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Bending the Iron

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Turning a switch by hand
A freight brakeman "bending the iron" (turning the switch) on the narrow-gauge Rio Grande Southern at Mancos, Colorado. The brakeman is wearing typical garb for his profession: a billed cap, heavy work gloves, new and durable dark jeans, and a "thousand-mile shirt" meaning that it could be worn for a thousand miles between launderings because the fabric contained so little white.

While large railroads today use electronics to control switches, small lines and short lines have used manual technology for generations. For equipment and dress, this scene is relatively timeless, but set in a specific era. The fence suggests grazing land immediately behind the switch, because of the cropped grass, while the area next to the tracks is unkempt. The fence kept cattle from rubbing against the switch.

Beebe cropped his image severely into a vertical portrait for the book, but the full frame imitates standard snapshot format, common in American pictures since the late 1880: the subject stands in the center foreground with a landscape arrayed around him. Only the posture, the cigarette dangling from the left side of his mouth, and the weeds around him indicate that this picture was not especially posed, even though it may have been. The subject was an "everyman" of railroading.
Alternate Title Brakeman Turning a Switch on a Narrow-Gauge Line (editor's title)
Source California State Railroad Museum
Coverage Spatial, Mancos, Colorado; Temporal, 1946
Rights California State Railroad Museum
Date Created 1946
Resource Type
Extent Not available
Depicted Railroad
Location Mancos, Colorado
Depicted Occupation
Image Type Portrait in landscape
Creator Description Lucius Morris Beebe (1902-66) popularized railroading and its appeal beginning with his 1938 picture book, "High Iron." He was a flamboyant writer, photographer, and socialite who ultimated published 27 books about railroads. He came from a prosperous family, was expelled from Yale for troublemaking, and was graduated from Harvard in 1926. He wrote for the"New York Herald Tribune," beginning in 1929, covering cafe society, a term he invented, and was featured on the cover of "Life" magazine in 1939 wearing top hat and tails. He fell in love with railroads and began documenting them in the 1930s. He moved in 1950 to Virginia City, Nevada, with Charles M. Clegg, his partner and collaborator. Clegg, too, was a photographer.
Collection Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg Collection
Image ID BC negative 3207
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