Monday, February 15, 2021

A Life of Railroads

Bill Bowdidge

My father, Bill Bowdidge, died a few months ago.

When my grandfather died, my father stood up at the funeral, remarked that most people there had only seem small aspects of my grandfather’s life, and proceeded to just share the full story of my grandfather - tragedy, immigration, family, work, garden - to assembled friends and family. I remember sitting in the audience and being aware that some day I’d have to do the same.

I wasn’t able to give that eulogy for my father. COVID restrictions, elderly friends avoiding groups, and a majority of friends who have already passed away meant that we didn’t hold a funeral service for my father, and I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to share about my father’s life.

There’s a lot of ways I could tell his story outside of a funeral - share stories of his career with friends and co-workers, recount family stories, ask friends for hiking stories. This venue, though, might appreciate the important fact is that my father was a railroader. He worked for the Western Pacific when U.S. railroads were connected to every American business. He was a model railroader. He helped me catch the same bug, getting me interested in railroads, model building, electronics, and computers. If there’s a true story most suitable for this blog, my father’s story story is it.

The Bay Area, Orchards, and Canneries

My father was born in the Bay Area, child of a British immigrant and a rule-breaking Irish girl from San Francisco. My grandfather had emigrated from England to New Zealand in the 1920’s, and kept going ‘round the world. He ended up in California, met my grandmother, overstayed his visa, left, returned, and settled down for good in the San Francisco Bay area where he spent his career as a newspaper printer. My father grew up in San Leandro, playing around former orchards as suburbia invaded. My father had been interested in trains from the early days; British relatives got him hooked on trains by sending railway books from the UK and teaching him about the Flying Scotsman, the Great Western Railroad, and remote branch lines. Like many young boys growing up in the 30’s and 40’s, Lionel trains were the best toys to receive. To give him a place to set them up, my grandfather bought some recycled lumber left over from the 1939 Treasure Island World’s Fair and extended the garden shed to make a train room. My father eventually moved on to HO; I’ve got his Varney F7, custom painted and lettered for the Western Pacific.

His grandfather, on the ferry boat.

His grandfather was a ferry captain on San Francisco Bay, sailing auto ferries for the Southern Pacific Golden Gate ferry company. Occasionally, my grandmother would take my father over to San Francisco, and they’d try to time it to be on one of Grandpa’s vessels. My father remembered trips down to the engine room with the noise and the huge machines moving about ominously.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Bay Area was still full of orchards and canneries. Bay Area kids knew that summer jobs at the cannery were always a good paying option. Dad spent multiple summers at Hunt’s and Del Monte’s canneries; his stories of those summers made me think about the cannery business as I was planning the Vasona Branch. One summer, he unloaded empty, loose cans from boxcars. He remembered using a long fork that could pick up a dozen cans at a time so they could be put on a conveyor heading into the warehouse. Another summer, he punched the piecework tickets for women filling cans with fruit. He also remembered an assignment watching an experimental automatic peach-splitting machine to make sure it would correctly center on the fold on the side of the peach. Dad also remembered the challenges of getting the popular jobs - connections and who you knew still mattered at the canneries. He’d remembered going to Del Monte and asking about jobs, only to be told he needed to be in the union. The union said they wouldn’t take him on unless he already had a job. Luckily, a neighbor who worked for Del Monte managed to get him in the door.

Dad went off to Cal Berkeley in 1948, commuting for the first few years, then finally living in Berkeley for the last year. He’d planned to be a Chemistry major, but problems understanding the thick accent of his Chemistry 1 professor convinced him it wasn’t the right path. He also met other railroad-crazy friends, going off on railroad club adventures on the Sacramento Northern and Northwestern Pacific with friends including Dudley Wesler, a prolific Bay Area railroad photographer and railfan. He ended up graduating in business administration. When he graduated, he did a stint working for Tidewater Oil. He found the job was “just an office job” which he found boring. He started looking around for alternatives. Railroads seemed exciting, but the “Friendly” SP wasn’t interested in him. Luckily, he’d done a report for a class on the Western Pacific Railroad. He contacted a rates and legal office manager he’d talked with, Tex Wandsworth, and got an offer to “join the railroad.”

Railroading And Two Martini Lunches

We usually think of railroading from the operations side: engineers, brakemen, folks working in the yard. Dad was always on the business side. His first job was as a clerk in an off-line sales office in Portland, Oregon. In those days, Portland was practically a foreign country. My grandmother wasn’t sure she’d see her son again when he got the job so far away. Traveling to see family involved two days of driving US99 in the days before freeways. “Bill and Kathy’s” restaurant in Dunnigan was his usual stop when heading back in his ’48 Chevrolet. But he liked the work, made life-long friends, and loved life in Portland

Oregon City excursion with social club.

Although he wasn’t on the WP, the small office meant he had a lot of freedom and different tasks. He helped an older gentleman arrange railroad tickets for a fraternal order’s tour of the East Coast by train, and got a commendation letter from the customer sent to his manager. He got to interact with the other railroads in Portland when tracing WP loads in their yards. One time, the Western Pacific had an order of new boxcars sent from Seattle; the cars had the new load restraining “DF” equipment. The San Francisco head office didn’t want to bring them to California empty, and asked the Portland office to find loads for them. My father contacted canneries in the Willamette Valley who were eager to use the cars for California-bound loads.

More importantly, my father learned about railroad rates, and started serving as a rate clerk, navigating all the strange Interstate Commerce Commission rules and regulations about how much railroads could charge. In those days, freight rates needed to be approved by the ICC, and all railroads needed to hold to the same prices for the same commodities. Classifying freight the wrong way would result in nasty fines to the railroad and the shipper, so correctly interpreting the rate books was a key task.

My dad managed to score some nice artifacts during his time in Portland. When he showed up in Portland in late 1952, there was a document in the trash describing a “manager’s tour” of the railroad to help sales agents in distant locations understand the WP infrastructure, and also the industrial parks they were hoping to develop. The local sales agent didn’t care about that document after the trip, but my dad saved it. I ended up scanning a copy when he showed it to me a few years ago.

Eventually, though, the position in Portland wasn’t the right place for an ambitious young man. Multiple folks told my dad that he’d better go elsewhere unless he planned on staying in Portland his whole career. Being in a job “on-line” was the only way to be taken seriously on the railroad. When a rate clerk job opened up in Sacramento, my father took it and moved south, leaving some happy memories in Portland and a disappointed girlfriend.

He arrived in Sacramento on a Friday in summer. He immediately went in to meet his manager, a curmudgeonly old railroader who warned him “Bowdidge, if you expect this to be like that sweet pension job you had in Portland, you’ve got another thing coming!” His desk, sitting in the corner of the depot looking out over the railroad tracks, was covered in amendments and insertions for the rate books; his predecessor had left three months before and the office was a mess. Dad didn’t like that; he went in Saturday morning, filed all the files, inserted the insertions, and got his desk cleared. On Monday morning, the salesmen were ecstatic - the office had been unorganized for so long. But quickly: “Bowdidge!” The rate clerk was a union job; someone had seen my father working on a weekend and filed a grievance.

Being on-line was more exciting; he could watch the WP trains pass his office window. He could see the cars he was filling. The Western Pacific carried lots of steel coil cars from Geneva Steel in Utah to the U.S. Steel rolling mill at Pittsburg, California. My dad remembered these cars were so heavy that they would shake the depot as they rolled by. Years later, on a family vacation in Sacramento, we went to the Old Spaghetti Factory in Sacramento, located in the former WP depot. Dad pointed out the location in the bar where his desk had been.

He also got to see the operations. WP’s dispatchers were also in the depot (or nearby). He saw their office a few times - older gentlemen chain-smoking as they avoided running trains into each other. Dad met Peter Josserand, one of the WP’s dispatchers and author of the “Rights of Trains”, the bible of dispatching practice. When I took a shift as train order operator at the La Mesa club’s Tehachapi layout, I brought my copy of “Rights of Trains” to read during the slack times and learned I could ask the dispatcher for a read back when I made extra copies of an order intended for all trains. The model dispatchers went through a lot less coffee and cigarettes than the prototype dispatchers.

In the late 1950’s, my father transferred to the WP headquarters on Mission Street in San Francisco. He’d always point out the building when we headed to San Francisco for Christmas shopping. He’d started out as a rate clerk in San Francisco. He also upgraded his role, becoming a salesman responsible for businesses in Oakland and San Francisco. Dad spent his days visiting WP shippers, encouraging sales, keeping up relationships and solving their recent problems. Encouraging shippers to use the WP was always a challenge; the SP dominated the California market, but Del Monte and other shippers would would send a token percentage of shipments by the WP just to make sure that the Southern Pacific wouldn’t take them for granted.

The ICC rules meant that railroads couldn’t compete on price, but instead had to work on service, so lunches at all the San Francisco restaurants - Schroeder’s, the World Trade Center, and Tadich’s Grill - was a key part of his job. Dad said he often got called on the carpet for not taking enough customers out to lunch during a month. Unlike what we might expect from Mad Men, two martini lunches weren’t common. My father remembers one shipper encouraging him for a second drink at a restaurant at Oakland’s waterfront, and my father remembered that wasn’t wasn’t a day to return to the office.

My father remembered white-collar San Francisco business well, even after he was working in the suburbs. When I was a teenager, he took me up on a “businessman’s lunch” day to see San Francisco at work, and made a point to take me to Schroeder’s and talk about how women hadn’t been allowed in the restaurant at lunch until 1970. He assumed that the working world I’d be in would likely be downtown, and likely suit-and-tie. Instead, my working world has always been suburban and much more t-shirt and jeans.

San Francisco’s “men-only” policy wasn’t only in the restaurants. Lela Paul was a longtime employee in the rate department at the WP. The WP didn’t normally hire women on the business side, but she’d gotten in the door during World War II and refused to leave quietly. My father remembered she got more than her usual share of abuse from her male co-workers and managers, but stayed her ground to keep her job.

With his mother on the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge.

Dad also enjoyed life as a single young businessman in San Francisco. He lived with a bunch of guys in “the bunkhouse”, an old house on Divisadero in the Richmond. He’d work late at the WP, eat at the communal table in family-style restaurants in North Beach like La Pantera. (He’d talk about how hard it was to cook at home as a single guy because all the meat markets would close at 6pm.) He hung out with a youth social group at Old St. Mary’s Church near San Francisco’s Chinatown, and went hiking and skiing with the crowd. One of the other hikers was a coffee broker who was getting frustrated with the corporate coffee business. In the mid-60’s, that fellow hiker, Al Peet, quit the broker job and opened his own coffee house in Berkeley where he roasted the beans the way he thought they should be roasted. My father remembered Al talking about growing up in Indonesia, and and life under Japanese occupation during World War II.

Among all the customers, my father visited the Oakland Army Terminal frequently. The base handled all material going to army bases in Asia, and received a lot of freight traffic. My father would drop in on the officer in charge of rail shipments in order to hear his problems, offer solutions, and hopefully pick up some WP-routed loads in the bargain. My father figured out that if he showed up at 10:00, the office waiting room was packed with vendors hoping to talk to the officer. Instead, my father would stop by the office at 7:30. The officer was in but there was no competition, so my father would get right in and would get extra time. In 1964, that officer gave my dad a hot tip - he’d be receiving a lot more traffic soon because of troops being sent to Vietnam. “Where’s that?” my father asked - Vietnam wasn’t a household name yet. After he visited the officer, he’d head over to the WP offices. He’d show up from his early-morning sales call just as the other salesmen arrived for coffee before beginning their own calls.

That Oakland Army Base transportation officer also encouraged my dad to take night school classes in order to get the ICC Practitioner certificate - giving him the right able to argue rate and tariff cases. It always seemed like halfway to being a lawyer for transportation rates. My dad took the classes at Golden Gate University and became an expert at rates and how to argue for exceptions. Dad was only one of maybe six people at WP with an ICC license - half were probably the company lawyers. It’s all a lost art now; all the ICC rules and tariffs disappeared during deregulation in the 1980’s.

Dad’s rate knowledge also helped romance. When my father was courting my mother, my grandparents probably had all the usual questions of whether this young man was suitable for their daughter. However, my grandmother had spent several years as the accountant for a vegetable packer, and she’d spent a lot of time working with the railroads to route cars to vegetable brokers back east. When she found out my father worked for the railroad and knew rates, she found him quite an acceptable son-in-law.

While Dad was in San Francisco, those steel coil cars came back into his life. He also was the salesman responsible for U.S. Steel. The steel company had an office in downtown San Francisco, and one of the staff there was the “traffic manager”, responsible for making sure the railroad cars of steel sheet arrived regularly at the Pittsburg mill. The WP had a dedicated set of short gondolas for the steel service; if there weren’t enough in Utah, then steel couldn’t be loaded. If there weren’t enough at the rolling mill, the plant would shut down, tin can production in the Bay Area would stop, and the Santa Clara Valley’s apricots wouldn’t be canned. Keeping the cars moving was essential. The U.S. Steel traffic manager in San Francisco kept tabs on all cars, and would complain to the WP if there were any hitches.

Sacramento Northern ferry, probably with one of the Cal railroad club's excursions.

The U.S. Steel rolling mill at Pittsburg wasn’t on the WP - it was actually on the Sacramento Northern’s trackage. The WP used to hand the cars over to the Sacramento Northern at Sacramento; they’d be pulled across the delta by the SN, and then taken by barge across the Sacramento River to Pittsburg. In 1951, though, a key Sacramento Northern trestle collapsed, severing the line from Sacramento to Oakland. The WP instead negotiated trackage rights with the Santa Fe to take WP trains on the ATSF tracks from Stockton to Pittsburg to serve the steel plant. It was a pricey move for a single shipper, but U.S. Steel was worth it.

One day, though, there were some car delays and the Pittsburg rolling mill began running low on coil steel. The U.S. Steel traffic manager demanded a special run to carry over a few cars of steel. It wasn’t one of the days for the WP run on the Santa Fe, so scheduling a special train would be expensive and troublesome. My dad took the traffic manager out to lunch, heard the problem, and noted that the steel was certainly going to be able to arrive the next day, and asked for U.S. Steel to wait a day for the steel. U.S. Steel agreed to the one day delay. My dad submitted reimbursement for lunch; his manager called it the “$500 lunch” because it saved WP so much expense and aggravation.

Full story here: The $500 Lunch

Damming Conduct

My father left the Western Pacific in 1966. The WP had its economic challenges as a small railroad. They’d had several years of potential mergers considered and dashed, first with the Santa Fe, then the Southern Pacific. The railroad was also a bit slow and stuck in its ways. He got a call looking for a traffic manager to handle rail and road shipments for Guy F. Atkinson, a large dam-and-freeway construction company, and he jumped at the offer. Many of his friends weren’t so lucky; many stayed in rate roles at either railroads or shippers; when deregulation hit, there no longer was a place for them.

A few years back, I was at one of the NMRA meets in Sacramento when I got talking with another attendee. He’d worked for a railroad - which one? WP! Oh, where did he work? San Francisco! Oh, did you know my father ? He was in the rate department. Yes, he certainly did remember my father - they worked in the same department! “Your dad made a smart move leaving the railroad. Your father’s problem at the WP was that he was smarter than everyone else there.” What more could a son want to hear?

Dad spent the rest of his career handling shipments of large construction equipment around the world. He sent construction equipment to build California freeways, Israeli airbases, Chilean and Canadian dams, Washington nuclear plants, and Arizona irrigation projects. He dealt with truckers carrying oversized loads, roll-on-roll-off ships hauling the largest bulldozers, and finding appropriate unloading spots for rail shipments. He also was responsible for all the personnel moves. He had a constant stream of moving company salesmen stopping by for a chat, and collected a pretty impressive collection of Allied, Mayflower, and United moving van models for his window sill. He’d constantly have a chain of frustrated spouses wondering where the moving van with their entire household was.

The railroad knowledge paid off multiple times in his career. When Guy F. Atkinson won the bid to build New Don Pedro Dam in 1967, Dad worked with the Sierra Railroad to find convenient spurs for unloading construction equipment. As part of that relationship, he manage to score tickets for several “shippers specials” on the railroad over the years, and we headed up to Jamestown several times for a ride on the railroad. He dealt with the Canadian Pacific to get equipment to Mica Dam above Revelstoke, B.C., and had a promotional photo of the spiral tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass in his office. As a kid, my knowledge of geography tended to be much better around the location of Atkinson job sites.

He also had some great adventures. Atkinson won a contract to build the Colbun dam in Chile, and he took multiple trips to plan sending equipment down to Chile, and bringing it back afterwards. He was particularly proud he’d practiced his Spanish enough to talk with some of the government officials to talk about importing rules, and so he was able to talk with the vendors. We’ve still got an advertising banner from one of the Chilean truckers that hung on the Atkinson loads. My father wanted to travel, but never did as much as he hoped. The multi-week trips to Chile were high points of his life. On the return from one trip, he stopped over in Peru and visited Machu Picchu, the city of the Incas high in the Andes.

When my father returned from that trip, he had such great memories; he’d tell us about all the people he’d worked with. He visited Santiago and the walked streets named after the great liberator of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins. He enjoyed the stay in Talca, the town closest to the job site and remembered the hair-raising drive to Talca. He remembered business lunches in the port cities of Valparaiso and Concepcion. He remembered the gruff owner of one of the trucking companies, SeƱor Gordo. He struck up a friendship with the representative of the joint project’s local company, and saw more of Chile as a result.

He’d often tell about the great deal they’d gotten for the ship returning the construction equipment from Chile. They found a roll-on-roll-off ship that was taking cargo down to South America that was motivated to give a good deal to avoid coming back empty. Dad loaded millions of dollars worth of equipment on that random ship, though he had some nagging concerns that a random ship and a random captain might run off with the company’s bulldozers and trucks. When the ship reached the U.S., my father got a call from the import broker at the port. “I’m on the ship and sitting with the captain, but he won’t turn over the bills of lading.” The bills of lading were important; without them, the process of importing the equipment couldn’t begin. My father called the ship broker who put them in touch to understand what the hold-up was. “Mr. Bowdidge, what we have here is a lack of trust. The captain doesn’t trust that you’ll pay him, and you don’t trust him that he’ll provide the bills of lading.. I suggest you both trust each other a bit.” Both sides backed down, handed over paperwork, and the ships were unloaded without incident.

All his stories had been really positive at the time, ten years after the military coup had deposed Allende. In recent years, I heard the other side of those stories; he remembered one lunch with some vendors where one of the men was treated more distantly by the others. It turns out that man had been part of the right wing in Chile at the time of the coup. As the rest of the table sat silently, the man proudly shared stories of torturing dissidents.

When I asked folks from Atkinson for memories, they told me about all my father had done for the Chile project. Folks remembered the complications getting dump trailers re-imported into the U.S. The project manager for the Colbun project mentioned my father’s stories of Peru convinced them to also visit Machu Picchu. One person in the purchasing department remembered typing up my father’s yearly review. One of the questions was “what improvements could the company do to help you do your job better?” My father responded “Get out of the office more understand more about the job sites.” She was always impressed he had the courage to say that.

My dad's favorite story, though, was the time he had to ship a horse to Venezuela on short notice. He wrote up the story, which I'll share in its entirety:

The Day I Flew a Horse To Venezuela

One afternoon, Ron Shumway called me and asked how much it would cost to fly a horse to Venezuela. I was puzzled, but put some numbers together and got back to him.

A year or so later at about 4:00 pm on a Friday, [Atkinson Construction Company's president] George McCoy called and said the horse was a go. "What breed, where is he?" George says to call Sgt. Edney at the San Francisco Police Stables to get details.

I was going to wait until Monday, but something told me to call now. The sergeant says "I've been waiting for someone to call. I'm sure glad you called! The horse "Dudley Do Right" has to be in a parade in Caracas on October 14 (about four weeks away), and worse yet various tests are required for the Vetinary Export permit required to export a horse and take weeks to incubate and have to be sent to labs in Iowa, Kansas, and Southern California."

It seems George McCoy was on the San Francisco-Caracas Sister City Committee, who donated the horse to Caracas for crowd control. Atkinson was to pay the freight and my services were volunteered to ship the horse.

Well, it was a real scramble, but we got the horse there for the parade. I found a good freight forwarder in Long Island who made the arrangements and consolidated several horses to fill out the pallet and share the cost of the groom. Because of the short fuse, I started the horse towards Miami with a trucker specializing in horses before we had all the veterinary permits, the export and import permits which gave the forwarder gray hairs. "You don't do anything before all the permits are in hand" they kept telling me."

Nothing new. We always faced time constraints with Atkinson.

Making a Model Railroader

Author, in front of Flying Scotsman locomotive, San Francisco, 1970.

When I was growing up, I remember the train case on the wall containing the special models for my father - the Varney F7 he painted himself, his British and European trains he picked up on different visits, and the Pennsylvania GG-1 he got after an east coast trip. As soon as I was old enough for trains, he made sure I had a Lionel layout; it rolled under my bed, and I ran it incessantly. A neighbor had salvaged a former Lionel display layout from a store, and my dad saved the baseboard and restored a bunch of the signals. That got my dad hooked on trains again, and he passed it onto me.

The Lionel trains got me interested in electricity and electronics - understanding how to power the trains, and also how to power the accessories. I scotch taped wires under the layout to light up a station. We had a Lionel crossing signal that didn’t flash; my father talked with one of the electrical engineers at work, and came back with a handful of transistors and capacitors to make a flip-flop circuit - it seemed like magic to me. He also wanted to learn how to make the signals work, so he bought a copy of Linn Wescott’s venerable “How to wire your model railroad”. I quickly usurped it, and read the whole thing cover-to-cover. I tore it to pieces, learning about switches and relays, detection circuits, block power, and strange combinations of rotary switches to allow multiple trains to be controlled automatically. Dad also had bought a couple Model Railroaders, and eight year old me wore those magazines out as I read about zip texturing and brass locomotives.

Dad also gave me a lot of freedom. He showed me enough about tools to work safely, then turned me loose with his tools. I ended up building two model railroads, first in my bedroom, then re-using the old Lionel display layout for my larger HO layout in the garage. I made quite a mess there with scenery and wiring. After reading about the Sunset Valley’s engine terminal in Model Railroader (thanks, home town public library, for having the MR subscription!), I decide to build a 1x4 foot extension for a diesel engine terminal. My father stopped me with that attempt at usurping space, and highlighted the extension had to be removable and moved out of the way when I wasn’t operated. He regularly took me down to Trains-Nothing-But-Trains in San Mateo as soon as I was doing HO modeling. When he took me to the dentist, we always made a stop at Berkeley Hardware for a boxcar - some of those kits are still on the layout.

Yosemite, with author's grandmother. My dad remembers vacation trips to Yosemite with me and my sister as highlights of his life.

All that shaped who I was - I got interested in electricity, electronics, and digital logic. I got comfortable with tools early, and stole a bunch of my dad’s for my tool box. (Somewhere, I’ve still got side cutters I liberated years ago, as well as some jeweler’s screwdrivers from his tool box.) The model railroad electronics got me interested in taking electronics classes in high school, which taught me how to scavenge components from the junked electronics at the back of the lab.

Dad also encouraged my interest in computers. I’d used some of the early microcomputers at school. When Dad took a computer class at the local junior college, I’d go with him to evenings in the computer lab, and would write my own programs on his account. The instructor would delete programs unrelated to the class because of disk space limitations, so I learned how to use the teletype and punch out my program listing so I could reload it the next weekend. (Meanwhile, Dad wrote his own programs to estimate costs to ship large objects via oceangoing ships.) When a friend got a TRS-80, I ended up going to visit him but would ignore him as I got caught up in programming his computer. His mother “suggested” that maybe I should have a computer of my own. My mother and father managed to get me a TRS-80. When I started learning to drive, Strawflower Electronics in Half Moon Bay was a common destination because they sold all the TRS-80 games I couldn’t get in Radio Shack stores. All that experience with early microcomputers got me into computer science, and also gave me a chance to learn about microprocessors and electronics. I’m now working for a company making computer chips - insanely complex microprocessors - but the model railroading gave me an appreciation of electronics and a decent knowledge of what’s happening down at the computer chip level to keep up with the hardware guys. The Kalmbach books on wiring the model railroad and assembling electronics is still helping me forty years later.

A Grown-up Model Railroader

Dad’s always been supportive and appreciative for the model railroad, though I suspect I took it much more seriously than he ever would. He liked what I was building, but his interest was still in the models he’d collected and their history - his Lionel trains from his youth, the HO models he’d built, the european models he picked up on vacation, and the occasional models he’d pick up because they caught his fancy. He occasionally passed on some of his older models to me. Somewhere, I’ve got one of his 1940’s “Crazy Crystals” refrigerator cars.

He liked passing on stories, and indulged me when I’d push for operational details about the Western Pacific. He tended to remember more about the personalities than the day-to-day operations. He didn’t know much about how WP’s Sacramento R Street freight house handled traffic, but he still remembered the name of the guy ran the place. He didn’t necessarily know about how trains were routed, but could pull out an old rate book and explain how to argue about how to disassemble dump trailers to get a better rate.

Mom and Dad, Vista-dome, over Donner Summit

Back in 2006, my wife and I wanted to do something special for my parents, and found out about a private car group trip to Reno and back over Presidents’ Day weekend. The group had assembled three private cars - a streamlined dining car and a dome car, and Beebe and Clegg’s “Virginia City” observation car, all to be placed on the rear of Amtrak's California Zephyr. We picked my parents up, took them to Emeryville, jumped on the train, and crossed the Sierras. We chose a good weekend - we crossed the Sierras as a big snowstorm hit, and got to watch the snow pile up as we passed the traffic jams on I-80. It was an impressive ride, both for getting to sit in a real dome car, and getting to watch a real snowstorm crossing the Sierras.

The Virginia City on the back of the California Zephyr.

The trip also spurred memories from my parents. My parents got married just before my dad left the WP, and he made a point to arrange a trip by the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City and back. They may have ridden in the cars we took that trip to Reno in. We heard more stories of that trip as we sat in the bar at the Nugget casino - the Italian restaurant owner slipping them wine in Salt Lake City, newlyweds in a sleeping compartment, finding others with our rare last name in the Utah phone book. On the way back, our Amtrak train was delayed because of a broken rail somewhere out in Nevada. Our assembled group stood trackside at the Sparks station waiting for the train until the organizers managed to hire a bus to get us all to the warmth of the Reno Amtrak station. While we stood out there, snow flurries started falling - something I’d first seen during a few years living out on the east coast. My mom had never seen snow flurries before; she'd spent her life in temperate California.

My father, by contrast, had been a skier and interested in the outdoors, so snow wasn't so unusual for him. Somewhere, he's got his record of climbing Mount Hood during his days in Portland. A few years ago, I opened one of the Southern Pacific Technical and Historical Society's magazines to find an article on the special trains that would take skiers up to Norden Summit and Sugar Bowl during the season. In the front and center, there was my dad, caught in a publicity photo. He'd also made the trip up to the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. In one of his few recorded cases of lawlessness, my dad paired up with friends-of-friends who managed to sneak into the US-USSR hockey match, the hottest ticket of the Olympics.

My father's family including his not-yet-train-crazy grandson.

Age slowed my dad down a lot over the last ten years. We’d occasionally go to train swap meets, and we’d talk a bunch about trains or about his time at the WP. When my nephew got to five years old, Dad and I pulled out our saved Lionel trains and cleaned them up for his grandson. We’re not sure he caught the train bug. My nephew wasn’t too interested a few years ago, but he set up a “sushi train” a couple weeks back in the style of a sushi boat restaurant he missed visiting. Dad heard my updates on the Vasona Branch, but hadn’t been down here for a few years because of mobility issues. As I mentioned a few months ago, the Vasona Branch got photographed for the NMRA Magazine in preparation for the NMRA National Convention in Santa Clara. The magazine issue with my layout got sent out in October. I sent Dad a copy when he was in nursing care at the end; he got to see how he’d encouraged and inspired me, and what I’d managed to build. He proudly showed it off to the caregivers.

My father saw a lot during his life. He saw San Francisco before bridges and a city where men wore hats and women gloves. He saw the Bay Area change from industrial and agricultural to high-tech and suburban. He saw the changes in transportation with the decline of the railroads, air freight, and deregulation changes. He saw entire job categories disappear and appear. He saw early computers at Berkeley and the WP (but chose not to pursue that side of the business.) He still loved using his Macintosh to read the world’s newspapers, but the iPad was a little too newfangled for him. He saw Europe and South America, and remembered all his travel fondly. He raised a family, and saw his grandson become an energetic young man.

He also helped his son become train-crazy, and inadvertently encouraged me in what eventually became my career.

I’ll miss you, Dad.


Original story extended with the "Day I Flew a Horse to Venezuela" story.