Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Last of the Big Boys

 Happy 150th, Union Pacific Railroad!
This blog post originally had a week's run starting March 7, 2012 on History Undressed.

The Last of the ‘Big Boys’
From the series “Southwest Wyoming:  A Tough Place to Live.”
(Originally printed in the Historical Issue of the Green River Star, March 19,1998.)

I didn’t want to go down in that hole.  I wanted to see the sunshine.
– C.D. “Don” Englert

Fresh out of high school in Superior, Wyoming in the spring of 1950, C.D. “Don” Englert had the choice of joining the Union Pacific Railroad or the coal mine.  He picked the railroad, starting on the extra gang at Thayer Junction where the Superior road joined Highway 30.

The extra gang was a labor intensive crew of 180 men that comprised three gangs in one.  The first gang raised the track, the second put in the ties, and the third ballasted and tamped.

The four-hole, bolted track was raised and leveled by eye, with a “rabbit” peepsite on the track and a long white spotboard with a black line.  But according to Don, raising track without benefit of electronics still “made a good looking track.”

While other U.P. divisions were rapidly converting to diesel engines, the Wyoming Division continued to run the huge black steam engines called Big Boys in order to best utilize the company’s coal.  Men hitched rides to work on Monday on milk trains, local trains that hauled the mail and were willing to stop anywhere free of cost to company employees.
Union Pacific Railroad's 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" class steam locomotive #4019 and
string of PFE cars in Echo Canyon, Utah.  First of this type locomotive built in
1941 for freight service.
Photo Courtesy Sweetwater County Historical Museum

During the week, maintenance-of-way workers lived in outfit cars, 10 or more men in each boxcar converted with windows, a door, a stove and bunks lining the walls.  One or two men in the bunk car kept coal and water buckets filled.

Breakfast and dinner were served in the commissary car, but chow lines formed at the work site for lunches of huge 20-gallon “hot pots” of soup with sandwiches.  While the crew was working, one man was designated the water boy.  With his wooden barrels, a bucket and a dipper, he would start with the head man and come down through the line offering each a drink from the dipper.

Unable to completely fill the ranks for the grueling summer work, the railroad recruited on the skid rows of 25th Street in Ogden, Utah; Larimer Street in Denver; and in Cheyenne. 

Don recalls with amusement that the “winos” worked only until they got their paychecks of $1.12 an hour and that today there would be few who would be willing to share living quarters or the same water dipper with them.

With grades and curves the enemies of railroad efficiency and heavy Big Boys hammering the rail, there was still work for an ambitious young man after the extra gang was disbanded for the winter.

Don took a job as a section man, married and lived with his bride in a two-room boxcar with no running water.  He passed the foreman’s exam in 1952, working the Wyoming Division between Ogden and Cheyenne relieving other foremen for vacations.  

Promoted again to rail inspector, Don rode a little motorcar with no windshield, looking for broken rail, bad ties and deep holes in the track.  Before the days of insulated coveralls, a rail inspector wore layers of clothing to ward off the bitter cold and wrapped his feet in a piece of sheepskin.  Putt-putting down the track against the Wyoming wind, it often took much longer than eight hours to cover the 30 miles a day, stopping to inspect all the switches and look for loose bolts.  When he came up on a curve, he set the 500-pound motorcar off by its handles and inspected the curve on foot with a magnifying Sands mirror, looking under the rail for cracks, head and web separation and broken rail.

The lineup was put out morning and noon to alert workers on the track to train schedules.  Every two hours, Don would stop at a telephone situated at passing tracks or use a field phone with a long pole that connected to the telegraph lines to call the dispatcher.  Wiley Shaver was the dispatcher in Green River and if he gave a time on a train, “you better believe it” according to Don.  Or a brave man could just “look for the smoke” of the steam engines; not an option with the coming of the diesels!

Telegraph poles no longer line the track.  The coal chutes are gone.  But those who worked the rails remember when the Big Boys passed and men stood with shirt collars clutched and eyes closed against flying cinders as the boiler worked uphill.  Still yet at Creston Hill, Tipton Hill and in to Rock Springs, the carbon residue from steam engines drifts deep in the ditches alongside welded tracks built mainly now with machines instead of manpower.


Alethea Williams said...

> Hi Chris,

> Congratulations on your guest post. It was interesting reading about working on the railroad back in those days. I hope to have time to check out your blog tomorrow. In the meantime, keep writing.

> Abbie

Alethea Williams said...

Hi, Chris.

I enjoyed reading the piece about the Big Boys. Somehow the 1950's don't seem like ancient history, but they are, aren't they?

The railroad story was particularly interesting to me because of my grandson's fascination with trains. The rest of us have learned so many things about railroads because of him, and we've walked miles of track, seen some of the little cars Don might have used, and discussed how the track was laid. I took some recent pictures of ties being replaced, and the process is much different today—just a few workmen and lots of machinery. If Kyle were older and had a longer attention span, he might enjoy the article, too. I found it fascinating. Thanks for sharing.


George Shaver said...

I just accidentally happened upon this post. My Grandfather was Wiley Shaver, the train dispatcher in Green River. He started out as a telegraph operator in Birmingham, Alabama.

He died at the age of 102, after he fell and broke his hip, while on his daily walk. I think it was in 1991 or 92, not sure of the exact date.