Thursday, March 24, 2011

Car Shop Bonanza

The railroad lay across Clinton like the crosshairs of a surveyor’s instrument, dividing the town into quarters. That meant that no part of the town got off scot-free. The shudder of huge steam engines could be heard all over town, their wheels straining to grip the rail, moving slowly at first, then losing traction and spinning rapidly before gripping again, over and over, gradually building speed until finally they rolled smoothly down the track and out of town, whistle blowing to warn all comers at each intersection, billowing black smoke and cinders from their stacks. The rumble of the heavily loaded cars shook houses blocks away from the tracks. The wind generally carried the smoke over the eastern half of the town, but the whole town heard the whistles screaming day and night. There were no overpasses and only one viaduct (underpass) so intersections in any part of town were subject to long blockages as the trains rolled through, or while the switch-engines pulled the cars apart and formed them up in new configurations heading for new destinations.

Clinton was a railroad town. It had the one-armed men to prove it. Some had been injured working on the railroad, but others lost body parts trying to hitch a ride, or crawl under a slow-moving train that blocked their path. The most illustrious victim of railroad violence, in the eyes of an aspiring major league baseball player, was a one-armed, local baseball hero who could scoop up a ground ball and, in one seamless process, remove his glove with his teeth, allowing the ball to roll out into his hand, and fire it off to first base ahead the runner. His powerful one-armed blasts with a bat frequently cleared the fences and the bases.

But the presence of maimed people wasn’t the only evidence of the town’s major industry. A crossing town, serving travelers from the four winds, it had almost everything any major railroad terminal would have including a bona fide station with a ticket master and a cafe. At the east end of town the Round House – a huge carousel or lazy Susan –turned the engines and sent them back in the direction they came from. In a day of wooden railroad cars, Clinton boasted a Car Shop where wrecked or worn boxcars were brought for repairs. Frank Burns was a carpenter at the Car Shop. At the north end of town cabooses were shuttled onto sidings near the Store Department where they could be resupplied with ice, water, coal, stationary, kerosene, flares and other supplies needed by the conductors on their long hauls. Eventually Dad would work the graveyard shift in the Store Department, supplying cabooses, but not until he had worked his way up through the ranks as a Section hand, beginning late in 1941, after war was declared against Japan. Finally, in the center of town, at the junction of the north-south and the east-west lines, stood a large grey, almost windowless building, the exact purpose of which I never learned. It seemed to be the local headquarters.

The railroad was a boon to poor people. Boxcars leaked grain, and coal cars often overflowed  along the tracks. Enterprising folk took advantage of the free wealth. Railroad spikes, pieces of broken rail, parts that rattled loose from passing trains, discarded crossties were all considered free for the taking by scavengers. In addition, the trains provided transportation for any nimble enough and brave enough to hitch a ride to where they were going. There were occasional derailments, and those who got there before the cleanup crews could always find things of value in the wreckage. The scrap heaps left behind by the section gangs provided fire wood for nearby residents or transients living along the tracks. All of this scavenging was unsanctioned; the railroad Dick (detective) would run you off if he discovered you shagging a ride or picking up things along the track. But there weren’t enough Dicks to police the whole line.

Perhaps the railroad’s greatest gift to Clinton in those late Depression years, other than the jobs it provided for locals, was the Car Shop. Many of the boxcars arrived so badly damaged that they had to be stripped down to their frame and rebuilt, discarding the old materials and using new. The pile of used lumber near the shop was a bonanza for material starved “builders”. Dad was such a “builder”.

I was too young to know the family dynamics of the decision to give up our home on Clay Street, very likely a rented home, and build a “new house” a few blocks away on the north end of George Street. I never knew from whom Dad bought the lot on which he built. I can only guess the thoughts of the neighbors as they watched him hauling in the building materials from the Car Shop. The adventure was about to begin.

1 comment:

  1. Clinton was more of a railroad town than where I grew up, but we had 2 paper mills - which meant loads of wood and coal coming regularly. The tracks became a place to get away and dream the 'what ifs.'

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