That Time a Baboon Worked for the Railroad

Have you traveled on a train? Did you enjoy the experience?

7 min readSep 10, 2022
Signalman Jack and James | Signalman Jack and James

Some people prefer to travel by train or by rail because it’s less stressful than going to the airport. That’s something people can agree with. And back in the olden days, you might see what’s called a signalman. A signalman is a person who operates a signal box to control the movement of trains.

There are these parts or junctions of a railway that has variable paths, and according to the number of toots that the train conductor gives off, the signalman switches the tracks accordingly. It's a pretty rudimentary system and probably not operated exactly the same way anymore. I have a feeling it’s more automated these days. But back in the 1800s, this was a very manual and analog task. Some say it was a simple job. Some may have even said it was so simple, that even a monkey could do it.

We’re traveling to South Africa to explore the story of a unique signal operator named signal man Jack.

What made Jack most unique in his job in the 1800s in the Cape Town area around the Port Elizabeth railroad was that signalman Jack was not a man. Signalman Jack was a male baboon.

But let’s talk first about the human center of our story. We’re going back to Cape Town in the 1800s. A man by…




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