Sunday, May 09, 2010

Good railroad cooks wanted

I last reported on the proceedings of the American Railway Bridge and Building Association's annual convention in 2007. My article ("Don't Smell Me, I'm Here to Work") re-told a gem from the association's 1917 convention in Chicago.

Association president S.C. Tanner emphasized the need for bathing facilities for railway workers. While not directly related to railroad cooking, Tanner's story drove his point home and gave his listeners mild comic relief from convention business.

Fast forward to the 1918 convention. The association again convened its annual convention in Chicago.

The body, made up of superintendents of bridges and buildings from railroads across the United States, adjourned into several committees to discuss pressing issues of the day.

One such committee exploded "small versus large gangs for maintenance work." Chairman J.P. Wood of the Santa Fe Railroad summarized the findings of the committee:

"I believe that a crew composed of a foreman and five to seven men is preferable to a larger one for general maintenance work and that the work is done more efficiently and economically."

As expected, the chairman's report and ensuing discussion among committee members focused on the factors that influence crew size.

"A gang of from 6 to 7 men can work to good advantage without getting in each other's way and can accomplish practically as much as a larger crew on the average job of this kind, especially where the (railroad) traffic is all heavy," said Mr. Wood.

Routine, that is, until a bridge and building superintendent from small railroad in Owosso, Michigan interjected this thought:
Our railroad is a small railroad and has only a couple of bridge gangs, one or two building gangs and a dock gang; the largest of these gangs comprises seven men including the foreman. If anything heavier than that comes up we have to double them up. The building gang runs as small as four men. The only question, of course, is the overhead expense. Most of these gangs nowadays insist on having a cook. Then if you give a gang of seven men a cook, the gang of four wants a cook also. I was wondering what the rest of the railroads do in the matter of cooks and how large a gang they have before they install a cook.
One wonders why men who spent their careers building and maintaining bridges on the right-of-way concerned themselves with cooks. After all, allowing one man from a crew of seven or eight to devote his day to cooking significantly drove overhead costs.

The superintendent of bridges and buildings for the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, W.E. Alexander, answered Mr. Turnbull's concerns. The BAR used good cooks to draw quality craftsmen to the employ of the railroad, especially under the low wage conditions of the era.

"Then we furnish a good outfit and a good cook," explained Mr. Alexander. "The foundation of a successful crew is a good cook and plenty to eat."

The BAR found an innovated way to take care of that need. Mr. Alexander continued:
The company furnishes the cook and the men furnish the outfit with dishes, clothing, bedding, fuel and a stove, each man paying his share for the food which he eats. They are charged their board and settle among themselves the amount due from each so the company does not bother about boarding them. Under such conditions we find we can get men better than we could before.
This arrangement the crew was responsible for purchasing their own food, as the company only provided the cook and kitchen. The crew could eat as good or as poorly as it wanted or could afford.

I suspect a crew with limited financial resources could still eat well. A good cook could buy food from the railroad commissary or local market and fix up flavorful meals that filled the belly.

As Mr. Alexander said, a good cook, one who provided lots of good food to a crew, was worth his weight to the railroad.

Source: American Railway Bridge and Building Association, Proceedings of the 28th annual convention of the American Railway Bridge and Building Association, (Brethren Publishing House: Elgin, Ill.), Volume 28, pages 141-3. The convention was held in Chicago, October 15 to 17, 1918.

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