Roger, the man who loved trains

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, April 21, 2011

If you’re reading this, it means you have a passion for trains or the business and romance of railroading. That passion became evident in me at age 10 or 11, in a dusty Northeast Texas town with the improbable name of Sulphur Springs, its sulphur springs having dried up decades earlier. My father gave me little encouragement. Though he grew up the son of a Santa Fe Railway officer, he inherited little interest in railroading from his dad.
 
I felt like a caged animal. Those Cotton Belt freights I heard after bedtime 10 miles away along White Oak Creek — oh, the places they’d been, the places they were headed! They awakened my lifelong curse of wanderlust. My curiosity was insatiable. I wrote division superintendents asking for employee timetables, and nine out of 10 sent them by return mail. Remember, I wasn’t yet in seventh grade. I yearned to see big-time railroading in the rail centers of Fort Worth and Texarkana, each 100 or more miles away on two-lane highways. And the person who took me to these places, time and again, and fed this passion of mine and freed the caged animal inside me — the man who became my railroading mentor — bore a name that long-time readers of trains will recognize: R.S. Plummer.
 
Roger Plummer was the premiere rail photographer in Northeast Texas during the 1940s and ’50s. His photos pepper the issues of Trains in that era. Born in 1899 and raised in Portland, Ore., he was sent to Sulphur Springs in 1935 by Carnation Co. to oversee the construction of an evaporated milk plant. He stayed the rest of his working life to run it.
 
What I respect about Roger Plummer is not his infatuation with trains, but his willingness to share this love with others, to the very end of his life. Learning of my own budding interest, Roger immediately took me under his wing. We began making day-long forays to those far-away (to me) rail centers. His patience with this 12-year-old boy was infinite. Driving to Fort Worth or Texarkana, Roger would regale me with stories of his encounters with such rail moguls as Fred Gurley of Santa Fe and Ralph Budd of Great Northern, not to forget the illustrious railroad writer (and café society chronicler) Lucius Beebe and Trains founder Al Kalmbach. Roger referred to them as simply Fred, Ralph, Lucius, and Al.
 
He would march up the steps of interlocking towers and into the offices of chief dispatchers with the command presence and assurance of a railroad president, a smile on his face and questions about train lineups on his lips. Nobody we met told him no, because they already knew him. Learning that my family would spend a day in Kansas City, he immediately obtained from Union Station’s general manager (his friend, of course) a letter of permission for me to have trackside privileges, to the amazement of the railroad policeman who immediately collared 13-year-old Fred.
 
Generous with his time, generous with his possessions. I had but to linger over a glossy 8-by-10 photograph for Roger to insist I take it home with me. He was that way with everyone. I recall his saying he had more than 20,000 negatives and thousands of slides, this in the pre-digital era when such numbers meant something. “Keep it,” he’d tell me. “I can make another.”
 
As a railfan who also happened to be a shipper of dozens of cars a week, Roger got away with murder, in a manner of speaking. He thought nothing of climbing up the ladder of a signal mast to get a better photographic perspective on the Kansas City Southern passenger train swooping down upon us south of Texarkana. The engineers of Cotton Belt local freights in Sulphur Springs happily ceded to him their seats beside the throttle for indefinite periods of time, a practice that lasted decades on both steam and diesel locomotives and sadly had to end after he and a conductor got signals confused and a car was pushed off the end of a spur track.
 
I hope you get at least a whiff of my love for this man, who was like a second father to me. I grew up and left Sulphur Springs, but during most visits to see my parents, I made time to visit Roger. By then in his 70s, he had outlived two wives, retired, and wrestled with the pain of crippling arthritis by peddling a fat-tired bicycle up and down city streets for an hour a day. His home he turned into a railroad museum. I am not kidding. His granddaughter Pamela recently sent me a signed certificate (reproduced here) that he handed to visitors to his home, which was festooned, floor to ceiling in almost every room, with artifacts of railroading. Entertaining others and infusing them with his enthusiasm for railroads became his second career, and Roger loved every moment of it.
 
Roger Plummer died Nov. 24, 1981, just months after my own father and on his granddaughter’s birthday. As I write this, I can hear in my memory’s sound track that rich, gravely voice of his, always assured, confident, friendly. I can truthfully say that in the 55 years since I came under his spell, I’ve never been around anyone else quite like him. Roger had the stuff of life burning inside, and as a mentor into the world of railroads, he was the best.
 
Did someone influence your interest in railroads in such a manner? If so, we’d all like to hear your story. And remember: Those kids you see who like trains need a mentor, too, and it could be you. — Fred W. Frailey

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