The Railroad Years
By Mary Walker

      Havre, is one of the larger towns of the north Montana prairie.  In the 1940s, it relied on the local farmers and ranchers for the bulk of it's income.  Also, the fact that it was a major terminal on the Great Northern Railroad added to the population as well as the economy.  Not long gone were the rip roaring times of it's past that had made Havre the epitome of a wild west town.  As far as the railroad was concerned, Havre was a crew change point, with classification yards, a roundhouse, rip track, and all the other things that made up a terminal.

      Havre, like everywhere else in the country, had many of it's boys off at war and was doing it's best to get by.  When I decided I wanted to earn some spending money on my own, the railroad was happy to put me to work wiping down steam engines in the round house.  Despite the war, they had an image to keep, and dirty, greasy engines did not contribute to that image.  The top of steam engines are quite a ways off of the ground so crawling around on them took awhile to get used to.  Also, the engines were always warm from their last run and that would give a soothing feeling.

     When I heard that the railroad needed depot operators, it sounded like a great opportunity.  However, because of the war, the railroad and the government discouraged changing jobs.  It was in the best interests of the country to keep a stable work force, especially in an industry that was vital to the war effort.  It took special permission to make the change, but since a depot operator would be of more value than an engine wiper, permission was granted.  It also took a commitment on my part to learn telegraphy.

     Actually, the railroad was desperate for operators.  Otherwise, they would never have considered a woman for what was believed to be a "man's" job.  The "man's" job attitude showed up occasionally throughout my days on the railroad but was never a big problem.

     The railroad uses a seniority system so that those with the most whiskers (seniority) get to change shifts or stations when an opening comes up by "bidding" or "bumping" for the job, depending on the status of the job.  For a new- hire there is the "extra board."  Those on the extra board have to be content with being a relief operator when a regular operator is on vacation or is sick.  The way to get off the extra board is to build enough seniority to bid in a job at one of the less desirable stations.  Then as more seniority builds, bid on jobs at more desirable locations, a long and sometimes painful process.  The result is that one must move many, many times, often, not staying at any one place long enough to unpack the boxes.  In remote areas, the railroad provided houses for the operators but only enough for the three shifts at the depot.  When someone wanted a vacation, the relief operator had to move into the regular operator's house for two weeks or what ever time the vacation was for, then get out before he got back.  The houses usually consisted of two rooms, a kitchen/dining/living room and a bedroom not much larger than the bed, no electricity, no plumbing, and one coal stove for cooking and heating.  The out-house was about 50 feet away in back of the house.  The first trick operator's house was a little larger than the other two and sometimes built right into the back side of the depot.  They were "King of the hill."  At larger towns, such as Olney, population 100, the operator was on his own to find housing.

     Along with the problems of moving and housing, add a preschool age son and not knowing how to drive a car.  This made each move a  little more difficult and created a  total dependence on the railroad for transportation.  Frequently, in the beginning, our belongings would go into the baggage car and we would get onto the one coach of the Fast Mail and be on our way to the next job.  Later, as our  possessions grew and the moves not as frequent, the railroad would provide a boxcar to move our things in.  There are quite a few small  towns between Havre, Montana and Spokane, Washington, my territory, but only a dozen that were small enough to allow me to bend the         rules and keep John with me while on the job.  Consequently, we moved in and out of the same places quite often.

      My first job was in the little town of Stryker, Montana. The town consisted of about ten families, a Post Office, and a railroad depot.  The function of the depot was for the operator to copy train orders dictated by the dispatcher and for the operator to hand them to the train crew as the train went by.  This was done with the aid of a train order hoop that held a loop of string which the train orders were tied to.  Pat Adams, who had some operating experience, was to be my instructor.  Her father was Chief Dispatcher at the time, and lived in Whitefish, Montana, about 30 miles away, so on weekends she would go home to her folks and I was left to fend for myself.  Stryker had three shifts so there were three operators.  As a beginner, I got the night shift. Since I had John with me, I purchased an Army cot and he slept in the depot while I worked.  If I knew that a crew would be coming in the depot before my shift was over, I would move him from the office to the freight room.  At the end of my shift, I would bundle him up and carry him about half a mile to the section men's house they were letting us use since operator housing wasn't available there.

     Stryker was also where the trains took on water and while they filled up they would inspect the trains.  My son, John, was about four years old, but he loved to chat with the train men.  One time he told one of them, "My mother is trying to be an operator, but I don't think she will make it."  Years later this conductor told me about that and we both had a good laugh.

     There was a time when Stryker was a very important stop for the Great Northern, Empire Builder.  Not for passengers, but for fish.  A fish hatchery in the mountains above the town had a contract to supply fresh trout for the diners.  Twice a day, the owner would be at the depot with his fish and the trains would stop only long enough for the package to be tossed on board the diner.

     The next small place was Tobacco, Montana, named for an Indian's attempt to grow tobacco in that area.  This place had three houses, a depot, water tank, and a pump house to fill the tank, not even a Post Office.  The nearest road was two miles away by hiking down the tracks and the nearest town was Eureka, about six miles away.  John and I would hike as far as the road and most times we were lucky enough to catch a ride into Eureka to get our groceries.  It was usually dark by the time we returned home and walking along the tracks I could often smell bear, and knew they were not very far away.  As usual, we had an out-door toilet, so at night we always carried a flashlight and made a lot of noise so we wouldn't accidentally bump into a bear.  The railroad was good about providing a boxcar to move our furniture in, but the times we lived at Tobacco created an extra problem.  The nearest side track to spot a boxcar on was by the road and two miles away.  I always had to rely on a friendly section man to provide a push car to move us between the house and the boxcar.

     Other stations had a gravity flow system to keep the water tank full, but at Tobacco there was a water pump which was an extra bonus to me.  In addition to my depot duties, I was given the responsibility of keeping the tank full so that steam engines could take on water.  The pump consisted of a single cylinder gas engine that drove the pump and a large flywheel.  There wasn't any self starter for the gas engine.  The magneto had to be turned on, then the flywheel had to be turned by hand until the engine fired a couple of times.  Similar to hand cranking an old car, but the flywheel was larger in diameter than I am tall and it weighed around 500 to 1000 pounds.  It took all the strength I had to get it moving, but the extra pay for keeping the tank full made up for the hard work.

     We were at Tobacco when John started school.  I would walk him to the road to catch the school bus for Eureka, but since I was working second trick (railroad language for shift) he was on his own to walk the tracks home.                

     During the summer months, we would go swimming in the Tobacco River, a short distance from our house.  In the winter time we played a lot of board games, like checkers, and listened to records on a wind up phonograph.  John and I even played Hide and Seek in our two room house, which made it difficult not to find the other.  Our bath tub was a wash tub which also served as a laundry tub and clothes had to be scrubbed on a washboard and boiled on top of the stove as we didn't have Purex.  The water we used had to be carried in a bucket and heated on the stove.

     One summer, while John was visiting in Havre, my daughter Mary Alice and her sister-in-law Shirley Brauer came from Seattle for a visit.  Mary Alice had never lived anywhere smaller than Havre and Shirley had never been out of Seattle.  What a shock to the two of them.  Tobacco's population took a jump.  Including those two, it was six.

     Refrigeration was never a problem in the winter, a box on the back porch served nicely.  However, in the summer it became a real  problem.  The railroad provided a small ice box  and dropped off ice about once a week, so some perishables could be kept cold.  We  relied a lot on canned meats such as Spam that didn't have to be refrigerated.  Fruits and vegetables were kept on the back porch for as  long as they would last.

     We discovered one day that something was eating our tomatoes, stored on the porch.  In a couple of days it turned out to be a kitten that was nearly starved to death.  Evidently, it's mother was left by an earlier operator and had turned wild.  We guessed that the mother was then killed by a larger animal after the kitten was born.  It didn't take long to tame the kitten, a little Spam and some milk did it.  We took that cat with us wherever we had to move after that in a special box made for him.  The trainmen would let us bring him on the coach as long as we promised not to let him out.  He soon learned to hate that box, so when he saw me packing, he would disappear for a couple of days, then show up just in time for the move.  When we left Leonia for the last time he didn't come back in time, and we had to leave without him.  I heard later that an Indian family adopted him, so he got a home after all.

     One of the operators duties was to be out on the platform to visually check over a train as it passed by, and using hand signals (in the days before radio) let the conductor in the caboose know if there was a problem on his train.  There were numerous things that could go wrong, a Hot Box, Flat Wheel, dragging equipment, loose load, etc.  In the early days, before roller bearings became common, Hot Boxes were a frequent problem.  The wheel axles were packed with a thread-like material called "waste" which was saturated with oil, that kept the bearing lubricated.  When the waste would become to dry, heat would build up until the waste caught on fire and if not discovered in time, could result in a bearing failure or even catch the train on fire.

     Just such an incident happened when I was at Tobacco.  I noticed a Hot Box as the train was speeding through and as the caboose approached I pinched my nose with thumb and fore finger to give the signal.  Only this time, no one was out on the caboose platform to see me.  I told the dispatcher about the Hot Box when I reported the train through my station, yet he didn't seem too concerned.  About fifteen miles further west, between Eureka and Rexford, the train went on the ground.  About fifteen cars derailed, spilling their contents and tearing up the track.  When I found out who the conductor of that train was, I knew that he had a reputation for being an alcoholic and figured that might have something to do with his not being out when the caboose went through.

     Back to Stryker again and like the first time, I got permission from the Roadmaster to move into a vacant section house.  The Section Foreman, Barto Joy, didn't want an operator living in one of his section houses but the Roadmaster had more authority, and Barto couldn't deny us.  Instead, he said, "My dog is going to kill your cat."  His dog was a German Shepherd who did not like cats so it may have been more of a warning than a spiteful threat.  By this time our cat had grown to become very large and I wasn't worried because I knew that the cat could take care of himself.  A couple of nights after moving in, I heard a bang, bang against the side of the house.  I didn't go outside, I figured the cat and dog were settling their argument.  Later when I let the cat in, there wasn't a mark on him, but the dog never came around our place again.

     Volcour was another station we frequented.  It was very much like Tobacco only the road was closer and it didn't require walking the tracks to get to it.  There was also a farm at Volcour which nearly doubled the population and the Kootenai river flowed in a big bend behind the farm.  The school bus was a pickup truck with a box built on the back and planks on each side for seats.  As it bounced on the rutted logging road to Warland, kids were frequently thrown out of their seats.

     I mentioned earlier that resentment of women taking over a man's job wasn't usually a problem.  We did have one dispatcher that clearly didn't like working with women and that was Mr. Shaw.  One day, Mr. Shaw was giving me and another station an order and was going so fast that I couldn't copy fast enough to stay up with him.  I said, "Break!"  "I can't keep up with you."  He said, "You've got a man's job, now do a man's work!"  Later, that day, I told him that I was so mad at him that if I were with him I would pull his whiskers.  He just laughed and told me that I would have to settle for his goatee.  That confrontation seemed to take care of the problem because he always treated me better after that.

     On another occasion, and a different dispatcher, I had orders for a freight train and when I told him that the train was in the "block," he either didn't hear or he ignored me. Either way, he didn't give me a "clearance" to hand up with the orders.  I had to throw a red board against the train at the last second, since without a clearance, it is against the rules for a train to proceed.  The train made a panic stop and the head brakeman had to come into the depot and wait for the clearance.  The train was on an uphill grade and had a terrible time getting started again.  They had to back up to bunch up the cars, then pull forward with everything they had to get the train moving.  As the slack would run out, it sounded like thunder rolling down the train.  Each time the train would stall, and they would have to back up and try again.  About the fourth or fifth try, they finally got going.  I'm not sure if they blamed me for their problem, but I am sure there was a lot of swearing going on in the engine.

     Volcour, for some reason, was the place we seemed to land at more often than any other.  Consequently, more stories originated there.  During one stay, I was working third trick, and was delighted to see that the second trick operator always left the kerosene lamps with perfectly clean chimneys.  This was particularly surprising since she had a reputation for being somewhat of a slob.  It wasn't until a week after she left that I discovered the truth when I broke a lamp chimney.  All depots kept a case or two in the freight room and when I went to get a new one, I found a full case of dirty ones.

     Another time we came into Volcour to relieve an operator on vacation for two weeks and had to move into his house.  The house was filthy from one end to the other and unbearable to live in.  On my time off, I cleaned and cleaned.  Sometime after that stay, I ran into the operator's wife and she complimented me by saying that I was the first relief operator that had ever stayed in her house and left it as clean as they had found it.

     In the middle of the night, on third trick, I had orders for an east bound freight.  When the depot indicators showed that the train was in the block, I started watching for a headlight and as soon as it became visible, went outside to hand up the orders.  Silhouetted in the oncoming train's headlight were some horses standing on the track about a hundred yards away, about the location of the west switch.  I let out a scream but there wasn't anyone there to hear me.  A train couldn't stop fast enough under those conditions and this one plowed right through, throwing horses in both directions. The impact of a horse hitting the switch stand was hard enough to bend it.  Luckily, the switch points didn't move or the train could have wrecked right there.  The next day, the section men were kept busy burying horses and making repairs to the switch.

     Rex Cobble was the first trick operator at Volcour so he and his wife had the living quarters in back of the depot.  As we were leaving for the next assignment, after one of our stays there, we had our belongings boxed up and on the platform.  The cat was in it's hated box beside us and the train was in sight.  About the time the train was flagged to stop, Cobble's dog discovered that the cat was in the box and helpless.  Normally, this yappy, little dog was deathly afraid of our cat and would go to great lengths to avoid it.  This time was it's chance and it ran up to the cat, barking and carrying on.  Faster than anyone could see, the cat lashed out from between the bars on the door of the box and got the dog in the eye, blinding him.  We were very glad to grab the cat box, jump on the train and get out of there.

     Warland was five miles west of Volcour.  Compared to Volcour, Warland was huge.  It had a very large lumber mill and a raw log loading operation that transferred logs from trucks to railroad cars.  The town also had a general store and a tavern to keep the loggers lubricated.  The school was built to have four rooms, however, only two rooms were needed for the student population and school was taught by a husband and wife team.  The wife had grades 1 through 4 in one room and the husband had 5 through 8 in another.

     Around the time John was in first grade, I was working the second trick at Volcour for an operator on vacation.  On the last day, I was given orders to report at Warland on first trick the following day.  After my shift was over, I made a bed for John in his wagon, and carrying a suitcase, pulled him to Warland.  The rest of our belongings followed on the train the next day.

     During our stay in Warland, John got into a fight with another boy in the General Store and they broke the glass window in the door.  I had to pay for half of the cost of a new  window and the other boy's parents had to pay for the other half.  It was also during that stay, that my son Edwin came home from the service with his new bride, Emma.  They stayed with us a few days, then went on to Havre.

     Again I was bumped and went to Elk, Washington.  This was a little easier, as we stayed in a hotel, and school was not far away.  We didn't stay in Elk very long as I was just relieving the operator for his vacation, but long enough to have an indirect roll in the only dog fight I have ever seen in church.  The operator had asked me to look after his dog while he was on vacation, so the dog, being lonely, somewhat attached himself to me.  On a beautiful sunny, Sunday morning, the dog must have followed us to church, because in the middle of the sermon he came wandering in through the open door.  Asleep in the aisle, was his arch enemy, another dog of about the same size and strength.  They went at it right there, women were screaming, men were swearing, and everyone was trying to get out of the way.  When it was all over, one woman implied it was all my fault.  Figure that one out.  Certainly, no one was sleepy after that and the pastor continued the sermon to an attentive congregation.

     Leonia, Idaho was different from the other small towns in a lot of ways.  Just across the tracks from the depot was the Kootenai river with a bridge over the river being the only life line to the outside world other than the railroad.  The station only had a first trick so we got the living quarters in the back of the depot, complete with running water and electricity.  The depot also sat on the Montana/Idaho border which meant that we slept in Idaho but ate in Montana.  The Post Office and General Store were in Idaho, while the section bunk houses and signalman's house were in Montana.  A neighbor frequently fished on the river and one day the Game Warden caught him on the wrong side of the border.  A slight oversight that cost him dearly.

     One day a freight train went by and as I was reporting to the dispatcher that he had gone through, I mentioned a loud whistling that I had heard as the last car went by.  A few minutes later the train came backing up to the station. The train had derailed about a half a mile from the depot dumping 18 cars on the ground and broke in two.  What I had heard was the air escaping from the broken brake line of the last car to stay on the tracks.  We had crews there several days getting the line open again, then a gang to make permanent repairs to the track.

     Finally, I developed enough seniority so that I could bid in a job.  First trick at Ethridge, Montana opened up so I bid on that and got it.  Actually, Ethridge was only a one shift depot, used for an occasional train order, but mainly to provide a daily "line-up" for the section men and track gangs.  We arrived in Shelby, Montana and it was winter and the wind was so strong we could hardly walk across the street.  We had to take the bus to Ethridge and it was dark when we got there.  Snow had drifted over the path to the depot and we had a hard time finding it.  Having come from a warmer country, we were not dressed for the bitter cold and strong wind.

     The railroad had set a boxcar on skids, cut a door in one end, and placed it in a low area about 100 yards from the depot.  The Superintendent called it our "Dwelling Place".  I asked to have it moved to higher ground but was told that it was just fine where it was at, so we lived in the depot.  I bought a daveno and placed it right in the waiting room.  As soon as John would leave for school in the morning I would make it up into a couch and clean up our breakfast dishes before opening the depot for business.  One morning, John had just left for school, I was making up the daveno and there was a nest of new born baby mice in the bed.  I guess it was so cold outside, the mother mouse found a warm place to have her babies.  Usually on cold nights I would fill a hot water bottle to warm the bed and several times on extremely cold nights, the water would have ice in it by morning.  When the spring thaw came, a pond formed up around the Dwelling Place that we hadn't used yet.  I again asked our Superintendent for permission to move it to higher ground.  He said that if it didn't cost the railroad anything, I had permission to move it.  We had an International Harvester dealer close by so he agreed to drag it to higher ground and he wouldn't even take pay for it.  Later, when I asked if I could have electricity installed in the house at my own expense, the request was denied, even though there was a power line about 75 feet from the house.  At first, the roof leaked so badly, I had to put a wash tub and buckets on the beds to keep them dry.  I told my problem to the B and B Foreman, Mr. Kohlmeir, and he graciously fixed the roof for us, so we kept dry from then on.  Our heat was a railroad caboose stove that burned coal.  The section men would keep the coal bin behind the depot full but it was up to us to carry enough for our needs at home.

    When I started out I didn't have a flat iron to iron our clothes with, I would put them under the mattress and that would straighten them out.  Later, I went to a second-hand store and bought an old iron that had to be heated on the stove so our clothes got washed and ironed.

     In Ethridge we had a Post Office, but no grocery store.  We did have a bus going through each way once a day, so on weekends, we took the bus to Cut Bank for groceries and caught the other one for the return trip.  The bus schedule allowed us a couple of hours to get everything we needed for the next week.

     Since water was very scarce on the prairie, a work train would come by once a month to fill an under ground tank with Glacier Park water and that had to last us until the next fill up.  One summer, Mary Alice, my daughter, from Seattle and Ed and Emma, my son and daughter-in-law from Havre, came to visit us.  They each had a small baby who required a lot of clothes washing.  When they saw that clothes had to be washed and scrubbed on a washboard, they thought it was such a novelty that they took turns at the washboard and took each other's picture.  Their arrival from Havre gave me an anxious moment.  Ed and Mary Alice had decided to surprise me by renting an airplane and flying to Ethridge while Emma drove with their babies.  It was getting dusk when they came in and I became very concerned because of the power lines that paralleled the sod runway.  The lines were very hard to spot from the air at that time of day.

     One of the jobs at Ethridge was to keep the semaphore light burning.  This is a signal for the trains, that had both arms and a light.  A vertical arm and a green light meant no orders, proceed.  The arm at 45 degrees and a yellow light meant pick up orders and proceed.  The arm horizontal and red light meant stop, period.  The train could not move without a written clearance from the operator, dictated by the dispatcher.  The light consisted of a kerosene lamp on top of the semaphore pole which was about twice as high as the depot.  I would have to climb up the pole, remove the lamp, and climb down to fill it.  Then repeat the climb to return the lamp to the top.  The wind at Ethridge is very strong and the semaphore would sway while I was climbing it.  Very unnerving for someone who doesn't like heights anyway.  Some times the wind would blow out the light and other times it would be just too windy to climb the pole to fill it. Whenever Conductor Red Nichols would come through at night and see that the light was out, he would report me to the Superintendent.  I would have to telegraph in the message that the lamp was re-lit and that would satisfy everyone.  The other trainmen never complained.

     As usual, the main line was next to the depot and you had to step across the main line to the siding.  One winter day, it was snowing so hard you couldn't see ten feet in front of you.  A freight train pulled in on the siding and the Dispatcher had given me an order for it.  Bill Logan, who was Book Keeper for the section men happened to be in the depot as I was getting ready to hand up the order and he said, "Mary, you had better put on your overshoes, the snow is getting pretty deep."  I said, "No, I can make it." There weren't any indicators in this depot, as there are in most others, to tell when a train was in the "block," so I had no way of knowing that the fast passenger train number 32 was getting close.  I handed up the order to the freight, standing on a very small platform between the tracks, and I saw 32 staring me in the face.  I jumped back across the main line and made it by a few inches.  If I had put on my over shoes, they would have slowed me down and I wouldn't have made it.  It was that close.  The engine men thought they had hit me, so they stopped as soon as they could, which was about two miles further and called the Superintendent, telling him that they had hit me.  Mr. Minton, the Superintendent, called and asked if I was all right.  I said I was, but I was so shook up I could not write down the arrival and departure of trains the rest of the day, which was also part of my job.

    Ethridge wasn't my first experience with keeping a semaphore lit.  A couple of years earlier, I bumped a woman from third trick at Olney.  First and second trick were bid in by a husband and wife who were very close personal friends of the woman that I bumped.  Filling a semaphore lamp was the duty of the third trick operator but at other stations there was always a man on another trick willing to do it.  At Olney, the husband had taken care of it for his friend on third, but when I bumped her, he and his wife tried to be as nasty as they could.  On my first try at climbing up the pole, I got about half way up and came back down again.  Then I said to myself, "Mary, if you want to keep this job, you have got to do it to do it."  On my next attempt, I made it, brought the lamp down, filled it, and took it back up again.

     Another incident, at Olney, was a reminder of how remote we were and how the lack of transportation affected our lives.  It was close to Christmas and the Olney school was giving a Christmas program.  John wanted to go since he wasn't in school yet, but when we got to the school, the teacher suggested he take off his overshoes.  He refused to take them off, the reason was that he didn't have any shoes on and was embarrassed that he didn't have any.  It wasn't until we could get a ride to Whitefish that I could get him some.

     In the early 1950s, I married Ray Walker who was the operator at Naples, Idaho.  For a time, I took over the depot at Naples and Ray took Leonia and commuted on weekends.  About 45 miles.  Several job situations later, we were both able to bid in the first and second tricks at Stryker, where we stayed until we retired from railroading.  At that time, I received a letter from our Superintendent, Mr. Cruikshank, expressing his appreciation for my years of service.  That meant a lot to me and I still have the letter.

     I finally learned to drive a car ten years before retiring, bought my first car, and was no longer dependent on others for transportation.

     During the latter years at Stryker, a fast thinking engineer saved the life of a local resident.  Helen White was our postmaster and had inherited the job from her father, Julius Burg, who was in his 80s. Her father was walking from the post office to the depot one day when a moose wandered into town, and upon seeing the old gentleman, started to charge him from behind.  The engineer on a train that was just passing through saw what was happening and started rapidly blowing the horn.  The noise was enough for the moose to break off the attack and run for the woods.  Julius was never aware of what was going on behind him.  The engineer was a hero, but I don't believe he was ever thanked for what he did.

     Many of the places we lived at are gone now.  Diesels eliminated the need for water stops, and radios eliminated the need for small stations to hand up orders from the dispatcher.  Tobacco was one of the first to go.  All that remains there today are the cement foundations for the water tank.  Leonia is gone also.  The bridge is there, but in such bad repair that driving across it is out of the question.  The out-house still stands, but just barely.  All of the houses, General Store, depot, and Post Office are gone.  Ethridge is still there, but the depot and our Dwelling Place are long gone.

     The Libby dam is responsible for most of the change. Because of it, the main line has been re-routed from one mile east of Stryker to Libby and the Stryker depot has been torn down.  Stryker to Eureka is now a branch line for several lumber mills and the Christmas tree harvest.  Volcour and Warland are under 200 feet of water backed up from the dam.

    A recent re-routing of the main line east of Spokane, took out the tracks and the station at Elk, but the town remains. 








( Mary Walker died in 1998 at the age of 96)
Copyright 1996 John Vander Ven - All rights reserved.
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