Have you ever sat for too long and when you get up you’re stiff? Ever thought “if only I had some oil to lubricate my joints?” like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz? Of course you’d need an oil can to apply directly to the troublesome spot. A long spout oil can might be just what you need. Here at the High Plains Museum we have in our collection a long spout oil can that was used on the railroad in Goodland.
The railroad has been an important part of Goodland’s history. The Chicago, Kansas and Nebraska Railway, a part of
the Rock Island Railroad System, came through Goodland on July 3, 1888 to much celebration. This railroad connected Goodland with Colorado Springs and Denver and made Goodland an important stopping point on the railway. Besides Goodland, Edson, Kanorado and Ruleton were towns that were started in Sherman County because of the railroad. Today we have the Kyle Railroad and while not a passenger train, it carries goods, like grain, in and out of town. To keep the train and tracks running smoothly the trains will have used or use, an oil can.
Oil cans were used for various functions on the railroad and came in all shapes and sizes. The size or shape of an oil can would often tell you the function it performed. Large oil cans that could contain a quart to several gallons of oil were for storage while smaller cans were used to oil things. These smaller cans could also be filled with oil from the larger cans. The oil can we have in our collection is a long spout oil can which was used to reach places not easily accessible for human hands. These places included the train’s machinery under the boiler and in between the wheels and springs. Long spout oil cans were also helpful as they could direct the flow of the oil and prevent back injury. By directing the flow of oil it helped ensure that oil was not wasted on areas not needing oiling. The long spout also prevented back injury by allowing the user to stay upright instead of bending over to oil things.
The long spout oil can was used for switch points and railroad journal box. Switch points can be either manual or controlled from a signal tower. Regardless of how the switch points are controlled they are oiled so that when the tracks need to be changed they work correctly. The long spout oil can was used during this process because the tip was long enough to reach what needed to be oiled without bending over. Working on the Railroad by Brian Solomon contains a picture of a man oiling the switch points. A railroad journal box was a box that held the axle bearings. These boxes were made of bronze and were placed on the outer end of the railroad car axle. There would have been two journal boxes for every axle and pair of wheels. If these boxes were not oiled a “hot box” developed which could get so hot it could start fires. This is how prairie fires around the railroad would start. Due to this, at every stop the train would make someone would get out and check that these boxes were oiled and in working order. They would also check every couple hundred miles or so. It took a lot of men to check these boxes and oil them properly. Today the journal box is rare and seldom used.
While there were various sizes for oil cans there were also different kinds of oil in the cans. Three kind of oil include car oil, valve oil, and air oil. The general oil used was car oil. This would also be used for railroad-car journals and wheel-bearings. Valve oil was used in the hot cylinder that operated with steam. This oil was an animal fat based oil and thick. It was specially formulated to work in the hot cylinders. Air oil was also used for air compressors with brake systems. Braking system on trains are usually air brakes. This means that the train uses compressed air as force to push blocks on to wheels or pads on to discs. To keep the brakes in working order air oil is applied which is light mineral oil.
The long spout oil can we have in our collection belonged to Marion Parker, a resident of Goodland who worked on the railroad. Mr. Parker was born in Roswell Colorado on May 11, 1908 and moved to Goodland with his father, mother and older brother in 1909. His father worked as a locomotive engineer for the Rock Island Railroad. Parker met his wife Betty in the summer of 1925 when they were both seniors at Sherman County High School. In 1929 they married and had one son, Robert Parker. It was during his time in school that Parker started to work for the railroad. He started after school as a clerk in the roundhouse and then later as machinist’s helper. In 1929 he started work as a fireman where he would scoop coal into the fire box. In 1944 he was promoted to locomotive engineer and for three years he was the Road Foreman of Equipment at Dalhart Texas. He retired on June 23, 1973 one month short of working in the engine service for forty-four years. It was during his retirement that Mr. Parker took an active interest in the history of Sherman County. He contributed some of his personal items to the museum, but also contributed his time to helping record the history of Sherman County in the Sherman County & Family History: They Came To Stay books. He wrote several articles including one about the railroad coming to Goodland. He and his wife were the official historians of these books and Mr. Parker provided some of his own first-hand knowledge and experiences to these books.
The railroad had a vital part in making Goodland what it is today. The railroad is still operational today but in a different capacity then it was in the late 1800’s. The long spout oil can helped the railroad workers keep the trains and the tracks running smoothly. The oil can in our collection was donated by Marion Parker who had forty-four years of service on the railroad. We may not think something as simple as an oil can be significant but it was and is. The use of the oil can helped stop fires and ensure that the train was working. Sometimes the simplest item makes a huge difference in the larger picture.
Do you have items like this in your family or work history? Please share you stories in the comment sections below.
Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.