Workday Wednesday: A Day in the Life of a Boiler Washer

With Labor Day 2012 less than a week away, I’ve been thinking a lot about the various jobs and occupations many of my ancestors were engaged in from Emancipation to the 1940’s. According to the 1940 US census, my paternal step-great-grandfather, Morgan Terrell Aldridge, was a Boiler Washer for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (M-K-T) Railroad Roundhouse in Parsons, KS. That makes him about the sixth or seventh male ancestor that I’ve identified (I’m sure there’s more) in my family tree that has connections to the railroad industry in this country!

When I stop and think about the African American railroad experience in the US, the first and only name that comes to mind is A. Phillip Randolph, the organizer, and president of the Pullman Porters (the first predominantly Black labor union in America). Beyond Mr. Randolph, what little I did know about our involvement in this industry came from seeing black train attendants and porters in old Hollywood films. But thankfully as I learn more about my ancestors’ involvement in the development and growth of this industry, those old Hollywood movies don’t begin to tell the story about the social, cultural, political, and economic impact this industry had on the lives of my ancestors and the African American community!

As I researched for information about what a typical day was like for a Boiler Washer, I had the good fortune to find and read, Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey by Theodore Kornweibel Jr. This EXTRAORDINARY book took me on a photo journey of the black railroad experience  — from slavery to Amtrak — I won’t soon forget!

So what was a typical day like for my great-grandfather at the
M.K. & T. Railroad Shop in Parsons, KS?

In the postcard photo above and below, you can see the interior view of the M.K. & T Roundhouse (or Railroad shop) in Parsons KS  was massive — 860 feet long and 125 feet wide! [1]

Roundhouses employed hundreds of workers who worked around the clock in shifts called “tricks.” The main focus of these shops was to repair and maintain existing trains, as well as develop new ones. Therefore, there were skilled craftsmen, their apprentices, and helpers working together on steam locomotives brought in from the passenger station or freight yard. These engines were fueled by burning coal, wood or oil, to produce steam in a boiler; this steam is what drives the engine.

While skilled craftsmen and their helpers performed repairs, engine wipers removed grime and then polished the upper parts of the locomotives. More laborers greased their moving parts. Locomotives received a washout by Boiler Washers every 30 days to remove sludge and scale that had built up from impurities in the water. Once servicing or minor repairs were complete, fire builders returned locomotives to steam while fire watchmen responsible for a number of engines kept them steaming sufficiently so that full boiler pressure could be raised in a short time to ensure prompt departure.” – Theodore Kornweibel Jr., in Railroads in the African American Experience [2]

Why was it important for the Boiler Washer to washout locomotives every 30 days?  Scale and sludge that would build-up from impurities in the water could corrode the boiler to the point that it would have to be rebuilt or replaced, which was very expensive.

How is a Washout done?

According to Wikipedia,  a washout is done by

. . . draining away all the boiler water through the “mudholes” at the base of the firebox and the removal of all the “washout plugs.” Scale is then jetted or scraped from the interior surfaces using a high pressure water jet and rods of soft metal, such as copper. . . .  At large maintenance facilities the boiler would have been both washed and refilled with very hot water from an external supply to bring the locomotive back to service more quickly.” [3]

This type of work was not only difficult depending on how accessible the boiler was for cleaning, but very dirty and dangerous as scale and sludge removed by high-pressure water jets ricocheted back on to the boiler washer in the process.

Have an ancestor who was a Boiler Washer, or other occupation that contributed to the development and growth of the railroad industry in this country? Let me hear from you in the comment area below!


Source Citation:

1. “Interior View, New M. K. & T. Shops, Parsons, KS.” Postcard. Railroad Line Forums.  2000-10. Web. 28 Aug 2012.

2. Kornweibel, Theodore. “Chapter 12: In the Shops, Freight Houses, and Offices.” Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. 309-310. Print.

3. Rabensteiner. “Sectioned fire-tube boiler.” Photograph. Wikipedia. n.d. Web. 28 Aug 2012.

4. “Fire-tube boiler.” Wikipedia. n.p., n.d., Web. 28 Aug 2012.


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