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This would be a better fit for trains.stackexchange.com if it existed... but it doesn't, so I'm asking here. I started with the question of what it means when the narrator of Eliza's Son (1913) says his father "paid for the brake to Skilby Castle". My best guess so far is that it meant a ticket for the brake van, which I guess would have been less desirable than a proper passenger car? But anyway:

In researching that question, I kept coming across references to Depression-era hobos and such "riding the brake beams" (Google Ngrams), or sometimes "riding the brake blocks" or "riding the brake wheel." I don't know enough about how trains of the era (probably freight trains in this case) operated, to understand what this means. I'm hoping someone will explain, preferably with pictures or photographs.

An unusually almost-helpful description from The Diamond from the Sky (Roy L. McCardell, 1916):

With reckless haste he threw himself under a freight car and grasped and drew himself upon the brake beam. It was a strange way to travel for the erstwhile heir of Stanley. He had read of tramps riding the brake beams, but he had never thought he would come to do it; and now here he was in the dust and grime, on a creaking, narrow and greasy brake beam just over the cruel wheels that would mangle and grind him to death did he falter and fall.

A more typical throwaway reference from the Santa Ana Daily Register (July 6, 1914, evening issue):

He was not endowed with a long purse but by riding the brake beams, stowing away, working and begging he got to see every game.

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  • 1
    Figure 1 of railway-technical.com/trains/rolling-stock-index-l/bogies.html shows the brake beam is part of the "bogie", an assembly of 4 railway wheels on 2 axles, with lots of parts. The pictures on tedrail.com/products/classify/Brake%20Beam seem to show the same thing, but not the context of a brake beam in the bogie. It looks like an uncomfortable place to sit! Mar 30 at 22:28
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    There is a brake beam shown in the line drawing in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_railroad_truck_parts Mar 30 at 22:59
  • Trains, planes and automobiles you're right! One is missing. I love all things trains and have a zillion questions. There is a mechanism to start a new site but it's not easy :-)
    – uhoh
    Mar 31 at 2:26
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    I suspect that the "brake to Skilby Castle" was probably this kind of brake. Mar 31 at 8:12
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    @KateBunting thank you! It wouldn't surprise me if you're right about that. (I admit I started by picturing some sort of tramcar or cog railway and then got completely hung up on the "train ticket" angle without thinking about how silly it seems to take the railway to the seaside and then get on another railway to "Skilby Castle." Its being a different form of transit would make a lot of sense, in hindsight.) Mar 31 at 17:04

3 Answers 3

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While @ccprog's answer already explains well what a brake beam on a railway bogie is, after some googling I found the picture Brake-beam traveller by Charles C. Pierce:

Man riding the rods under a railroad car.

(This looks like a two-axle wagon though, not a bogie, and the beam doesn't appear to be made out of wood here)

An article from the L.A. Times gives some context:

It was a dangerous life. In the heyday of the hobo, from 1890 to 1910, 32,276 tramps or hobos were killed on American railroads. Countless more were maimed for life. “More than one met death when a missed hold sent him under the wheels; more than one came to an end at the hands of an overzealous brakie or railroad bull or starved to death when locked into a boxcar shunted onto an unused siding.”

Leon Livingston, self-styled King of the Hobos, scrawled his mark (A. No. 1) all over the West. In one of his rough-hewn books he wrote of riding under a Pullman on a narrow wooden brake beam. “People riding in coaches … cannot imagine how it feels to be rushing through space 50 miles an hour over a loose sand ballasted track seated upon a brake beam. Soon my eyes were filled with dust…. My ears were becoming deaf … but I held on….

“Hobos were likely to prefer boxcars; but ingenious tramps rode anywhere: atop cargo in open gondolas, among livestock in cattle cars, on bumpers between cars, or in the empty iceboxes of the fruit specials.”

It fits well with your quote. Similarly, this newspaper article from 1893 explains

[A tramp] is a brake-beam tourist and a free-rider when he mounts the economical, but deadly brake-beam, of a railroad car and thereon steals a ride.

[…]

When a freight train stops at a depot the brakemen arm themselves with the iron bars used for setting the breaks, and knock the free-riders off the break beams and drawheads, and drive them from tho box cars and the blind baggage. They slink away ahead of the cars and hide behind sheds and tie-piles. When the train starts, and is running past them, they jump the box and express cars, they glide between them and mount the drawheads, they even clamber onto the pilot and car roofs and seat themselves on the steps of the caboose.

I once saw a tramp thrown off the car three times on the run between the Tehachapi Pass and Fresno. I asked him if he still intended to try to "beat" her or give it up. "Give it up," he said, "Why, pard, I've only been bounced five times from Los Angeles." I returned to my seat in the car with a feeling of intense admiration for this ubiquitous tourist.

But most dangerous of all modes of free-riding, and yet one of the most common, is that from which this sketch derives its title. The beam which runs across beneath the cars connecting the two brakes is but a few inches in width, and elevated half the height of the wheel above the rails, yet men will ride for hundreds of miles cramped up on one of these beams, hanging on for dear life and exposed to the constant and terrible danger of falling off the beam, in which case their end would be swift indeed. Many such deaths occur each year.

I have seen "oldtimers" seize the brace-rod and swing themselves underneath the car, between the grinding wheels and on to the brake-beam, while the cars were running twelve miles and [sic] hour. It is needless to add that many men are killed while attempting to ride the unreliable brake-beam.

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    For context as to how dangerous it was, it would be useful to know how many people were travelling that way. 32000 is less than the number of yearly traffic-related deaths in the USA today, and per capita, in 1913, this figure was a factor 20 higher. How much more dangerous was hoboing (the mode of the underclass) compared to travelling in a private automobile (the mode of the upperclass) in 1913?
    – gerrit
    Apr 2 at 7:02
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Horace Field Parshall; Henry Metcalf Hobart: Electric railway engineering, London 1907 has a large number of drawings of railway bogies, and one of them, Fig. 410 (after p. 440), gets the following description on p. 446:

The American type of brake foundation for steam railway passenger stock is well illustrated in the cast steel trailer bogie shown in Fig. 410. The brake blocks A are carried in steel castings B (brake heads), each pair of brake heads being coupled by a brake beam C, and suspended from the frame by the brake hangers D. Safety hangers E are also provided to support the brake beams in the event of a hanger breaking, and release springs F to hold the brake blocks off the wheels. In some instances the release spring also acts as a safety hanger. The angle of the brake beams can be adjusted by means of a turnbuckle G, so as to ensure the correct position of the brake blocks as they wear out. The pull rod H on the car body is attached to the upper end of the live lever I, which is at the outer end of the bogie, and is attached near its lower end to the brake beam. The lower end of this lever is connected to the lower end of the dead lever J by means of the brake rod K. The dead lever is attached near its lower end to the brake beam at the inner end of the bogie, and at its upper end to a fulcrum on the bogie frame, which is adjustable to take up the wear of the blocks. In the brake foundation of Fig. 410 a further adjustment can be made, the relative positions of J and K being adjusted by the set screw L.

enter image description here

The fact that the book is about electrical railways is not that important, but it should be noted that in the next paragraph the authors argue that this arangement is not suitable for bogies also carrying electrical motors, "owing to the difficulty of finding room for the beams and the lower brake rod on account of the collecting gear and motors".

In this type of bogie the braking beam is mounted quite low, and as it

  • is almost the lowest horizontal structure below the wagon
  • is mounted on the outside of the wheel arangement
  • is apparently made of wood and has a flat, if narrow, upper surface
  • has a length of almost 6 foot

it seems to be usable as a place to lay down on.

Another picture, originally from the same book (Fig. 406 on p. 438), shows a photograph of the same arangement, with some minor differences.

Other bogies have the brake beam hidden between the wheel and the central beam, and carriages with only two fixed axles without a bogie, as used by a lot of lighter freight cars, might use slightly different arrangements and materials. But at least all constructions with a low beam mounted on the outside would offer the same basic opportunity for a traveller.

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  • Indeed. But not a nice place to ride.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 31 at 15:54
  • Unfortunately all these images (except one) are "disassembled" (showing the bogie but not the car atop it), and all of them are unoccupied, so I'm still not getting it. Are we talking about a person perched on one of these things somehow? Apr 1 at 1:39
  • The picture you linked has the brakes on the inside of the wheels, where you can't get at them past the rotating axles. But if they are mounted on the outside of the bogie, the beam connecting the brakes on each side offer a perch with a bit of space between beam and the car floor, like inthe picture Bergi has found.
    – ccprog
    Apr 1 at 11:35
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    Oh, I see now, we're talking about this thing, this thing — the part that goes perpendicular to the track but isn't the axle itself. I certainly had that wrong, but I think I've got it now! Apr 1 at 14:02
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    has a length of almost 6 foot - no. It must be less than the railway gauge, which is 4' 8½
    – Chris H
    Apr 1 at 16:58
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With reference to the original quotation from a 1913 novel - it's probably a reference to a type of carriage called a brake, that the characters could have hired to go on an excursion.

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