From A to Z with Warren McGee
by J. A. Phillips, III
Originally published in The Mainstreeter, Winter, 1999, pp. 4-29.
Warren McGee was born to Mildred and Howard McGee on September 7, 1914. He joined the Northern Pacific as a brakeman at Livingston, Montana on July 11, 1936. Promoted to conductor while serving in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific, he came back to Livingston and the Northern Pacific shortly after the close of World War II.
It was a return to his life-long fascination with railroading. He married his life-long love, the former Miss Bernice Lavold of nearby Big Timber, Montana, on September 21, 1946 -- almost a year to the day from his discharge from the service. He retired from active service on October 31, 1975, having taken his last trip on the Freedom Train between Billings and Butte on October 15-16. He'd planned to go out the way he came in -- behind steam -- but the 4449 "developed toenail trouble at Omaha and they had to turn the tires at Council Bluffs." In the place of the big Northern ran the sign of the times: two shiny new Burlington Northern SD40-2s. Today, despite his 23-year separation from the industry, he is still riding the rails -- the keen interest continues unabated.
This interview was conducted at Warren and Bernice's home on October 18-19, 1996. To be a guest in their home is a little like staying at your own home, only better. Bernice was constantly answering calls from friends, running errands, filling the house with the aromas of home cooking, or laughing at the birds outside her kitchen window. Warren, on the other hand, had just finished overseeing the installation of a monstrous new scanner antenna, which some said stretched all the way to Reserve Street in Missoula so he could get better reception of Montana Rail Link's radio traffic. The basement below holds artifacts, books, memos, and thousands of photographs, all of which are being donated to the Montana Historical Society.
McGee is a curious mix of archivist, historian, raconteur, railroad man, and (in or out of his home state) an old-fashioned booster. Even if snow begins falling the day after your arrival and Montana shows every sign of entering a profound deep freeze, he already has you convinced that you've fallen into a little corner of heaven. It should not go un-mentioned that McGee is also a photographer -- a railroad photographer. Despite serious vision problems at the time, he nonetheless raced up several flights of stairs and out over a spindly catwalk at the Livingston Rebuild Center, camera at the ready. Wounded on the shop floor was his prey -- a brand new Union Pacific MAC down with teething problems. After getting me to set his camera to the appropriate stops he braced himself against the catwalk railing and took the shot. The fierce determination continues unabated as well.
One of the oldest I men I ever knew went to work here in 1899 -- he was just as gung-ho about railroading the day he quit as the day he came. Jack Wolverton. Boy you should have seen him run a passenger train -- he was something else.
He would take coal, in Whitehall, and never stop. Who ever heard of anybody of taking coal at a coal dock without stopping? Everybody else had to stop and folderol -- taking coal, that was a major operation, but not with that guy. He had that coal dock man trained. He put a great big piece of pipe on his actuating lever to open the chute, and with that leverage, he could operate it just like you and I would a pencil . . . . Well, it wasn't quite that easy. He'd slow down and that coal dock man would open that chute wide open. He'd come all the way from Bearmouth without coal -- he was out of coal. He'd slide under that coal dock and he had that train right down to a crawl, but he was going, he never stopped . . . he went down to the depot, that's where the water plug was, and he'd have to stop to take water. We never had the privilege of doing what the New York Central did with track pans . . . that sounded like a great idea.
Now the tail end of a 14-car train is about two car lengths east of the Fifth Street crossing [in Whitehall]. Sixteen cars and you were damn near on the crossing, 17 and you had Fifth Street crossing blocked. He would come in at 35 miles an hour and stop that train without the brakes set at the depot, and that rear end would be just about two cars from the crossing. It was wonderful to work with him. John C. Wolverton, hired out as fireman in 1899, promoted August 8, 1903, retired July 1950.
"Up and down boy, up and down!" That's what he'd tell me when we'd be late on No. 2 in steam engine days back in the 'forties. "Up and down now kid, and we'll do the best we can." But he'd make up, I forget how much time he'd make up from Butte to Livingston. Nobody could have beat him, that's for damn sure.
Logan was a place where you had a chance to gain some time, because you took water at Logan and you also met and connected with the Butte Stub. You had baggage, you had mail, and you had passengers to transfer. There was a beanery there and a lot of people would want to go into the beanery -- get a cup of coffee or some damned thing while you were doing your chores. It was up to the brakeman to get these people back on the train so that when these chores were done you were ready to go. You had to be on the alert. The conductor had to register and get train orders, if there were any, and things like that. There was always an exchange of information with the operator because it was a key point and so if you could eliminate any additional delay.
At Logan he'd stop and he had it just about figured out there. He'd watch that baggage cart when he went by them with his headlight -- how many were there -- and as soon as he'd spot that engine at the water plug the fireman dropped off and had that spout in that hole -- almost when he stopped. He didn't fill it up because they were going to take the engine off at Livingston -- he'd get enough water to go to Livingston. Finally Wolverton would see activity melting back there around the step box and around the baggage car and he'd start the stoker on that engine -- when that conductor gave him a highball that fireman was still taking water. The fireman shut the water off, slammed the gate shut on that tender, swung that spout around and got down and ran up to get into the gangway -- that train was already moving. His stoker was already running -- Wolverton had already prepared everything. When he left Logan damn it he was due in Bozeman! I wished I'd have had a tape recorder. The operation that the man done was something to behold. That fireman had to run to get on the damn train!
By 1950 he'd been number one a long time . . . . to me, he was the acme of my whole life. I wanted to work the way he did. He was the guy to get on with. As a young kid you know, crazy, gung-ho about trains, loved to see somebody go fast, all that stuff. That's all I ever wanted to do -- go railroading. I believe in it.
Billings and Laurel
Billings has been a beehive of activity. It's a natural crossroads. The line at Billings runs from Shelby to Great Falls to Casper to Denver to Amarillo -- all the way! It's a natural north and south traveling route . . . . That's its main advantage. The railroads, believe it or not, came into Billings from five directions. It had sugar beets, agricultural traffic and most of the machinery that accompanies those. It's a distribution point, right today. Northern Pacific made it a very important point -- all of the LCL traffic on their westbounds would come to Billings and would be transloaded at the freight house in Billings. There would be 18, 20, 24 cars a day on our time freights that transloaded at Billings and put into time freight 603 in station order all the way to Auburn.
Laurel is the yard facilities for Billings . . . .about 1910 Northern Pacific wanted to extend the yard in Billings to accommodate through train traffic -- like they do at Laurel today -- but Billings wanted too much money for the property. They moved the terminal 12 miles west . . . and built the yard facilities at Laurel that used to be in Billings. It has expanded into much greater need and use than that, but it is the crossroads for the railroads that come in from Casper, Fargo, Great Falls, Lincoln, and Seattle.
In the 1960s the Burlington complained that Laurel was complacent -- that the switchmen would just grab their guns and go hunting when there was work to be done. This traffic man said he'd never knew a place that was as indifferent to their responsibility as the men at Laurel. Well I knew a damn sight different! I was furious at him.
No Burlington train ever arrived at Laurel with a list of the contents that could be depended upon. Every one of their trains had to be verified by Laurel yard forces to find out where the Hell it was going -- where it had come from -- where they wanted it next. They had to go through all their records and they had a track full of 15 or 20 cars, every day, full of what they called "no bills." And they were Burlington cars! Because Burlington didn't properly take care of their responsibilities when they delivered a train into Laurel by advising Northern Pacific forces where the Hell all these cars were destined to. I put him in a can of wax I tell you! That son of a . . . that made me angry! A traffic man! Calling a bunch of people featherbedders when he doesn't even know what he's talking about! He doesn't even know why his trains and his cars are delayed at any one point! He should know that! Being in a supervisory position he should know how to expedite his traffic and take care of his customer's needs, instead of blaming people in such a fashion. Well that angered me -- I'm still mad about it! He became a good buddy after that. He gave me a Vista-Dome paperweight, several things, butterin' me up. I wrote him up in pretty good fashion for his picking on the little switchmen down in Laurel.
Laurel had to correct the mistakes of everybody! When I would bring a train in from Livingston that originated in Auburn or wherever, a list went to the train desk clerk, and the diversion clerk got one. He went through every one of those cars! He had a pile of messages to see where it really did go. The shipper decided "Oh Hell I'll send that car to Abilene 'cause he's in a hurry and that guy in Kokomo don't want it until next week anyway." All those things had to be accomplished before the yardmaster could ever start switching and expediting those cars through that yard. He couldn't do a thing with it for the first 45 minutes after the train arrived. The carmen took it the first 45 minutes -- it took them 45 minutes to walk the length of that 90 or 100-car train and check and see if the mechanical abilities of the cars would allow them to go on. All these things had to be accomplished before the yardmaster ever got to making plans on how to build it and put the cars that he had to be put in that train -- in station order. This was one Hell of a responsibility!
Nothing could get through Laurel without having corrections to it. It was a priceless organization to the management of the railroad . . . . all the mistakes of every bonehead from every direction would be set right when that train left Laurel. That's something to shoot at, boy! If you can provide that kind of service in any category of work, you're indispensable. That's what Laurel was.
Everybody left there with a good feeling. They knew they had a train that had been inspected. They could run the Hell out of it. They knew that they had the cars in the train that the list said they had. There was a kid down there that stood and wrote every car down on that track as the switchmen put that train together. Every time he got ten or 15 cars he'd call up to the yard clerk, who was trying to calm that conductor -- me -- by saying "Set down! It's comin'. He'll get it done pretty soon." I was trying to get out of town and it wasn't even built.
The Boulder Branch was our branch but they abandoned that, I think, in 1931 or '35, I've forgotten which. It went to Elkhorn -- it was four percent grade. It was an all mining branch line. They had quite a chore with the state regulatory bodies to abandon that branch. I think they quit operations in '31 and they tore it up in '35.
The Butte Branch was completed in 1889 -- it was started in '87, and they had competition for a right of way through Jefferson Canyon with the Union Pacific which was building from Dillon through Twin Bridges and the Whitehall area on through Jefferson Canyon, Radersburg and over to East Helena. This was in the area that Northern Pacific thought they would be unchallenged in. It was in the Butte Miner in 1889 that they had a pitched battle for the right of way through Jefferson Canyon at the Sacree Ranch. It was located at the mouth of the South Boulder Creek, today we call it La Hood Park.
The Camp Creek Branch is the road from Manhattan, west of Bozeman, up to Anceny -- 15 miles. That served agricultural and livestock agencies . . . the Charles Anceny Ranch, which was later partially owned by Northern Pacific board of director members. The Anceny stock train, when they went up there in the fall -- every year they had one or two trains to load stock at Anceny -- that was the classiest and the most preferential stock train Northern Pacific ever had. When I was on this train we loaded stock at Anceny, then when we got down to Manhattan we would usually go to Belgrade . . . the branch line entered the main line about three blocks east of the eating houses at Manhattan, so we'd go to Belgrade to eat and also get water. We'd probably been working 14, 15 hours, too long anyway. But when we left Belgrade that train was due in St. Paul, and everybody got out of its way! It would be 15, 18, 24 cars, and it moved on a high speed schedule -- close connections every place, to get it as far as they could for feed and water and rest. Every 36 hours the cattle had to be fed and watered and rested.
Camp Creek also served a place called Amsterdam. Amsterdam named that because most of the farmers adjacent to the Camp Creek Branch were Dutchmen. Today all seed potatoes from the west come from the original stock in the Camp Creek Valley. The entire production of Camp Creek Branch potatoes are allocated to seed companies -- they don't sell them commercially anymore. We local folks know how to get 'em, but they're not on the open market. It was a very productive area. They had a farm implement dealer and a car salesman in this little community of Amsterdam. Every one of those ranches are just like the top of a table -- just as neat, clean. The potato skins were just as clean as the back of your hand. They cultivated that land to the point where it had very few impurities in that soil. Those potatoes are just about perfect. They're the best eatin' that a man can sink his teeth into.
The Park Branch was the line from Livingston to Gardiner, 54 miles, which was built before they completed the Northern Pacific, in August of 1883. They completed the Park Branch, I think, in July of 1883. It was built before they completed the main line of the Northern Pacific. Now the Northern Pacific was directed by their charter to build a line from a point on Lake Superior to a point on Puget Sound, and not any branch lines. Get this done! They were supposed to get this done by 1872! They never got it done 'till '83. They were building branch lines as they went along all the time but they would always hide it by calling the railroad something else. They called the railroad from Livingston to Gardiner "The Rocky Mountain Railroad of Montana." They were only able to build it to Cinnabar -- they were still five miles short of Gardiner, where they finally ended up. They got to Cinnabar, 49 miles out Livingston, in 1883, and they never got the right of way purchased in Gardiner until 1902.
That was the only place that I know of on the Northern Pacific that they did not employ a wye -- they had a loop. They went around a circle and headed back from whence they came. This loop was a very difficult place. New personnel that didn't remember their teachings would sometimes uncouple a train on this loop during switching for various reasons, and if they did, they couldn't couple it back up, because the curvature was probably around 12 or 13 degrees. They couldn't re-couple cars -- very difficult. Once you made that mistake you didn't forget it. You had to shove the damn train back onto straight track and that required as a rule maybe a move of fifteen hundred feet.
The Park Branch was one of the most scenic rail travel lines that I got to enjoy. I nicknamed the branch line to my fellow cohorts and anybody that would listen to me that it was Northern Pacific's "Bi-Weekly Game Survey." We had a local freight train that ran up there twice a week. All we did was count deer and elk and antelope and whatever else, all the fishing holes we traveled by. That river of course is a thing of beauty, unrivaled by anything that I know of, as far as a fishing stream. It was just plain good, pure-looking water.
The Park passenger train only operated in summertime, from about June 10 until September 10 or 15, depending on the fall of the year. We ran scheduled passenger trains up there from about 1890s until 1948. The last passenger train went up there in 1958 or something like that. It was heavily traveled -- anywhere from eight to 18 cars. It was nothing to have 16 cars on the train to Gardiner. Of course two or three of those cars were assigned. We had an assigned baggage car, an assigned day coach -- very few people traveled in the day coach of course, local passengers only -- and then we had two "rubberneck cars." Open observation cars. We didn't have a Vista-Dome, we hadn't thought of that yet. There were wooden chairs and they sat facing out. After 1928 we used oil burners on this train. You didn't even have to swallow the cinders after that! Up to that time you had people with cinders in their eyes -- a lot of people wore goggles. One of those rubberneck cars would be within four cars of the engine, and of course that's prime territory for the cinders to come back down. The other car would be on the tail end -- no cinders in that area. It was a candy job to all the operating people. You had to have a lot of seniority job to handle that job. I never did get enough -- they pulled it off before I got enough seniority to hold it either as a brakeman or as a conductor. But I used to ride it a lot to fish. I would ride it up towards Gardiner and they'd slow down and let me off someplace, then they'd come back eight or nine hours later and come pick me back up someplace downstream from there. Sometimes I'd fish Mile Post 19 to 26 -- seven miles down the river from where they let me off.
We set all kinds of fires going to Gardiner -- that's why they used the oil burners up there. We used to set fires at Corwin, and Corwin was a very bad place because the wind blows from the southwest there . . . . That wind would blow and that spark would get in that sheep grass. The section men followed us up the branch on a one percent grade climbing out of Corwin Hot Springs and we'd have to work a heavy throttle and if that fireman let that fire get a little thin we'd set a fire and then if that section man couldn't catch up with it why it'd go clear to the top of Cinnabar Mountain. Climbing hills ain't too easy -- it's steep -- it's a son of a bitch to get up there. The wind would take that fire in that sheep grass up that hill like zzzip!
The Rapelje Branch was named for John M. Rapelje. He was a conductor, my dad knew him, and he was well-liked. He was a square-peg in a square-hole for a change. He wasn't a corporate lawyer or a banker or something else, who didn't know nothin', like you've got on the railroads today. To get there you go up on the Great Northern six miles to a place called Hesper, towards Great Falls, then we diverted off of that line to Rapelje. I tell you, that was a grain loading place! I was a brakeman on that job lots of times. There was a grain elevator operator at a place called Molt up there, and a real professional too. I think when we got up there about 17 miles was Molt. We'd shove him in a string of 20 empty grain cars, he'd be standing at the door waiting for you. You'd spot him a slug of grain cars then continue on up to the next station, Wheat Basin, and give him some more cars. You get on up to Rapelje and you'd set out your grain cars, and a car of gasoline or something like that. Rapelje is 30 miles north of Columbus, which is Mile Post 40 from Billings.
We'd set out empties at Molt, Wheat Basin and Rapelje, and then you had to know where the Hell to go where to get something to eat. There was one bar in that town that would have a ham and cheese sandwich -- and that was the whole menu boy! And in a bar! I wasn't one to hang around bars. Of course a lot of the train crews had a glass of beer -- I never found any fault with a train crew having a glass of beer when it was a hot, sweaty day . . . this was a way of life as far as I'm concerned. I'm not critical of anybody that has a glass of beer that likes beer, but I don't. I'd have a glass of water and that damned water at Rapelje! You could drink that if you could drink it. I'd have a ham and cheese sandwich, and you were dryer than a popcorn fart after you'd had that -- there's nothing that's going to make you more thirsty than that! Then you have to drink that alkali water to wash it down! God they were dry! You didn't pick on them too much, because they were unique. In fact, if you were a beer drinker, they were just what you wanted. It wasn't what I wanted, but I got by. That bartender was an ex-cowpoke -- he was rougher than a cob, too, I'll tell you. He was used to handling a bunch of drunks that were hard to contain, and he was tough enough to do it. I'll be he could have throwed you through a window if he wanted to.
You'd get back on the train -- that was a mixed train too, by the way -- we'd have merchandise and LCL business in a passenger coach. We'd get back to Molt and that elevator operator would have about ten of those cars loaded! He'd have 'em billed! I don't know how he did all that. But I kind of liked it, it was a fun job because everybody up there was waiting for you and responsive to your efforts. You were just trying to help them as best you could. We used a T engine, the old 2425, going up there. Light rail -- 56 pound rail. You'd have about 30 cars going out of Laurel. I enjoyed serving the Rapelje Branch because it was always a responsive audience.
Red Bluff was the Pony and Norris Branch. A spur ran off of that and went to Pony, which is gold country. Pony sits at the foot of an extinct volcano called Hollow Top. It's a very high peak, I think it's around 12,000 feet. And they're mining gold there still today. The Pony Branch was abandoned about 1937.
The Norris Branch was built in '87, and went into stock loading, and later talc loading facilities. We did quite a bit of talc business out there, and some grain. I worked out there a lot, about every other week towards the end. I worked with the Railroad Public Service Commission supplying the lawyers with evidence of the need for this branch line. They tried to abandon it, but we kept it on until an eight-mile-an-hour bridge over Norwegian Creek was condemned. When that got condemned they got an embargo on the line and that's the way they abandoned it. They still go the first nine miles up to Harrison, but they don't continue the other 23 miles. Harrison has a grain elevator -- MRL is still serving that grain elevator today.
The Red water Branch is grain country. It's a beautiful place. You go up a long, flat plain, out of Glendive, all of a sudden you get to a crest, and you go through a cut and when you come out of the other side of that cut its some of the most God-awful terrain you've ever laid eyes on -- they call it the Red water. That's the headwaters of the Red water River which runs north into the Missouri. Ron Nixon and I rode a caboose up there with a local crew out of Glendive back in 1939 or so. I'd never seen such a change in terrain so quickly in all my life. It was just like going through a hole. The whole world changed right there in front of your eyes. Picturesque, but God-awful! Like you'd been cast adrift.
The Ruby Valley Branch is a line which was built from Whitehall up the Jefferson River, then it becomes the Beaverhead River, then it becomes the Ruby River at Alder. Alder is the scene of the 1863 gold strike in Alder Gulch and Virginia City's beginning back in 1863. We built that line to Twin Bridges in the 1880s, then we never got into Alder four or five years later. From Whitehall to Twin Bridges its 90 pound welded rail, but its only 56 pound rail to Alder. The FRA won't let them run trains on it without a very thorough inspection. This is picture land! Farming land that is something to see.
The Shields River Branch was built about 1909 to 1912, and was mostly agricultural. At one time it was projected to continue on north from Willsal, which is 23 miles from the main line at Mission. It was once projected and agitated for to build it on to Ringling and White Sulphur Springs, which later became Milwaukee-served points in 1908 and '09. In fact, Ringling Brothers built the White Sulphur Springs & Yellowstone Park railroad from Dorsey, about four miles from Ringling, on into White Sulphur Springs, which is a mining community.
Beautiful Butte and the Butte Mountain
Butte -- that was one of a kind -- no place else like Butte. A bunch of rough, tough, rank, good-hearted, callused and don't give a damn guys worked in Butte. Everybody. The whole town. If they didn't like your looks they might just take a swing at you just for the hell of it. If you knocked him down first he'd probably get up and throw his arm around you and stagger up the street with you. They're one of a kind in Butte. You mind your P's and Q's when you're in Butte -- that's good policy. Never had no trouble in Butte. Of course I didn't have too many bad habits of hanging around bars anyway -- that's where all these things start.
When the tunnel at Blossburg fell in, it caused all the trains to run through Butte. We had an assistant superintendent out here and Butte was his territory. He went over there to coordinate. He was one of those fellows "fools rush in where angel's fear to tread." He was always in a hassle with his men. He didn't get along with me at all -- I wouldn't tolerate it. I was a good enough rail, watched my rules and watched my behavior, so that I could cross him. He was always trying to reinterpret my working rules, but I wouldn't let him. Anyway, he got into so damn much trouble in Butte that they relieved him there. You stay in Livingston, don't get west of Logan. That's what we were told. But he never went to Butte again.
That's where Norman Lorentzsen got his start and attracted the attention of his superior officers. They hired Lorentzsen out of Dakota and he came out here as an assistant trainmaster in Butte. Well, one of the first thing he had to do when he got out there was that some switchman in was going to show him which end of the cob the corn was on and he had to fight them, and he knocked one of them down, flat. Well this is a violation of the rules -- he's dead wrong. But Butte is laid back and fair enough, when they get beat in a fair fight they'll admit to it, they may hold a grudge. But most of Butte will say "You had it comin! You son of a bitch you asked for it, now quit complaining! Now shape up or ship out, and don't go around whimperin!" That's the way they treat one another, and that's the way Lorentzsen treated them. Hell he got along with them fine after that. But -- Lorentzsen got their attention -- so to speak, and if he asked them to do something they did something.
Lorentzsen went to the yardmaster and spent many hours with the yardmaster there and worked out how to move them damn trains through there. It took every one of us to do our job just right and it took a hell of a lot of coordinated effort to get trains through Butte. Everybody had to work together, had to coordinate, had to do first-things-first, around Butte especially. For six months before they got that tunnel fixed. But everything had to work like clockwork, and it did. At Whitehall, you had one siding that held 90 cars, if you used tracks that you wouldn't normally use.
There were no sidings capable of holding the length of the trains we were operating via Helena -- 70-car sidings were the biggest things they had. Well of course the train crews knew a lot of tricks -- how to get 90 cars into some of those places and things like that. In Butte, because of limited access to the long tracks, and the yard, and where your engine was and where it wasn't, and where you wanted to get it, and how to get out and get on it, you'd have to think things out ahead of time. You'd have to do that before you'd let an opposing train come in there and block those long tracks. If they got too many trains in there and something didn't break the way they'd expected it and things went to Hell and all the plans you'd made fell through, we'd take one of those trains and shove it out on the branch line towards Alder. That'd give you another side track -- that son of a bitch is 45 miles long! Things like that.
We knew that. When you get to a tight spot anywhere, you just back off and let the Indians do the work. They'll figure it out. They'll iron it out. That's what Lorentzsen did. Everybody worked this way and he got a big reputation about getting the traffic through Butte. That's all it was. Which is to his credit.
Whitehall to Butte is a place where you'd better do your work right. Mountain grade is not a place to put an amateur, you have to do everything right, and we did everything right. It was a territory of 2.2 percent grade, both sides, and it was 37 miles from Whitehall to Butte. I don't think I ever got tired of going over it, it was so picturesque . . . . if we hadn't have been so dead tired. We'd be working all night and it'd break day out of Whitehall, we'd be fighting sleep going up that hill, it was a son of a buck! But it was a beautiful ride. The Butte Line was picturesque every foot of the way almost -- except maybe the first 19 miles of it from Logan to Sappington -- but after that it was just nothing but scenery. You had a lot of scenery to look at. You had the Jefferson River, the entrance to the Morrison Cave, Lewis and Clark Caverns, you can see them from the track and we used to show them to all the passengers. The Butte mountain is full of high trestles, three of them, and lots of overhanging rocks. And just so they didn't get too comfortable, I used to tell them to watch those rocks and see that they stood in place when we went by. I'd tell them we'd been having a little trouble with falling rocks. This gave them a little thrill. From the train of course your imagination makes you think they're leaning right over you. People like that kind of excitement.
Cabooses and Conductors
The ultimate tool of the conductor was a whole pocket full of pencils. And carbons! You made five copies of everything. Number 4 hard pencils was something management furnished, but we wanted the ball-point pen 25 years before we ever got it. In order to make five copies of any list of cars you had to have a pretty good hand. When the ball-point pen came around we were tickled to death -- you could write hard on them. I've got pens around here like Lydia Pinkham's got pills. We used to go down to the backshop, to the tinsmith, and have them cut a piece of tin you could slide under your last copy, so you had something to write on. You'd write through five pieces of paper and four carbons, and it had to be legible.
We had one conductor here at Livingston before I went to work, "Dirty Neck" Smith, he had a hat with no roof on it. They supplied him with a list of the cars in his train, and he handed it to the yard clerk, who had to decipher it and make an intelligent report of it, and he would give it to the switchmen to switch the trains. But the clerk couldn't decipher it and he asked him what it meant. He said "You son of a bitch I had to learn to write it, you'll have to learn to read it." That's what he got for an answer. All it was, was bunch of crooked lines like a snake crawling over a piece of paper. And he stormed out of the office.
Every conductor, as a rule, had a pet peeve about the way he wanted his caboose maintained. Clean, never turn it, never turned on a wye, where he writes is always facing north, never on the south. It's always on the north side so he's writing in that north light. Handling the stove, the firing on the stove was a duty of the brakeman, and getting the ashes out without making a mess. My particular pet peeve was clean windows. I did everything I could to prevent dirty windows. I put baffles outside my windows -- just an angled piece of tin nailed to the outside of the caboose which would divert the air blowing back in your face. My other pet peeve was men going to sleep -- that was a tough job.
I'd run men out of the cupola, as a rule, if they fell asleep too much. "Go on down and go to bed. You ain't no damn good to me up here." I want to look at this train on that curve back there, I need to see it. It'll be 11 miles before I get to see that side of the train again, or 17 miles. There were places over there. I want to watch the train -- I stopped lots of accidents because I was alert. All I did was see a flash of fire where it shouldn't have seen it. I didn't know what made it, or why, but I knew something on my train made it. I'd stop the train and go look for it. But staying awake is probably the most difficult part of our work. I've gone to sleep with my eyes wide open -- sound asleep.
You never got a caboose until you marked up on a job regularly, and that might take ten, 15 years -- quite a while. The first one I broke on was the 1320. My first regular caboose on the east end was the 1322. And it was in new shape -- I don't know how I got on it! I found out that during World War II it was on a freight train on the low line between Bozeman and Logan and the conductor and the brakeman were not there -- they were in a bad place where it couldn't be seen -- and a following train ran into it and set it afire. They rebuilt it new in Laurel car shops from the axles up. So I marked up on that caboose.
It was good and tight and after I'd been on it a couple of years I painted it white -- the type of paint the roundhouse uses to paint the tires on a steam locomotive is a very hard paint, and a hard paint is a slick paint, and a slick paint was what I wanted. It wouldn't absorb the water when I mopped the floor, and it would also sweep easy, and would also be one you would see a sliver in. You could walk barefoot on it. I'd get up in the middle of the night and would go walk around on it without getting my feet all dirty. I'd get this paint from the roundhouse, I knew the painter. It dried fast, too. It's good paint. You could blow a cinder the full length of it on the slick surface. I brought cane cups and put them on all the legs of the chairs. I think that's about the only thing I stole -- caboose chairs -- they're a fine chair. I didn't want to live like a pig. I was on that caboose 50 percent of my life, or in a caboose. You liked to keep it half-way clean, and we did. I made a rack out of gunny sack on both end platforms, and you'd wipe your feet before you came in the caboose. Almost everybody respected that, though they'd make some crack about it. But for the crack, they had to wipe their feet. My mother taught me to do it, and I know why, and I still do it.
I even painted one of them! I damn near got fired over that. I had no alternative, if they'd have wanted to, because there was a rule in the book that said I wouldn't alter anything on that caboose, or any piece of railroad equipment. My wood on this old 1322 was weathering real bad on the windowsills, and under the windowsills, where water has a tendency to hang around. So I guess I started painting the window frame, then the windowsill, and the first thing I know I slopped some paint here and some paint there and I thought "Well, I'll just paint the whole damn board." I didn't have a thing to do down in Laurel and I was laying there 15, 20 hours a trip, absolutely nothing. I'd taken pictures of every engine that went by that I needed, I read all kinds of stuff, but just for lack of something to do I painted the caboose to pretty it up a little bit and keep it in good shape. The railroad was very poor at maintaining their equipment. We had it in our contract that they would shop them periodically and keep them in good repair, but try to get them to do it. When you had one that they would shop that thing was a wreck I'll tell you. You'd give up the caboose and take another one -- try to get something that was in better shape. It was just as easy to take care of it as it was not. A nice, neat place to work, I kind of like that yet.
In the early years, radios were not very reliable. That's why I stayed on a wooden caboose . . . . the 1729. I got her in 1957. There were ten steel cabooses on the west end between Livingston and Helena in assigned work. I was number 11, with a wooden caboose. I kept that wooden caboose when they reduced the crews to ten on the west end. I was the older conductors, so I stayed on that wooden caboose, and they took a steel one off, because that wooden caboose had a better radio. On wooden caboose's radio I could hear forever. At Homestake I could talk to Butte. At Welch I could talk to Bozeman. I couldn't talk to Bozeman again until I got clear down to Willow Creek, 13 miles west of Logan, at Mile Post 13 instead of Mile Post 55, where I'd been talking. I knew all those things, you learned them, where you could communicate. I don't know how to explain it, but at some places they work, and at some places they don't . . . . I'm talking about an area three blocks long.
I got a new caboose -- 1131 -- in 1960. It was a cold, noisy thing. I had a wooden cabooses up till then, and that wooden caboose was cozy, like I liked it, and it had a better radio, and had less noise in it. The 1131 was made out of steel and all of the noise that a steel caboose accumulates, it just reverberates inside of that tin can. All it was, was a steel shell with a plywood lining inside of it. All that sound was amplified -- steel against steel rails -- and you couldn't hardly hear the radio, unless you had the hand set to your ear. So I took all the rods and put air hoses on them. I'd take old air hoses, and I'd slit them, and I'd put them on the guide rails of the brake rods, so that there wasn't any iron against iron anyplace on that caboose. That was the first thing I did to the 1131 when I got her. Then I had Car Foreman Les Simms elevated it -- jack it up -- and he filled that king pin socket with babbit. That quieted all of those things down and took all the road noise out of that caboose.
The new cabooses were 30 feet, and the desks were in diagonally opposite end corners of the caboose, and they were ice cold under that desk. They just had a piece of plywood nailed in place against three inches of steel framework and then the outer skin -- a quarter-inch piece of metal. That didn't inhibit cold air at all. Your stove was in the center of the caboose to heat the cupola, and the ends of the caboose were always ice cold. I later put Celotex under my desk in the caboose and Celotex'd the walls. I got a fan that worked off of the 12-volt radio circuit and I put it in to blow air from that stove under the desk to keep my feet warm. That worked pretty good. I only used it when we were running because it took a lot of current to run that fan on 12-volts. It was 110-volt fan, and I ran it off a 12-volt caboose circuit. I had stationary racks nailed to the wall to hold my necessary reports.
Management didn't realize they were getting a lot of goodies out of that. We maintained the cabooses, kept the yard crews out of them and the hoboes out of them, and kept the yardmaster from leaving them in places where they could be vandalized. After pooling, they were vandalized something terrible. Of course, the next time I saw that caboose after they pooled them they'd ripped all that stuff out of there.
You'd go into Laurel on a freight train, and you got off the caboose at the yard office, while the train went down into a yard track. It might be down there half a mile or more. Then you walked west, from where you got off, another third of a mile to the beanery and got something to eat. The caboose track was right near there. So you checked the caboose track when you came back and it wasn't on the caboose track. Well, you figured it was still down there on the train. If they didn't come and get it when the train pulled in, and the carman hung a blue flag on it, while then that car was a no-no for 45 minutes at least, before the switcher got a chance to touch it. That damn blue flag was a nemesis, but an absolute necessity -- all of us agreed with that. Anyway, after eating you'd go down and go to bed. If they didn't have you on the caboose track, they'd come and get you and wake you up when they took you and put you on the caboose track. It was always a wrassling match to get the caboose put away.
This was beneficial to management because it kept the cabooses in good repair, it kept them well supplied, because they didn't get pilfered on the caboose track. After they pooled the cabooses in the '60s they got pilfered when they were down in the yards. They couldn't find wrenches, they couldn't find flags, they couldn't find markers, the couldn't find any of the tools that belonged on the caboose, because the yardmaster didn't have to put the caboose away when the train arrived. He'd slough it into some other track until he had time to put it on a caboose track -- if they even had one! The chief of personnel told me once that the first year they pooled the cabooses it cost them over $5 million in tools -- re-supplying cabooses with the necessary working tools that were maintained by conductors prior to their taking over that responsibility.
Section men were remarkable people, some of them. They were human derelicts, many of them, I would say, and they were bright boys, some of them -- damned smart. Schoolteachers, professors, lawyers, business people, who had a battle with John Barleycorn, that they never quite won. But they worked, and they were expected to work, like dogs, and they did. If you had a chance to talk to them they were worth your time. They were interesting. And there were some awful good men there, good workers, who took a great deal of pride in track work. Not to be belittled, they had their problems. If you only knew why, you'd probably cry, a little bit. Each one of them probably had a story to tell, that they didn't want to tell. They had unions, they had no rights, and everybody picked on them, so to speak. They were the lowest form of humanity out there, but they were good people. There but for the grace of God go I was easily said in their presence.
I worked with a lot of extra gang men. Over at Lombard they'd fought off so many rattlesnakes there that if you parked an extra gang outfit at Lombard they wouldn't stay, they'd all quit. They'd get on another train and become a hobo, they'd just keep right on going. After work at Lombard you couldn't do a damn thing because of snakes.
We had one extra gang that was composed of Japanese. We had a Japanese colony here at Livingston who were boilerwashers, most of them, and then were some men on the section. We had one family that lived up near my parents, we knew the family quite well. There were three boys and a girl, about ten years younger than me, and they were the finest of people. Ohta, was his name, was a brilliant man, and so were his children. His son went over to Montana State when he was in high school, and got kicked out because he didn't have a diploma, but he was making good grades all the way -- no problem at all.
Section Foreman Ohta must have had a half a dozen Japanese on his section gang. I worked on his gang when I was cut off as a brakeman for a couple weeks, then got hired back. In the winter he'd use his seniority to bump onto the Park Branch and go fishing. He'd go by motorcar out of Livingston and take care of the Park Branch beyond Davies, almost 35 miles. Ohta and a section man named Sam Lopez would have fishing contests. I'd ask who was ahead and Lopez would say he'd caught a big one that got away, and Ohta would say "Oh you catch a Montana!" He was telling Lopez that he'd caught and snag and he didn't know the difference. They argued back and forth, I enjoyed that.
Ohta had also been on an extra gang working on the tracks at Lombard. The east switch at Lombard is on a curve, right under the Milwaukee overhead. They were building Toston Dam, and they had ballasted through there, raising the track to get above water level. They raised the track 12 feet in there, and it tapered back to Lombard. They had some center stakes in the track, where the center of the railroad would be, right out in front of the depot door. The agent there -- J.P Swarts, who'd been here since 1492 I think -- knew just what those stakes meant. The Chief Engineer of the Northern Pacific, Bernard Blum, came out here and he was talking to J.P. Swarts, and J.P. was telling him what a bunch of dummies the engineers were. Of course that brought up an argument. J.P. was no dummy, he was a bull-headed Irishman. J.P. told Bernard Blum, who was the number one engineer on the railroad, that his engineers couldn't get nothing straight. He said, "Come on, I'll show you something! You see that damn center stake there? That's supposed to be equidistant between the two rails. But you'll notice that its about a foot from that east rail. Ohta tried to line that switch in that track for that siding for two days, to put that track on that stake. For two days! Finally he said 'To Hell with them! I'll fix it myself!'" He lined the damn track where he wanted the center of track to be and the switch worked. "See there? That's the kind of work you sons of bitches do!" Only J.P. Swarts was that kind of guy. He was a character. He was perfectly honest and frank, and when he got his sails set, you didn't change them.
Colstrip was 29 miles south of Nichols, which is six or ten miles west of Forsyth. That was a place that Northern Pacific, in 1923, started using coal from Colstrip to burn on their steam locomotives. And it was damned close to dirt, most of my people said. But if you learned how to fire it -- it needed a high draft, it needed fine grates -- and believe it or not, I've got hundreds of pictures of trains, and you won't see too damn much smoke on any of them! Have you ever noticed that? And it's not because he wasn't working -- boy he was knocking the can off of her, but that's the way you burn Rosebud coal, with a very light stack. It would show up if you have a good white sky, but in a lot of those pictures it wouldn't even show up.
Rosebud was on the main line on Rosebud Creek which is the creek Custer went up when he got his hair parted. He went up the Rosebud, and then dropped over into the Little Bighorn. Its a strain of coal called the Rosebud. It was a coal that on the Mallets, the Z-6s, you had about an hour and 50 minutes wide open, or two hours and 20, it depended on the firing capabilities of the fireman, and the steaming qualities of the engine. When they got the Z-8s they had increased water capacity, 3,000 more gallons. I've swept the tank with the broom to get every drop of coal out of that tender coming into Bozeman from Townsend, without taking coal at Logan. Townsend to Bozeman was 27 tons of coal every time, run through that engine. It took about an hour to go to Logan, and then something like an hour and a half to go to Bozeman. It's all climbing. You'd never shut off Logan to Bozeman. Townsend to Logan why you had to shut off and avoid going around those curves too fast, so you didn't work full throttle all the way through there. You had to conserve all the coal you could if you didn't want to stop at Logan. It was a long trip, eight to 12 hours, Helena to Livingston, was the routine.
Roslyn coal was on the eastern slope of the Cascades. Its bituminous coal. Very good coal. But if you over-fire with it, it'll turn black. A lot like the UP does with that oil-fired 3985, when they make black smoke for photographers. Terrible black. If you saw one of them Mallets with black smoke, he was either working east of Roslyn, Washington, or he had a fireman who couldn't fire Rosebud coal -- he was over-firing it. The only time I saw black smoke on the NP was watching engines coming into Pasco and burning Roslyn coal, or an engine that had been to Duluth recently and was burning eastern coal.
A lot of times my dad, I can remember my dad as an engineer, he was firing passenger trains, and he would usually make a remark, I never knew enough to cross-examine him on it, but he would remark that he had an engine with eastern coal this trip and he didn't have to work so hard. Eastern coal was more combustible. They would come out of Billings with a tank load of coal that had been piled onto at Custer, Montana, and the next coal dock Greycliff, but all the engines cut off at Livingston, so they never would stop at Greycliff for coal and when they got to Greycliff they were just about out of coal that they'd got at Custer. They'd start getting into that coal pile that hadn't been molested since it left Duluth.
They'd get into that eastern coal that engine would steam like a house a-fire. It was kid's play firing an engine with eastern coal. I showed him a picture one time of the 1902, W-2 Mike, a nice picture I'd made of it, everything was just right, I thought it was an excellent picture. I showed it to my dad and he flipped it back at me. "If I never see that son-of-a-bitch again it'll be too soon! I shoveled 12 tons of coal in that bastard for 16 hours! I Never want to see it again!" Just think of it, if I took you out in my back yard and showed you a pile of 12 tons of coal and said "All right--shovel it! I want it moved from here over to there." Think of that as your life's work. It gives you some cause to wonder. I don't want this job -- I want another job -- right now!
In 1964 at Townsend I was going 59 miles an hour and an axle broke 21 cars behind the engine in a 60-car 600 -- the hot shot. We were going like a bullet. Danny Gould was the engineer, I was the conductor, with Fred Brooks as rear brakeman. We put 25 cars all over the place . . . . We piled up cars in front of the depot, behind the depot, and beyond the depot, but not in the depot. It was miraculous we didn't tear the depot down. Cars spun all around the depot.
The thing that aggravated me the most was that the first official that came to me said "Warren you're in the clear, you were only going 59 miles an hour." Sixty miles an hour was the speed limit. Where the Hell was his responsibility on that broken axle he gave me? Trying to get me over the road with a bunch of cripples. As though ten miles an hour or 20 miles an hour would have made any difference. It was their prerogative to send me out over the road with a bunch of scrap iron, but I couldn't exceed the speed limit or I'd break up the whole house. I didn't like that. I was at my desk, watching the track with my spotlight at that time, looking to see if anything was dragging. There wasn't a mark anyplace. It was an old Great Northern car -- five-and-a-half by ten axle.
In 1965 I had another wreck. I was on 603 at West End, and I was at the desk watching the track on that one, too. A roll of tin, loaded in a gondola, shifted. That car turned upside down and all the coils of tin spilled out. We piled up 25 cars there.
I had three wrecks in 18 months, all defective equipment on high-speed trains -- they weren't inspecting them.
I worked on all the work trains I could get on that worked out of Livingston, or anywhere near Livingston. I liked work trains. We worked in between trains -- we'd watch the line-up and we'd do the work according to the windows that the trains offered, not that we dictated. We never accomplished as much as they do today with work windows. I worked on the ditcher from April to February, 1946 and '47, with Ivan Adams. We ditched all the railroad right-of-way from Livingston to Lombard, the Low Line, the branch lines, even on the Butte mountain. We were all over this railroad. We had an assigned engine, the 2163, for a long time. All we had was two air dumps and a flat car with a ditcher on it, an outfit car, a tool car, and a caboose. We had an engineer and fireman on the locomotive, an engineer and fireman on the ditcher, a conductor and two brakemen. We done every conceivable kind of work -- from rebuilding irrigation ditches that crossed the track to building dams to widening the cuts. Beautiful job. I was able to report to my wife most every weekend. I got some pictures of the North Coast Limited on the Butte mountain that I never would have got without that job, because you couldn't get to those places without walking for miles.
We had a good conductor -- Lee Lewis, a good engineer -- Roy Rock, a good fireman -- Bob Benson. The head brakeman was Fred Griffin and the rear brakeman was Warren McGee. The ditcher engineer was Ivan Adams and the ditcher fireman was Edith Adams, his wife. The roadmaster was Johnny McLaughlin, and he kept us moving.
I learned a lot about work train work from that Lee Lewis, he was incredible. All the trains have rights over you, so you just rolled with the punches. You tried to work ahead of this guy, going that direction, and when he goes by then you come back and you let the other guy push you the other way. You're always going with the traffic in single track territory. You watch the signals, the old semaphores would clear up behind you as you're going with the traffic. You'd watch them, and when those signals went down it would tell you where he was exactly, and you'd run like Hell to get out of his way so you wouldn't stop him. That signal was usually two or three miles away from you and giving you an indication. "Hey! Here he comes! Let's get out of here!" And you'd got the Hell out of there as quick as you could, run for the siding, got out of the way. It's an art.
One day I was working on a work train loading steel with a Burro crane. A flatcar holds about 200 and some rails, before its load limit is reached. I loaded three carloads of steel, about 600 rails, in the territory between Mission and Livingston -- six miles. Before noon. And I had three trains to meet. They just kept coming at me when I wanted them to come. I had to keep switching, keep putting empties in front of that Burro crane. Never stopped a train.
Glendive was a place, after leaving Bismarck it was hot, dry, and a long way between water holes. It's something like 225 miles. West of Dickinson they cross some of the most difficult operating sections on the whole entire system. They go up and down over elevations up to 2,700 feet three times.
They had helper districts almost all the way across it. Northern Pacific bought a lot of Mikes to overcome this, and as train tonnages increased they kept on trying to get over these difficult pimples that they have to cross. They've got the Fryburg Hill, one near Beach, then Beaver Hill east of Glendive. They're going up and down, and cause lots of operating problems. They finally built the largest steam locomotive in the world to try and overcome the problems that they were encountering in this territory, Mandan to Glendive.
It was a bad water district on steam locomotives. They had difficult times with boilers -- foaming, impurities, gypsum-laden water. Really from Bismarck to Laurel was bad water territory on the Northern Pacific and all their steam locomotives performed somewhat less than their capabilities with decent water. They pioneered, along with Santa Fé, treating water for their boilers to prevent some the foaming characteristics of water under heavy pressure. Locomotives don't operate good on water -- they need steam.
Of course when the diesel appeared on the scene it presented Northern Pacific with an alternative that they'd been searching for ever since their day of one. An engine which would give them less problems in these territories. They grabbed at those diesels like a rainbow trout does a grasshopper. They bought 12 diesels during the war in 1944 and it was between Mandan and Glendive and Yakima and Auburn because of Stampede Tunnel, which was a narrow hothouse Hellhole.
Helena and East Helena
Helena is quite a terminus. A pivotal point. The line from Great Falls come down and meets the St. Paul to Seattle line. Helena is an important helper point. For traffic generation, it's the East Helena smelter. A lead and silver smelter owned by American Smelting and Refining, which smelts ore from Manitoba to Lord knows where. Lead ores come from all over the world to East Helena for smelting. Its been there since 1886 or '7. Its an old, old smelter. Its had its hard times due to its environmental hazards.
I saw a man that worked in the East Helena smelter that had a nose, I would say, bigger than a silver dollar. He'd worked in those situations. They were bad places to work. I know that East Helena was a million dollar station on the Northern Pacific back in the '30s -- revenue generated there every year. That was one of the few places. The second place to generate that kind of traffic, that I know of, was Trident with cement. It was a million dollar station, and I'm talking about before the inflation of the '60s and '70s.
East Helena, when they complained of service, they didn't call the superintendent in Missoula, they called the board of directors, and all Hell broke loose! The switch engine there, on Northern Pacific, ran 25 or 30 miles an hour through the yard there, taking a run with a load -- x number of cars of ore, x cars of flux of various kinds in that consist, all in order for the bins that they were going to go to. They'd go with what they called "Six High," which was a high, trestled track, and when they got to the end of that thing they had to stop -- it was a stub end! They used to run for that thing 25, 30, 35 miles an hour. I know. I worked on the job. All I could do was hang on. I told the agent one day, "Hey you guys are missing a bet -- we've got some engines on the main line over at Livingston that will run 60 miles an hour. You oughta have one of them over here!" He didn't think it was funny at all.
It was a dangerous job! We killed two switchmen over there during my lifetime. It was 16 hours every day. It was a big-paying job, but it was a man killer, and I never cared for it. I relieved the regular conductor on it for two weeks, but I never did know what the Hell they were doing. My switchmen worked. I tried to relieve them of some of the chores, but I never did learn what all they did. They walked by the cars at East Helena, the switchmen, and they'd smell 'em. They knew exactly what was in that car, without looking at a list or a billing of any kind. They smelled them cars, and they knew where the Hell they went! A most unique job!
It went to work at 4:30 in the morning, and it came in at 4:30 or 5:30 in the evening. Those guys worked six days a week. They made a pocketful of money. Believe it or not, one of them is still alive, and I'm surprised, because he worked hard, real hard, and a lot harder than anybody in the other railroading jobs that we had to compare with. It was a tough place to work, East Helena.
I was an expert on hotboxes. I made it a special point of studying how to take care of them. I also used that later when I when they were trying to remove carmen. I read it in Railway Age. I've been reading Railway Age since 1930, before I even went railroading. They ran cars with no lubrication on the journals until they self-destructed to find out what happened in a journal that failed, and how the journal bearing failed. They found that when you heated that axle to red hot that it heated the copper in the brass to the point where it left the brass and entered into the body of the steel axle. It caused some sort of a chemical reaction there that just destroyed that steel. It could never be used again once that happened -- it had to be destroyed.
Management, if that journal didn't get too hot, would re-use it. Unless they knew what the temperature of that axle had been before it failed why then they were putting miles on it. And my life was at risk, by sending me out on a train with axles that were somewhat less than perfect. They had to be perfect or they wouldn't run. You start running friction bearings on axles and everything's got to be apple pie. Sixty miles an hour probably should have been designated as maximum speed, but we used to run them faster than that. It was a case of "What we didn't know didn't hurt us" I guess.
It used to be difficult to move a train from its originating point for the first ten miles, or 15. With waste lubrication you would couple into a string of cars that had been sitting idle, and the wheels wouldn't even turn on them. If they were empties, they'd slide. The wick, underneath that journal, would somehow freeze to that axle. I suppose there was water in that was in that wick and congealed. It would grab the axle and wouldn't let it turn. If it was a load it would turn, but it would be with a lot of friction. It was like it was three times as heavy as it really was. We learned this from the North Dakota people, who know a lot about cold weather. When we would pick up a load at an elevator, or something we knew was a heavy load, I would come along and open all the boxes -- I had an oil can full of kerosene -- and I would squirt kerosene in there on the side of the journal in the direction we were going to go. And we'd never have a problem. But if we didn't do that, the waste would grab to the journal and get under the babbited journal bearing and cause friction that wasn't supposed to be there, and thus a hotbox. If we would do that before we moved them, we would have no trouble with them.
We'd go to Willsal, where there'd be a car under load for four days waiting for us to come pick it up, in cold waves, and below zero weather. You'd pick it up and you'd drag it down -- you never went over 15, 20, 25 miles an hour -- getting back to the main line at Mission. Then you'd take off at track speed, 50 or 60 miles an hour, and by the time we got to Springdale we had hotboxes. I'd usually go along and open the lids and feel them at Springdale to see if we had a problem before it happened so we didn't have to brass them. We'd oil the Hell out of it, or something, to try to avoid a hotbox.
What we used to do with a hotbox, if it had a rough journal, sometimes they were not caught in time until they really burned up the smoothness of the axle. So we'd take our hook and we'd scrape filings off the flange of the wheel. There's oil there that runs out of the back of the journal box. There's also an accumulation of sand and dirt and steel filings from the brake shoes on the wheel. You'd take that stuff and put it on top of the journal and it was a little bit like carborundum. That would have a tendency to smooth that axle out. It was very detrimental to the babbit and all that, but that was the only way you could figure out to smooth it up. It was like running it over a file. You had to smooth it up and get some sort of a harmonious running surface there. That was a trick.
If there's any hotboxes that a through freight train had set out because it was running hot the local picks them up, re-brasses the car, and nurses the cripple into a terminal so a carman can change the wheels. The wheels were usually scarred up so bad they won't run anymore, only at restricted speed and then only for short distances. You have to keep the oil level in them really high, so you over-lubricate them. You give it all the lubrication you can poke in it. Try to nurse it.
Re-brassing a car is all hard work, even if it isn't on fire! Jacking up a car, replacing the brass, or doing something to repair it, will take you 35 minutes. If its hot or red hot, it'll take you 55 minutes, to replace the journal. You've got to be a sharpie to do it in 55 minutes. We'd carry maybe a dozen brasses on our caboose, of the common size. If we ran out, we'd just leave the car. We'd tell the superintendent we couldn't brass it 'cause we ran out of brasses. Those kind of delays we always tried to avoid. If you don't use your head, you've got to use your back, or your feet. That's what I was cautioned about from day one. It was something railroad men tried to avoid -- work. We tried to avoid it at every opportunity! Work is meant for jackasses and they turn their back on.
They got away from the waste and started going to spring-packed lubricators circa 1960. There were probably 15 different kinds and there wasn't one of them that was worth a damn -- they were all dangerous. We were setting out 100 hotboxes a month when they went to spring-packed lubricators.
The axle moving back and forth under the car would pump the oil out of the box and cause hotboxes after that train left Livingston. There's a rim on the outside of the axle to hold the journal bearing in place. As the axle moves back and forth in the box . . . . it carries that spring-pack lubricator with it -- it's in there loosely -- and it shoves a wave of oil as it moves in the box. It probably had three or four inches of movement. It would pump all of the oil out of the box. The spring-pack lubricator also pumped oil up into the which, which lubricated the underside of the axle journal. With all the curvature between Missoula and Livingston that journal got over here and was dry. When we started to Laurel -- it was all straight track -- we ran the train at 55 miles an hour, and you couldn't get 18 miles out without a hotbox. It was a fright! It got to the point, with the spring-pack lubricator, that they had to create carman's jobs -- with a truck -- and they were out brassing all the cars that they could reach. We had cars and cripples that they couldn't get to with a truck, so the local crew would do them, and the carmen would do those they could reach.
I kept a record of this, I proved it, I used it and I helped create roller bearings I'm sure! They were arguing with our crews and I threw that hotbox record at them and it shut them up like you wouldn't believe. They didn't realize what they'd been doing to themselves. It was dangerous working at that time -- a hundred hotboxes in a month! All you have to do is make a mistake and miss one!
I told a trainmaster one day -- he said "These guys have to start watching their trains..." I said "Wait a minute, you're getting 100 percent out of your crew and you're complaining! If those crews miss one hotbox you've got a wreck! Any company that could get 99 percent out of their employees would be tickled to death. You're getting a hundred and you're complaining." That shut that argument up, too. And it is -- if you miss one, if you miss a hotbox, and Lord knows, it's easy enough to do -- you've got a wreck. At night you opened the window in every cut and every narrow channel, between cars, anything, you got your head out the window and you smelled for that hotbox up there, 'cause it was a different smell. You had your nose and your eyes going all the time. When its dark you had nothing but that. Usually, maybe 15 cars ahead of the caboose was all you could smell, but I smelled a car 43 cars ahead, coming west against the wind a Livingston.
With the spring-packed lubricators, fire became quite common. With the wick shoving that oil up out of the box, it goes out of the back end of the box and goes on the rim of that wheel, which turns it into a fan and throws it up against the bottom of the car underneath it. If it's on the end of the car, it throws it on the car ahead or behind it. It was very bad to grab hold of a hand hold between the cars -- you'd get your glove full of oil, and an oily glove is something that slips -- something you don't want to do when you're grabbing hold of a car to get on and off. Anyway, if that hotbox would catch on fire -- the dust pad on the back of the journal box was made out of wood, it's a wood pad that slides in a slot there -- when that would catch on fire the flames would go up, and it would catch onto that oily space right over the wheel, where it had been thrown up there. The flooring of most box cars was made of wood, so the floor would be oil-soaked, and it would catch on fire, and catch the box car on fire. You couldn't get to it -- it's damned hard throwing water uphill. Cars did burn up. You thought you had it out, but fire gets in a crack or a joint between two boards, you might get in a hurry and overlook it, and it'd burn up after you left. It was quite common. You didn't have a hose like a fire-fighting crew. You were trying to get water in a place you couldn't get to, and you were trying to throw it two feet up in the air. Well it just ain't in the cards -- to get a decent saturation on the underside of the car.
On April 1, 1964, the Association of American Railroads adopted a rule that cars would not be handled in interchange without roller bearings. They should have done it long before that. But the spring-pack lubricator was the one that precipitated the crisis. Today, they are still using the same axle to haul 286,000 pounds of wheat, or corn, or coal, with the same six-and-a-half by 12 journal that we couldn't get to function very well with friction bearings. We handled 107 tons, today the same are handling 143 tons. That's increased the productivity of the cars.
I wrote Louis Menk a personal letter and welcomed him to the Northern Pacific when he came here as president. I said "I recognize your reputation as a hatchet man, but don't let that hold you back, come on in and meet the gang, we're a great bunch of people." I riled him up real good -- he hated that hatchet man title. But he lived it to every inch of it. He didn't even recognize it in himself.
I called Burton K. Wheeler up, retired Senator from Montana, and asked him how to fight the merger. He said "If you can get a really truly dedicated person to fight it, you can beat it." Little did I know he was talking about me. I took over the job as chairman of the Livingston Anti-Merger Committee. I fought the merger for 11 years, clear to the Supreme Court. The secretary job was a breeze compared to that. I wrote briefs when I didn't even know what the Hell the word meant -- I thought it was a pair of shorts.
And we beat them. The first ICC decision was against the merger in 1967. Then they petitioned for reconsideration and management went to all the brotherhoods and got an endorsement. They said "Write your own ticket on this merger, whatever you want, we'll agree to it." So it'll go through. The brotherhoods, all their union officials, wrote down the stipulations that they wanted in the merger agreement. They went before the ICC to show that there was an employee endorsement of it, and the ICC turned over. Then we got it held up by the Supreme Court . . . for another two years.
One of the worst mistakes I made was that when we were before the Supreme Court, fighting it, I should have had Senator Metcalf sitting there, and Senator Mansfield, that was the way that decision would have been weighed. I always would have liked to have tried that. I didn't realize that the Supreme Court ain't a judicial body, it's a political body. If we'd have delayed that merger another six months, to let the Penn Central fiasco to hit the front page, they'd have backed off. That Penn Central scared them half to death.
I enjoyed debating viewpoints with railroad presidents, like I did in the merger. I stood them on their heads a couple of times -- a damned old bonehead high school graduate. I enjoyed that. I had a railroad president ask me, in 1978, why all the catastrophic things I had predicted were going to happen to Livingston, had never occurred. I said to him, "Norman, you just keep makin' a liar out of McGee and it'll suit me fine." Then two years later, all the things I had predicted came through. The only reasons they hadn't come true sooner was that the ICC put a clamp on any changes in procedures of the three merged lines until ten years after they granted that merger. That's when all Hell broke loose -- all the jobs when down the tubes.
I never felt right about that merger. I think its a travesty of injustice to the American people. We gave that outfit -- Northern Pacific -- the equivalent of New England. The intent of that land grant was to provide them with enough capital to build us a viable railroad somewhere between Lake Superior and Puget Sound, to move the commerce of this nation. And what have they done? The traffic is moving by truck! I'm a railroad man from the word go and I think we can do a better job of moving the commerce of this nation than trucks can. I don't see anything wrong with using trucks to supplement railroads at all, but I think they should move this long-haul traffic off the highways, and quit destroying them with trucks that are not necessary. They should be hauling it by rail and dispersing it from strategic terminals house to house or business to business by trucks. They gave up on that. They've got a business now that any idiot could run, and they've got a Hell of a time running it . . . . compared to what we did in our day.
The Milwaukee initiated damn near every speed up schedule in freight service in the Northwest! Absolutely! They did! It was Milwaukee's trying to compete and trying to improve schedules from 1940 on that made NP and GN get in line. That's where it was. Give the Devil his dues. The Milwaukee was fighting and struggling like a tiger trying to keep their head above water. Milwaukee had to develop new traffic. Milwaukee initiated the first TOFC yard right at Kent. That was Milwaukee! GN and NP hadn't even gotten in the act yet when Milwaukee had that. Boy that stirred up a lot of comment around. I didn't hear anything official, but I know that all of a sudden they looked around and said "Hey, that guy's after us!"
The Milwaukee, God bless their souls, tried real hard. We relished [Milwaukee speed ups], because it improved our train service and made better jobs for us. When they improved their freight schedule in 1964, 261 and 262, prior to that it was 263 and 264, when the Milwaukee inaugurated that run, boy, it really put the NP on the rocks, almost. It seemed to paralyze the management -- it spooked them. They thought they were going to have a Hell of a time competing. To the operating men, to the engineers and the conductors and the brakemen, we thought "Boy, here's our chance!" And we started to show them how to do it. They never molested us at all. Nobody came around and told us we were going too fast or nothing.
We put trains into Helena in two hours and 35 minutes westbound -- and that was too fast. That's a hundred and 22 miles, and the only straight piece of track in it is from Toston to Townsend, and from Bozeman to Logan -- the rest of it's crooked'er than a snake's back. We, in the first 28 days of operation of that train, 601, St. Paul to Seattle, we beat the Milwaukee 22 out of 28 days. We beat the Great Northern even better than that. Someday I should write a story about the history of 601, to tell you all the things we did. I kept the data. I had Jim Fredrickson in the dispatcher's office in Tacoma, and I had a switchman in Northtown, keeping track at that end, and I kept track of the train's operation through here.
We beat the pants right off of both of those railroads -- and we changed cabooses 17 times! Neither of those railroads changed cabooses, they had the same cabooses all the time. We had three passenger trains to meet and the Great Northern only had two and the Milwaukee only had one -- in fact, I don't believe they had any in '64! We were a-whizzin', I tell you. We changed cabooses 17 times, and we were in and out of a terminal in seven or eight minutes. To us, boy this was candy, we just loved it. We showed them how to run a railroad. I compiled a lot of facts about our operation. We were putting merchandise from New York City into Portland, Oregon, in four days.
We connected at St. Paul with a Burlington train called 97 -- it was their expediter -- they got business from the Pennsylvania and everybody else at Chicago, they brought it to Dayton Bluff which is at the east end of St. Paul. At Dayton Bluff we had transfer jobs that came from Dayton Bluff over to Northtown, and over to Union Yard on the Great Northern -- their portion of that one train that arrived on the Burlington at Dayton Bluff. We put our train together at Northtown. In 1960 or '61, President Budd said "No trains," in front of the ICC and me, "that no trains could get through the Twin Cities in less than 12 hours." And we were going through the Twin Cities, I think, in something like 96 minutes.
I wrote a letter to [NP President Robert S.] Macfarlane about all this data that I'd compiled, this information I'd put together. He said, "That's great Warren -- now we'll have to check and see if we're making any money on it." If we were making any money! Don't tell me that old Scotsman didn't know if we were making any money on it or not, boy. He knew from day one if it was making money or not. That was his business, and he paid attention to those type of things.
The Milwaukee was a very necessary competitor for Northern Pacific and Great Northern who had the world by the tail on a downhill pull, and Milwaukee showed them the way. They doing wonders with what they had to do with. Their electrics were powerful engines, but they weren't speedy enough. We outran their electric engines every time they got in a race with us along the Missouri in those 20 miles between Trident and Townsend. That hoghead seen that Milwaukee over there and he wasn't going to let him run around him . . . no way! It's a challenge, you understand. That would happen on the Butte Line -- you'd get a Milwaukee guy over there -- run away and hide from him. Always. Passenger train or whatever. Those boys at Missoula, they could tell you about it. It's the kids in us, the challenge. That's the way we were. Lose that, why, you've lost a lot.
On The Main Streets...
Just beyond Garrison was a place called Gold Creek, where the gold spike ceremony was held September 8, 1883. That line was completed August 22, 1883, and they didn't hold the gold spike ceremony until September 8. That line was built by the eastern line building forces. They met the western line building forces at Gold Creek. It crossed the Belt Mountains between Livingston and Bozeman. At that elevation, crossing the Belts, they were 42 feet higher than when they crossed the Continental Divide west of Helena at Blossburg, believe it or not. The ascent of the Rockies on the east slope is less than the ascent to the westbound slope. The eastbound route over Bozeman Pass is probably the roughest and most difficult piece of railroad Northern Pacific had.
Trains would come all the way from Auburn to Bozeman Pass and break in two, because some mechanical failure, that it had been able to avoid at all other mountain crossings. At a place called Mile Post 133, which is 133 miles west of the Yellowstone River Bridge at Billings, it was the pimple on the Northern Pacific. When they got past that place it was gone. They could make it. We would break in two there, and in two occasions I recall, we got the knuckles on both cars. The strain was just too much for the mechanical ability of the drawbars to hold together at that point.
When they first bought the U-25Cs, 2500 horsepower General Electrics, which was one of the best pulling engines the Northern Pacific ever purchased, the builders said that they would pull 5,000 tons from Bozeman to the top of Bozeman Pass without a helper. Northern Pacific management, characteristically, believed them. The first winter we had them we broke in two at Mile Post 133 or at Mile Post 130 72 times. We had knuckles and drawbars -- the helper crews helped on this -- we'd roll these things out to the side of the track -- we didn't care where they were just so long as they were clear of the rail -- then the helper crew would come along and stood these drawbars and knuckles on end so they were kind of like monuments in a cemetery. There were 13 of them there at one time, before management got so embarrassed that they ran a truck through there and picked them up. Of course, it took a crane to lift them. So that's the territory, Livingston to Blossburg.
Bozeman's right around 5,000 feet, and Helena's 3,900. Of course you have to climb a hill between Townsend and East Helena, you climb one percent grade in there, but it is a fast piece of track. We would wind a train up going west, its 13 miles from Townsend to Winston, all one percent grade, we would wind that train up just as tight was we could going through Townsend. It wasn't safe to get alongside the tracks in Townsend. People stayed clear away from our tracks in Townsend. But we went through Townsend it was just as damned hard as we could -- if we didn't have to have coal for the steam engine. We took coal at Bozeman and we could usually make it to Helena for coal, so we went through there 60 miles an hour day after day after day. We'd get about three miles up that hill before we got slowed down so we only had ten miles of luggin' up that hill.
On the other side it was full of sags -- undulations. You climb out of Helena Yard into East Helena, and then there's a sag at East Helena, and you'd wind her up to take a run for that hill, and you'd get over to a place called Clay Soil, and there was a sag there, then a sag through Louisville to what you call Placer, then Placer was a sag three or four miles from Louisville. You were up and down. You'd go to Winston, 16 miles east of Helena, in 45 minutes -- which is pretty good.
Of course, from Townsend its uphill all the way to Bozeman Pass. You climb the Missouri River, then the Gallatin River, and finally Rocky Creek up to Bozeman Pass. Going west was easier on coal and water than going east. Coming east it was a steady pull almost all the way through there. You had slow downs in the Missouri River Canyon -- three different 25 mile an hour curves and stuff like that. They once projected a tunnel through the mountains there in what they call the Rattlesnake Hills west of Lombard. They could have built a 3,000 foot tunnel there that would have eliminated five miles of track, but they never did it, because they conjectured -- the geologists and powers that be -- that they might run into underground water streams which would complicate the program. I think it was a mistake and they certainly could have eliminated a lot of brake shoes and wheel wear and hotboxes that occurred in there because of the curvature.
The second main track -- the Low Line between Bozeman to Logan -- wasn't built until 1918. They never built that line until 1918 -- and then they abandoned it in 1957 -- with the CTC and the advent of the diesels, which could negotiate the one percent grade between Logan and Bozeman.
Garrison to Missoula is 70 miles of racetrack. That's the ultimate piece of high-speed railroading the NP had. Seventy miles of it, and boy those guys went lickety-split from Garrison to Missoula. They'd get out in front of a passenger train and there wasn't any sidings and they just went!
Any good brakeman can be a conductor, it ain't that big a step. It's mostly book work. As a crew, if you've got anything to do of a local nature, you have to supervise that. One of the things we were told was that to go out on the road everybody had to work together and everybody had to do the work. But it got to the point where the old conductors got so old that they weren't agile enough to do any of the switching. They started letting the brakemen do all the switching. This reduced the crews from three man crews to two man crews. Now they're complaining that they've only got two men on locals -- well we taught them we could do it. I never let that happen to my crews, I was always out in the middle of switching chores, always helping and doing. Some brakemen didn't like that I guess, but I didn't care. I was protecting my job, getting the work done in an expedited fashion. Besides making it a little safer than it would have been with only two. I always remembered that I didn't want to indicate to management that I could operate with less crew members than I had.
My old conductor, I followed his guidance! He said, "Don't let that hoghead pull you into trouble!" That's all he said. That covers it, doesn't it? The conductor's in charge of the train, responsible for everything he did. I never felt that the engineer was trying to get me into trouble, but I also checked on him at every opportunity, to make sure he didn't overlook something. And it's easy to overlook something. He had lots more chores to do than I did. He's got all kinds of things to think about. I kept three or four of them out of serious trouble just by being alert, and being of help. I crawled over the coal pile on a train one time -- on a caboose hop -- when the engineer was overlooking a meet with another train. I crawled over that tender -- instead of pulling the air on him -- I got into that cab and I said "Where the Hell you goin' for so-and-so?" Well the engineer in a minute he knew where he was going and where he should have been. He stopped and backed up to that siding -- he even headed in, like he should have. Well I bawled the fireman out. I didn't say nothin' to that engineer. He had enough to do and he was damned sorry for doing what he did. But I asked the fireman "What the Hell are you doing up here? Don't you read those orders? Why don't you know what's going on?" I did that fireman a lot of good -- he was beholden to me all his life. It was that fireman who needed correction. "Why aren't you up here helping? Don't you know you had a meet here?" That happens.
Rail crews had plenty of indoctrination, as a rule, before I got to them, unless they were brand new. I would train them in my way. Play it safe, but don't waste no time. Get this done. Think what you're doing. I was pretty strict. I interfered with them if they weren't doing it. I double-checked on them and asked them "Did you do this? Did you do that?" I made sure that when they did work that I was responsible for that it was done in a fashion that I approved of. That's the way I was thought. I had conductor's say "What did you do down there?" Well I kind of took offense. "Well why the Hell didn't you come down there?" But I found out that was a good way. Check and double check, you can't beat it. And you shouldn't take offense at it, because everybody's human and everybody forgets something.
If you forget it on a train and you remember it later, you're 15 miles from it. And somebody else is coming along there, expecting everything apple pie, and they run into your trap that you just set for them. You put your fellow worker at hazard, which is what you'd do if you didn't do your work properly. You lined switches back, you lined derails, you make sure there's a hand brake there that will hold them there, all those things. They're just little things, they're not too many of them, but you make sure you get them because once you leave down the track your error is going to be magnified. All you can do is worry, and hope, that they see your error before it's too late. I stumbled over other people's errors all kinds of times, that's why I did it that way. As I say, the men I worked with when I came here, who supervised me, were friends of my fathers, and they made damn sure Warren didn't get in any trouble, because they didn't want his father to be embarrassed by what his son had done. They were always saying "Warren did you do this? Did you do that?" I got accustomed to that. I know some people take offense at that, but I don't give a damn. I never let it interfere. I was making damn sure that it was done properly.
Passenger train service was one especially one where people get aboard and are strangers, total strangers, to the way you do things. They get on and they go in the wrong cars, cars they're prohibited from, there's a sign on the door saying they can't go there, all those kinds of things. They make innocent mistakes because of a lack of knowing how things are done, and brakemen on passenger trains and even conductors would abuse these kind of people. Totally innocent people, who got off on the wrong foot. I've seen that happen too much, and I never permitted on any passenger train I was on. I instructed all my brakemen, I said "Don't you get in any fracas with any of my passengers. Don't. Because if you get into a fight with anybody on anything, you're either going to back him down or he's gonna stop and fight, and I don't want either one of those things to happen. You leave him alone. You bring it to me and we'll try and iron it out."
I've seen that happen time and time again, all uncalled for. Embarrassing, total strangers. But I never had no troubles with any of my brakemen, or engineers, or dispatchers -- and I had one I could have kicked his teeth out many times. I broke a phone I was so mad at him one time. But I was taught that way. I'm a short-tempered guy, too.
They never caught me at anything, and I did some wrong things too, I wasn't perfect. You certainly don't let anybody know you're violating the rules. You might let them surmise that, but that's the best you want them to do. Don't let him prove it or you're walkin' down the street talking to yourself.
One time I told a conductor -- and I was a brakeman, I didn't have any right to do it -- we went from Columbus to Big Timber, 40 miles, in 40 minutes, and we were restricted to 50 miles an hour. I said "You hadn't better put in here for another 15 minutes." We had work to do there so it could be hidden. We'd been going 72 miles an hour across a 50 mile an hour curve down east of Reed Point. I timed him. He went that mile in 59 seconds. On the 1914! That engineer was running away, he didn't know how fast he was going. When we got to Big Timber there was coal in the gangway so you could hardly get onto the engine. It shook it right out of the tender and into the gangway. He had to shovel the coal up out of the gangway in order to get out of the engine!
I treated the rule book the same way a ballplayer runs the bases. I was always able to dive back and touch that base in time -- that's the way I railroaded. I always had the rule book on my side. I tagged up I guess.
I think I got interested in photography about 1930, because my brother went to work for F.J. Haynes in Yellowstone Park. His son Jack was running the business. My brother got interested in it, and I just got interested in it, too.
I had was a 120 Readyset Agfa-Ansco camera. All it had was instantaneous and time on the shutter speed, God knows what it had for glass. Finally my brother got a new camera and I got his old one. That was a 116 with an f7.9 lens. I puttered around with that thing from 1936 to 1938. Then I got a new 616 Special with an f4.5 lens and Compur-rapid 1/400th shutter on October 23, 1938 -- then I had a camera. The first one I'd had. It was a nice outfit. That's the best camera I've ever had. It was easier to monitor, adjust, set, preset, and fire than anything I've had. I could take a picture -- zzzzzzip -- with that thing. Then they quit making 616 film!
I wished I'd have a zoom lens for it. The principle of it -- it's an absolute must for a photographer, in my mind. You don't back over any cliffs, or into any automobiles . . . you do it with the lens, and stand your ground. You can do that in an instant, and that's what's important in a camera, to be able to take a picture now! Because that's when the picture's there, most of the time. If you're going to wait for it to evolve, well that don't happen. Pictures are almost instantaneous, and so you have to have a camera that works instantaneously. Running around with a camera that's empty is like going around deer hunting with your gun unloaded. I'm very nervous when my camera is empty.
I went through two Zeiss Contraflex, with Compierrapid shutters and Tessar lenses. I went through two Continas, which are made by Zeiss, but they didn't have too good a shutter on them. They were kind of a plaything, but they were 35 millimeter. I've still got a Graflex four by five, with a seven-inch lens, and I've got a Recomar 33, with a nine by 12 centimeter extended bellows copying camera that is also a view camera. That's a fine camera.
I carried that with me when I traveled for copying, along with three different kinds of film -- high contrast, low contrast, and flat. I copied pictures in wood sheds, coal bins, roundhouses, basements, closets, every place. When I went traveling I would make lots of acquaintances, and of course we were talking about pictures of trains, or engines. Can I take it home and copy it? "No! It's mine!" So you copied it right there. Well I never even asked after the first couple of replies because it was ridiculous. So I took that equipment with me. Photofloods, paper reflectors that folded, extension cords, tripods. I copied over 3,000 pictures in those conditions. Very seldom did I have the privilege of doing it in a studio. I was prepared to do it on the job.
I didn't have a light meter at first, but I finally bought a Westin-Master 2 light meter. I think the were $46, or something like that. My brother got into studio photography here, and he couldn't afford one, so I let him have it. I used his darkroom all the time though. So I guessed, and I'm good at guessing exposures.
My philosophy has been to shoot 'em where you see 'em. Try and get 'em in the light. I more or less accumulated all my knowledge by experience. Probably what helped me the most is when I bought that new camera in '38. I kept track of exposure for about two years, and I made my judgments from that. But, with 200 speed, Super XX film, that had enough latitude that it corrected a lot of boneheads, if you underexposed.
I let that camera sit at 200th at f11. Then if I took a picture I had a chance, and I could modify that exposure. I usually took my engine pictures at a 50th at f16. But if I was in an area where I didn't know what was going to happen next I let that camera sit at 200th of a second at f11 and then I'd get it. As I opened it I cocked it -- it was just like a hammer on a gun. I put it to my eye and zzzzap, I had him. It's that quick.
That's the way it should be, when you're taking pictures of trains. They show up in some of the strangest places, and at some of the most inappropriate times, when you're not ready. I don't know if I took any striking pictures of them under those conditions, but I was ready to. I guess I'm a little bit psychic about that. It's when you're the least prepared that you have the most emergencies, but if you're ready, you never have any emergencies. That's the way to do it.
Never form the habit of cocking a camera after taking a picture. Always cock your camera and roll the film just before taking a picture, for the simple reason that as you jiggle a camera there's a tendency for that film to roll and get some slack in it, and it won't lie completely flat on the platen. I never cock my camera until I'm ready to shoot, and then I've got a taught sheet of film laying on that platen. I used to get, with my old cameras, film that was fuzzy in the center and sharp on the edges, and that was why. That aggravated me. Every one of those stabs me a little bit in the heart 'cause I did it that way. I didn't know any better. I've got some pictures that are fuzzy in the center for no other reason than doing that.
Lombard was one of the most picturesque places to take pictures on the NP. You can get on top of a hill and see five miles of track. There are some very spectacular cliffs that overhang the Missouri River. Having a train most anyplace along this Yellowstone River when the sun is illuminating the front end of the engine and the side of the train that you're trying to take pictures of. The choices that I had, with only two or three trains a day, it was difficult to get all those ifs and buts put together so that I could make the pictures the way I wanted. A lot of my pictures were planned and thought out years ahead of time, waiting for the right time of day and the right train direction to come together. I took one picture at Lombard of a train I waited 15 years for. It's one of my prizes.
We met an eastbound diesel, and I was on a dead freight west. We had to wait on one eastbound freight train, and one eastbound passenger train. We figured if he didn't come soon enough, we'd be waiting for the passenger train, too, and that's the way it turned out. When it appeared to me that he wasn't going to be there by a certain time and we were still going to be there for that passenger train, I told my crew that I was going to walk up the track about a mile and take a picture of whatever train came first.
I got up on a hill and got a picture of that diesel freight train coming around the big curve at Lombard, which is a 13-degree curve, 25 miles an hour. You can see over the top of the diesel and see the rest of the train. I took him right there. I suppose that was in the late '40s, maybe '49. I was the head brakeman. Then I knew we were stuck for the passenger train, and I continued walking on up the track. I placed myself in a very advantageous place there to photograph the passenger train when he came. I took pictures of him. Then my own train was coming, so I went further up the track and shot back at those same curves with my own train coming around. I got three pictures, and every one of them, a masterpiece. They were dandies.
And I almost got left! At that last place I was about 150 cars west of that switch where my train was at. He poked along there with 60 or 70 cars looking for me. When he got around that last curve he thought "Aww to Hell with him, let's go!" He took off! And just about that time I took his picture and slid down the hill as he went by. He saw me of course and he started setting the air. Before he got them slowed down I was about 25 deep before I could get on. I crawled up on a car and gave him the highball. We were still in slow track territory. I went over the cars to the engine. By the time I was there we were over to Brewer where the slow tracked ceased and we started going 55 miles an hour.
Another one of my favorite spots was the curve just east of Welch on the Butte mountain -- a 13-degree curve. Boy I needed a wide angle lens when I shot pictures there, I couldn't get it all in, but there are no trains going there anymore. I think it was 1946 I shot there. It was ten years getting that picture -- of a westbound train coming into Welch. If I would have had more time to compose it I'd have done better, but I didn't have too much time. I couldn't get back in the brush far enough on that extreme curve to get the whole train. He had 16 cars and I couldn't get it all. I had to shoot him before the helpers started to show up in the picture. They're there, but all you see is smoke. Christmas time, December 15. The track was in the shade at 12:15 when he went by there, which disappointed me -- I wanted to let him come farther but the sun was getting low on the horizon, just six days away from the autumnal equinox.
I think another would be crossing the high bridge at Valley City, North Dakota, and I've never taken it, though I've tried. I've never been there when there was a train there, I've always been a day late and a dollar short, at that place. But that would be a nice picture. You can make all kinds of pictures from there. They abandoned a line at one end of it when they put on the high speed North Coast Limited in 1952. That train was run via the high line through Valley City -- over Valley City, and this encouraged and eventually led to the abandonment of all passenger train through Valley City. They had a helper at Valley City to help freight trains, in and out of Valley City, and passenger trains . . . . I know the 1651 was one of them, and I never could get a picture of it, because the damn thing was always in the house when I went there to get it. But I finally got it, but it took along time . . . . Maybe ten years.
When I went to work here, the firemen, who were old heads, 1918 men, 1916 men, were the men I sat behind when I went to work in '36. These guys had been subjected to the fuel economy men. The fuel economy men were traveling firemen, similar to road foremen of engines, I guess, and they taught the firemen how to fire Rosebud coal. If they saw an engine with black smoke they would jump all over that fireman and tell him he wasn't doing his job right. He was all the firemen spooked. He had taken pictures of them. That was a common practice, getting their picture taken out on the road with dark smoke and a report being made of it.
With my new cameras and films changing, I kept the exposures, whatever I took it at. I had a little book of notes about when I took pictures and where. When I drug a book out and wrote in it, Christ the engine men knew they were headed for the gallows. They knew I was going to make an official report to somebody and they were going to go down the tubes. It was comical, and yet it wasn't. This was the way they'd been taught . . . . They didn't know who a railfan was! Ronald Nixon and I were the only guys in the country taking pictures, along with a guy by the name of Harold Jones in Butte. We were the only ones taking pictures of trains. Oh boy when they saw us, they knew they were headed for the Blue Room. That's when you got called in for an investigation and were subject to being penalized in various forms. Yeah, the Blue Room was a place to stay away from. That's the official jail I guess.
I found them spooked right up into the 1940s when I went away to World War II, even though the job had been abolished when I went to work in '36. I never saw a fuel economy man as such, but just before I came to work they must have been around. The reason I come to this--my camera would spook firemen and engine men. When they saw a camera taking a picture of their engine, they would speed the damn thing up! They'd do all kinds of things! Open the cylinder cocks! All kinds of things to destroy the photographic quality of my camera product. Being the son of an engineer, I knew that what was spookin' them was that fuel economy man. I don't know how he punished them for this type of performance -- but they were spooked, I'll tell you that. I had them do all kinds of things to ruin my pictures.
I used to have people always criticize me for taking pictures of trains. "What the Hell do you want to take a picture of that old bucket of bolts for?" That was common. It was difficult to tell why -- I didn't know why -- I just liked it. But if I had somebody that was as interested in a locomotive and a train as a man like Jack Wolverton, it kind of absolved me of being juvenile and doing something that a kid should only do. Ahh, he loved his work. He got to run the diesels, in fact, there's a picture of him coming into Welch on the North Coast Limited westbound on my big curve -- the 13 degree curve. He's right the window -- you can see him.
I met Ron Nixon in August of 1936, I bumped into him. I don't think I knew about him. He was two or three years older than me. Oh yes, I finally found someone who understood why I liked taking pictures of trains. I think we met in the relay office in Livingston. He was a telegrapher there. I don't know what the Hell I was doing in there, unless I was checking the rosters for train movements or something. He made himself acquainted with me. He was a fountain of information, he had a tremendous brain. He's the only man I know who could three things at once, and intelligently, all of them.
Ron and I became fast friends. He was staying in the Yellowstone Hotel here in Livingston, which is the Senior Center know. He taught me how to develop film, he taught me how to take pictures, he taught me about engines, and I don't know what the Hell he didn't teach me about.
Then he got cut off here and I think the next time I got to see him was in Glendive. I'd get on the passenger train and got to Glendive and get in there about midnight, when he worked. He worked all night, and he'd want me to stay up with him in the office. After about three days I came home exhausted. We were on the go all the time I was down there, but he was more accustomed to going without sleep than I was. I wasn't ever that good at it I guess.
I used to go wherever he was at to go to see him. I went to Spokane to visit with him, I went Missoula to visit with him, I went to St. Paul to visit with him. I don't think I ever went to Fargo, but I went to Glendive a couple of times. We never really did take photo trips together. I could predict where I was going to be, but he never did plan. His was always spur of the moment stuff, because he couldn't get off. He was always subject to call. He was also not working as steady as I was and he was subject to call more frequently. When he got called to go to a job, we're talking about a job three, four, five hundred miles away, which is kind of disconcerting when you're trying to communicate with one another. That kind of cramped our styles. We spent one day trips together on photo junkets, I don't think we ever went two days on something.
We did ride the freight up to Circle once. We went up there after he got off of work, and got back in time for him to go to work. I took a picture of it at Brockway, with the 1915 -- it had an Elesco feedwater heater. We'd just never been up there. The conductor was very friendly with Ronald and he agreed to haul us up there. Both of us were employees so there was no jeopardy to the guy's job. So we went up there. I think that was about the only time we went together someplace. When he was at Missoula we'd go up and chase Trains 1 and 2 between Arlee and Missoula. I never did take many pictures west of De Smet on the Low Line. I did once when I went on a trip to Spokane -- I wanted to take pictures at Spokane. I got on a freight train here and rode it through to Spokane. They I spent a couple of days taking pictures around Spokane, in February, nice weather for that month.
We chased trains down that Evaro Hill a couple of times together, and we went east of Evaro and took pictures, but I don't think we ever got east of Clinton -- I don't think we ever even got to Clinton! Mostly around Turah and Bonner. We never did chase the Milwaukee branch line freight that went up to Cottonwood Junction on the Blackfoot River, that would have been a nice thing to have done. But there were a lot of gravel roads in those days, it was easy to tear up your tires. I never got any pictures of a train on the Blackfoot Branch of the Milwaukee. We never got that done. We never went up the Bitterroot, we never went up the Polson. We did chase two sections of the North Coast Limited of August '39 when I had my new camera. I think it was all one day over Evaro Hill. That's about all we got together.
He kept me posted, about once or twice a year, of all the things that were happening back here, while I was in the Army. He tells me of all the problems they had. He'd gone to dispatching during the war. With Ronald, he was so intense, and so brilliant, that it worked on him. Other guys could make a mistake and accept it, but with Ronald, he was so concerned with avoiding mistakes, and correcting other's mistakes as he succeeded them on duty, that he was a nervous wreck. He gave it up as soon as he could. That would be the truth -- he was brilliant. He had a mind that worked like a clock. He was an operator when I left and he was an operator when I came back. He told me that when he came to work there would be so much left undone by that previous dispatcher in that chair that he assumed that it got on his nerves. He was forever trying to avoid unfortunate situations. He didn't want any of that so he got out of it as soon as the war was over.
We drifted apart after the war, but he was a wonderful person. I think I can safely say that he and I helped place Northern Pacific on the map. We influenced David Morgan to nominate Northern Pacific as the All-American Railroad.
Unions were an absolute necessity, and they're only as good as their membership makes them. It's entirely up to the men. If they want a bad union they don't go to lodge, they don't pay attention to what happens in their working conditions. If they want a good union they go to lodge, they assist, and they police their contract. Absolute necessity. Big business doesn't operate any differently. They monitor, they pay attention. The unionized employees should be nothing less. Unions take a lot of work. It takes hard work and diligence to make a good union. We had that here in Livingston in all aspects, engine men and trainmen, and management got along with us fine.
How many of our trainmen were union? All of 'em. It wasn't a closed shop necessarily, but you intimidated anyone who didn't join the union. Your bread and butter depended on that, but I don't think I ever knew a no bill.
My father was a grand lodge delegate at one time, but we never made much of a fuss over it. There was never any swaggering over it or anything of that nature. If our contract was violated we made a proper complaint of it and our local chairman -- who was delegated and paid to serve -- he would process it. There was enough knowledge amongst the employees to know when it was violated and when it wasn't. Also, probably most important, was they retained and gained all of the knowledge of the violation that they could get so that your local chairman had some tools to work with. You had to have solid information to back up your claims.
In 1926 I was in the sixth grade at Lincoln School, and I could identify damn near every engine that came in and out of Livingston by its whistle or its bell, and I could -- sometimes -- tell you who the engineer was. The engines were assigned at that time to regular engineers, and I knew them by the way the way they whistled. I could identify, maybe 20, out of 25 regulars working out of Livingston. The 1722, a Mike, and Chris Teeters was the regular engineer, and he had a peculiar way of whistling. Teeters lived on South Second Street and Walt Adams lived on North C, I think, and they'd whistle to let their wives know they were coming home to get something to eat. I think there was a lot to that. Oscar Latsch used to blow the whistle to get his wife ready when he came in from Helena.
Many engineers in that period had their own whistles. They had friends in the backshop and they'd ask a machinist to make them a whistle for themselves. We have one of those in the Park County Museum. We have a personal whistle made out of Northern Pacific brass, for Charlie Graves. I don't know what engine it was on, but it was his own personal whistle. The 1722 had a pretty whistle, 1595 had a beautiful whistle. They had a lot of them. I can remember the bells of the 1722's, the 1745's and the 1727's, if I remember right. They were peculiar or had a distinct characteristic about them.
I played train when I was a kid. I used to go up the street "chug, chug, chug, chug" -- stompin' my feet -- "puff, puff, puff." I did that since I was about four, when I ran away from home to watch the trains. I was born into it, I think that's right. Why would I run away from home when I was four years old, and had little or no power of reasoning at all, why was I attracted to trains? My dad was on them, that's why. And my grandfather, though I didn't know it at that time.
My grandfather on my mother's side, E.J. Reeves, hired out on the NP in 1894. He came out here from the Rock Island out of Davenport, Iowa. He was a boomer, I think. I don't know when he came out, but I suppose 1894. He was working on the SP&S. He retired in 1936 or '38. He went there in 1912, when they built it. He lived in Wishram and worked on the Oregon Trunk. And on the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific. I never talked to him about this because I didn't know it then. I've found that out since.
He got fired off the NP here about 1900 something . . . . for leaving the station without a train order -- the agent precipitated it. The conductor was at fault, too, but he wouldn't back water on it. He still claimed it was a trumped up deal, or something like that. The agent handed him a clearance, that said I have one order for you, No. 106, but he didn't include the order with it. The conductor was busy unloading way freight. Why would the telegrapher hand him a clearance without the train order? It's kind of a trap. The conductor had to check the freight in and out of that car, he overlooked it, and they left town without it. Single track days, over here to Chestnut, 16 miles from here. Everybody on the crew got back but him. I don't know anymore about it than that. So he could have made an enemy in some official, and that's all it took in them days, because your unions weren't strong enough to protect you, and bring justice.
Railroading was a real tough job in 1900 and 1915. It took a Hell of a lot of endurance, and a lot of them said whiskey too, to survive. Almost all of the old-timers, including my dad, spoke of using whiskey in previous days . . . . The job was so demanding and took so much out of them that they had to have something to lean on. My dad told me one time about leaving Livingston and going to Helena, before the 16 hour law. He got out here to Cokedale, he was there, I think, six hours, meeting trains, four miles from town. They got so tired and so weary that they had to use it as crutches -- they had to.
I think it would test almost any man. They'd fall asleep in the side tracks and a train would go by and wake them up, but they didn't see the engine, because it was gone. There wasn't any way to radio him and ask him what number he was, and they had a positive meet with a train there. Do you suppose it was? Should we go? We've been here four or five hours now. They'd get out on the main line and go as if that were the train they were in there for. And then there'd be a head-on collision. There was lots of that stuff and that type of situation. Try sleeping on a locomotive! There ain't no place to sleep on one of those confounded things. You're either freezing to death or cooking to death.
The wind blew the roofs off of cars three different times that killed three different men between here and Bozeman on this side of the hill. It gets in those open cars -- if the car's doors were open -- as a train is going uphill there's a couple of big fills up there. Well the wind blows over a fill pretty severely, and it would blow the roof off a car while the brakeman was standing on top of it, or walking on top of it. But they had to put retainers up on the run, and they had to knock them down on the run. This was dangerous work. If the engineer desired it they had to get out on top and ride on the hand brakes, if the engineer was unable to control the train with the automatic brake valve.
My dad, Howard McGee, hired out as a fireman in 1907. He got fired and blackballed at Minneapolis, in 1906. I think he knocked the roundhouse foreman on his ass. I don't think I ever asked him that, it wasn't important to me. He came out here and hired out under a flag -- a pseudonym. He assumed the name of Harry Metag, a friend of his down in Minneapolis. I think he worked under that flag for about five years, and then he had the record changed. He'd been promoted in that time.
He held a passenger run out of here his last six years. He got into passenger service about '52. It was the preferred run. He'd go out on No. 26 here, took it to Billings, got there in a couple hours, laid there until No. 1 come out of there around 4 o'clock in the morning, or earlier than that, and brought No. 1 back and then he took No. 2 out of here at 4 o'clock that same day, and came back on 25 the next day, got here at 1 o'clock and was here until damn near noon, when he went back on 26. Handy job. Just like taking money away from a baby. He retired in 1958, with 52 years of service. I think he was about eighth in seniority. He was born in '84, and was 74 when he retired. It wasn't mandatory for him to retire at that time, but it was shortly afterwards.
I didn't become a fireman because they wouldn't employ me at Livingston at because my dad was employed here in the same service. It was a holdover from one master mechanic's opinion, and he had a terrible say over that. It was E. H. Carlson. I asked him many years later about his reason for it. He said "Willy Fisher got in fight with his dad on an engine at Muir." I said "Well Hell, I suppose that was the only fight there ever was on an engine then, wasn't it!" No answer. That was his policy. It was the only division I know of that employed it. On other divisions, that I know of, sons and fathers worked together in the same service. But I had so much seniority as a trainman that I never did it. I had three years' seniority when they finally hired firemen here. I went to work as a brakeman in '36 and they never hired firemen until '40. So it was the best move, but I always wanted to be an engineer. When I came along in 1936 it was getting to be pretty decent employment compared to what it had been only ten years before. By the time I got there things like putting retainers up on the run, which was done four or five years before, had ended. The men had unionized and had started to build better working conditions.
My dad had worked it all. He spent 17 years on a switch engine in Laurel, and Billings, and Butte, while I was going to school. He never did get to watch me play basketball, or anything I did in school, or my older brother, or my sisters. He was gone from the first of October to the first of June, almost every year for 17 years. I kept track of it.
That's why old Warren got to be number one. I made it a point not to let anybody get in front of me when I hired out. I had the good fortune that the PBX telephone operator here -- I was one of her pets. When the trainmaster in the office she was sitting in said he was going to hire some men, she immediately got on the phone and got a hold of me. I was working for the National Park Service driving a truck at West Thumb in Yellowstone Park. West Thumb's quite a ways from here. I had a Model T Ford. A friend of mine that was supposed to tell me couldn't get a hold of me on the telephone, he started Monday morning trying to call me and he never got a hold of me until Thursday night. Well I quit, and I left the park Friday morning. I drove that Model T to Livingston and just got here about ten minutes to five -- damn near 5 o'clock -- quittin' time.
When I went to work I told a roundhouse friend of mine "I'm goin' brakin'!" Man! I thought he'd slap me on the back and be elated like I was, but he just looked me right in the eye. He said "Every day is school day now." Not even a sign of a grin, just dead serious. I never forgot that.
I got all of the papers out of the office that evening and I started making student trips the next day. I went to Laurel on a freight train and came right back. Got a little sleep then I went to Butte on a freight train and laid in Butte for 12 hours and then came back. They only had one train in and out of Butte. Then I got over here and I found another freight train after I had some sleep that went to Helena. The first thing coming back was a cherry train. There was another guy there, a student, trying to come back on the same train. The conductor tried to talk both of us out of coming on that cherry train because we wouldn't learn anything -- there wasn't nothing to do. And he was right! But I was so goddamn afraid somebody would get ahead of me I insisted, doggedly, and he finally agreed to let me go, and the other kid too. And I was there at 9 o'clock the next morning to be marked up, and I was marked up, on the 11th of July, 1936. And the other guy never came along and marked up until later in the afternoon on the same day, I was number one and he was the second.
There were five Milwaukee guys that were experienced people from Three Forks -- they hired out ahead of me -- but as soon as the Milwaukee's business picked up they quit here and went back to Three Forks. Eventually, that number one position never did benefit me over that other guy, because we ended up on different jobs, had different likes and dislikes I would say, but I never had anybody to worry about after I got up there. The last guy to retire that benefited me retired in '56. That put me on a west end freight run. There were 11 crews working chain gang Livingston to Helena and I was able to hold one of those jobs, in 1956. I never got any more seniority after that day because that was the best job we had here.
Working as a brakeman from '36 to '42 -- I thought it was wonderful, I thought it was great. They got the Z-6 Mallets in October of '36, and that was a big improvement. I didn't like riding in the doghouse on the Mikes that we used and that the Mallets took the place of, because I couldn't ask questions. I was back there wondering what the Hell I was doing, what going on, watching everything backwards, wondering where I'd been. After that we got the Z-6s. I still would catch those W-3s, but usually just to Butte. That doghouse was bad. You're in there rocking. It's the worst thing you can have. They do it to babies and you never get over it, rock you to sleep -- as alert as you try to remain -- it'll rock you to sleep. Monotony will do it.
I was severely criticized and coached continuously by friends of my dad to make sure I didn't get in any bad habits and do dangerous things. I had somebody watching over me all the time. I didn't realize it, and when I did, I kind of objected to it. Why won't they let me grow up? But they were watching over me like a sheepherder does sheep. They took awful good care of me. My dad was well liked by trainmen, even though he was an engineer. Trainmen were traditionally instructed, I was instructed even, kind of slyly, that the engineer up there was the enemy of brakemen and conductors. He was always trying to bedevil them by mishandling the caboose or whatever. Usually this was all in error, I never thought that.
I never worked NP passenger as a brakeman intentionally, but I got shanghaied, drafted, so to speak, quite a number of times, because I had a passenger uniform. I think I got a passenger uniform two weeks after I went to work. I got a friend, a brakeman, to give me his old uniform, and I wore that. He was about my size.
I used to be cut off a lot. I worked that first winter until I think February, and then I got cut off. In '37 and '38 I worked from November until about June, and then I got cut off. I stayed at home and kept my feet under my dad's table, feeding me, and in '38 and '39, same thing again. I only got to work about four months of the year, well, four or five. In '39 we got railroad unemployment, and I was eligible. I drew two weeks of railroad unemployment, and then started working so regular that I was never eligible again.
When I wasn't working those first couple of years I was taking pictures. I stayed at home and my dad fed me. We didn't have unemployment. I didn't have much spending money, but I had enough I guess. It was an easy-going life. I used to go down and hang out at the pool haul when I got bored at home, and watch them play solo. It's a card game similar to bridge in the fact that it's imperative that you keep track of the cards. Solo and bridge, you'd better know where all the suits are, and that doesn't mean just trumps, that means them all. I'd just sit there and watch those old timers play cards. There were good card sharks there, men in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
You always had to fall back on dad and mom to keep the wolf from your door, and mom and pop did. I had a chance to get married in '39, but I didn't have a steady job -- I did -- but I didn't know it. It had been that way for three years and I wasn't about to enter into some compromise like that without being able to have a house or a window to throw it out of.
In 1937 I worked for three months in Washington for the GN. I had an uncle, my mother's sister married a conductor -- Tim Collins -- who went to work for the Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad. It was absorbed by the NP and he became employed by the Northern Pacific at Seattle. He was one of the old heads, he was used as a trainmaster in emergency situations and whenever they had a vacancy they couldn't fill, and also as rules examiner. I was working back here very little, in fact it's probably a good illustration of how management is with employees, or was in those days . . . . He said "Why don't you come out here and go to work for the Great Northern?" They were looking for men.
I got to Seattle and then my uncle the "Kernel" -- I used to call him the Kernel. He was a retired veteran who had been in the 30th Engineers during World War I, which was a railway battalion -- and a strict disciplinarian too, by the way. He took me down and introduced me to this trainmaster for the Great Northern -- C. A. Manthe. He gave me the book of rules, verbally. One of the first questions he wanted to know was "What was a train?" I thought my God -- I must have had 3,000 pictures of them at that time, but he wanted to know what it was. I couldn't describe them as the book of rules says you should. "An engine is a unit of power with or without cars moved by any form of energy." Something like that. I didn't know it then, and when I got home I told the Kernel I couldn't remember what the Hell a train was. He thought that was the tail end of the lemon -- he razzed me the rest of his life about "What's a train." Anyway, I guess I knew enough of the answers. I hadn't taken the book of rules since I went to work. I wasn't too sharp at it, but evidently the crisis was of sufficient magnitude that knowledge of the book of rules wasn't too important to C. A. Manthe.
I went to work there, and the first train I caught was a freight train -- the only freight train Great Northern ran -- they had some locals -- but I caught 402. It left Seattle most every night about 10. You went and struggled up the various rivers. You put a helper on at Gold Bar and went to Skykomish, and there you exchanged your steam power for electric power. I was cautioned not to touch the ground or the engine at the same time -- to isolate myself from one or the other immediately. If he's on sand he hasn't got any way to reach ground and you might provide the circuit that would prove detrimental to your good health. You stopped at Delta, Everett, and filled out on tonnage with business that came out of Everett and business from the north. You ended up with 5,250 tons -- that's what they wanted and that's the maximum tonnage they could handle. At Skykomish you took the engine off the head end of the train and took it back to the roundhouse and exchanged it for electric power, and went to eat there, too. Then you put three General Electric road engines on -- 5016 was our road engine that night -- then you brought a three-unit GE helper, the original 5000 series -- and cut that in behind 3,000 tons, and that consist remained in the train all the way up the hill, through New Cascade Tunnel, and then down the hill to Dryden. At Dryden you cut the helper out. You would arrive at Wenatchee in just about 16 hours. You used it all. You never loafed around anyplace. You laid in Wenatchee at a company hotel at Appleyard. You laid there 24 hours and got a dead day, waiting for 401 the next time it went. Of course when you got there, there was a 401 that left Appleyard about that time. I don't recall just how they swung the crew, but crews were of small importance. Paying dead days was something that was carefully avoided back here on the NP. I took particular notice of that, because they didn't give a damn whether or not held away from home terminal time was paid.
The next day of course we got called for 401, it seems to me that train was about noon or 10 A.M. out of Appleyard. Then you struggled back, without doing any local work at all. You might have set something out of Everett going west, but I don't remember it. We changed power again at Skykomish, and then came down the river. It was a very beautiful trip. I was the rear brakeman on this first trip, believe it or not. I was taking pictures out of the cupola, too, of the train and what I was seeing. Mostly of the apple orchards between Wenatchee and Dryden. I was quite impressed by those things.
I also had a passenger uniform -- all I had to do was exchange my Northern Pacific buttons on it with Great Northern passenger uniform buttons and I was in the style of the day. I think the next trip I caught was a passenger train -- 562 -- over the Prairie Line from Tacoma to Tenino and on into Portland. You stayed in Portland overnight and came back on 561. It was a day train, but a local train. The Northern Pacific had the high-speed passenger train between Seattle and Portland. I was also given extra money to buy cigarettes -- you could buy a carton cigarettes in Portland for around a dollar at the Freddy Meyer's drugstores in Portland. I'd take it back to Seattle to my aunt and uncle, both of whom smoked. Of course with Washington's three or five percent sales tax in those days, cigarettes were quite a bit more. So I came back with a suitcase full of cigarettes.
Next I think I caught the most surprising trip I ever made. It was a guessing game, everybody seemed to be totally oblivious to what we were doing. The conductor hadn't been on this line, we were called to dogcatch 711, which was the number of a local train which operated out of Vancouver, British Columbia, down to Everett, Washington. We got on a passenger train at King Street Station. The conductor had the transportation for me and two other brakemen -- a full crew law was in effect in the state of Washington. So you had a conductor and three brakemen. I was the oldest man on the crew in experience so I was the rear brakeman. We were to intercept 711 wherever the Hell we met it and relieve the crew and take over the duties of the train. I was accustomed to dogcatching, and I expected him to have damn near made it and be one or two stations short of his final destination. But up there we went up and continued on and on and pretty soon we were at the Canadian boundary -- and still nobody knew where that damned train 711 was. We finally ended up -- sort of hurriedly -- at New Westminster, about 11 miles out of Vancouver. What they did, in those days, was that Canada had no 16 hour law, so once they got you across the boundary at Blaine, why they'd work you forever! What they'd done with this crew was they'd taken their northbound train and gone into Vancouver, then got on another train and started back for Seattle. Of course he couldn't have crossed the border with it, so we intercepted it at New Westminster. The conductor told me to be real careful, it was getting dark. He said "A lot of the times we're going to stop on a bridge, and if you step off the end of that caboose, there ain't nothing to catch you but water down underneath you." I remember being cautioned about that. We ate a roast beef meal in Blaine on our way south, I must have been starved to death because I've never forgotten that meal I had at Blaine in a home-style restaurant. I never saw the conductor again. He got up on the head end and watched over two students, while we switched a half a dozen places between there and Everett. What we did I haven't the slightest idea -- I got off in the dark and I was in a fog anyway, all night long. We got to Everett, headed into Delta Yard, and I had to cut the caboose off, for some reason. I was told what to do. I never knew where I was at. But I cut the caboose off and the engine pulled that train down into a yard track. It came back through a lead and picked up that caboose and we pulled it up in the yard. We never made any switching move at all, we just stopped on that lead. I went back about two or three car lengths and put two torpedoes on the rail, and they did that on the other end. We went back to the yard office and got a taxi back to Seattle. I don't think I was ever on a trip that I knew less about what was going on -- and I wasn't alone either. That was a trip of all trips. That poor old conductor, you can imagine what kind of work he had to do, and with two students! He probably had to work hard all night to keep from running over them.
I worked on the Great Northern during that winter of '37, and they never called me back in '38, because we still had a recession in this country in '38. In '39, when business got good here, and also out there, they called me. I didn't go. I knew everybody here, they had lots better jobs out there, lots more jobs, and I would have had a lot better pick of jobs. There were passenger trains, they had a regular passenger train to Portland every day, they had a regular passenger train to Vancouver, British Columbia every day, they had three passenger trains every day to Spokane, they had one freight train every day to Spokane. Back here we only had three passenger trains each way each day, plus a couple of stub runs out of Helena and Butte. We had local freight trains of course, and out there they had zillions of them. They had three mark up boards out there, they were about six or seven feet wide and about ten feet high, at Interbay. They had a line every two inches on those boards with a crew on each, and there were three boards necessary to catalogue and identify all the trainman jobs. Back here we had one.
That first year I was out there my uncle, being a trainmaster, said I should sit down and write your boss back in Livingston that you're out here gaining some valuable experience and that you'd like a leave of absence. If they don't need you they'll probably give it to you. Well I didn't agree with him at all, and I told him so. But I said in honor of you I'll do it, but I think it's a mistake. So I did. And in October 1937 I got a letter that said report back here in ten days or give up your seniority.
I went over to the yard office to look at the line up after I got this letter, and I think I was 13 or 14 times out. I went by the NP's roundhouse on the way back home, and I missed three calls. So they hung me on a peg there, kind of like an eight ball arrangement, that I was unavailable. I had to meet with the trainmaster and explain myself before they'd let me go to work. Well instead of doing that I jumped in the Model T Ford and drove back to Livingston -- never let them know nothing. I got here and marked up the board within that ten day limit. I laid on that board three days, they called me and let me go to Laurel -- I went to Laurel and back on a train -- two days work. I got back and laid on the board for three more days and he cut me off. That was how bad he needed me. There were 21 men on the extra board, and work for about six!
My boss back here was Dan Healy. He was a conductor promoted out of the ranks. He was a good boss, 'cept he was causing me a lot of trouble. Never got any infractions of the rules, never got any complaints about my work that I knew of. He told me when he hired me, "Well, show me a man that don't make any mistakes, and I'll show you a man that don't do anything." It guided me through my whole railroad career. Damned right.
When he cut me off, I jumped back in the Model T Ford, drove back to Seattle, walked into the trainmaster's office and told him I just got back, I'm ready to go to work. He said "Where the Hell have you been?" I said "Well you hung me on that lay off thing there and I didn't know what to do about it so I just took off." He didn't think much of that for an alibi but he accepted it. Well I worked there for another month and then he cut me off. Business depression in 1937-'38 was world-wide, it just took a little longer to reach some places than others. That's the way they would treat you. Make me drive 2,000 miles for one trip. He didn't need me any more than he needed another head. But they were so jealous of their people . . . . I knew that's what he'd do. So I came home in the Model T in November, taking pictures all the way. I went through Wallace, took pictures of those 3100s, 3000s, working on the Wallace Branch in those days.
In 1939 business finally improved so I worked year-round then. In 1939, '40 and '41 I never missed anything then -- I worked all the time. I came in on 603 one afternoon around 2 or 3 o'clock and when we stopped at the east switch to go up No. 6 Track an opposing train that was in the yard waiting for our arrival lined the switches for me and called up the gangway and said "Did you hear the news?" What news? "The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor." The rest of it was history. I worked I think until the first of the year, then I laid off and went back east and took pictures of engines. I went back to Brainerd.
I went into the Army the first of March 1942. I was in the first class -- sent to Fort Lewis. I took the contingent from Livingston. There were 40 of us here, all went together, I was in charge because I was a railroad man and knew how to get around the stations and transfer places. They were no problem anyway. I was 27 years old. Most everybody was up in their twenties.
I went to Fort Lewis and spent four or five days there. They asked me what I wanted to get into and I told them the Signal Corps, so they sent me to the Air Corps. I spent I think six weeks basic training at Shepherd's Field, Texas. I took a lot of pictures of the Katy down there. They had little Standard engines yet, running on the Katy. Little teakettles, pulling trains down there like I'd never seen. I couldn't believe my eyes to see the size of the engines they were using down there. I finished my basic training. During the last two weeks or so, I was monitoring the orderly room, they were hunting for me all day, and they came and asked me what I wanted to do in the Air Corps. I said "Send me to general duty." I didn't want to volunteer for anything -- they put me in airplane mechanics. They sent me to Lincoln, Nebraska, to a private school, and we stayed at the YMCA. Boy was that good duty. Ronald Nixon brought my car down to me -- I was there four and a half months. I chased trains all over Nebraska and Iowa.
When I got through there -- the Lincoln Aeronautical Institute -- they asked me if I wanted to work for a photographic squadron, so I went for that in a big way. They needed three of us. One was a dancer from Hollywood -- he had experience in photography being in the movies -- the other had a 35mm Argus, and was always crazy about taking pictures but didn't know how, never did know how -- and myself. I had about six to eight thousand negatives at that time. I was the only one who really knew had any qualification. But they didn't want me as a photographer! They wanted me as a mechanic! They sent me to Colorado Springs where the aerial reconnaissance squadrons were flying. I got there in late September, and left there the 27th of December for overseas. It took us forever. It took us 27 days to cross that damned Pacific. Slow boat to China. I enjoyed being away. I'd never seen the Pacific Ocean of course. I was impressed, very much, after we got out on that thing after four days -- that thing turned to glass that ocean -- that thing was just as smooth as a sea of glass as far as the eye could see. We had the cruiser Chicago escorting us. I don't know how many ships in the convoy, but it took us 27 days to get to New Caledonia. We had loaded our stuff in boxes in Colorado Springs -- we had 218 tons of boxes of photographic equipment. We got to Nouméa and we put them on a barge. Then we took them off the barge and put them on the shore. Then we took them off the shore and put them back in the hills. They sat there three, four, five days in the hills, and then we loaded them back down to the wharf, back onto a barge, back onto a ship . . . . I think we handled those boxes 17 times before they got the damned things where they wanted them.
I spent 18 months in the New Hebrides, mapping the Solomon Islands, part of the New Guinea, New Georgia, Bougainville, New Britain, and I don't know what else. We made photographs of these islands, and then an engineering battalion we had with us would take them and make little maps from them. They'd fit over a pilot's leg. It gave that pilot at his instant command to consult and navigate with. We mapped Rabaul, which as far as we knew, was impregnable. At the end of the war we had invaded New Britain and had left part of a regiment on that island. We landed at place on New Britain where there was no Japanese interference, and those guys sat there and defended and held onto a perimeter on that island until the end of the war. By the end of the war Rabaul had been bypassed, and there were 140,000 Japanese on that island and we had a group of around 42,000 at New Britain. I think that scared everybody in that outfit to death when they found out how many troops were there! It was something to find out.
I was a maintenance man in the photographic section, I built the photo labs, I maintained the photo labs, and all the equipment, and furnished water and all those things. When Halsey and MacArthur linked up in the South Pacific we were sent back to Hawaii, and we linked up with an observation squadron which originally had balloons! We were sitting there at Wheeler Field in Honolulu for about four months. I think we got there in April. We regrouped and got new aircraft, personnel, new equipment.
The observation people had been at Hickham Field when the Japanese attacked -- they'd seen two days of war and that was it. They all had stripes on them like a baboon, but they didn't know anything. We were all short of rank, but we were all smarties because we'd had some experience down there in doing without, and learned to improvise. That was the key, and that's my name -- improvisation. It was right up my alley. I made sockets out of nails, I made double outlets out of cotter pins, and I had to do without almost all the time and I learned how to do without. I made insulators out of the necks of beer bottles. All kinds of things like that. So we joined this outfit and we were there from April until the invasion of Saipan. We landed there six days before they secured Saipan. I stayed there until the B-29s came there.
The B-29 crews took pictures of Tokyo and developed them as the book said -- by time and temperature -- we'd learned not to do this. I was instrumental in getting them to put up safe lights and telling them to inspect their film before they poke it out of the developer. They'd all gone through a school which said you develop it by time and temperature, well, here you send a guy out there 2,000 miles to take a picture for you and then you jeopardize his life by not making sure that those pictures are fully developed? We'd develop by inspection, with a green light, with a very faint filter. The B-29 crews developed by time and temperature and wound up with a thin negative, then they didn't know how to print a thin negative! They were almost underdeveloped -- they were exposed properly but they were underdeveloped because the temperature was either too cold or too hot -- they don't develop as fast at that temperature. They had them three days and couldn't make decent prints with them. They brought them over to us and gave us 12 hours to do it, which we did. We printed all the pictures of the first B-29 raid over Tokyo from Saipan.
We stayed on Saipan until August of 1945 and we started to regroup again -- we didn't know where the Hell we were going. Later we found out we were going to invade Kyushu in Japan, but we were going to go to China and set up a photo lab over there with a mapping squadron. Then the atomic bombs were dropped. Nobody was happier about that than we were. We were out there 33 months. I had some buddies in the National Guard from Livingston -- they were out there 41 months, before they got to come home. They were no tea parties, either.
It didn't take them long to get me out after the Japanese finally surrendered. It took me 12 days, 12 days on a tub, I think it was in a washtub, to get to Seattle from Hawaii! That's the last time I read a book, too, on that tub! Landed in Seattle and in three days I was a civilian. It didn't take long at Fort Lawton, 24th of September, 1945. Had a pass waiting for me there and come home on the train. I stopped in Spokane and took some pictures though. And I got married to that girlfriend of mine September 21, 1946 -- a year to the day when I landed in the United States.
I got a letter from my father once while I was overseas, with all the regular people drafted they had every farmer they could get trying to fill his shoes. My dad wrote to me and he said "Well, I made a trip to Helena on cold water. Never thought I could do it." What he meant was that he had a fireman who couldn't make steam, he didn't know how to fire the engine. He had a student brakeman and a student fireman, and had to do all of those chores by himself. He didn't have enough steam pressure to go anywhere. I felt pretty awful. The Army really had too many of us out there, but then they never knew how many of us were going to get killed, so they have about ten for every one they need. So the regular people just got worked pretty damn hard, but they had to have those experienced people. A handful of men ran the railroad, in all fairness. And I felt sorry for my dad, 'cause I knew what there was to do. I would have been a Hell of a lot more service to this country being back here as a brakeman than out there as a tech sergeant in a photo-mapping squadron.
We had a conductor here once, during World War II he had a brakeman who could run like a deer. He said "He'd run a half a mile and throw a switch so you could run through it. I had him at Logan one day on 652, our local, and I asked him 'Have you got a caboose key?'" He says give it here. So he gave it to him, and the conductor said "Now you stay in this caboose," and he locked both doors and went off and did the work. He was afraid he'd kill him, or run over him, or run through all the damn switches in Logan, and the safest place for him was in that locked up caboose.
I got promoted when I was in the Army in 1944 -- I was overseas yet. My class got promoted. I came back and made my first trip on October 31, 1945. They were out of men again. I worked the month of October one day, and it cost me all kinds of taxes, all kinds of hospital assessments and union dues and good God all to accommodate them. But I did. I didn't barely get nothing. But they were out of men, they're always out of men. That's the name of the game on the railroad -- out of men. I worked in freight service, westward from Livingston to Helena, for six or seven months. I tried to get a day off and I tried to get in here on a train at midnight, half-way rested, and get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and drive up to Gardiner and fish in the Yellowstone River and come back and not miss a trip. Do you know that in seven months I never made it? I got so damned mad at the west end I just quit it and went to the east end and worked down there seven years. Never left it.
I thought I'd work some passenger in the '70s after Amtrak came along -- which ran three days a week. You couldn't operate the train three days a week with one crew, the way the scheduled it. On Tuesdays and Thursdays you had a train going each way east and west out of Livingston, so this required an extra crew. That crew supply was out of Livingston, so they had to deadhead a passenger crew from Livingston to Billings to man that train the next morning. They left here on the bus at 10 o'clock at night, got to Billings and got his rest. Then he came out of Billings on No. 9, took it to Butte. He met the other Amtrak train at West End, then got to Butte, and laid there 44 hours -- Tuesday night to Thursday morning -- then brought the eastbound Amtrak from Butte back to Billings, and then deadheaded back to Livingston. This was five day's pay. I made five day's pay on one trip, and the regular crew made four day's pay on the regular train. So it was a candy job, and it was play.
I would make sure that I was available at 8 o'clock at night every Monday. One of those Monday nights I marked up in time to catch that Amtrak turn, and they sent a conductor to Forsyth. We had a lap-mileage crew that worked out of Forsyth to Laurel. They ran over our seniority district from East Billings to Laurel, 17 miles each trip. They had eight crews down there and those eight crews, if they worked each day, had about 120 some mile. It would just about take one crew to balance those miles. So they sent me down to Laurel to relieve a conductor that was on that run. But everybody thought "Ha Ha Ha, McGee caught it!" But I enjoyed it, because I'd never worked that job. All I had to do was spend two weeks down there. I wish to Hell I'd spent more time doing more constructive things than I did.
There was a yardmaster there who went to work in the 1890s -- he'd had a leg cut off -- he'd had a boomer's experience and he was a walking encyclopedia. And I didn't get to talk to him, and I kicked myself forever because there was so much information I could have gained from him. I never came in contact with him until 1972 when I started chasing the Bozeman Trail and using a tape recorder. If I'd have just done that with that old fella there. He was something else. I enjoyed him. He lied to me there by the hour, every night, and told stories like you can't believe. And I never wrote a Goddamned one of them down! I can't even remember his name, but what he knew would fill an encyclopedia.
I did a lot of my research work, a lot of the stuff I was interested in, reading especially, in the Finlen Hotel in Butte in those 44 hours. I used to stay there damn near all of those 44 hours in my room, reading and catching up. Nothing else to do in Butte 'cept play cards and gamble, but I ain't that kind. I never had any spare time. So that's the way I killed my last years.
I became an authority on things because I read about them. They were of interest. I found magazines and books at the library, I used to go there and read Railway Age. I cut out clippings and everything. It was just like falling off a log -- as natural as breathing I guess. I applied myself to it. Not intending to be, but of interest, of major interest to me. Who ran the fastest, who ran the slowest, who had the most wrecks, who didn't have wrecks, how the wrecks happened. I kept track of every engine I saw and I wrote it down, when I was 8, 10, 12 years old. Numbers interested me, I can remember numbers forever. If I can associate or put a number on anything I'll remember it. I got A+ in U.S. History -- that's the only subject I got A+ in, I pretty near flunked English. I thought it was a terrible subject. It was dry, inconsequential, and unnecessary I guess, but I passed it. But when I got out of school and was working I talked to a teacher, my brother-in-law, and he said "Unless you have the power and ability to express yourself it doesn't make a damn bit of difference how smart you are. Your education ain't worth a damn unless you can pass it on to someone else." Yes, for our personal satisfaction, but we're not satisfied with just knowing, we're not satisfied until we can meet someone else who's knowledgeable about the same subject and we can talk about it, and exchange -- idea, knowledge. I was the most surprised guy, when I found that out, but that's what we gain knowledge for -- to pass it on.
Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: From A to Z with Warren McGee.
© November 20, 2000