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J.G. "Top" West


“Old Top West”
That is What the Boys Called Him Many Years Ago—Early Railroading Out of Denison.

Sunday Gazetteer

J. G. West (“Top”), who is here after an absence of many years, was in early days one of the most noted sportsmen that ever lived in Denison. If there ever was a man imbued with the true sportsman spirit, that man was “Old Top,” as the boys used to call him. He would cancel any engagement to go on a hunting frolic. While Top was a famous nimrod, he was in the seventies [1870s] the best known and most popular of any engineer that ever pulled the throttle on the old Choctaw Division between Denison and Muskogee. Those were the golden days of railroading. The largest town between here and Muskogee did not number scarcely a dozen houses. Two passenger trains No. 1 and 2 did the traffic of the road. They were what would be called now "whistling stations". Top was so well acquainted with his division that a bet was made one day that he could make time into a station without consulting his watch. When the “brass collars” went on a tour of inspection, Top was the engineer selected to take them over the road, and you could always bet that they got there on time. He was not only a great favorite with the officials, but every railway employee from “greaser” up to the top of the ladder held Top in high esteem.

In the seventies [1870s] and a portion of the eighties [1880s], there was the most friendly, genial, and companionable lot of railway men that made Denison their home that could be found on any spot on the green earth. The railroad men of Denison today are clannish—a set by themselves—that spontaneous hail fellow well met spirit is not apparent. Top West was the leader. There was not a railway event or a social function that his name did not figure largely in the committees. Without Top, it was like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out.

It somehow always happened that when a railroad man was dead broke and wanted a helping hand, he was sure to hunt up Top and he was never turned away, but was sent on his way rejoicing.
In those days there were dollars where there are only cents at present. Any man could make a raise with which to get a square meal and bed to sleep in. This town was a paradise for the unfortunates. We recall the notorious Charley Everitt, who took a car load of tramps in his caboose at Red River City. They put up a hard luck story to Charley, and he said, “Pile in boys,” and carried them through to the end of his division.
Railroading in that period was the hardest kind of work. There were no air brakes then, and the brakemen had to remain on top of the train from the time they left Denison until they arrived at Muskogee and they had to hold the train at every hill and steep grade. The duties of a brakeman at the present time is a luxury compared with that period.
Top West was in several smash-ups, but seemed to have a charmed life. About the worst was at old South Canadian. It was a close call, but Providence was again on the side of Top.
In an emergency West never lost his nerve. He has been pushed to the wall, experienced hair-breath escapes, etc., but when the ordeal was over he was like an old game cock—would flap his wings and crow like thunder. If you wanted a fight and was disposed to push the matter and happened to run up against Top, he was always willing to accommodate you. He took a delight in taming the lion in his jungle, or more properly speaking, putting the quietus on the so-called bad man, the border ruffian, who figured largely in the pioneer life of Denison. The man who attempted “to rub it in” on Top West was ever after sorry for his rashness.
We might fill up the entire paper with interesting anecdotes of the past that Top West played in the early railway history, and every story would be interesting reading. He was a unique character in our pioneer history. He is in our city today—the same old lovable Top, as full of life and spirit as he was thirty-five years ago. He belongs to the old regime of railroad men, that somehow or other seem to be out of place in this modern era, but he was the kind of man who will hold his own until he pulls into the last station and his work is over. He is the father of the beautiful girl who was married last Saturday to Dr. Mayes. He is still at the throttle in the land of the Montazumas, and time has dealt so gently with him that he doesn’t look a day older than he did twenty years ago. Time has not soured him, and it never will. He belongs to that hopeful class of men who will look the world in the face and sing:

Let tomorrow take care of tomorrow,

Leave the things of the future to fate.

What’s the use to anticipate sorrow;

Life’s troubles never come too late.

J.G. West was the son of Ephraim West & Polly Vaught, both natives of Virginia; he was born October 22, 1852 in Pulaski, Kentucky.  By 1870 J.G. was 18 years old & living in Dublin Precinct, Graves Co., Kentucky and worked in a saw mill.
In 1880, John G. West, age 28, was residing in a boarding house operated by Nellie Cregeir in Denison; his occupation is listed a "locomotive engineer".  

The Sunday Gazetteer
Sunday, September 13, 1896

Top West, as he was known by his Denison friends, was at one time the person who faced a mob attempting to lynch a Negro man and saved the man's life.  Following is the recollection of the events by Dan Webster.

The Sunday Gazetteer
Sunday, October 27, 1907

In the early 1900, Top was tried and convicted of killing a Mexican citizen in January 1900 and was placed in prison for a sentence of 7 years.  The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers lobbies on his behalf, and the Secretary of State John Hay interceded at one point.
His wife, Kate Kirk West, was residing in Mexico in 1902 in order to be close to her husband, to intercede for his release, and at the expense of her health, was teaching a school in the city where her husband was imprisoned.  Mr. Ed Perry had been in Mexico and was personally aware of the Wests' troubles; he planned to return to Mexico and make it his mission to obtain the release of Top from prison.

The Sunday Gazetteer
Sunday, January 5, 1902

Top West was released in the spring of 1903 on probation but he chose to remain in Mexico and work there for a while.  He made a special trip to Denison in the fall of 1907 in order to attend the wedding of his daughter, Louise, to Dr. Joseph Mayes.  John G. West & wife, Kate, were living in Ward 3 of Denison, Grayson Co., Texas in 1910 with Mary & George Brown and Anna & W.E. Robertson.  Top died in the fall of 1915 and his obituary was published on October 19, 1915.

Kentucky Births & Christenings, 1839 - 1860
1880, 1900  Grayson County  Texas census




Elaine Nall Bay

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