The crane with the broken neck: Fable or reality

Legend has it that some workers were secretly blacklisted following Pullman strike of 1894

By Frederick C. Gamst, Ph.D.
BLET Division 660 Member

During the severe economic depression of 1894, destitute men walked the streets and rode the rails looking for work. The Democratic administration of President Grover Cleveland and Vice President Adlai Stevenson provided no relief and expected each citizen to display private initiative and enterprise. As Coxey's Army of the unemployed headed for the nation's capital (to be arrested for walking on the grass) and despondent men burned the resplendent white buildings of the Chicago World's Fair, unrest spread over the 44 states.

In late June and July 1894, Eugene V. Debs and his industrial American Railway Union (ARU) mounted and lost decisively to the federal government what historians call the Great Pullman Strike and Boycott. Debs' action across the nation's railroads divided the house of labor, paralyzed freight, passenger, and mail service in the western U.S., saw the largest marshalling of troops since the Civil War, found many military actions such as the U.S. Marines landing at Espee's West Oakland terminal, and eventually left embittered railroaders and their families from coast to coast.

A symbolic legacy in the lore of the Pullman action was the heated accusation of "the crane." Until several decades ago, railroaders discussed the tale of "the crane with the broken neck." Allegedly, railroaders participating in the Pullman action, "back in '94," often received a standard bland service letter from a railroad, but with a hidden, blacklisting watermark in the paper, consisting of a broken- or bent-neck crane, depending on the narrative. Such paper would have come from the Crane paper company. Supposedly, by this concealed stigma, a railroad would deny employment to a striker or boycotter. The applicant never knew he "carried in his own hands," old-old heads told me, the reason for his rejection. This bitter, once often-repeated account, has no verification and could be largely mythic, a melancholy and despairing tale of the "rails."

Some of the oldest railroaders, hiring out ca. 1905, with whom I discussed this matter, thought a vindictive railroad would indeed have special paper immediately produced and distributed with secret instruction solely for punishing striking "rails." Additionally, in perfect accord, all the railroads would not accept a stigma-watermarked letter. Other veteran railroaders more judiciously said that the matter might have some slight basis in fact but that the crane's neck on a bland service letter merely had a position other than straight up and, thus, carried no secret message.

No nationwide conspiracy remains secret, let alone across many decades. In an era before machine record-keeping and numeric identifications, for various reasons some men "worked under a flag," i.e., had an assumed name and personal history. ("John Smith, from Somewhere, Maine, sir.") Rumors had it that some service letters were forgeries (a "fake clearance"): any clerk could supply letterhead stationary. Moreover, local railroad officers had the power to hire and when shorthanded to meet operational and personal career goals would not ask, "Where were you in the summer of 1894?"

The earliest published allegation of "the crane" is in an account featuring a missing head, from the ARU's Railway Times of November 15, 1894, page 1, as follows. "Railroad companies demand 'a clearance paper' explaining the cause of leaving the last railroad service. A railroad manager provides a good letter but condemning information is in "an ingenious watermark. The figure of a 'sand hill crane' is worked into the blank form [paper] of the clearance. When the head of the crane is missing the man will not be hired. . . ." This could well be the undocumented origin of the accusation. Two versions of the Crane & Company's standard watermark existed, straight up and bent. Could the two have been used for different hidden messages?

The past recounting of this tale as Gospel speaks volumes for the sentiments of the abjectly defeated ARU members and their adherents. Those who study myths hold that a myth has a reality of a kind among those who believe it.

"The crane," fable or reality?

You tell me.

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(The author, Frederick C. Gamst, Ph.D., is an adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. Formerly he taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and also for nine years at Rice University in Houston. Dr. Gamst has been a BLET member since 1959 (Division 660) and has done many studies for the organization. He corresponds with hundreds of engineers over the Internet and is always pleased to hear from others about their jobs. His e-mail address is:



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