Thursday, October 10, 2013

Workin' on the Railroad

The first true pulp magazine was Argosy, published by Frank A. Munsey in 1896. That was a general fiction pulp, but in 1906, Munsey tried out a magazine specializing in a specific genre. This was Railroad Man's Magazine, with the premiere issue cover dated October 1906.

I guess it's not surprising that Munsey would look to railroad stories for his first specialty magazines. A popular novel that year was Whispering Smith, by Frank H. Spearman, a Western about a railroad detective. (Whispering Smith has been filmed 8 times over the years, including once with Alan Ladd and was a short-lived TV series starring Audie Murphy in 1961.)

In fact, Munsey had published Spearman's railroad-oriented short stories in his magazines before, so I guess he figured he had a built-in audience. Besides, anyone who doesn't like trains obviously hates fun.*

"The Nerve of Foley" is a good example of Spearman's work. It first appeared in Munsey's Magazine (though I rather annoyingly can't find a reference to the exact issue) and then was the title story of an anthology of Spearman's tales published in 1900.

(It's public domain, so you can snag an electronic copy HERE.)

The story is told by a manager working for a Mid-Western railroad. When the engineers and firemen go on strike, the company struggles to keep at least some of the trains moving. This doesn't always work out well, as the replacement engineers weren't of the best quality:

"He began by backing into a diner so hard that he smashed ever dish in the car, and ended by running into a siding a few days later and setting two tanks of oil on fire... Then he went back to selling windmills."

But soon, a guy named Foley shows up for work, claiming to have worked on the railroads back east. He's hired, stands up to some of the strikers who try to stop him from getting into a locomotive, and makes several successful high-speed runs. But the men on strike are still out to get him.

There's an awful cliche that helps set up the conclusion, when a runaway buggy with a baby inside stops on the tracks in front of a speeding train. But the author keeps it exciting as he describes Foley's efforts to save the kid and he manages to include a nice twist at the end.

Spearman wrote with the sort of clear and straightforward prose that is so effective for good storytelling and he had a good sense of humor. Reading this tale and doing a little bit of research into Spearman has made me realize that I've never read Whispering Smith. So you all might be reading a post about that novel soon. In the meantime, if you don't hate fun, give some of Spearman's short stories a try.

*Don't tell anyone--but this remark references a current TV series rather than a classic old-time series.

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