Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dorothy and her 1-2-3's

Port Townsend, today. More than a year ago, when chatting with one of my neighbors, I - we - were astounded to discover that we share a small piece of Pacific Northwest railroad history!

I was telling Dorothy about how I, as a young man, back in the 1960's used to hang out at the Northern Pacific Railway shops in Auburn (Washington.) Amazingly, Dorothy also hung around the same shops, but with much greater clarity than I!

Dorothy grew up in Spokane; but she spent a lot of time with her grandparents who lived in Auburn. In fact, getting to Auburn on the Northern Pacific, was one of Dorothy's many precious memories of the railroad:

"The first thing that comes to mind was the kindness and professionalism of the Porters. My Mother would put me on the night train from Spokane to Seattle. The Porters would fuss over me and kept an eye on me during the trip.

The Porter would make up my bunk. I loved the top bunk. I could really feel the train movement up there. And hear the rails. In the morning, the Porter would tap on my curtain to wake me up. He would make sure I got ready to get off the train in Auburn."

Dorothy referrers to her grandmother as "Play Ga-Ga" and her grandfather as "Work Ga-Ga." "Work Ga-Ga" was Guy Wickham. Mr. Wickham began working in the Northern Pacific Railway Shop in Auburn, as a machinist, eventually becoming a Foreman.

Mr. Wickham and his cohorts worked through those exciting transitional days from steam to diesel. In fact, the Northern Pacific was the first Class One railroad to build a dedicated diesel locomotive maintenance facility, which became the model other railroads emulated.

The original alignment of the Northern Pacific from Stampede Pass to Tacoma, took a devious round-about route down off the Cascade Foothills, entering Tacoma from the southeast. That stretch, from Palmer Junction to Tacoma, was referred to as the "Buckley Line."

The map shows the revised alignment beginning at Palmer Junction, with a direct route to Auburn. With the opening of the Palmer Cutoff, on August 19, 1900, the Northern Pacific main line descended directly down off the Cascade Foothills onto the valley floor of the Green - Duwamish River Watershed, intersecting the Seattle - Tacoma line at Auburn.

That realignment put Auburn "on the map" - from flag stop to major junction overnight. Being strategically located between Tacoma and Seattle, Auburn became second largest facility, next the main South Tacoma Shops, on the West Coast. At its peak employing nearly 2,000 souls.

There was a large 25-stall roundhouse. A classification yard, 20 tracks wide, was constructed in 1912. Traffic from Seattle and Tacoma aggregated in Auburn, forming heavy freight movements for St. Paul. Conversely, westbound heavy freights were dissected at Auburn, separating Seattle and Tacoma revenue.

Dorothy just about didn't have her favorite "Work Ga-Ga." A serious accident caught four employees in the cab of a locomotive they were working on, as reported in the Auburn Globe, July 14, 1916, page 5:

"Machinist Fred Mutterbach, a new hire, with Blacksmith Robert Metcalf, his helper John Lockridge and Foreman Guy Wickham were caught in an explosion. The men had been heating metal in a locomotive cab with a tire heater; a torch attached to an eight-gallon tank of headlight oil under air pressure.

A pipe in the tank broke off, spilling oil into the cab and against the part they were working on. It burst into flames which engulfed the cab. Wickham managed to get clear instantly and Lockridge came out with only minor injuries, but Metcalf and Mutterbach were burned extensively. After being treated by the company doctor in Auburn, B. E. Hoye, the men were sent to the Northern Pacific Beneficial Association Hospital in Tacoma to recover."

(For a view of "A Street" that I shot from the cab of a locomotive, see "Never Went to Seattle!")

Whenever Dorothy visited, she relished the opportunity to visit the round house and fell in love with the iron horse. As many of us have had the opportunity, we recall the unique smell of "wet steam, " lubricating oil and burning metal.

"I can close my eyes and remember the sights and the sounds and smells of the steam, and the oil. I was fascinated by the size of the locomotives in the roundhouse getting ready to go to work. I got to ride in the cab.

I remember the big doors opening, and riding out onto the turntable. I remember the loud sound of the clanking rods, sounds of hissing steam and air.

I wasn't afraid at all. I got to ride in a lot of steam engines. The men made me feel like a princess. Here I was, a small girl surrounded by big locomotives and big men who were kind and gentle."

One day, when she and her Grandpa were standing on the Auburn platform, waiting for the train to take her back to Spokane, she watched the agent deftly enter the arrival and departure times of the passenger lineup on the big chalkboard.

Seeing her interest in what the agent was doing, "Grand Ga-Ga" said; "Well Dorothy, when you learn your a, b, c's, and your 1, 2, 3's, you can write on the chalkboard."

When the Burlington Northern Merger took place in 1970, it devastated Auburn. And following the usual Corporate Truthspeak of "no major changes anticipated," major changes took place.

For a "First Person Account" of how the Burlington Northern Merger in 1970 affected the residents of Auburn, read "Palmer Cutoff."

Today, when you ride by on the Cascades or the Sounder, looking out the window, if you didn't know about the Big Yard, the Roundhouse, the Maintenance Shop, the Yard Office, the Locomotives, and the People, it would appear to you as a large flat piece of "industrial property."

Mr. Wickham passed away in the late 1960's. Dorothy is in her 70's now. She lights up when we pass in the hall. We share a special bond of Auburn the way it was. For more than a year now, I've been telling Dorothy "I'm going to write about you in my blog."

I ran into Dorothy the other day, and told her I was finally writing this article. However, there was something I had forgotten to write in my notes. So when I saw her I asked , "Say, Dorothy; you never did tell me what happened! What happened when you finally learned your 'a, b, c's and your 1, 2, 3's?'"

"Oh!" she replied with a great big smile,
"At last! I got to write on the big (Arrival - Departure) Chalkboard. Just like 'Work Ga Ga' had promised me!

I remember the numbers had to be written inside bright orange boxes painted on the chalkboard. I remember holding the chalk, and I used my best penmanship to write in the numbers the Station Agent told me.

It was such a thrill to write in those numbers on the Northern Pacific Passenger chalkboard! The( arrival and departure) times for the passenger trains. For everyone to see!"

4 Comments - Click here: said...

What a joyous account of her life with her grandparents in Auburn- wonderful memories of sight, sound and smell. Well-written human interest stories are what sets your blog in a special class alone. Thanks

Eric said...

An interesting personal story from a different time, Robert.

Another way to learn numbers around the tracks is to count cars, something I always promoted with our kids. Plus, I could get a car count while I was busy writing down information on the cars in the train.

Thanks for sharing,

Anonymous said...

Great memoir! Did Dorothy ever mention that her grandfather Guy had a brother Irv Wickham, an engineer on the NP's Yellowstone sub? If so, I've just connected a small branch of the family tree. Great site!

Bill Tharp

Unknown said...

Guy Wickham was my Grandfather. I remember him taking me to the round house as a little boy. I have a picture of Shirley (Dorothys sister and myself in one of the steam locomotives.

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