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Jack the Signalman

By Michael Williams - Knoxville Tenn.

Stranger Than Fiction: Jack the Signalman

the signalmanDuring the latter part of the 1800s, travelers to Cape Town, South Africa, along the Port Elizabeth Mainline Railroad frequently saw a curious sight as they entered the train station. The signalman operating the levers that set the signals in the control tower was a baboon named Jack.

As strange as it may seem, Jack was an employee of the railroad. He belonged to James "Jumper" Wide who worked as a signalman until he lost both legs in an accident. Wide earned the nickname "Jumper" due to his habit of jumping from one railway car to another and sometimes swinging from railcar to railcar. One afternoon, he attempted to leap to another car and fell underneath the moving train. The massive metal wheels of the train severed both his legs.

Jumper was devastated. Not only had he lost his legs, but he would be of no use to the railroad. Eventually he made himself two pegged legs he carved from a piece of wood and built himself a small trolley he used to get around. Still, he was limited on how well he could perform his job.

One afternoon he was visiting the marketplace where he saw a baboon leading an ox wagon. He met the owner who demonstrated how smart the primate was. Soon, Jumper was convinced the baboon could serve him well. He pleaded with the owner to let him have the baboon. The owner didn't really want to give up his favorite pet, but he felt sorry for the crippled man.

He gave the baboon to Jumper and thus began the most unusual friendship in the railroad's history. The two lived in a cottage a half mile from the railroad depot. Each morning Jack would push Jumper to work on the trolley. He would push the trolley up a hill and once on top of the hill, Jack would jump on the trolley for a fun ride as it rolled quickly down the other side of the hill. Once at work, Jack operated the signals that instructed train engineers which tracks they would take.

Jumper kept a key at the signal-box at the station that unlocked the points which enabled the locomotive drivers, or engineers, to reach the coal sheds. Whenever an engineer needed coal he gave four blasts on his train's whistle and Jumper would hobble out on his crutches and stumps and give the key to Jack who took the key to the engineer.

The working relationship between Jumper and Jack worked well and the two forged a strong friendship. Many locals would go the tracks to see if the story of a baboon working the signals was true. Most marveled at how well Jack performed his job.

Then one day, a prominent lady on route to Port Elizabeth observed Jack working and was horrified at the prospects of a baboon running the signals. She notified the railroad authorities who were unaware Jumper's assistant was an ape. At first they did not believe her wild story until the system manager and several authorities visited the station. Jumper and Jack were immediately fired.

Jumper pleaded for their jobs and the system manager agreed to test the ability of Jack. An engineer was instructed to blast his train's whistle signaling Jack to change the correct signals. Jack made all the changes without fail. He even looked around in the direction of the oncoming train to make sure that the correct lever and signal were changed.

Jack passed his test with flying colors and the railroad system manager was so impressed he gave Jumper his job back and even hired Jack who became the only baboon in history to go to work for the railroad. From that day forward, Jack was known as Jack the Signalman. For his labor, he was given monthly rations from the government but he also received an employment number.

Around Jumper's cottage Jack learned to perform other tasks such as removing rubbish and sweeping the kitchen floor. He also turned out to be a very good watchman. Intruders were greeted by a fierce guard who gnashed his teeth and snarled ferociously to frighten away unwelcome visitors.

Michael Williams has written a book entitled Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse . The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said "truth is stranger than fiction."

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About the Author:
Michael Williams has written for more than 30 newspapers and magazines including the Civil War Times Illustrated, The Civil War Courier, the Associated Press and the Knoxville Journal.

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