The Humble Spike Maul

The "T" rail, the offset head cut spike, and the wood tie go back a long way. As does the spike maul.

The “T” rail, the offset-head cut spike, and the wood tie go back a long way. As does the spike maul.

As a day to celebrate, Saint Patrick’s Day is filled with images that are simultaneously hackneyed and cherished. The leprechaun, the green top hat, the harp–and then there’s the shamrock.  Here on the west side of the Atlantic, most of us are more familiar with this little leaf through images than we are seeing or touching the real plant.

It wasn’t until the recent turn of the century (that to me seems very recent) that we had a potted shamrock in our house. For years it never flowered. Now the little white flowers last nearly year round.  It has suffered through sporadic watering and being set out in the cold and being starved for sun. Always, with a little attention, it has come back, usually more green and luxuriant than ever. As a symbol of the resurgence of the Irish people from centuries of foreign domination, it holds meaning beyond its humble beauty.

I felt compelled to use it when starting a self-publishing entity a number of years back, as a focus for writing and hopefully selling a historical novel series centering around a fictitious Irish-American family. Two of the books have since been completed, under the umbrella of Shamrock and Spike Maul Publishing Company, and are now ready for revision. And SSMPC was given a hiatus and recently revived as Shamrock and Spike Maul Books. But that’s another story.

The shamrock, of course, was a natural as a symbol for this fledgling effort at spare-room publishing. And considering how railroad building and the Irish-American experience were so intertwined in the second half of the 19th Century, the spike maul also popped into my brain as a ‘no-brainer’–to use an over-used term. A potato would likewise have had fitting symbolism. But an image of the lowly plant might not have made a powerful logo. And–Potato Publishing Company? Maybe for a subsequent effort.

So Shamrock & Spike Maul it became. Less familiar in the common imagination than the shamrock is the spike maul. You won’t find it in your local hardware store, either the disappearing Main Street variety, with its dusty hardwood floors and a cat lounging on the counter next to the cash register. Nor the soulless big-box version lurking out in the land of sprawling parking lots that not too long ago were farm fields. Sledge hammers are still available in the shrinking hand-tool sections of either variety of store, but they are not to be confused with the spike maul. Railroad trackmen–long known as ‘gandy-dancers’–use sledge hammers. But never to drive spikes. The spike maul is a one-purpose tool and found only in railroad section houses, available only from specialized suppliers.

In my years as a gandy-dancer I’ve hand-driven a fair number of spikes. I’ve also changed out many handles, the most vulnerable part of the tool. In the 21st century, we were still driving spikes by hand. Not all the time, of course. There are both handheld machines for this purpose, using compressed air or hydraulics. And for real production, there are self-propelled track-mounted machines. But track maintenance still involves (though increasingly less so) a lot of spot work, where the machines aren’t always available. So, most of the tools that a 19th century ‘gandy’ would have recognized are still to be found in railroad section houses and the beds of maintenance-of-way trucks. (By the 1970s, the ‘hi-rail’ truck, capable of operating on road or rail, was replacing the ‘speeder’ car–which in turn had replaced the arm-powered hand-car of days of yore.)

There is a natural rhythm in using a spike maul–as with any classical hand tool. Sure it’s hard work, but the user learns to pace himself. And to put the least effort into the swing to get the most out of it. As in athletics, grace is born of such motions. The mechanized tools can do far more work in a given time, but also can be more punishing to the human frame. The machine sets the pace and can induce straining jerks and twists, not to mention vibration and noise. And leaky hoses and exhaust smells. And they discourage conversation among their users.

The beginner at spiking will–besides missing the spike head–break handles, ding the rail, and cause a set spike to go flying. By contrast, two experienced workers doing tandem spiking–taking turns at driving a single spiking–are a joy to watch. Also exhilarating to do, it requires mutual trust.

 The effort in driving spikes can vary greatly. New oak ties, freshly treated with slippery rank-smelling creosote, are the most grueling to spike up. Older fir ties by comparison are a breeze.

Shamrocks should likely be around long after any remaining spike mauls have been relegated to the museum. But I’m guessing there will still be people who are now young who, years from now, will be working in relative obscurity to keep the trains on the track–where they belong. They may or may not at times be using spike mauls. But during or after work, they may be reminiscing about the big trends and fads of their youth. Such as I-pads and texting and people traipsing around with their noses pointed toward silly little screens. And the obsession with all things ‘digital’. And during the time period when the term ‘technology’ became distorted to mean only the latest in consumer electronic gadgets.

To anyone who reads this–Happy Saint Paddy’s Day, 2021 (And please, never spell it Saint Patty)!

About jpkenna

Born in industrial northeast New Jersey, BA in history U. of Maine 1967, have since lived in Alaska and Washington State. Variety of jobs, including railroad and maritime industries. Currently writing 6-part historical novel series, focusing on Irish-American theme, working class point of view. Railroad construction, rise of labor movement, socialism, I.W.W., growing up in Catholic Church all featured. Books are available from Amazon and Village Books, Fairhaven (Bellingham, WA, USA)
This entry was posted in history, Ireland, labor, nostalgia, railroad construction, railroading, social criticism, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Humble Spike Maul

  1. Pingback: My Summer of Steel – Belt Magazine

  2. jpkenna says:

    Great article about your summer in the steel works! Also loved the photo of the beat-up old steamer, serving as a ‘yard goat.’ She was obviously on borrowed time by 1965, and I’m guessing was long gone by 1972.
    By the way, your description of your track foreman reminded me of a foreman I had working for BNSF Railway on the Bellingham (Wash.) section. Only with Big Jim Youngquist, yelling and pointing out mistakes in a less-than-gentle manner was not a ruse. Nor was it limited to young new hires. The men on the Bellingham section gang ranged in ages from late 20s to early 60s. Whatever the age and the amount of time on the railroad, nobody liked working for him, though there were a few who did enjoy after-hours beer swilling in his company. One advantage of bar-hopping with Big Jim was you could enter the worst dive bars at any hour of night and always feel safe as part of his entourage.
    One late afternoon we were clearing a tree that had fallen along the tracks south of Bellingham. A large portion of the tree Big Jim was working on with a chain saw fell on top of him. There he lay, a silent giant crumpled on the ballast. My first thought was that if he was dead or severely injured, there was no way two of us could get him out of there. But within moments, he uttered a groan, then slowly raised himself off the ground amid the downed portions of the tree. Fortunately, he could still walk. It was nearly a half-mile trudge along the track back to where the section truck was parked. He turned down my offers to call an ambulance or drive him to the emergency room. So as darkness fell over Chuckanut Bay, I drove him back to his home in Mt. Vernon, where it appeared he was just in time for dinner.
    He was back at work the next day, the rough edges of his gruffness smooth over just a little.

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