The $500 Lunch

My father, Bill Bowdidge, was an employee of the Western Pacific Railroad from 1952 to 1966 - first as a clerk in the Portland sales office, then a rate clerk in Sacramento, then rates in the San Francisco office, and finally a salesman handling San Francisco and Oakland.

One of his prouder work moments was the "$500 lunch" - the time he saved the WP a chunk of money by avoiding the need to run a special train from Sacramento to the U.S. Steel plant in Pittsburg, CA.

R: my questions
B: my father's answers.

R: So U.S. Steel was the most profitable part of the WP?
B: Yeah.  They were.. they shipped the stuff [coil steel from Geneva Steel's plant in Utah] almost by the trainload.  And they were these immense rolls of steel.  And they must have weighed... about 30 tons a piece, where I think there were five of them because when I was in Sacramento, they rolled by my office and they were so heavy that the stuff on my desk would bounce up and down. The reason W.P. got most of that business was after the war, the War Assets Administration sold the steel mill to U.S. Steel, but they didn't have favorable rates.  They applied to put rates in, and SP fought tooth and nail because they had Bethlehem Steel and other steel plants on their line in L.A.  The steel companies didn't want U.S. Steel to get into the West Coast.
R: So it was less that than if they gave them a good deal on the rates, they'd have to give everyone...
B: Western Pacific took independent action, Western Pacific and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad who served Provo Utah took independent action.  So U.S. Steel was grateful to the WP for what they did, so we got most of the business.  And I knew the business well because being in Sacramento the cars would come down.. they would come down on the Sacramento Northern.  The trestle collapsed...
R: Oh, because Pittsburg was on the SN.  So it was WP to Sacramento, and then
B: Sacramento Northern.  And one of the trestles collapsed under the weight of the steel.
R: I've seen that picture.
B: Yeah, I've got pictures of it.  So they ran them over the WP to Stockton, and then they got trackage rights over the Santa Fe into Pittsburg.  And so it was really important that you kept a balance of cars because they never wanted to run out of cars.
R: And because of the Santa Fe, you never quite knew when they were going to mess up, and you wanted to make sure
B: Oh, SN had trackage rights, so Santa Fe was never involved.  They ran over their tracks.  So in a way it became  kind of a tug-of-war between... U.S. Steel wanted to keep a balance of cars, but Sacramento Northern didn't want to run a special train sometimes just to pick up empties.
R: Even though they were the most profitable business for the WP.
B: There were times it took a bit of diplomacy, and there were a couple of times... you'll see a letter in my file called the, I don't know, five hundred dollar lunch or something like that.  They wanted the Sacramento Northern to come down and pick up these cars, and the U.S. Steel guy and I talked it over, and by delaying a pickup one day they'd be able to pick up loads.  U.S. Steel was perfectly at ease with this, they said "fine, this will be fine, Bill, because we'll be able to keep a balance of cars."  And then it worked out fine, no problem, but x heard about it from the S.N. that I saved them $500 for a special run.  He was so overjoyed he took the whole department - myself, Lackerby, and the two girls - out to lunch. But I always kept U.S. Steel's interests in mind, I did the best for them. Never had a problem, and they were grateful for it, and he was always wanting to buy me lunch because he thought I did such a good job taking care of it.  But I always wanted to buy him lunch because it was, you know, they were good customers.
R: And your boss gave you a hard time if you didn't buy them lunch.
B: Well, it was a little bit of a problem because the U.S. Steel guy, Larry Barrett, belonged to the Transportation Club where we went.  But anyway, it worked out good, and they were...
R: He was working out of San Francisco?
B: He was in San Francisco, yeah, at U.S. Steel headquarters. 
R: Who was he?  Was he basically transportation manager for U.S. Steel or...
B: He was a little bit... he wasn't exactly the traffic manager, but he was a coordinator of keeping the plants in line with cars, they never wanted to run out of cars in Utah.
R: And that meant sending the cars back from Pittsburg. B: Yeah.  It meant basically keeping on top of things, keeping them in line.  It was all information, just keeping on top of things.  I loved doing it, so it worked really well.
R: Who were the other customers that you worried about that much?
B: Well the other ones were cars, I didn't get into the car distribution, they had car distributors locally, and a car distribution department, but the U.S. Steel was something special.
R: How many people were there in Sacramento?  Was there actually someone whose job was car distribution for empties? ,br> B: Oh, yeah, each place where they had a  ... each agent had a car distributor there, and they would distribute out the cars.
R: So was there one ,br> B: And then the other cars that I had jurisdiction over were the special purpose cars like the damage free cars, the covered hopper cars.
R: Kind of like your story in Portland of figuring out how to get the new cars coming from Seattle to some of the canners in the Willamette Valley.
B: See, there, I was very lucky, I looked like a hero because I got all these loads, but the true story and I explained it to the boss it wasn't all my credit, the guy in Seattle couldn't get rid all of his allotment because they didn't have the canneries up there that we did, whereas in the Willamette Valley, they not only had a lot of canners, but they really liked to get the damage free cars, so it was a very easy job for me to bring them down from Seattle from SC&F at Renton, get them to Portland and down into the Willamette Valley.

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