Packard, Frank L., On the Iron at Big Cloud. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1911, pp. 343.
The first of Packard’s 32 books, this is a collection of 15 railroad stories. All of the stories were previously published in the pulps.
Big Cloud is the headquarters of the Hill Division of the Transcontinental railway line. The Hill Division manages the toughest, most difficult and dangerous track on the continent, a track running though the Rocky mountains. The stories are set in the early days of Big Cloud, when the track was newly completed, a single track, shared by both east and west bound trains. A path had been cut and bridged through the mountains but it was still a very rough path with few sidings, steep grades with sharp turns and plenty of temporary trestles. It was a world of hard men. If a woman appeared it was as the worn, grey haired wives of equally worn men. It is also a surprisingly “clean” world with little swearing, plenty of card sharps and thieves but no prostitutes or ladies of easy virtue. The men may be rough around the edges but a surprising number of them seem to have hearts of gold.
Linking the stories together are the trains, the geography of Hill Division and a cast of reoccurring characters. “Royal” Carleton was the division’s superintendent, Tommy Regan the master mechanic. Regan was a tough man who had quite the soft spot for a hard-luck story. Regan and Carleton give more than one man a second or third chance to prove themselves. Regan is described as a man with a paunch. “A man with a paunch is a man apart and greatly to be envied, even when that paunch is of Irish extraction.”(69) Spence is the chief dispatcher, a job that permits not a single mistake. Mistakes cause wrecks and take lives. Train dispatcher’s were the aircraft controllers of their day. Finally Flannagan was the wrecking boss. The wrecking crews, actually the rescue and wreck clean up crew, see far too much action in the treacherous passes and switchbacks of the mountains.
The challenges of the Hill Division are evidenced in the fact that seven of the stories involve train wrecks or narrowly avoided wrecks. A further couple involve fires, one of which pretty much burns the town down.
Packard is a good story teller and his tales draw you into the life of Big Cloud. Many of the tales involve some element of personal heroism and personal integrity plays some role in all of the tales. A man, no matter how rough, is known by his deeds. Even the most shiftless of characters gets a chance to show what he is really made of.
1. Rafferty’s Rule. Colliers, c1908.
The new general manager, Dick Holman, has to win over Rafferty to win over the men.
2. The Little Super. Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, March 1908.
An obvious, sentimental story. Regan’s young son, Bunty, prevents disaster.
3. ”If a Man Die”. The Popular Magazine, Aug. 1910.
Dispatcher Angle Breen may have made a mistake and caused a crash. Can he redeem him self by preventing another crash?
4. Spitzer. The Popular Magazine, Jan. 15, 1911.
A meek and unassuming man grows a spine. Shows what he can do by saving a train.
5. Shanley’s Luck. The Popular Magazine, 15 Dec. 1910.
Shanley is a lucky guy. His luck holds when he passes out by the track and prevents a wreck.
6. The Builder. Peoples Ideal Fiction Magazine. Feb. 1911. as Good Timber.
During a strike, a work gang is stirred up to kill the foreman and burn a trestle bridge. It’s up to the sickly Keating to prevent the wreck, if he can.
7. The Guardian of the Devil’s Slide. The Popular Magazine, Jan. 1, 1911.
Who wrecked the train one fateful night on Devil’s Slide, the most treacherous piece of track in the whole of the Hill Division?
8. The Blood of Kings. The Popular Magazine, Feb. 1, 1911.
Gilleen doesn’t take kindly to people mocking his claim to have the blood of Irish kings running in his veins. A rather stupid, male chest thumping sort of story.
9. Marley. The Popular Magazine, Mar. 1, 1911.
Mrs. Coogan needs money for treatment to prevent her from going blind. How will Marley get the money?
10. The Man Who Didn’t Count. The Popular Magazine, Oct. 15, 1910.
An objectionable tale of drunk Indians and a couple of men, Matt Perley and Faro Clancy, who hate each other.
11. “Where’s Haggerty?”. Pearson’s Magazine, June 1911.
Big Cloud’s new superintendent, T.J. Hale, has to win over Haggerty to win over the men.
12. McQueen’s Hobby. Pulp appearance unknown.
A respected engineer, McQueen, is tricked into supporting a strike. Lots of anti-union sentiment in this tale.
13. The Rebate. suspect this appeared in Munsey’s Magazine, 1910.
Dutchy Damrosch, who runs the lunch counter at Dry Notch, does not take kindly to a joke that is played on him, with repercussions for all the railroad men who patronize the place.
14. Speckles. Railroad Man’s Magazine, Feb. 1909 as A Hero With Judgment
Speckles, a shiftless young man, regains his job by an act of faux heroism.
15. Munford. The Outing Magazine. Apr. 1909.
Alan Burton stands up for Munford, even though the two despise each other.
This is the most difficult of Packard’s books to find and when one is found it is ridiculously expensive. There is currently one on offer on-line, a staggering $1800 being asked for it. A signed first edition, in pristine dust jacket, might just be worth that much. For those who do not care to patronize the POD vultures, a very readable copy can be found on the Internet Archive here.
Here’s a contemporary review of the title in question, from 1911: