Early Present on Christmas Eve

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, December 14, 2020

Today, at least if had been a ‘normal’ (i.e. non-Covid) year, had Christmas Eve been on a Monday, I think that it’s likely that most people would have gotten a four-day weekend, and been looking forward to another one a week hence.  (And in the period we’ll be talking about, very few people worked any significant amount of time “at home”.)

In 1979, however, being sentenced to work on Christmas Eve day generally meant that this would be commuted to an early dismissal, either as of lunch time, or at the latest, by mid-afternoon.  I seem to recall that traffic was light on the way into the office that morning; apparently at least some people were getting the day off (or had taken it as vacation/personal time, were traveling out of town, etc.).

My commute while living in the Houston area was a long one, 37 miles each way, from the far northwest suburbs through downtown, to the vicinity of Hobby Airport, on the city’s southeast side.  Even as of the late 1970s, traffic was horrendous during the rush hours.  On a good day, the trip took 50 minutes.  On a typical Friday afternoon, it generally was about 90.

In the latter case, I spent some time trying alternative routes, generally involving surface streets on the north side of downtown.  I never found one that cut the time noticeably, but did benefit from what could be termed the “illusion of motion”, rather than sitting in the stop-and-go traffic on the North Freeway, known more formally as Interstate 45.

A few of the alternatives involved railroad facilities, and with a little bit of luck, maybe an opportunity for some photography.  Milby Street, which catered to power from the Santa Fe, both Burlington-Rock Island components (by then, the BN and RI) as well as some of HB&T’s (Houston Belt and Terminal) switcher fleet, wasn't far north of the office, and required only a slight digression to access. .

On the north side of town, Hardy Street Road paralleled the Missouri Pacific lines to Palestine, in east Texas, and their route to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, which ran together north out of Houston until splitting in the small town of Spring, then still basically a separate entity from the Houston Metro area.

Probably the best alternative, however, was to head east on Houston’s Loop (I-610) for the Missouri Pacific's Settegast Yard by exiting Loop 610 (notwithstanding the name, no “L” trains were to be seen in its vicinity) at Kirkpatrick Road, where a short drive north brought you to the Settegast engine facility. 

With its automobile parking on the west side of the railroad, no tracks had to be crossed for inspection and/or photography, and provided that you didn’t go east of the pavement, the railroad didn’t seem to be concerned about visitors there.  Given the geographic layout, the lighting for afternoon photography was fine year-round.

Thus, after escaping from the office on December 24, 1979, that’s where I headed; I’d had the foresight to bring the camera, as well.  My timing was fortuitous, since as I was about to cross the tracks coming from the north (which arrive at the south end of Settegast) at Kirkpatrick Junction, I saw the southbound BRI freight pictured above, and was able to park, jump out of the car and get the shot.

Passing before my eyes was the illustrated history of the latter-day Rock Island’s motive power and color schemes, in the form of a U25B, in bright red; a GP35 in the more traditional maroon; and trailing, a GP38-2 in the final, powder blue livery. Only the latter (in bold graphics consisting of a stylized capital “R”, and “The Rock” titles) bore any name on the side; the classic “Rock Island” herald on the nose of the GE was the only evidence of ownership visible on the other two.

Needless to say, I was happy to get this one; I think that it was the only time during my stay in Houston that I saw a bright red unit in the lead.  While I didn’t know it then, there would be few other opportunities to shoot the Rock ever again, since in less than 100 days (March 31, 1980) it would be gone.

As it says in the classic song, “The Rock Island is a mighty good road”; unfortunately, “was” is now more accurate.  Fortunately, even though it may not have been showing off its “best self” on Christmas Eve 1979, I did get this representation of the Rock Island’s colorful history before its demise; an early start to the Christmas festivities for me that year.

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