The Beauty of Human Effort

I am a student of history.  In order to tell the stories that result in the telling of this history, sometimes I have to tell you something that is historically accurate but not always well-known.  This story is about someone (me) who saw history being made by some of the most unhistorical men or women in our lives.  This story is true.  I have pictures of the original moment in history and the use of the heavy-duty crane.

This is the story.  In the 1980’s or so, the City Fathers, of which my father was one, planted the coal train that is across from the diner near the Old Worthen.  Now we have plenty of information on the Old Worthen.  It was a favorite stop for the famous Edgar Allen Poe of Baltimore.  What you may not know is that the coal train was given to us by a quarry in Westford.  Lowell was glad to get it.  It did not fit, but it was appreciated.

What do  I mean by “it did not fit?” Well, the wheels could not be lowered onto the railroad track that the coal train was supposed to rest on, accurately, according to the historians in the crowd.  The wheels were approximately one quarter of an inch to wide for the track.  The track had not been accurately measured.  For the entire morning, afternoon, and evening, the engine was lifted, relifted, and refit onto the recalcitrant track.   The track could not be moved.  The engine simply had to fit.  It didn’t.

The college-trained engineers could not make that locomotive fit onto that track.  It was the summer, so it was getting dark later, and the group next to the train under the canopy tried every angle they could think of and some solutions that they probably had never thought of before.  I watched with great interest, stopped for supper, and returned to my spot near the locomotive.   Almost everyone except the workers had left.  The few workers left continued everything and anything that might work.  I had, and have, to give them credit.  They did not seem to miss a trick.  The crane had even gone home.  I have a picture of the crane and it was a tough little tool.

I was about to leave myself, but I went to the men under the canopy.  Curses, mostly, sounded in the dark night.  Finally, an old man went up to the men and said he could get that locomotive into its bed.  They all laughed at him.  They asked him how he woud do it.  “Get me some wood,” he said.  “Small pieces, rectangular or square.”  Some disbelievers did exactly as he said.  They brought over some rectangular pieces of 2 by 4’s and 4 by 8’s.  At his own speed, he gently put each new board leaning against the locomotive.  Slowly, the pile of wood reached up onto the space between the track and the culp.  Culpability was the question.   The old man continued in his task, there was no culpability.  He continued in his effort and built a sandbox tower, the type of thing you might see in the making of a child’s toy.  It was almost up to the rim of the locomotive wheel.

No one was really paying attention to him, I noticed.  He asked for a final board, and placed it at an angle under the rim.  Then he asked for  a sledge hammer.   He used the sledgehammer to pound the last piece of wood under the wheel rim.  I was the last person on his side of the locomotive.  With a jolt I heard the locomotive settle onto the track.  He had completed successfully placing the train on the track.  He had done it with the simplest of tools, a hammer and a wedge.  Under pressure,  the wood pile fell onto itself.  He had won.  Age had defied his intelligence.  The men left in the canopy came over to look at the wheel.  It had moved fractions of an inch onto the track and he had done it.  I left there thinking that I would never question an old man’s intelligence.  My grandfather had been a blacksmith and lifted heavy horse feet up to put horseshoes on horses.  I looked up and said to the dark, “Nice work, Grandpa.”  I think he heard me.

That is my true history story for today.  And it happened in Lowell, and it is true.

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