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Dude on the Tracks: 1926

Dude on the Tracks: 1926

June or July 1926. Washington, D.C., or vicinity. "NO CAPTION [Man lying in front of train on tracks]." Perhaps some diligent Shorpysleuth can figure out what's going on here. 4x5 inch glass negative, Harris & Ewing Collection. View full size.


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Signal Men

The door to the wood cabinet on the posts is open, so I do suspect that these characters have something to do with its innards. There's another insulated joint in the left rail just under the locomotive's cow catcher, and more conduit going to it, making the location look just like a block boundary.


And pedicure, please.

Overzealous Revenuers?

Well they won't let us use that water torture thing so we had to get a little more creative to find out where they are hiding their stills.

Time travel?

It's an impressionistic tableau of humanity tied up by its own idiotic assumptions and the train is the Corona Special!

Safety demo

I suspect that the guy lying down is demonstrating that the signal voltage is not enough to electrocute him.

Putting signals on this backwater railroad may have been an experimental or demonstration installation to sell the design, without tying up a main line. Of course, this disregards the fact that his shoes are something of an insulator.


My first thought was: horseplay. But then I realized it was actually ironhorseplay.

Block boundary?

I take the commuter rail to work (when I'm not working at home) and they're installing "positive train control", which involves adding a lot of electrics to the rails.

I suspect that the splice in the right foreground is a block boundary (it's an electrical break in the rails). And that the equipment has to do with detecting whether a block is occupied by sensing the short circuit created by the train connecting the two rails.

But, I could also be full of it.

Oh, and that's some bad hat, Harry.

Generally --

Something leads me to suspect that Buster Keaton is just out of frame.

Snidely Whiplash

Couldn’t resist this: from the Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

Don't block me in!

My guess is that the conduit contains the wiring for a traffic-control signaling system. The conduit runs over to where two rails are joined. I think there's an insulator between the rails, and two wires from the conduit are connected to them. The insulator separates two "blocks" of track.

I think each of the wires are for the "hot" rail of each block circuit (the rail on the opposite end of the ties is grounded). When an engine or car is sitting on the rails in a block, the steel wheels and axles connect the "hot" and grounded rails together. That causes the trackside signal to illuminate, signaling approaching traffic not to enter the block.

When all wheels have rolled into the next block current no longer flows between the rails, and the signal extinguishes.

What a Beach

That appears to be the Chesapeake Beach Railway that once linked DC with the Bay. The railroad operated several steam locomotives with single-digit numbers and the lightweight track construction (no metal tie plates between the bottom of the rails and the ties) suggests this is not a heavy haul railroad. The conduit under the rails appears to be linked to an insulated rail joint suggesting it is part of a crossing warning device. Presumably Ockham left his Boater hat on top of the equipment post which may house a trackside telephone. Perhaps he didn't want to subject it to the grease and grime of the track.

Interesting Contrast

I find it interesting that the dirty and disheveled man on the tracks is wearing a very nice pair of spit-shined shoes and some nice socks to boot.

I don't know what it means, but normally a man who's been through enough that his clothes and hygiene are in such a condition, his shoes will show some evidence of those circumstances, too.

Somebody FUBARed the signals.

And now he's listening for opposing traffic?


The train is huffing and puffing, but it cannot move while Superman holds it back with one hand.

When he puts his hat back on (on top of the post) he will once again assume his identity as Clark Kent.

Team Building Exercise

Instilling trust, before the 'fall backwards and I'll catch you' method was developed.

General Comment

1926 was the release of Buster Keaton's The General.

This is not the same engine, but by pleasant coincidence is also designated # 3 as was Buster's 4-4-0 wood burning engine.

Perhaps Ockham is muttering "poor poor pitiful me."

Track circuit?

It is possible that the man is standing next to the circuitry for a track circuit. These are used to detect and transmit the presence of a train on a section of track so that dispatchers and controllers can monitor traffic and prevent collisions, or it could be a control for a signal at a road crossing ahead of the train. Why the man is laying on the tracks is unknown, though klnes's suggestion could be mostly right on. Perhaps the men are on a maintenance run and someone with a camera came along.

Town Crier

Actually, he is the town crier. His main job is to put ear to track to listen for when the train is coming. He then warns the townsfolks.

Unfortunately, he used his deaf ear, was unable to hear the train. However, lucky him, the train folks saw him and stopped in time to prevent a tragedy.

An old cowboy trick

It's a trick cowboys used in the old west. He put his ear on the track so he could listen to see if a train is coming.


This is how they are replaced.

Where's The Black Hat And Mustauche?

Also, where is the damsel in distress?

"Here, hold my hat".

I hope he doesn't forget his straw boater that he or his buddy left on top of the pole.

Shorting the track, maybe

If he isn't shorting the track to set off a block signal, he might be trying to listen for something, like another train.

Re: I'm using Ockham's razor

The "guy" was actually William of Ockham and the eponymous razor is also acceptably spelled in his honor according to multiple sources. I just like to give the guy his due credit wherever possible. Also, the other spelling is attributed to a British mathematician named William Hamilton, who was either better at math than at spelling, or who contrived his spelling to help dullards with pronunciation; either way gives me another reason to avoid it.

[I sit corrected. - Dave]

Oh, the train. Yeah, I wonder what the other equipment is for, too. Maybe something akin to those table saws that immediately brake when your finger flesh completes a circuit?


In coronavirus lockdown in New Zealand; is this a method of alerting train drivers to a person touching the track?

I'm using Ockham's razor

Perhaps nothing is really "going on here" other than someone simply deciding to pose humorously while someone else was simply in the process of taking a photo of a train.

[Note the equipment next to the track and the conduit leading to the rails. Also, the guy with the razor was named Occam. - Dave]

Chesapeake Beach Railway

We are looking at one of two ex-Pennsylvania Railroad locomotives that were numbered CB no.3 (not at the same time, of course). The fluted steam dome with the pair of safety valves visible directly behind the head light is unique to PRR, and helps verify its identity. Disposition of the former PRR engines is unknown.

Chesapeake Beach Railway was opened from Chesapeake Junction on the east side of the District, to the new resort of Chesapeake Beach, Md., 32 miles, in the late 1890's. It was cut back to Seat Pleasant, 3 miles, and renamed the East Washington Railroad in 1935.

As an aside, I was working the B&O local through Chesapeake Junction in Feb., 1978 when we were ordered to enter the EWRR to pull an empty boxcar out of a warehouse on their tracks. We thought that was very unusual, until the next morning we saw the EW connection switch was spiked and that railroad was out of service. I made the last common carrier move on this railroad.

Oh, and as for what is going on here in the photo, it looks like railroader horseplay. Modern day safety officials would have a collective cow.

Interested in learning more on the CBRy? "The Chesapeake Beach Railway", self published by Ames W. Williams in 1975 is a good start. Mr. Williams' nice book has been out of print for many years, but can often be found amongst the booksellers at a reasonable price.

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