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.