Stranger than fiction: Jack the Signalman

jack the signalman

Jumper and Jack the Signalman / Photo submitted

By Michael Williams

During the latter part of the 1800s travelers voyaging 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 railroad 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 one to another). One afternoon he attempted to leap to another car and fell underneath the moving train. The massive metal wheels of the train severed both legs.

Jumper was devastated. Not only had he lost his legs, but he would be of no use to the railroad. Eventually he carved two pegged legs and built a small trolley to get around. However, he was still 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 the intelligence of the primate. Jumper was convinced the baboon could serve him well. He pleaded with the owner for the baboon. The owner didn’t want to give up his favorite pet, but felt sorry for the crippled man. He gave up the baboon 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 it up a hill and once on top, Jack would jump on the trolley and ride it down the other side. Once at work, Jack would operate the signals that instructed train engineers on what tracks to take.

Jumper kept a key at the signal box that unlocked the points which enabled the locomotive engineers to reach the coal sheds. Whenever an engineer needed coal, he’d give the train whistle four blasts and Jumper would hobble out on his crutches and hand the key to Jack.

The working relationship between Jumper and Jack worked well and the two forged a strong friendship. Those who saw the baboon marveled at how well Jack performed his job.

Unfortunately for the two, a prominent lady en 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 the train 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, Jack was given monthly rations from the government, but he also received an employment number.

At 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.

Sadly, in 1890 Jack contracted tuberculosis and died. Jumper was inconsolable to the loss of his friend who had watched over the crippled man for so long. Jack’s skull is on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown and a photographic museum was established at the Old Railway Station in Uitenhage.    

(Michael Williams has written a book titled, “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” It’s 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.”

The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. It can be purchased from amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or one can save both shipping cost and $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author.

Send $17.95 to 269 Palmer Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

Michael has written for more than 50 newspapers and magazines, including the Civil War Times Illustrated, The Civil War Courier, Tennessee Star Journal, the Associated Press and the Knoxville Journal.)

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