I'd been with the Alaska Railroad for six weeks in early 1942 when my railroading career almost came to an abrupt end.
After I graduated from high school in June 1941, I had started working my way from Dubuque, Iowa, to Alaska. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, I had made it to Anchorage and I was determined to see more of the territory before heading home to join the Army.
I saw my chance to tour Alaska and get paid, too, by training as a steam locomotive fireman for the Alaska Railroad. To qualify as a fireman, I spent six weeks making "extra board" student trips over the 500 miles of Alaska Railroad.
Then I was on my own, and was assigned to the notorious branch line out of Anchorage up the Matanuska Valley to the coal mines past Palmer. No fireman relished that run. It almost always dragged longer than 16 hours, and sometimes longer than 20. On nearly every trip out, the conductor, to comply with railroad regulations, would call the home terminal and wearily report, "We'll be out more than 16 hours."
In 1942 the Alaska Railroad had just about half a dozen large stoker engines that could pull more than 20 cars without doubling-cutting the train in half and making two runs - up the hills. The far more numerous smaller steamers were hand-fired and could pull only around a dozen cars without doubling the hills.
The branch line to Palmer had no steep hills -- just a long, hard, steady pull to the Matanuska Valley.
The engineer on the branch run, Ryan, was tops and it was well known that he could be quite "owly" if his fireman wasn't also tops. With only six weeks experience behind me, I knew I was far from being the crack fireman this tough run called for. But when I got to the roundhouse just before the trip, the foreman assured me that if Ryan could see I was doing my best, he'd help me out.
I climbed the ladder to the cab and found the engine was a 180-pound steam pressure hand-fire, and we were to pull more than 20 empty coal cars. I knew then a long, hard day lay ahead.
Once we were on our way, I saw Ryan was indeed a top engineer; he made good time up the valley without dragging my fire out the stack. Several times he opened the fire door to look in the firebox, and using my shovel as a shield against the white hot glare, "read" the fire. When he nodded approval, I knew I was doing okay.
After a while we reached the end of the main line, where several sets of tracks allowed for switching cars and making up trains. We were to run seven empty coal cars from the "Y" up to the mine workings and small railroad yards above tree line, bring seven loaded coal cars down, and repeat the runs until all our empties were up on the mine tracks and a loaded train was assembled in the valley for a return trip to Anchorage.
Getting ready for the first run up the steep grade, Ryan backed from the siding over the points of the Y, and the brakeman threw the switch for the mine track. Ryan had told me earlier to make sure the water was low in the boiler at this point. Now, with the engine standing still, the engineer and I both turned on cold water injectors. To keep the steam pressure up against both cold water injectors, I started to shovel fast and turned the forced draft steam blower oil hard. When I had a heavy-bottomed white fire with the back corners built high, we were ready to go. The engine faced uphill with seven cars in front of it. Steam pressure was 179 pounds, and the safety valve would pop open with just one more pound of pressure. We turned both injectors off; Ryan didn't want the boiler more than half full, so there would be no chance of the pistons working water and losing power.
The engine started uphill. Ryan used hard throttle right off, trying to keep the drive wheels from slipping. I bailed coal as fast as I could swing the shovel, pausing only to turn off the blower and turn on my injector when the gauge told me the water was getting low in the boiler.
When we reached the mines at the top of the run, I was to fill the tender with badly needed coal. Since this was my first branch line run, Ryan told me briefly how to load the tender; the system here was quite different from the coal and water stops along the main line.
On the branch line, a mine operator in a coal shanty 1,000 feet up the mountain from the coal chute controlled tile flow to the tender. I was to signal by stamping my feet on the roof of the cab when the tender was full, and Ryan would signal the mine operator with a blast of the engine whistle.
Closing both the cab windows and the curtain between the cab and the tender, the engineer isolated himself inside the cab to avoid the swirling dust. After latching the fire door open and opening the blower slightly so the draft would pull the coal dust through the firebox, he waited for my signal.
The engineer stayed clean, but he couldn't see what I was doing on top of the tender. So that the wind would blow the coal dust away from me, I stood with the coal chute between me and the cab. I knew I'd have to wade through the flow of coal to signal the engineer, but I failed to reckon with the volume of coal coming down the chute. That chute was generally used to load carloads of coal, not small locomotive tenders.
Too late I realized I couldn't get through the coal to stamp on the cab roof. I had to let the coal overflow from the tender hopper back onto the top of the flat-decked water tank. I prayed Ryan would realize the tender was full and blow that whistle; I could just picture an irate engineer ordering me to shovel tons of coal off the ground.
Finally, Ryan blew the whistle, but not before the coal was coned six feet over the top of the hopper, and many extra tons had flowed off the hopper onto the roof of the water tank.
That accidental overloading later saved us, several passengers riding in a boxcar and half the train.
But Ryan lived up to his reputation for orneriness when he first surveyed the surplus coal. Surprisingly, he was in a good mood again by the time he'd made up the train to take down to the main line. He even offered me a sandwich from his lunch, and I knew we were okay again.
From the first mine, we took a string of nine loaded coal cars. A half mile farther down the tracks at the second mine, we picked up eight more loaded cars and an empty flatcar which ended in middle of the train. Ryan also picked up a boxcar carrying a dozen miners bound for Palmer.
Because of the unusually heavy amount of work we'd done, and the time it had taken, it was decided to take the entire train down the mountain in one run, instead of taking just seven loaded cars at a time. The brakemen tied down hand brakes to drag on some of the coal cars, and would tie down more if needed on the way down.
Tender first, the engine backed down the mountain, followed by the boxcar carrying the miners, nine loaded coal cars, the light empty flatcar and eight more loaded cars. Since we would need little steam going downhill, I started repairing my fire.
While I was replenishing the fire and keeping an eye on the steam gauge, it became increasingly difficult to stand and work on the deck. We were picking up speed fast and hadn't even hit tree line yet.
Not wanting to betray my nervousness to the engineer, I threw another round of coal into the firebox. I had to keep up the fire since some steam was needed for the air brakes. A quick glance at the gauge reassured me we had 170 pounds of pressure.
Seconds later, I saw the engineer reach up and blow the whistle once, signaling, "Brakeman, tie down the brakes." Then I knew we were in bad trouble.
We kept gaining speed. Warning flags toppled out of an overhead folder, and fusees that had been wedged between my scat and the side of the cab scattered across the deck floor. Coal lumps flew into the cab from the tender. Talking was impossible over the clattering and pounding of the engine.
I dropped my shovel and sprang up onto the window seat, throwing the cab window open. We were below tree line now, and trees rushed by in a blur. Sticking my head out the window to look at the train, I saw two brakemen jump off. The coal cars were swaying violently from side to side, spilling coal; the train looked like a giant snake following us.
Just after the brakemen jumped, the empty flatcar in the middle of the train left the tracks. The coal cars behind it took off across country. One car plowed into the frozen ground and started to somersault - another car flying behind it interrupted the somersault and the two cars made praying hands.
Seeing that, I climbed onto the window frame. I would have to jump. I glanced over my shoulder to see what Ryan was going to do. His face was the color of death, but he was sitting straight back in his seat, outwardly calm, trying to regain the lost air brakes.
He saw me crouched on the window frame. He slowly nodded his head "yes."' When that old veteran gave me the nod to jump, I knew for sure this was it.
I looked over the ground for the best place to throw myself. A saw-toothed edge of frozen dirt jutted three feet high parallel to the tracks. If I landed on that ridge, it would be sure death at that speed. If I threw myself inside the ridge, I would roll under the train. I decided to stay crouched in the window, ready to throw myself 'as far as I could the second the engine left the rails.
With the engine traveling tender first, I felt sure we couldn't hold the tracks across the points of the Y, and the immediate bend onto the main line in the valley.
But a miracle happened. I never had to jump. The engine held the tracks, passed over the Y and headed around the bend onto the main line. That extra coal I had accidentally loaded onto the tender gave us enough weight to hold the rails.
After we'd run down the main line for several miles, Ryan regained some air on the brakes and pulled the train to a stop. He immediately backed to the Y and started to inspect what was left of the train.
My knees were uncontrollably shaky. To hide my fear, I loudly cursed the brakemen who had jumped train; I later learned they couldn't have saved the train by tying down more brakes, and they had saved their own lives by seconds.
While Ryan was inspecting the locomotive, one of the brakemen ran down, out of breath, and asked us to bring the engine back to help move one of the derailed cars. The train conductor was crushed beneath a car. He had stuck with the train, trying to tie down more brakes.
We returned to the spot where the cars left the tracks, and the miners from the boxcar rescued the conductor from under the car. We carried him to the boxcar, and Ryan raced the engine, pulling only the boxcar, to Palmer. We took the conductor to the Palmer hospital, and went to wait at a nearby restaurant. A little while later we received word the conductor was dead.
Back at the freight, house, one
of the brakemen threw his lantern against the wall and declared, "The hell
with it." For that brakemen it was an ending -- but for me it was just
a beginning as a firemen with the Alaska Railroad.