By L. K. H. Lane
Vol. XX - The Granite Monthly - March 1896 - No. 3Elbridge A. Towle
New Hampshire has produced its full quota of men and women who have won distinction and renown in the various walks and callings of life to which their inclinations and talents have directed them, and their achievements have entailed honor to their memory and likewise added luster to the proud history of the state. If the vocation of railroad conductor is regarded as less brilliant than that to be obtained in the world of letters and science it is none the less honorable, and as exemplified in the career of the subject of this brief sketch is such as to appeal to the pride of every citizen of the commonwealth that gave him birth.
Elbridge A. Towle, on whose life the curtain was drawn January 31, last, was one of the oldest in point of service, and one of the most widely and favorably known railroad conductors in the United States. He was born in Hampton in the little toll-house on the turnpike, where his father was toll-gatherer for sixteen years.
He first saw the light of day January 29, 1823, and was one of eight children of Caleb and Sarah Towle. When Elbridge was six years of age his father moved with his family to the adjoining town of Hampton Falls, and engaged at farming upon the place now owned and occupied by another of his sons, Emmons B. Towle. This place is near the common, where stands the Governor Weare monument, and in close proximity to the house in which the poet Whittier died.
His education was obtained in the public schools with a brief course at Hampton academy. He was then employed by the stage company for a short time substituting for his brother, the regular driver. On March 28, 1847, he entered service of the Eastern railroad as a brakeman on the train then run by Jeremiah Prescott, who afterwards became superintendent of the road.
Mr. Towle was early made a conductor and given a Portland train running out of East Boston. Later, when the Eastern road entered the city proper, he ran the first train from the Causeway street station. He also ran the first train to North Conway. With the exception of four years that he ran through to Augusta, his regular run was from Boston to Portland. He covered the distance of 108 miles six days every week, and two days of each week he 'doubled the road', making in round numbers 900 miles every week, 36,800 miles every year. In forty years he travelled 1,872,000 miles, or a distance that would have taken him around the world about seventy-five times.
On every trip over the road he passed within sight of the house in which he was born. It is a most remarkable fact that in his long service no accident every occurred to his train resulting in the loss of life of a single passenger. Wonderful indeed were the changes and improvements in railroads, their equipment and management, that he witnessed. When he began railroading the largest cars accommodated forty-eight passengers, now their capacity is seventy-five. Then the heaviest engines weighed thirteen tons, now they weight one hundred tons.
Mr. Towle served under the administration of fourteen presidents of the road, and at the time of his death he was in term of service the oldest employee of the great Boston & Maine system. He was acquainted with, and the warm personal friend of, many of the famous men of New England, including Daniel Webster, Governor Woodbury, Franklin Pierce, Hannibal Hamlin, William Pitt Fessenden, and James G. Blaine.
When Hannibal Hamlin made the trip to Washington to assume the vice-presidency of the United States, he made two noted speeches, one at Salem, the other at Newburyport, from the rear end of Conductor Towle's train. James G. Blaine on his trips between Washington and Augusta always made it a point to ride on Mr. Towle's train, and on his last journey to the capitol, accompanied by a few intimate friends, his private car was carefully guarded against intruders and orders given to admit no one, but the distinguished statesman sent for Mr. Towle, accorded him the heartiest of greetings, and manifested his interest in the continued welfare of the venerable conductor.
During the almost complete half century of his railroad life how varied must have been his experience! What scenes he must have witnessed while looking after the safety and comfort of the millions of travellers entrusted to his care. Parties journeying on pleasure bent, some weighed with the responsibilities of business, others on missions of sadness bowed with grief, -- all receiving sympathy from the great heart of his noble man, who with health as rugged, honor as impregnable, and a purpose of right as fixed as the granite hills of his native state, pursued his course admired and loved by countless numbers of his fellowmen.
He was faithful to the end. Up to and including the date of his death he took his train through on time, and as usual delivered his charge safely at the end of the route, retired to the privacy of his home in Charlestown, and sorrowing over the loss of his beloved companion whose death had occurred but a few days previous, from the presence of his children, his spirit was wafted to rejoin her's in that realm that know no sorrow.
The life of Elbridge A. Towle was an example to follow, the virtues that he possessed are worthy the attainment of those who seek to be perfect men and women, and the monument best fitting to perpetuate his memory was carved by himself, more enduring than any that posterity can rear.