. I didn’t know what I was looking at, what was wrong with Frank, but I sense he is dying. I touch his hand, which had fallen down from the bench where he lay. It felt clammy, cold. I panic.
“Oh my God, Frank,” I say to my unconscious brother.
Blake pats me on the shoulder. “Your father will be here soon.”
The two men who had brought him to the bench shifted uncomfortably. I look up at them; my expression unsettles them, because they look away. These two men were people my brother had worked with for several years on the L&N. I know they all know each other fairly well, and now, it was as if they didn’t want to know Frank.
And the train whistle sounds at that moment.
“We’ve got to go,” the conductor says to the porter. They both turn without saying anything else, and head back to the train.
“Wait,” I say, standing up, and going to them. ”Can’t you tell me anything about how this came to be? Frank’s not a drunk. He’s not. I know him.”
“Sorry, kid, but I don’t think you know your brother as well as you think you do,” the conductor said. I stood watching them board the train. The whistle shrieks again, and the train rumbles off, headed East, toward Marianna.
Blake is still crouched next to my unconscious brother. In the distance, we hear the telegraph clicking.
“I’m sorry, Emmett. I’ve got to answer that,” Blake said, standing up quickly. “Paul should be back shortly. Excuse me.”
I crouch next to Frank as he lay on the bench, in the fading light of this Christmas evening, waiting for my Father and my friend to come back, and not knowing what else to do. I take Frank’s cold hand in mine.
For the second time in two days, I weep.