Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose

When you work for the railroad as a brakeman in Grand Forks, North Dakota, there are calls you want and calls you don’t want to get.  Getting called to work the Walhalla local was a call you didn’t want.  Especially in January, right after New Year’s Day.  To make things worse, this particular evening was going to hit 30 below, the first “really cold night” of the winter.  Anything above 10 below was considered warm in a North Dakota winter.

First, there was the time of departure, which on the surface, 3 pm, didn’t appear bad.  The problem was that you didn’t finish (or “tie up”) in Walhalla until 3 am.  The trip itself was only 70 miles from Grand Forks to Walhalla, a small (was there any other kind?) town in the Pembina Mountains of North Dakota, next to the Manitoba border.  What this meant was that, as a brakeman, you were going to walk a good portion of that 70 miles when you switched out all the bean plants, potato warehouses, and grain elevators.  “Switching out” means getting off the locomotive; reaching in between the locomotives and the first freight car; shutting the air valve from the locomotive to the rest of the train; climbing on the back of the locomotive; pulling past the switch; climbing down; unlocking the padlock on the switch with your switchkey that hung on a leather lacestring tied to your overalls; guide the locomotive engineer to the cars on the plant or elevator track; stop the engines short of the loaded cars so you can check to make sure they’re not connected to the dock; climb each car to release the hand brake; guide the locomotives back to “make a joint” (connect the draw bars) with each loaded car; connect the air hoses of each car; and pull all the loaded cars out onto the main track, then set them aside on another track so you could pick them up on the return trip back to Grand Forks.  A lot of times, if there was enough room, you would pull the loaded cars out with the empty cars attached behind the locomotives and save several steps.

You would repeat the process at every stop.  For the Walhalla and many other locals, this work was typically done at night, with temperatures very cold.  Coupling thick rubber air hoses together in itself was an arduous task, but it was especially difficult in a North Dakota winter.

It was generally not pleasant work, unlike my first trip on the Cass Lake local.  And many times, the people you worked with were generally unhappy with their lot in life, even though the railroad paid what I thought was an incredible amount of money for what we did.  Mickey Anderson was typical.  Mickey had a pretty wife and kids in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, but also had a “girlfriend” in Walhalla.  He bragged to me all the way up that night whenever he was in the locomotive about his girlfriend and how she would meet him at the station, and they would go back to his room at the railroad boarding house.  He described the frolicking that would ensue in every detail. It was a relief when he stayed in the caboose. He fashioned himself to be similar to a world traveling sailor with a girl in every port.  The only catch he told me, after we switched out cars in Hoople, North Dakota, home of the famous (in North Dakota) “Hop to Hoople” Potato Festival, was that his girlfriend had to be back at her house before 6:30 am.  That was when her husband woke up to get ready for work.

Apparently, this woman had either an extremely stupid husband or he was a very sound sleeper.

We got into Walhalla at 2:15 am, switched out the Walhalla elevator, took the locomotives out to the wye, where we turned them around to go south, and brought the locomotives to a stop outside the station.  Lights flashed from a parking lot nearby.  Mickey said, “There’s my girl!”

“BOOM!”  The locomotive windows rattled.  “Hit the floor!”  Mickey hollered, and he threw himself on the dirty floor of the locomotive.  I crouched down.  “BOOM!”  Mickey was crying, “He’s got a gun! Oh, my God, he’s going to kill us!”

“Who?”  I hollered back, not making the connection. I sure didn’t like the term “us.”

“Her husband, he’s caught us!”  I heard a hissing sound, and realized Mickey had lost control of his bladder.  I eyed the front and rear doors of the locomotive, ready to scream that I wasn’t Mickey.  I shouldn’t be killed -- I hadn’t been fooling around with the guy’s wife! 

The booms stopped.  He’s reloading, I thought, and I sprinted for the back door of the locomotive, walked like a duck down the catwalk to the back ladder, jumped down to the tracks, and ran behind some boxcars.  Mickey didn’t follow me, and the night became absolutely still.  There was silence, absolute silence, as only a North Dakota night could produce. I was terrified as I shivered there in hiding, anticipating that at any moment, this shotgun-toting stranger would shoot me. It didn’t matter if he thought he was shooting Mickey; I’d still be dead.

Suddenly, I heard a crunch of snow behind me, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.  My heart stopped.  “What the hell are you doing?”  asked the conductor, “Why did you run out of the engine?”

I felt foolish now.  There was no sign of a crazed husband anywhere.

“Mickey thought we were getting shot at.”

The conductor roared with laughter.  “A guilty conscience will get you every time.  Those weren’t shotgun blasts.  This is the first really cold night of the winter.  Those booms are just the wood in all the buildings contracting with the cold.  Happens every year. It does sound like a shotgun blast, though.” He laughed again. “C’mon, let’s get to the boarding house.”

I heard Mickey climb down the locomotive steps.  The conductor and I watched him walk to his girlfriend’s car and get in.  They drove off.  The conductor and I walked to the boarding house. The engineer headed towards a bar that, surprisingly, was still open.

The next day, Mickey was sullen the entire way back. I never worked with him again. Mickey’s wife divorced him; he quit the railroad and moved to Phoenix.  I never found out if Mickey’s girlfriend got caught, or if she got a new railroad boyfriend.