Jack The Baboon Operated A Railway, Earned A Salary, And Never Made Mistakes
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.
Jack belonged to a physically impaired railway worker
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?"
There was no monkey business on the railroad
Jumper and Jack the Baboon lived together in a cottage half a mile away from the railroad. Each morning, the man and his primate friend made their way up the hill to the depot, where Jack quickly learned to work the signals that told engineers which tracks to take. He was also in charge of the key to the coal sheds at the depot, so whenever an engineer needed to score some more fuel, they had to signal the baboon. For his hard work, Jack earned $0.20 per day and half a bottle of beer per week. For a baboon, he was living the high life.
Jack was so good that no one knew a baboon was operating a railway
Jack the Baboon wasn't just okay at his job; he may have been the best employee at the depot. Of course, the passengers aboard the trains that zipped along his railroad didn't know that, and when they saw that a baboon was in charge of their lives, they had an understandable tendency to freak out. After one passenger who saw Jack at work complained to the railroad, an investigation was launched, but Jumper didn't try to hide the fact that he had a baboon working for him. He was proud of Jack. Unfortunately, they were both fired immediately. It seems that not everyone appreciates hard work.
The public is proven wrong
There weren't a lot of prospects for a peg-legged railroad worker and his baboon companion in 1880. To make matters worse, the loss of their jobs also meant the loss of their cottage, leaving the odd couple on the brink of homelessness. Facing dreadful destitution, Jumper begged the system manager at the railroad to put Jack through a test to prove his competence so the pals could keep their jobs. Jack passed with flying colors. According to everyone involved, Jack was a model employee and a joy to work with.
Jack worked for nine years without incident
Whatever misgivings the close-minded people who doubted Jack may have had, they were proven wrong time and again. Over his nine-year career as a railroad worker, Jack the Baboon never had a single accident. Trains always passed through his depot on time, and when he worked as a night watchman, he kept intruders at bay. Unfortunately, after nearly a decade on the job, he fell victim to the 19th century and died of tuberculosis in 1890. His legacy lived on among his fellow rail workers, who could only aspire to his level of perfectionism even though they towered over the little primate, and Jack is a such a beloved treasure of South Africa that his skull remains on display at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa, reminding all who visit that they have no excuse to slack off on the job.
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