The education of a train watcher

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, December 21, 2012

I was west of Topeka today, more than half way from Virginia to the Colorado Rockies, driving a steady 79 on Interstate 70 and admiring the layer of snow the season’s first storm had delivered the day before, when I saw the exit sign:

McFarland

1 MILE

McFarland! Oh my goodness. The memory of that evening some 50 years ago came rolling down like a Big Sur wave and washed over me.

Growing up, there wasn’t an interlocking tower or other 24-hour office in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, or Missouri I wouldn’t walk into. “Hi,” I’d say, sticking out my right hand. “My name is Fred, and I like to watch trains. Do you mind if I visit for a while?” Never—not once that I can remember—was I told to leave. I would be invited to sit down, and the train order operator or tower leverman and I would begin talking. It might last but 10 minutes, but sometimes for hours. At McFarland, it lasted an entire shift.

This is how I sharpened my understanding of railroad operations. I would study the employee timetables to the point of memorization and now could pepper my host with questions. How close to schedule do the freights actually run? How often are extra freights run? Do the passenger trains ever give way and take the siding for freights? Where do the through trains set out or pick up cars on the subdivision? How much local business is there here? These were smart men I visited with, and I think one reason they tolerated me was that they were bored. Plus, they were probably flattered that someone, even a teenager, thought what they did for a living was exciting.

This had begun in my home town of Sulphur Springs, Tex., where the Cotton Belt's day clerk-telegrapher, Jack Elliott, let me sit at his desk, headphone clamped on my 12-year-old head, and copy train orders on a yellow pad of flimsies as they were issued to other stations by the dispatcher in Tyler.

Anyway, as I grew older, I had my share of interesting experiences. The yellow wood tower at Holliday, Kan., just west of Kansas City, protected the junction of Santa Fe’s main line with the Topeka branch. I was a regular visitor late on weekend afternoons in the autumn of 1962, just before it was automated and closed. At 5 o’clock each afternoon, minutes apart, Kansas City Union Station would shoot three westbounds toward Holliday. The Chief and Tulsan stayed on the main line tracks and blew past us at top speed. But the Kansas Cityan was routed through Topeka, and as soon as it was out of KCUS the dispatcher would issue the final train orders and a clearance card to Holliday, and out they would go on forks, to be snatched by the enginemen, conductor, and flagman as their train eased through the sharp turnout. I always found that brief flurry of streamliners exhilarating. Sometimes in the midst of this, the eastbound Fast Mail Express would fly by in the opposite direction.

And one late afternoon in October, what did I and the towerman see but a mile-long special train of U.S. Army tanks, behind a quartet of blue-and-yellow FT diesels. The towerman said it was headed to Galveston, Tex. I remembered that train just days later when President Kennedy startled the world by revealing that the Soviet Union was planting missiles aimed at the U.S. in Cuba, and we teetered on the brink of war.

This was while I was studying journalism at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a 30-minute drive from Holliday. Other nights I wandered far afield. After visiting the 24-hour office of Missouri Pacific at Durand, Kan., on the Kansas City to Coffeyville, Kan., line, I mistakenly thought I would find a service station open after 10 p.m. I was somewhere between Wichita and Emporia on a lonely road when the motor sputtered and died. Now it was past 1 a.m. But out of nowhere came a deputy sheriff. He took me to the nearest country general store, banged on the owner’s apartment above it until lights came on, and drove me back to my car with a can of gasoline.

Another evening, in Sedalia, Mo., my cousin Mike and I were given a post-midnight lesson in operating an armstrong interlocking plant by the leverman. The tower protected the crossing of MoPac’s St. Louis-Kansas City line and Katy’s St. Louis-Parsons, Kan., branch. They were called armstrong plants because signals and switches were connected directly to the levers on the second floor of the tower by a network of pipes, and you needed a strong arm to manipulate them.

“Go ahead,” the wiry little man told me, pointing to a long lever, “try to reverse this switch.” I grabbed the lever with both hands, took a breath, and jerked it back with all my 20-year-old strength. It didn’t budge. Cousin Mike did no better. “Now watch me,” the leverman said. He stuck out one hand and casually pulled the lever straight back to a locked position. What!? “You have to know how to use your leverage,” he explained. Ten minutes later, after some instruction and practice, Mike and I were pros. By then it was 2 o’clock, and we got $1 rooms in a downtown Sedalia hotel. In that era it seemed that every county seat town had a $1 fleabag, because I stayed in my share of them. The enduring memory is of musty odors.

But I digress. McFarland had always fascinated me from afar. It was mysterious, remote, and operationally important. About 30 miles west of Topeka, it was on the double-track Rock Island Lines artery used by trains going to Texas and to the Golden State Route to California (the two routes split at Herington, Kan.). At McFarland, a branch line about 100 miles long shot northwest to Belleville, Kan., on the Rock’s Omaha-Denver main line. The branch hosted two scheduled through freights in each direction, which was why operators were kept in McFarland on the day and evening shifts, to copy train orders for these trains.

I showed up at 4 o’clock on a cold, cloudy winter Saturday afternoon, just as the evening operator arrived. “Hi, my name is . . .” I went through my usual introduction, and the fellow invited me in.

McFarland used to be a far more important place on the Rock Island than it was by 1965, and my host regaled me with stories, for hours. Every so often a train would roar by at top speed and we’d inspect it for defects. I don’t remember any branch line activity. At 9 o’clock he said he was heading home for supper. “Come with me,” he said. “My wife will be glad to have you join us.” So that’s how I was fed that evening. Just before midnight, the Twin Star Rocket passed on its way to Texas. The westbound Golden State would be next, but the hour was late, and I needed to get back to Lawrence.

The next day, still romanticizing about my experience, I sat down at my typewriter and banged out a feature story for the Kansas City Star. I was its KU correspondent, knew practically the entire staff of both the morning and evening editions, and was well liked. Banking on that well of good will, I send my profile of a lonely country depot that had seen better days to the Star’s state editor and held my breath. Two or three days later, opening the front, or A section, there it was. It was, actually, my first railroad story. Many hundreds more would follow.

So when I saw the green sign on the interstate, it's little wonder that I briefly forgot where I was and where I was going, and wandered down the dim hallways of my past  — Fred W. Frailey

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