Remembering the rails

Old railroaders never fade away. Instead, they retire and get together once a week to have breakfast and fuel the bonds formed by working together for decades.

Keith Linstrom, of Twin Lakes, is part of just such a group. It meets every Tuesday at Brownies Cafe in Fort Dodge. He worked for the Illinois Central from 1948 to 1990, with a break from 1952 to 1955 to serve in the military.

There was a surprise waiting for him when he returned in 1955.

“They had steam engines when I got drafted,” he said. “When I got back, everything was diesel – everything but the Webster City turn.”

The railroad kept that run, from Fort Dodge to Webster City, steam-powered because the new diesels were not equipped with Automatic Train Stop equipment. Steam engines were.

In 1955, he was the fireman on the last run.

“We took it east, then we had to back it up,” Linstrom said.

That particular engine, No. 1741, was hand-fired. Every chunk of coal it burned had to be shoveled from the tender into the firebox.

Each tender held 12 to 14 tons of coal.

“I’ve emptied a tender,” Linstrom said. “We used to work 16-hour days.”

He was involved in one accident, something all railroaders dread. The train he was firing hit a car that apparently, didn’t hear the whistle.

“The guy was walking around the car with a hearing aid hanging out one ear,” he said.

While shaken, the driver asked the train crew about the man that had been in the car’s trunk.

“He was in there listening for a rattle,” Linstrom said. “We found him by the engine; we thought it was a pile of clothes. We had to stay until the coroner got there.”

Harry Hughes, of Fort Dodge, is now 96. He retired from the Illinois Central in 1978.

“I spent 38 years switching boxcars,” he said. “I decided I’d had enough of it.”

During his working life in the yards, the hand brakes on cars were located on top; switchmen had to climb up a ladder to set them. Safety rules have since banned this practice.

“You can’t even get up on top of them anymore,” he said.

The biggest change came when the railroad began using radios. Hughes he didn’t like it very much.

They knew every move a worker made, Hughes said.

“When they came out and gave you them radios that was the end of railroading.”

Before that, the crews would communicate with hand signals and lanterns at night. Hughes can still recall every one of them.

“The young guys don’t know,” Hughes said.

When he started, many crew members didn’t have home phones. The office had a map with a circle on it. Those who lived within its radius could expect a knock on the door when it was time to work.

“The call boy would come and get you up,” he said.

Not only were many railroaders literally family members, those who were not became like family.

“You worked with them for 30 years, you get to know them,” he said. “I still have the six I worked with here.”

Mike McLary, of Fort Dodge, is the spring chicken of the Brownies group; he’s been retired less time than he worked.

McLary was a car man in the mechanical department, a position the railroaders refer to as a “car toad.”

“I figured 40 years is enough,” he said.

In his position, he would get called out regardless of conditions because if something was amiss, it had to be put right.

“If it was zero, the phone was going to ring,” McLary said. “Something was going on the ground.”

A subtle clue that sets railroaders apart from everyone else is their watches. Crews were and are required to wear a watch with a face that meets railroad standards. It’s an analog face with highly visible, readable numbers.

Larry Jordison, of Fort Dodge, a retired conductor, still wears his.

“I couldn’t be without mine,” he said. “I had it from Day One.”

Jordison began working in 1960 and spent 43 years with the Illinois Central; he started as a switchman and served as a conductor and relief yard master.

His office had eight steel wheels and a view of the train.

“I had my own caboose for about 10 years,” he said. “Then they phased them out.”

The railroaders saw the amount of freight moved by rail decrease. The loss of meat packing plants, the switch to trucks by the gypsum industry and the general decline of industry all took a toll.

Ribbing went with the territory. Railroaders had nicknames that, once given, stuck.

Mike McLary’s full set of initials are M.O.M. They became his nickname.

“Whenever you heard somebody ask for Mom on the radio it was me,” he said.

Each job had a slang term too. An engineer was a hog head.

“That’s the dumb end of the hog,” Hughes said. “We called the car men snakes.”

Gerald Wagner, who retired from the Illinois Central after more than 39 years as a clerk, isn’t sure the stories told by his friends are all true.

Looking around the group gathered at Brownies, he considered his words.

“This is the biggest bunch of liars you ever seen.”