During the 1700s and 1800s farmers would sometimes take in orphaned chacma baboons when they shot their parents for raiding their orchards, slaughtering and eating their baby goats and polluting their water tanks. The baby baboons would sometimes be trained to be oxcart drivers and even goatherds. But never had anyone employed one to work on the railroad. James Wide, who worked as a guard for the Cape Town-Port Elizabeth Railway Service, was the first and probably only person. Given the nickname “Jumper” for his skill at jumping between moving railcars, James’ luck ran out one day in 1877 when he fell. One of the two railcars crushed both legs which had to be amputated. Determined not to lose his job, Jumper fashioned pegs for his legs and a small hand trolley so that he could improve his range of movement. The railway company allowed him to continue working for it, giving him a new position as signalman at the train station at Uitenhage. Even this work was difficult for someone who could not move very quickly, and James Wide had to have rapid reactions. He managed for a while by himself but coworkers complained of his slowness.
One day while making his way through Uitenhage Jumper saw an ox wagon being driven by, of all things, a chacma baboon. He persuaded the owner to sell “Jack” to him. The owner was reluctant but finally gave in, perhaps realizing Wide needed him more, and told Jumper that in order to keep Jack motivated to work, he had to have a hearty serving of “good Cape brandy” each night. Jack was a strong young baboon and could lift the trolley on and off the tracks. It did not take long to learn how to push Jumper Wide’s trolley to the signal house each morning. He also learned to differentiate between the switches based on the blasts on the horns of the approaching locomotives. Each locomotive had a different code or signal for the number of blasts on their horns to indicate the tracks to which they needed to be switched. Up to three blasts were employed, and Wide worked out a system of holding up his finger to indicate if Jack had the right switch lever in his paws. Four blasts on a locomotive horn meant the locomotive needed coal. Jack would then go to the coal shed and retrieve the key for the engineer. The baboon would even look both ways before pulling on the levers to be sure no oncoming train would cause a collision. He seemed to like this work better than driving an ox wagon and one of his forms of recreation was to push the trolley up a grade, hop in and ride it back down.
One fateful day a lady riding the train to Port Elizabeth saw an animal working the train switch levers and was not amused. People and property were in the hands (or paws) of a baboon? She reported this unorthodox employee to railway officials. Both Jumper and Jack were dismissed. The human half of the signalman team pleaded his case before the inspectors and asked that they come to do an official inspection. The inspectors were satisfied that Jack was doing an excellent job and he was given an official employment number and regular rations. A few more farmers decided to use baboons to work on their farms tending goats after they read of the famous Jack. Both males and females were put to work. Farmers no longer employ baboons. After nine years with the Railway Company, Jack died of tuberculosis in 1890. His skull is in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. You will find the yellow painted trolley that Jack rode down the grade on display at the Old Railway Museum in Uitenhage.