Jack the Baboon Operated a Railway

Mr. James Jumper Wide worked for the Cape Town Port Authority Railway Service. He was a signalman who developed the habit of leaping from one railway car to another and sometimes swinging from railcar to railcar. One day in 1887, he misjudged his jump and fell below a moving train.

Even though he survived the accident, his legs were severed by the train’s enormous metal wheels. Shattered but not dismayed, Jumper made himself two legs of wooden pegs and took a Uitenhage railway station job.

Jumper Meets Jack the Baboon

One afternoon Jumper visited the buzzing market in Uitenhage; he observed something unusual. A baboon was driving an oxcart. Jumper was impressed by his intelligence and pleaded with the baboon owner to sell him the baboon.

The owner pitied Jumper, and eventually, Jumper purchased Jack the Baboon. The two lived in a cottage a half-mile from the railroad depot. Jumper was in charge of an essential key in his signal box. It unlocked the points that enabled locomotive drivers to reach the coal-sheds. Whenever a driver wanted it, he gave four blasts on his whistle, and Jumper would hold up the key.

Jumper also operated the railway signals. Delightfully surprised by Jack’s incredible awareness, Jumper has a stroke of genius. With Jack’s intelligence, Jumper thought, “Why can’t he operate a signal box?” Jumper decided to teach Jack the baboon everything about the signal box.

Jack picked up on this, and after a few days, he would complete the task on his own under Jumper’s supervision. Eventually, he could also operate the railway signals on his own while still under Jumper’s supervision.

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Jack the Signal-baboon

However, despite Jack’s intelligence, the idea of a baboon running the train was horrific to some passengers when they realized Jack’s role on the railroad. Some passengers decided to alert the railway’s authorities. The railway management office knew Jumper had hired an assistant, but the fact that it was a baboon somehow slipped by them.

The railroad manager was immediately dispatched to fire Jack and Jumper. Jumper begged the manager for their jobs back and even let the manager test Jack’s skills. The manager never thought that Jack the baboon was as skilled as Jumper claimed; he accepted the offer.

The manager instructed an engineer to sound a train’s whistle and watched, surprised as Jack made the correct signal change. Jack never looked away from the train and made sure his work was perfect. The railroad manager was impressed and let Jack the baboon and Jumper have their jobs back.

Gone, but Not Forgotten

Jack was officially employed as a signalman. His salary was $0.20 and half a bottle of beer each week. He worked for nine years as a signalman and never made a single mistake. After nine years on the job Jack the baboon contracted and succumbed to tuberculosis.

He is a beloved figure in South Africa. His skull is stored at the Albany Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa.

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