During the late 1800s, travellers to Cape Town in South Africa witnessed a very odd sight at the Uitenhage train station: the signalman, operating the levers in the control tower, was a baboon named Jack. That’s right, he was a signalbaboon – and the story is a good one.
Jack – who has his own Wikipedia page – was paid 20 cents a week, plus half a bottle of beer to help the railroad.
Jack was the eventual companion of signalman James ‘Jumper’ Wide, who worked for the Cape Town – Port Elizabeth Railway service.
Jumper had a habit of leaping from one railway car to the next, even on moving trains. One fateful day in 1877, he leaped once too often, falling underneath a moving train. Jumper survived, but the train severed both his legs at the knee.
Jumper was devastated but picked himself up with a post at the Uitenhage station, fashioning two wooden peg legs and constructing a trolley to help get around. Despite this, he was still unable to perform every duty required to route trains safely.
During a visit to a market in the town, Jumper spotted a baboon leading an ox wagon, and was impressed with his intelligence. The owner was reluctant to give up his well-trained pet, but took pity on Jumper, and accepted money for him. Jumper was now Jack’s owner.
The pair struck up a friendship, living in a cottage just under a kilometre from the railroad station. Jack learned to push Jumper to work on the trolley, including up and down hills.
Initially while at work, Jumper operated the signals as normal while Jack watched, but Jack was a fast learner. Four blasts from a train whistle meant that a key was needed by a train engineer to the railway’s coal sheds. Jumper would usually make his way out slowly to give the key on his crutches. Jack learned, after just a few days, that the key was needed by a driver. Jumper only had to give the key to Jack, who knew what to do next.
Jack soon learned to operate the railways signals while under supervision. Jumper trained Jack by holding up one or two fingers, and Jack would then pull the corresponding lever. Jack learned the wider nature of his job, and in the end needed no instructions.
“A baboon working the tracks?!”
While many people came to see Jack at work – a baboon operating train signals is entertainment in any day and age – not everyone was impressed.
A concerned member of the public notified the higher railroad authorities about the baboon working on signals. While Jumper working with an assistant was known to management, it was not apparent that Jack was actually a monkey.
A track manager and other staff visited the station, and Jumper and Jack were fired. Jumper pleaded for their jobs, offering that the system manager test Jack’s competency. The manager instructed an engineer to sound his train’s whistle, requiring Jack to make signal changes. Jack made all the changes without fail, and was said to be carefully looking in the direction of the engineer’s train to make sure of his work.
The railroad system manager was so impressed with Jack passing all of the tests that he gave Jumper his job back. Furthermore Jack was officially hired, becoming the only baboon in history to work for the railroad. The story goes that in nine years on the job, Jack never made a mistake.
Jack passed away from tuberculosis but his skull is still on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.
The story of Jack is best documented in Michael Williams’ book Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse. (Note: the referral link to Amazon gives proceeds to your choice of charity.)
Photos from Uitenhage SAR.