How Whiting Got Its Name

By John Hmurovic

Excerpts from One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955 (available for purchase through the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society)

Here’s what we know for certain: The city of Whiting, Indiana is named after Herbert Lloyd “Pop” Whiting, a railroad conductor. Here is what we don’t know: Why?

Most records, and even his tombstone, say Whiting was born in 1821. But an entry in the birth records of Brimfield, Massachusetts shows August 19, 1817, as his date of birth. He was the second child of Ezekiel Whiting and Azubah Moulton. Herbert’s older brother was Homer.  His younger siblings were Hudson, Herschel, Helen, Hersey, Hermione, and when Ezekiel and Azubah apparently ran of names starting with an “H,” theycalled their youngest, Laura.

Brimfield is between the Massachusetts cities of Springfield and Worcester. In his early years, Whiting worked as a farmer and a laborer. After finishing his schooling, he looked for work in railroading, the growth industry of the time. Whiting worked as a conductor on the newly built New York and Boston Railway. As a conductor, he became acquainted with many of the regular passengers, including the Barton family. Rosella Towne Barton was a cousin of Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross. Herbert and Rosella married in 1850. In 1852, he took a position with the Michigan Southern as it began its service to Chicago.

One year into his career, in 1853, Whiting was on-board a Michigan Southern train that was involved in one of the worst railroad accidents up to that time. It happened at Grand Crossing, just eight miles west of the current location of Whiting, Indiana. (related article: “Pop” Whiting and One of the Worst Accidents in Early U.S. Railroad History

Photo Caption: Herbert Lloyd “Pop” Whiting

For the next fifteen years, Herbert Whiting stayed out of the public record. He continued as a conductor on the Michigan Southern. He remained on, even as the railroad went through ownership and name changes. It became known as the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. His job pretty much stayed the same. As a conductor, he was the familiar face seen by travelers on the trains coming in and out of Chicago.

Sometime in or before 1868, the Michigan Southern built a siding along its track in northwest Indiana. A siding is a pull-off, a place where trains can get off the main road. There are different reasons for sidings. They could, for example, be a place where trains load or unload freight or passengers, or a place where a slower train can get out of the way of a faster train coming up from behind. The siding built by the Michigan Southern in 1868 was about fifteen miles from the heart of Chicago. They named it Whiting’s Siding. Why did the railroad choose to name the siding after one of its conductors? In his job as a conductor, Whiting often passed through the area, but he never lived there and never owned property there. 

In 1894, Whiting was seventy-five (based on his 1821 birthdate) and still working for the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. A story appeared in the newspapers. Whiting got its name, an article in the Whiting Democrat said, after a “gray-haired conductor ran his train off the track…and thereafter the spot was known as ‘Pap Whiting’s Siding.’” The newspaper called him “an old grizzled conductor known to the boys as ‘Pap’ Whiting." It said “he was known to every crew,” on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, “and was quite a character.” 

The 1894 article said Whiting ran his train off the track twenty-five years earlier. But there is no known contemporary account of that happening in 1869. Yet, the story earns some credibility just by the fact that it hasbeen so often repeated. The Whiting Sun repeated it in 1898. Whiting was the conductor of a train that wrecked here, it said, and people referred to the site as Whiting’s from that time on. 

In 1900, the legend of heroic train engineer Casey Jones first captured America’s attention. In that same year, the Chicago Tribune told the story of "Pap" Whiting, with much embellishment. He was, the newspaper said, “one of the humblest men that ever pulled a throttle or ditched a train.” Whiting was a conductor on passenger trains for most of his working life. In this version, he became an engineer on a freight train.

“Old Pap Whiting,” the Tribune said, was “fearless…if not reckless." It was not seldom that he "took largechances in order to make time.” One day, the story went, he was hauling freight. He was “pounding along down the line with a heavy train, trying to make a certain siding to get out of the way” of a fast-moving passenger train that was coming up from behind. “His haste overcame his discretion and on a nasty bit of track he ditched his entire train, doing it all so neatly that he left the passenger as clear a track as if he had pulled in on the desired siding.” From then on, the area where he ditched the train was known as “Pap Whiting’s Siding.” 

The story of “the humblest man who ever pulled a throttle” is the most colorful explanation of how Whiting got its name. But other accounts also appeared. In 1907, early Whiting resident C.D. Davidson identified Whiting as a conductor on the Lake Shore Railroad, and this was "the place where the freight trains would sidetrack to let Whiting pass.” Another explanation, also in 1907, said that after congestion had led to a wreck on the tracks, Herbert L. Whiting suggested to his employers that they should put in a siding. The railroad liked his idea and called it “Whiting Siding as a compliment to the man who had made the suggestion.” 

Another explanation seems to refer to the 1853 wreck at Grand Crossing, eight miles away, when it said the areatook the name of a conductor “who tried to conduct his train across the tracks of another railroad occupied by a train, the result being a disastrous wreck.”  And, yet another, seems to agree: “The wrecking of a train or freight, which crashed into another line’s string of cars, was responsible for the building of a siding to avoid similar mishaps. The siding was called Whiting’s Siding, Whiting’s Turnout, or simply Whiting’s.”

The Whiting Democrat’s story estimated that Whiting “ditched his freight train” in 1869. But the name Whiting existed at least one year earlier. “Whiting’s” was listed in the 1868 edition of the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Rail Road Business Gazetteer. Whiting’s was described as a side track, used only for the meeting of trains. The publication also gave another version of how Whiting got its name, saying it “takes its name from one of the oldest conductors on the road.” By at least 1868, the name was in common usage. That year, a newspaper reported a dead body “found on the lake shore near Whiting station," washed up from the lake.

No one may ever know, with 100-percent certainty, why “Pop” Whiting (as he became known to future generations) had a city named after him. Maybe he was a “fearless, if not reckless” railroad man. Maybe he was a conductor who had an idea for a siding which his employer liked. Maybe he was a long-time conductor who always received the right-of-way from other conductors. But one thing known for certain is that the naming of a city after a man like him was unusual. The neighboring city of Gary, Indiana got its name from a powerful steel company executive. Nearby Hammond was named after the owner of the first industry to make that city its home. Whiting, by contrast, bears the name of a working man. He was not rich. He was not famous. He may not even have been “fearless.” He was just a guy who showed up every day, for over forty years, did his job, and earned the respect of those who knew him. He was, in many ways, like the thousands of other men and women who later made their home in the city that bears his name.

Herbert L. Whiting died on June 24, 1897, in the garden of his Chicago home at 2417 South Park Avenue, which later became Martin Luther King Drive. The dates on his tombstone indicate he was seventy-six. Whiting had stopped working as a conductor ten years earlier but continued to work in the Lake Shore Railroad's office until his death. He spent forty-five years with the same company. “He was a very general favorite among his fellow employees and acquaintances,” said an article in a magazine published by the Order of Railway Conductors after his death. Whiting's burial place is in Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. He rests in peace about a mile from the site of the 1853 wreck at Grand Crossing.

Excerpts from One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955
Copyright © 2017 John Hmurovic