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"A Slow Train Through Arkansaw"

Updated on August 24, 2015

Railroad Humor

"I was a boy when this train started." was just one of many humorous statements contained in a book titled “On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw”, written by Thomas W. Jackson and published in Chicago in 1903. Jackson (1867–1934), was a train brakeman for Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. He recorded all the stories and jokes about railroads he had heard during his years on the job.

The 96 page joke book eventually became the bestselling joke book in American history. By 1950, the pocket sized book had sold over seven million copies. However, in today’s politically correct society it may not have fared as well. The book had puns, tall tales and racial and gender stereotypes of the era. The book was subtitled “Funny Railroad Stories - Sayings of the Southern Darkies - All the Latest and Best Minstrel Jokes of the Day.

“Train butchers,” boys who sold items to train passengers, sold the book to railroad passengers for twenty-five cents a copy. With millions of passengers heading to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the small book quickly became a bestseller. The publications first sentence was “You are not the only pebble on the beach, for there is a Little Rock down in Arkansas.”

BENTON'S LITHOGRAPH
BENTON'S LITHOGRAPH

Poking Fun

Although Jackson’s book poked fun at states other than Arkansas, its title and popularity foisted a negative backwoods reputation on the state. Jackson wrote 13 similar joke books in all before he died in 1934. Many, along with Slow Train, were pocket-sized books carried by servicemen.

Also included in the book were gags, vaudeville routines and naturally, stories about slow trains. For example, one story told about a train that made so many stops one passenger decided to commit suicide: “He ran ahead for half a mile, laid down on the track, but he starved to death before the train got there.”

In fact, some Arkansas trains were slow. The Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad, was often referred to as the MNA. Many joked MNA actually stood for “May-Never-Arrive.”

During this time in America slow train humor was popular in American writing. Mark Twain supposedly told the first slow train joke, which appeared in The Gilded Age (1873). He wrote: “a mail train had never run over a cow because it had “never been able to overtake one.”

While train passengers were often amused by Jackson’s book, some Arkansans objected to its portrayal of their home state. They argued the slow train image inferred not only the trains, but its citizens were also slow and backwards.

Indeed, the jokes made the state and residents the object of ridicule. The book was common fare in most train depots throughout the Southwest and negatively impacted the positive image state leaders had attempted to create.

In 1909, another Arkansas writer, Bernie Babcock published a pamphlet some said was a form of protest, titled The Man Who Lied on Arkansas and What It Got Him.Targeted were Jacksons’ book, and other similar publications, such as George D. Beason’s I Blew in from Arkansaw published in1908 and Andrew Guy Chilton’sThrough Arkansas on the Hog published in 1908.

However, Jackson’s book continued to flourish. In 1925, country singers Vernon Dalhart and Al Bernard produced a song using the same title.And in 1941, Thomas Hart Benton created a lithograph titled “On a Slow Train Through Arkansas,” It depicted a railroad worker getting cartoonish looking cows off the tracks in front of a stopped train.

Time Magazine made mention of Jackson in their “Milestones, Jun. 18, 1934” segment. It read: “Died. Thomas William Jackson, 67, humorist; by his own hand (revolver); in Mineral Wells. Tex. Most famed of his works was On a Slow Train Through Arkansas.* one of 13 pulp booklets widely sold for 25¢ each by "news butchers" on Western and Midwestern local and "accommodation" trains 30 years ago.”

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