Jack The Baboon Operated A Railway, Earned A Salary, And Never Made Mistakes

By Jacob Shelton

Jack belonged to a physically impaired railway worker

Anyone passing through Cape Town, South Africa on the Port Elizabeth Mainline Railroad in the late 1800s saw something curious along the railway: a baboon operating the switchboard. This wasn't some Planet of the Apes scenario; quite the opposite, in fact. Jack the Baboon was an intelligent creature who spent nine years working on the railroad and providing companionship for his owner, a paraplegic man named Jumper. His strange story is full of sweetness and a kind of ingenuity that will make you long for the days of trains crisscrossing the globe and prove that animals are much smarter than we give them credit for.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before Jack entered the picture, the Port Elizabeth Mainline Railroad was operated by signalman James Wide. Known to his friends as "Jumper," Wide was prone to jumping from rail to rail and sometimes car to car, but in 1877, he slipped and fell beneath a moving train. Jumper survived the accident but lost both of his legs. He fashioned a set of wooden peg legs and did his best to get around on a trolly, but his jumping days were over, and he was nowhere near the signalman he used to be. One day, however, Jumper saw a man with a baboon in town because the 1800s were a much weirder time. He talked the man into selling him the primate, who was named Jack, and quickly trained him to push a wheelchair. Pleasantly surprised by Jack's acumen, Jumper had a stroke of genius. "If he can do that," Jumper thought, "why couldn't he operate a signal box?"