Friday, November 22, 2019


When Harvey Sprague of Delmar retired from railroad service in 1958 he mentioned that when he first started with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1904 he was a callboy in the office.  In 1908 he became a fireman and in 1916 he became an engineer. 

The “callboy” or sometimes called the “Caller,” job was to round up the crew for the unscheduled train due to move out of the yard.  This was in the days before telephones were common.  They usually had two hours to do it.  Trainmen at that time were required to live within easy walking distance of the round house and the Callboy would walk, run or ride a bicycle around town and knock on Boarding houses, residential houses, restaurants, churches etc to find his man to let him know he was scheduled to work.  He would have to know every fireman, engineer brakeman and conductor in his roundhouse and where they hung out so he could find them.

Usually three to four Callboys were in Delmar to cover a 24-hour period, 7 days a week.  The day shift was the best and the night shift was perhaps the worst. At night, carrying a lantern to see by, they would knock on the side of house to awake the railroad men and a light would come on in the house so he knew they were up.  The wife packed a lunch for the railroad man while he dressed.
above from Baltimore Sun 21 Feb 1906

The callboys were young men between 13 to 18 years in age.  They were always white.  They were picked because they were sober, dependable and knew railroading, plus they could keep their mouth shut and not talk about where they found the railroad man in the event it was not with his wife. 

The Callboy had other jobs to do besides rounding up crews.  He worked mainly as a message boy and golfer and then filled in where needed, usually helping a fireman clean the engines.  He might be asked to run out to pick up a fifth of liquor for one of the foremen or do the unpleasant task of notifying a family of a railroad accident. 

A Callboy would work his way up to the next step by becoming a fireman then an engineer the same as Harvey Sprague did.  Some callboys worked their way to high positions;  Chief Justice Earl Warren, and William Martin Jeffers who became President of Union Pacific railroad are two examples.

About 1900 the callboy made fifty cents a day, by 1911 they were up to $59 a month.

As the telephone came into increased use the callboys were replaced by crew dispatchers or Callers who sit in an office in front of a switchboard and called trainmen. 

1951 ad 

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