Anyone that traveled to Cape Town South Africa during the late 1800’s saw something unbelievable at the Uitenhage train station: in the control tower, operating the levers, was a talented signalman named Jack. Jack was a baboon, a signal baboon – and his story is kind of amazing.
Jack ended up at the railyard because of James Wide a.k.a. Jumper Wide. He got his nickname due to his habit to jump from one railway car to the other. Unfortunately, one day whilst jumping from truck-to-truck he slipped on the canvas and fell underneath a moving train. Wide lost both of his legs below the knees from the accident as well as nearly losing his life. Instead of giving up, Jack fashioned himself some pegged-legs out of wood and a trolley that made himself a little more mobile.
Jumper discovered Jack the baboon at the local marketplace one morning. He quickly recognized the baboon’s intelligence as he watched Jack lead an ox wagon. Jumper inquired about purchasing Jack. The reluctant owner ended up accepting money for his intelligent pet out of pity that he felt for Jumper.
The pair became good friends, living in a Jumper’s cottage just under a kilometer from the railroad station. Jack pushed Jumper to work on the trolley, accompanying Jumper to work each day.
Whenever a locomotive driver needed coal he gave four blasts on his whistle and then Jumper Wide would hold up a key for the driver to collect.
Jumper started to train Jack to change the signals and each time one of the drivers would whistle, Jack would change the signal without once making an error. Jack learned after a few days, that the drivers needed a key. Jumper simply gave the key to Jack, who knew exactly what to do next.
Jack learned to operate the railways signals under supervision. As Jumper would hold up one or two fingers, Jack pulled the correct lever each time. Eventually, as Jack progressed into learning other aspects of the work, he worked under no instruction.
Many people came to witness Jack working, as this was as impressive then as it would be today. Unfortunately, there’s always a few naysayers. A concerned member of the public notified the railroad authorities about the baboon working as a signalman. While management knew Jumper had an assistant, it was not apparent to them that Jack was actually a baboon.
A track manager and other staff came to the station and fired Jumper and Jack. Jumper pleaded with the system manager asking him to test Jack’s competency. An engineer was instructed to sound his train’s whistle, requiring Jack to change signals. Jack made every change correctly and was said to be cautiously looking in the direction of the engineer’s train to make sure the signal was correct.
The manager of the railroad system manager was so impressed with Jack passing all of the tests that he gave Jumper his job back. Jack was officially hired, becoming the only baboon in history to work for the railroad. Jack worked for the railway for 9-years without making any mistakes.
Jack passed away from tuberculosis and his skull is still on display in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.