Workin’ on the Railroad

Ward Smith
Ward Earl Smith (Left) & Raymond Lee Smith (Seated)

The Northern Pacific Railway Company issued each new employee a copy of their “Consolidated Code of Operating Rules” before starting on the job; the rules begin with a General Notice: “Safety is of the first importance in the discharge of duty. Obedience to the rules is essential to safety.” Rule G, in particular, emphasizes that, “The use of alcoholic beverages by employees subject to duty is prohibited. Being under the influence of alcoholic beverages while on duty or on Company property is prohibited,” and I have an ancestor who broke this rule again and again and again.

Ward Earl Smith was born on October 24, 1892 in Watertown, South Dakota to Grant Lloyd Smith and Della Mae Mason. He was the oldest of four children–including Merle Helen (b. 1894), Raymond Lee (b. 1895) and Lois Belle (b. 1896)–and he and his younger brother, Raymond, left home in 1916 to work for the Northern Pacific Railway Company in Jamestown, North Dakota. Ward was 24 years old when he started out on his own, and while his brother worked on the railroad until his retirement in 1958, Ward did not remain with the company for long. His ultimate termination was the result of a days-long investigation into his everyday life and his contacts with the company.

But let’s start at the beginning. Ward applied to work as a “brakeman” with the company–a job that required him to walk atop the moving rail cars and manually apply the brakes–and his references were impeccable. One former employer wrote, “The above party, Ward E. Smith, I have found to be honest and industrious and believe he will make a good brakeman.” Another wrote, “[Ward] is one of the best men I have ever had on the farm. He was a man I could always depend on and I would like to have seen him back.” And another, “I would recommend him for the position he has applied for. He is a good worker and is trustworthy.”

Ward Smith53

Ward was hired for the job in 1916 and, excluding a brief period during which he served in France in World War I, he remained with the company until 1920. On the morning of June 17, 1920, Ward was working as a switch tender when he “headed a special train down the wrong track,” and according to two other employees, he was “under the influence of liquor” at the time. The Trainmaster charged Ward with “violation of Rule G” and notified him in writing of a formal investigation into the occurrence on June 19: “Please arrange to be present, and if you desire to be represented, bring your representative along with you.” These are Ward’s responses during the hearing:

Q: (Mr. Mulrey) Mr. Smith, were you satisfied that you are charged with violation of Rule “G”?

A: Yes sir.

Q: You know what Rule “G” is?

A: Yes sir.

Q: Do you admit that charge?

A: No sir, I don’t.

Q: On the morning of the 17th, when you were relieved by switchtender Scott about 8:00 A.M. weren’t you under the influence of liquor to some extent?

A: No sir, I was not.

Q: On the night of the 17th, when you went to work, relieving Pomerinke, weren’t you in an intoxicated condition?

A: No sir, I was not. If I had been he certainly would not have let me relieve him. I wouldn’t have been intoxicated.

Q: During that shift, that is the last shift that you worked, hadn’t you been drinking?

A: No sir.

Q: Did you have anybody at the switch shanty?

A: No sir, there was a man came in on No. 4, a bum, that was all.

Q: That was on No. 4?

A: Yes sir, on No. 4, or that train that comes in after 12 o’clock, it was late.

Q: Did you have anyone visiting you there at all?

A: No sir, there were some fellows there with a car in the morning.

Q: Who were they?

A: Why, some fellows from town.

Q: Did they have any liquor?

A: No sir.

– Pages Missing –

A: Well the call did not come and when they called me that they were coming, I did not have time to throw switches.

Q: Did you give them a highball?

A: Yes sir.

Q: What do you know about these bottles?

A: Nothing at all.

Q: Have you ever seen these bottles before?

A: Not to my knowledge.

Q: They were picked up down at the switch shanty.

A: Well that is no reason that I brought the bottles there because they were picked up there.

Q: Do you deny ever seeing these bottles?

A: Yes sir.

Q: Do you deny that you were drinking on duty or off duty?

A: Well, I admit taking a drink off duty but not on duty.

Q: Do you deny being under the influence of liquor at any time during the last week?

A: Yes sir.

Q: Do you deny being put in jail here about two weeks ago?

A: No sir, I don’t.

Q: What was that for, for drinking?

A: Yes sir.

Q: Are you aware of the fact that the charge made of violation of Rule “G” can be proved by witnesses?

A: No sir.

Ward Smith50
Ward Earl Smith

V. R. Hawkins, a special agent, and Emil Pomerinke, a switch tender, were brought in and questioned as witnesses. Hawkins stated that Ward “seemed stewed about 2:30,” while Pomerinke stated that Ward “was intoxicated and hardly in shape to go to work, in fact in no shape to go to work.” “A man can be intoxicated and not stagger, or he can be intoxicated and walk perfectly straight and be confused,” and although Ward was not staggering, Pomerinke thought him to be confused. Ward did not invoke his right, per the company’s rules, to a representative, and when asked if he was satisfied that the trial had been “fair” and “impartial,” he replied, “Well, it has been fair enough to a certain extent, some men would have gotten up here and said that it was not the truth.”

Ward received another written notice from the company on June 25, 1920: “For your actions on the date in question during your hours of service I am relieving you from the service of this Company and you will call on the Trainmaster, turn over your Company property and receive your time.” (An aside: I’m not passing judgment on this story. Should Ward have been drinking on or before taking up his post? No, but I believe the story is much more complicated than that.) He picked up and moved to Spokane, Washington, married Bessie Sophie Johnson on September 27 of that year and later raised nine children: Lois (b. 1921), Quentin (b. 1924), Harry (b. 1926), Ray (b. 1928), Ruth (b. 1930), Patrick (b. 1934), Darlene (b. 1936), Sherry (b. 1937) and John (b. 1939).

It’s rare that I’m able to piece together an ancestor’s story from their own words; normally, I’m working with memories passed down from generation to generation, and some details have been altered or were lost to time.  It’s also rare to find an original copy of a rule book given to your ancestor over a hundred years ago, or to find a group of over eighty Personnel Files on your family alone. The Northern Pacific Railway Company’s Files are a “genealogy gold mine”–the sources I have for this story, as well as the story itself, are incredibly unique, and I couldn’t wait to share it here. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my ancestor’s words, and as always, thank you for following along with my story.

20 thoughts on “Workin’ on the Railroad

    1. There’s a good chance they worked for the same one, I”m sure! All of my ancestors worked for the railroad or coal mines when they arrived in America–maybe they crossed paths.


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