The Gripman in Winter

On February 1, 1893, a blizzard brought below zero temperatures and three inches of snow to Kansas City.  It was a day of accidents and delays for all the city’s street railway companies. During the day, the grips on twenty-five cable cars broke in the extreme cold and the power houses of the cable companies filled with damaged cars.Ninth Street Incline. source: Kansas City Public Library Special Collections. Negative Number: N841-412. Identifier Number: 10007406. All rights reserved

A Kansas City Cable Company car descending the Ninth Street incline to the West Bottoms lost control after the grip snapped. The gripman, C.A. Timberlake, applied the brakes but they failed to hold on the icy rails; a safety hook thrown out as a last resort broke. 

The car, with twenty-three passengers aboard including conductor and gripman, careened down the incline, jumping the track at the bottom and crashing through the station’s wooden partitions. Gripman Timberlake “pluckily stuck to his brakes and sustained a sprained ankle,” reported the Times. One passenger was slightly injured, but otherwise the passengers, “only a little white around the gills,” emerged unhurt. [1]

Two weeks later there was another near disaster on the Ninth Street incline, as the grip on a crowded cable car failed two thirds of the way up the incline. Brakes were again applied and the safety hook dropped, without result. Again, the car crashed into the waiting room platform at the bottom; again, no one was seriously injured.[2]  The company superintendent attributed the cause of the accident to the breaking of the grip in the cold.

At the best of times, being a gripman on a cable car was a demanding , hazardous job . The gripman stood in front of the cable car operating levers connected to a large, heavy clamp which, running in a slot below street level, attached the cable car to the moving cable, or “rope.”  He had to apply the grip with strength and skill to bring the car steadily up to the speed of the cable without jarring the passengers. The levers could spring back and strike the operator, as happened with one gripman when the handle of the grip lever “flew up and struck him on the left side of the face, causing a long gash and crushing the bone,”[3]  as the Star reported.

Grip and trailer cars. posed the worst hazards for gripmen since they stood in the open front of the “grip car” that pulled the enclosed trailer containing passengers.  Only one of the city’s cable companies, the Grand Avenue, ran a combined single car,[4] though even on that line the need for a clear view of the line ahead meant that the gripman’s stall was open to the elements.

So on the day of the first big winter storm of 1893, it was the gripmen who were “as usual, the worst sufferers,” wrote the Times:

Many a poor fellow came in with his ears and finger tips frozen white and scarcely a nerve of feeling in his whole body. The old hands who have stood many winters already, were little affected, but the youngsters who were just being broken in suffered intensely.

The Star took up the editorial cudgels on behalf of Kansas City’s gripmen after the Westport city council passed an ordinance requiring that all street railway companies shall “whenever the temperature is 10 degrees above zero, or lower, provide and furnish protection against the wind and weather for the gripmen, drivers and other operators of its cars.” The Star editorialized: “There are about 500 gripmen at work in Kansas City from 5:30 in the morning until 12 o’clock at night. When the temperature falls to zero and the wind blows they suffer intensely from the cold.”

The Westport ordinance mandated heavy fines for companies failing to provide shelter for gripmen but the president of the Grand Avenue company declared it unenforceable since protection could not be provided “without at the same time endangering the people.” The Star took exception:

It is a remarkable thing that at the general office of three of the largest cable systems in Kansas City it was said to-day that ‘just one gripman has been frozen on our line this winter.’ …The fact is, ten or fifteen gripmen have frozen their faces in Kansas City this winter. … One gripman on the Holmes street line was so badly frozen that he fell at his post unconscious and it was several days before he recovered.

Gripmen, said the Star, in what one hopes is an ironic tone,  must be honest men, “for no one but an honest man would ride on the front end of a cable car for ten hours such a day as yesterday for the small sum of seventeen cents an hour,” the typical wage of the gripman. [5] In fact, they might well receive less since most streetcar lines docked motormen’s pay if there was a stoppage anywhere on the line, as there frequently were. The giant shive wheels driving the “rope” might give way, as happened to the Kansas City Cable Company in January, stranding thirty-two cars for several hours.[6] Cables sometimes parted, stopping cars for hours.[7]On one occasion the cars of the Metropolitan Street Railway line were stopped when a drunken man fell into a cable conduit.[8]   

Cars were also likely to be stopped when pedestrians were struck or passengers fell from a car.[9] Jumping on a moving cable car was prohibited and subject to fines, [10] but serious injuries were quite common. Edward Fagan, a saloon owner in the West Bottoms, slipped while boarding a moving car and struck an iron pillar, fracturing three ribs.[11]

The Times also took up the issue of the frozen gripmen, reporting on “quiet amusement” about the Westport ordinance on the part of railway officials, “who are not a bit used to being ordered around, even by the mayor of Westport.” One official even intimated that the cable gripmen and conductors would exert their influence against the city councilors in an upcoming election. W.J. Smith, president of the Kansas City Cable railway commented that protecting the gripmen by any means other than “having them wrap up well and take all the exercise they can” was impractical. He said that his line, the pioneering line in Kansas City, founded in 1885 by Robert Gilham, had bought grip cars with glass fronts and sides but the experiment was a failure. Frost formed on the glass, obscuring the gripmen’s view; “patrons were always complaining that the gripmen would go by without seeing them.” The glass protection was discarded.

In Mr. Smith’s opinion, “much sympathy is being wasted on the gripman”:

Most of our men come from the country, and they are generally the last ones to complain of their misfortunes. One young man informed me that he considered it a ‘snap’ compared with getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to milk seventeen cows and shucking corn the rest of the day in a cold barn. Some occupations demand extra severe exposure which can not be avoided…. In this climate there is no need for such precautions as boxing the gripman up or anything of that sort.[12]

Efforts to improve the lot of the gripmen were up against powerful local and national business interests. By 1893, Kansas City could claim to be second only to San Francisco in cable car mileage.[13] The street car companies, many owned by eastern interests, were highly profitable. The Kansas City Cable railway, Ninth Street incline and 8th Street Tunnel were the pride of Kansas City, “one of the mechanical wonders of the world,”[14] according to a contemporary account. Designed by Robert Gilham, they were essential to the booming city’s development, carrying passengers from Union Depot in the West Bottoms to the heights above and into the city. Competition between rival streetcar lines was intense: “a game of chess,” the Daily Journal called it, as each line fought to obtain extensions or get control of other roads.[15] Meanwhile, as the year went on, alternatives to cable cars were beginning to appear, powered by electricity or even by anhydrous ammonia[16], making the owners of cable car companies less receptive to taking on the expense of ameliorating the gripmen’s condition.

The debate over the gripmen resumed at the end of 1893 as winter weather again set in. Two gripmen on the Kansas City Cable railway were discharged for not being able to stand the cold, reported the Star. The Superintendent of the Ninth Street line told the paper that this was the company’s standard practice: “If we didn’t make it a rule we wouldn’t have a man to run out the cars on very cold days.”Officers of the line said of one of the men, a veteran who'd been with the line for several years and whose family was said to be in need, that "he turned baby at the wrong time." 

Robert Gilham Source: Kansas City Public Library Cable company policy toward the gripmen was, said the paper, an annual question for concern, but there was little chance that the winter of 1893-4 would see “any effort to protect the men…. Robert Gilham, who is regarded as the best authority on the subject, says that all the schemes for protecting the men so far have been unsatisfactory.” Gilham mentioned the earlier failure of his company’s effort to provide protective enclosures and Mr. Smith was again quoted, saying “A good gripman won’t run a car when he can’t see in front and at his sides, as he is liable to kill some one if he does. I see no remedy except for the men to wear heavy clothes and accustom themselves to stand the weather.” [17] 

A few days later, Dr. Mitchell of the Grand Avenue church preached against the cable companies in a sermon titled “The Open Grip Car, an Indifference to Human Suffering.”  There was, he said, widespread support for the humane treatment of animals, yet the same did not apply to the gripmen of cable cars in winter time: “I do not wish to say harsh or unkind things concerning our street car system,” he said, loyally. “Every citizen is proud of the magnificent system of cable cars we have in this city. Strangers from other cities remark that we have the finest system of rapid transit of any city in the country.” Without wishing to say “unkind things” about the management of the cable companies, he protested against “unnecessary inhumanity to these gripmen. Arctic exploration would be a tropical pastime compared to running one of those grip cars in this climate in winter.” Only “honest men, with very dependent families” could be induced to work at such a job.Gripman in wintertime KC Star Dec 26 1893 p 5

The citizens of Pittsburg, he said, where the climate is as cold as Kansas City’s, had made such an outcry against the condition of their motormen that the companies had enclosed the grip compartment with glass and had “as few accidents as we have in Kansas City…. What is done in Pittsburg can be done here if the companies are willing to undergo the expense.”  At the end of his sermon, the congregation clapped its approval.[18]

The Star reprinted portions of the sermon[19], and in a subsequent editorial appealed again on behalf of the gripman who “stands out in the cold, guiding his car from the Union depot up the incline over the terrace... while the bitter wind is gnawing at his ears and nose and hands and feet,” yet “only gets fifteen cents for his hour’s work,” working from 6 in the morning until 6 at night, with “only $1.80 to take home at night”:

This is the price paid by the cable car companies to a man for freezing, racking his straight limbs and inflaming his strong lungs. Of all commodities in the market human flesh is the cheapest. To misuse a high bred horse would cost a dozen times as much as it does to abuse a man. Yet the gripmen are glad enough to get even fifteen cents an hour….”  

Keeping Out the Wind. Kansas City Star, Dec 26, 1893, p. 5To keep warm, the gripmen improvised a wind barrier at the entrance to the grip stall and wore wool overcoats costing $11 or $12, the equivalent of six or seven days’ work. Some gripmen, reported the Star, wore an additional skirt-like garment to protect the overcoats from wear. [20] Unlike Dr. Mitchell, the Star confined itself to deploring the gripman’s situation without suggesting a specific remedy.

At the end of 1893, Kansas City’s gripmen were no better off than they had been at the beginning --  worse if the Star’s figures are accurate, since they were getting two cents less an hour at the end of the year than at the beginning,  perhaps reflecting the deepening effects of the economic depression.  

The days of frozen gripmen were numbered, however: by the end of the century most routes had been taken over by enclosed, electrically-powered and heated trams. The last cable car in Kansas City made its run in October, 1913,[21] fourteen years after the death of Robert Gilham, his death at forty-five probably hastened by a head injury caused by a falling grip.


[1] “Disaster for Cable Roads.” Kansas City Daily Journal, February 2, 1893, p. 2.

[2] “Down the Incline.” Kansas City Mail, February 14, 1893, p. 1.

[3] “A gripman’s serious injury.” Kansas City Star, December 22, 1893, p. 1.

[4] “What constitutes a cable car.” Kansas City Times, January 17, 1893, p. 3.

[5] “Protection for gripmen.” Kansas City Star, February 7, 1893, p. 1.

[6] “Cable Cars Stalled.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 16, 1893, p. 5.

[7] “The Cable Broke.” Kansas City Daily Journal, February 10, 1893, p. 3.

[8] “Stopped a whole cable line.” Kansas City Times, September 13, 1893, p. 2.

[9] “Sues for Heavy Damages,” Kansas City Times, February 8, 1893, p. 8.

[10] Kansas City Daily Journal, June 21, 1893, p. 8.

[11] “Struck an Iron Pillar.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 4, 1893, p. 4.

[12] “Causing Amusement.” Kansas City Times, February 9, 1893, p. 8.

[13] “Facts About Kansas City.” Kansas City Mail, May 27, 1893, p. 4

[14] Joe Thompson, Cable Car Lines in Kansas City. The Cable Car Guy.

[15] “Sharp competition.” Kansas City Daily Journal, February 1, 1893, p. 5.

[16] “Will cable roads go?” Kansas City Daily Journal, March 25, 1893, p. 4.

[17] “No Protection for Gripmen.” Kansas City Star, December 2, 1893, p. 2.

[18] “Open grip cars.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 11, 1893.

[19] “A Plea for the Gripmen.” Kansas City Star, December 11, 1893, p. 6.

[20] “The Gripman in Winter Time.” Kansas City Star, December 26, 1893, p. 5.

[21] “Decline of the Incline.” Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

 July 9, 2012