Today is National Pet Day. As I’ve spent years now with the story of Railroad Jack and Owney, I’ve traced so many contextual tangents (they were workers, celebrities, metaphors, etc.) of their history that sometimes I can lose sight of one of the most important things: they were pets.
I have a lot to say about their status as pets in the larger book project. I’m particularly interested in how both dogs served as a “safe” outlet for the railroad men to express emotions and care. But, I’ll save that musing for another time. For now, here are just a couple of my favorite anecdotes that show Jack in his “pet” capacity and highlight the rail men’s love for him.
Apparently train-riding wasn’t Jack’s only trick. As reported by an Albany columnist, for praise and treats, Jack could perform “a multitude of tricks for the benefit of his admiring friends. To describe the numerous tricks of this intelligent dog would require more space than the Tourist has at his disposal. Suffice to say they are very numerous, and after seeing them one is inclined to agree with the Tourist in believing that Jack can do everything but talk.”
Photographs and paintings of Jack were a hot commodity for his railroad friends. In one case, a group of men pooled their money to commission a portrait of Jack. Once the illustration was complete, however, they realized they had failed to figure out who would keep custody of the artwork. “After a few days’ controversy it was decided that a drawing for the picture should be held among the employes [sic] of the road.” The lucky winner took it home.
The most poignant reminder of Jack’s pet status is in the reaction to his death. One reporter wrote, “When “Jack” passed away from this vale of tears and railroad cares his last moments were made as comfortable as possible. Baggagemaster McCarthy’s face wore a funeral expression, and the baggage-smashers smashed in a subdued, spiritless manner. As the end drew nigh, “Jack” raised his shaggy head, just to see if all the “boys” were around, and then stretched himself and died.”
I joke a lot about my “old dead dogs” and I feel a lot of the emotional attachment to them that their humans in their lifetimes must have felt. They aren’t my pets, but I do love them in a different way. Being a historian is weird in that you frequently find yourself caring deeply for someone that you’ll never meet, someone long dead before you were even born. I think that’s why we feel so compelled to tell their stories and do them justice, like I do with Jack.