Based largely on correspondences among her relatives in the 1800s, debut author Harris gives a firsthand account of the life a steam locomotive engineer.
While the steam powered train may seem like a romantic form of travel in comparison to more modern methods, the reality of its operation was complex and dangerous; in order to safely pilot their trains, engineers had to be highly skilled and able to endure hardships ranging from long hours to incompetent co-workers, all while maintaining a machine that could explode if not cared for properly. It was under such conditions that locomotive engineer John Henry Bailey Jr. spent his working life. Bailey cleaned steam engines as a teenager in Canada before moving on to pilot them for the Union Army in the last few years of the American Civil War. Although Bailey’s engagement in the Civil War was limited (he didn’t arrive in Virginia until 1864), it is a compellingly unique perspective to follow the advancement of the Union Army as seen through the eyes of a civilian locomotive engineer. After the war Bailey’s life takes on a more mundane existence as he marries, has children and eventually finds work as a train engineer in the Midwest. Throughout these years he has an ongoing correspondence with his brother, Francis, who, after his own time in the Civil War serving in the Union Navy, makes a living as a policeman in Albany, N.Y. As is fitting for a family correspondence, this involves attention to common domestic concerns such as marriage, illness, death and financial difficulties. Although still seen through the eyes of a locomotive engineer, these topics don’t prove as interesting as Bailey’s time in the Civil War. And while the portions of the book concerning the Civil War prove to be the most thrilling, Civil War enthusiasts will likely be disappointed as only about a third of the book involves the conflict. Readers interested in broader family histories of the period are more likely to be satisfied by the book on the whole.
A unique perspective on a major historical event that spends too much time on the quotidian.