In the Line of Duty – A Remembrance of Timothy Quinlan

Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional history series looking back at occupational health issues in a historical context. Please let us know if you have a story to share.

A switchman riding a car in the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad yard. (Frank Delano/Library of Congress)

On the morning of February 27, 1904, railroad switchman Timothy Quinlan set out as a young man with an enviable job and a bright future. By days end, he would perform an extraordinary act of heroism that would save hundreds of lives at the cost of his own — all in the line of duty.

From his post at the railroad switch, Quinlan heard the whistle sound for the Lake Shore Limited calling ahead to clear the track. The train barreled full steam along the rails, hurrying passengers to their destinations. At the same time from the other end of the yard, another engine pulled toward Quinlan on a track running parallel to the one carrying the Limited. The switch for the Limited was open, however, and there was now a train of freight cars in its path.

Passengers were headed toward catastrophe. With only moments to make up his mind, Quinlan seized the switch and threw it, diverting the passenger train to the main line. The wheels safely latched onto new track, but the force of the lever threw him directly ahead of the oncoming train, ending his life.

Stories like Timothy Quinlan's help to put a human face on workplace fatalities. In 1912, more than 18,000 workers died from work-related injuries.1 This number has dropped significantly over the last hundred years. Still, in 2009 there were 4,551 U.S. fatal work injuries,2 the vast majority preventable.3 Ninety-three percent of the fatalities were men, and transportation-related accidents accounted for thirty-one percent of the total.4

Timothy Quinlan was the great uncle of COEH member and UC Berkeley alumna Patricia Quinlan, MPH, CIH. Quinlan, the new deputy director of COEH, also divides her time between research, practice and teaching in the Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing and the Occupational and Environmental Medicine programs at UCSF, and the Industrial Hygiene program at Berkeley.

A tribute to Timothy Quinlan's heroism by Knights of Columbus leader T. V. Powderly was published in the Journal of the Switchman's Union in February 1905 and in "The Life Work of Edward A. Moseley" by author James Morgan published in 1913.


1 CDC website:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Current Population Survey, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, and U.S. Census Bureau, 2011


Original article by T. V. Powderly from the February 1905 edition of the Journal of the Switchman's Union


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