Monday, July 13, 2015

Chemung County's Famous Train and Trolley-Riding Dogs

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I spent part of this last week putting together a conference proposal about Railroad Jack, a train-riding dog based out of Albany, NY, who was nationally famous in the 1880s and 1890s.  When I'm not busy researching Chemung County for our exhibits, blog posts, and programs, my work focuses on the rise of canine celebrity in the late 19th century.  Fortunately, these two intersect occasionally and I can sometimes write about famous Chemung County dogs.  In this post, I'll tell you about some of Chemung County's trolley and train dogs.

In the late 19th century, there was a trend of dogs gaining recognition for their train-riding prowess.  The most famous example is the United States Post Office's Owney, a terrier mutt who road the mail trains out of Albany.  He is still remembered today and his taxidermied body is on display at the US Postal Museum.  However, Owney was only one of many dogs who lived in rail yards, road trains, and befriended rail workers.   The exploits of train dogs, even those who were less famous, were published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country.  These tales are often heavily embellished, but still indicate that many dogs closely associated themselves with trains.  This is likely for several reasons: strays found attention and food at rail yards and stations and some dogs probably enjoyed the movement of trains (like dogs in cars today).

Chemung County played host to travelling dogs, including Railroad Jack.  In 1890, Jack came to Elmira and the railroad workers brought him to the Elmira Telegram office to have a play date with the newspaper's famous dog mascot, Colonel.  
Drawing of Railroad Jack clipped from a newspaper.  This is in our collection in the scrapbook of Elmira Police Chief Levi Little.  The scrapbook is primarily clippings about crimes, but Little clipped an occasional pop culture piece.  Railroad Jack was one of those few non-crime stories that Little cared enough about to add to his scrapbook.
But the county's homegrown travelling dogs are pretty interesting, too. For example, in 1894, the papers reported that an Erie yard switchman brought his black and tan dog with him to work.  The dog reportedly was fond of quickly ducking under and out from moving train cars, riding on the steps of the engine and in the cab, chasing off tramps and other dogs, and then eating his dinner in the switch shanty.

Elmira also had trolley dogs.  The image below shows a trolley line car, probably in the late 19th century.  If you look closely at the road on the far right side of the image, you'll see a small, fuzzy image of a collie.  On the back of the image, someone noted that the dog always followed the line cars. 
The dog is on the far right side of the image.  On an unrelated note, I'm glad I didn't have to use that rickety-looking line car!
Elmira even had its own Railroad Jack (this was an exceptionally common name for rail dogs).  In the early 1900s, a bulldog named Jack gained local fame for chasing the trolley from Horseheads and Elmira Heights down the line to Elmira.  He did this, reportedly, everyday for years, earning the admiration of the linemen.  In August of 1906, he was falsely reported to have been killed in a trolley accident, but it evidently had been an "imposter."  In September of 1906, however, Jack retired.  One day he was chasing the trolley as usual, but he became tired around the Reformatory and stopped to lay down by the tracks.  This was the first time Jack ever stopped chasing the moving trolley.  He walked over to the nearby Stearns silk mill where the employees fed him.  Apparently he decided this was a more favorable arrangement, and he was adopted as the Stearns mascot.  Jack's trolley-chasing job was apparently taken over by a deaf dog named Dummy.  However, the train workers didn't respect him as much because he would ride the trolley when he got tired, which was something Jack wouldn't do.
Train dogs still got some attention a few decades later, but the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the height of the train dog craze.  In 1937, a dog named Jack the Bum, who was based out of Scranton, PA, was shot and killed.  Jack was famous for riding the trains on the Lackawanna line and was a frequent visitor to Elmira.  George E. Griffis, an engineer from Elmira who took many trips with Jack in the engine, memorialized him in the newspaper.  He said that he would ride with his head out of the windows and "that dog would brush cinders from his eyes with his paws, same as any man."

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