Carl Edmond Freshour
Just wanted to share with you. I went to Alaska in March of 1943 and was there until January of 1945. I was promoted to conductor soon after we started to work on the railroad. We had 25 complete engine and train crews along with a complete shop repair and maintenance of way company, which replaced ties, ballast and rails over the system. We worked from Seward to Fairbanks and all of the branch lines.
On arrival at Anchorage by train from Seward, we were housed in a staging area and if I remember correctly, we awoke the next morning to about a 10 inch snow fall. However, it did not last long. Almost immediately I started making student trips and when I came in we were required to go into Anchorage and help assemble the Quonset huts that were to be our main camp and headquarters. We soon had the base set up and moved into Anchorage, I will call it yards as we could walk to the yard office and did not need transportation. Also, we were not very far from downtown Anchorage and we could get a pass to go into town.
About the first run I remember was on train #26 to go from Anchorage to Curry, which was 134 miles. Train 26 carried a coach next to the caboose for passengers that were going to different points along the line. Several of them were fisherman and also hunters. They would be dropped off at different points and they always advised the conductor when they wanted to be picked up. There was a coal burning stove to heat the coach and we had to keep the fire going.
One of the men I got acquainted with was a nicely dress man and his name was Mr. Loudermilch. We soon became friends and he told me he was originally from Upper Sandusky, Ohio. I only lived 7 miles from there in Harpster. He was related to people in Upper Sandusky and I knew them and one of the boys was in company A by the name of Robert Hehr. Mr. Loudermilch was an undertaker in Anchorage and he was going to pick up a corpse and bring it back for burial.
The conductor's name was Shorty Long and he was a jolly fellow and very easy to work with and would not hesitate to answer questions about the railroad. I learned quite a lot about the Alaska Railroad from Shorty, which was a great help later on as I was soon promoted to conductor and had the responsibility of supervising the train operation.
When we made our stop at Matanuska, the conductor would call ahead to Willow and tell the cook how many people would be there to eat dinner and approximately what time we would be there. While at Willow, we would take on coal and water for the engine. All of the crew also would get their meal there.
When we arrived at Talkeetna, Mr. Loudermilch would depart from the train. We went on to Curry and put the train in the yard, set hand brakes and took the engine to the roundhouse. We stayed in a nice railroad dormitory and the next morning we would make the necessary switch movements of cars to assemble the train. Also, I must say that we were fed very well by the railroad. We ate at the Curry Hotel which was owned by the railroad. When we were assigned the same engine we had the day before, we had to turn the engine on a wye. This was my first experience at doing that and it was quite simple and I wondered why we did not have some of them on the Erie.
The trip back was old hat by then, picking up
Mr. Loudermilch at Talkeetna and loading the corpse in the combination
coach and baggage car. Arriving at Anchorage and putting the train
in the yards and the engine to the roundhouse. The Anchorage yard
engine would switch out the coach and spot it over at the depot where the
baggage and the corpse would later be claimed.
It seems as though for a long time when I first started to go to work on the Alaska Railroad, all we did was go out on a run every eight hours. Even though we were in the U.S. Army, we still had to comply with the Hours of Service Law, giving us the required rest period of eight hours. Some times though in cases of emergency, trying to keep the railroad open in severe weather conditions, we worked right on through until we got into a Terminal. I had a few tours of duty like that during the winter of 1943 and 1944.
About the second trip I made, I was called for the Head of Trainman's Position on a run from Anchorage to Seward. I went to the roundhouse and found the engine crew I was going out with. They were civilians and after getting acquainted, I found a couple of more new friends. When they got the engine ready, we took it over by the yard office and were told what track our train was on. We coupled onto the train and I coupled up the air hose between the engine and head car. We then proceeded back along the train, letting off the hand brakes and meeting the conductor. His name was Jack Palmer. The flagman's name was Richard Bruce. I was the only GI on the crew. Mr. Palmer explained what he could as we had a through train and he said we would meet at the coal, water and eating station of Tunnel, Alaska.
After the proper air brake test were made and we had received our train orders, we started on our way. We had a full tonnage train and the Yardmaster said he would take responsibility of closing the switch when we pulled out of the yards. I helped the fireman the same way I did back home on the Erie Railroad. I looked back over the train as it traveled around the curves to see if it was all right.
We made our stop at Tunnel and we pulled up to let the conductor and flagman off. We then backed up as I remember it was in yard limits. I cut the engine from the train and the engine crew proceeded up to take on water and coal. We all had a good meal and then returned to work. Mr. Palmer told me to couple the engine onto the train, make an air test and then pull till he gave us a stop signal. Once this was done, he made a cut on the train and we took the head end and proceeded on up the mountain to Grandview siding to set the cut of cars in. On the way up, we had to go though two tunnels. There was an operator guard there and we received a clearance form A telling us that the tunnel doors were open. We proceeded back to pick up the rest of the train and I got my first good look at the Loop that I had heard so much about. Sure enough it was a loop and going south, you would pass under the railroad. Then the railroad made a big right hand turn before going back over top. It was built that way because of the steep grade.
We pulled the second cut up the mountain, stopping to pick up the rest of the train and making an air test. The engineer asked me if I knew what retainers were and I said I did. He then told me how many cars to set the retainers on. After doing that, we were ready to proceed down the other side of the mountain. The retainers would hold the air brakes applied to the cars that were set. When we got down the mountain, we stopped and noticed they were making a lot of smoke as they were very hot. I went back and put the retainer valves in release position and then we were ready to proceed on to Seward.
Arriving at Seward, we pulled into the yards. After setting the hand brakes, I made the cut separating the engine from the train. We then went to the roundhouse where we marked off duty and washed up. I was covered with coal dust and was glad to clean up.
After receiving eight hours rest, we were ordered
to take a train back to Anchorage. We made all the necessary tests
and made it back to Anchorage without incident.
Part 3: Trips on the Alaska Railroad
Several times when I was in bed at Anchorage I could feel movement, like someone was shaking my bed. It was a small earthquake, just tremors I was told. One time I remember I was getting up to go to work on a run from Curry to Healy, a distance of 110 miles. I went downstairs to the washroom and had just drawn a lavatory full of water to wash up with when a quake hit. At first I did not know what was going on and there was so much shaking that the water sloped out of the wash bowl. It only lasted for a minute or so and it was over. In the rail yard, about the only damage was some loosened fittings and some of the cars that were not tied down with hand brakes had rolled to the other end of the yard. Not much damage. I never had anything like that back in Ohio.
I was sent up to Curry to be conductor on 26 and 25 second class trains. Our schedule was to leave Curry at 9:00 p.m. and arrive at Healy at 4:50 p.m. Train 26 handled a lot of way freight. That was the side of the run that I got as there was a civilian conductor on the other crew. His name was Silvernagle and he had through freight each time they went to work.
Lots of times we would have three to five cars of way freight to unload or get merchandise out at the section houses. Several times we would have cars of coal to unload at different points. That sounds bad, but it was easy and I will try to explain.
The coal cars that we emptied at the section houses were very small and I can't begin to tell you the exact size of them. They did not hold many tons. I would guess maybe ten or fifteen tons at the most. The cars set up real high and the bottom of the car would be about five feet or a little less above the ground. When we arrived at the required unloading station, we could stop and try to spot the car so it would empty into the appropriate spot. The cars had chains on all four corners thus allowing us to dump the car on either side. We would unhook the chains on the side we were to unload. There was a wooden pole at each station and we would set the pole on the opposite side that we were unloading the coal. Setting the pole at an angle against the corner of the car, angling it so when the train moved forward, the pole would lift that side up and the coal would slide out the other side right where we wanted it to go. We got pretty good at it after a few attempts.
Before leaving Curry, I would check the merchandise way bills in order to count the amount of items that we would unload at each station. I would then make a list for the engine crew of the places we had to stop and the ones I wanted them to just slow down. When I first started out on the run, we made stops at each place that had items to unload. I soon learned that we had so many places to do work that the only way to get over the railroad in 16 hours was to unload what we could just by going slow. Being a whole GI crew, it was to our advantage to get over the railroad and off duty as soon as we could. We really did not want to make overtime as the pay for us was the same. Eight or sixteen hours, the pay was no different.
One of my favorite stops was Canyon where we always took on water for the engine. At that station lived a family of four and they were sure good to me. The man worked for the railroad, keeping the water tank filled. In the wintertime, he had to keep a fire going in a stove so the water in the tank did not freeze. The heat from the stove went up a chimney made of heavy pipe and through the center of the water tank. His wife used to be a nurse at Fairbanks. They had two children which she taught at home and made them keep their grades up. They had a small greenhouse connected to the back of the house and they raised vegetables and flowers for their own use. When the blueberries were ripe, they could pick whatever amount was needed. There was always a bowl of berries and milk on the table for us to have a little snack. Lots of times I received a helping of smoked salmon that was prepared in their smoke house. The mighty and swift Canyon River ran close by and the caretaker would take a pitch fork and spear salmon as they were swimming upstream to spawn. This man did this even though he had lost his left hand just above the wrist. I don't think that I could have speared any with two good hands and arms.
It was required of the conductor to call in to the dispatcher at Anchorage to see if there was any change of orders or train operation. Sometimes I would have to copy orders for whatever was required. Sometimes the meeting point that we had for an opposing train had to be changed to a different location.
Sometimes our tonnage was so that we had to double the train to Hurricane and I would have to fire the engine (if we had a hand fired engine) up one cut for the fireman. These guys always razed me and said no way I was a brakeman back home since I was so good at hand firing an engine. It just came naturally for me and I had good coordination to do the job.
We would take the first cut up and set it in the siding at Hurricane. We would then return down the mountain to pick up the rest of the train. We reported to the dispatcher that we were leaving Canyon. On arriving at the Hurricane siding, we would pick up the rest of the train, make the required air test and proceed. While we were at Hurricane, I would call the dispatcher at Anchorage to see if there were any changes in operation. I would then call the cook at Broad Pass and tell him what time we would be there and how many for the meal. It was quite a thrill to pass over Hurricane bridge and if I remember correctly, it was 294 feet high up to the floor of the caboose. I don't know how anyone came up with that measurement.
Arriving at Broad Pass, we would pull ahead in order for the rear end crew and any passengers with us to dismount from the train. We would then unload any merchandise for them. Next, we would back up and cut away from the train and spot the engine. While we ate our meal, the engine received fuel and water.
Then on to Mt. McKinley Park where we would set off and spot any cars for them to unload. About once a week we would unload as many as three hundred cases of soft drinks and groceries of every kind and description for the GI's there on a week's leave. There was quite a large hotel there and it was quite a sight to see with Mt. McKinley in the background. Sometimes we would see some GI's riding on a dog sled pulled by one of the teams of dogs housed there.
Our next stop was Moody where I was told that the track would slide down towards the river every so often. The railroad kept a drag line shovel there to move dirt and rocks away from the track. The speed restrictions through this area was ten miles per hour.
Then we went on to Healy where we put the train in the yards and set the hand brakes. We took the engine to the roundhouse and registered off duty with the dispatcher. There was a bunk house and a cook's shanty for us to stay and eat. Most of the train crew stayed and slept in the caboose.
On the return trip it was easier as we generally had a through train. We sometimes had to make a stop for an opposing train and a regular stop at Broad Pass. The rest of the trips were about all routine. Arriving at Curry, we put the train in the yard, took the engine to the roundhouse and registered off duty with the dispatcher.
I remember being called one time as a brakeman on an extra passenger train with a conductor who's name I cannot remember. He was a large man and was a Swede at that and he talked with a Swedish accent. We were making pretty good time on our way to Seward. Those old cars had a signal line and an emergency cord running along one side of the car near the top. You had to reach high in order to use either one. The conductor had not told the engineer that he had to make a stop at Portage so he decided to send a signal to the engine crew via the signal cord. You can guess what happened. Yep, the first time he pulled the cord, he grabbed the wrong one and the train went into emergency in the middle of the wilderness. Well he became quite flustered. He looked at me with embarrassment and he turned around to the passengers and said, "The got darned brakeman don't do what I tink." Everyone got a good laugh from the statement. The rest of the trip to Seward was uneventful.
We laid over all night and the next morning we loaded a bunch of GIs who were in for a week's vacation and rest at Mt. McKinley Park. This was non stop to Anchorage except for fuel and water. We changed crews at Anchorage so a new crew could take the train back to Mt. McKinley Park. Here they would unload a group and reload another group headed for Seward. There they would catch a ship back to the aleutian Islands.
A conductor's position was put up for bid for
a second trick yard job at Anchorage and I put in a bid for it. Since
no civilians bid on the job, I was awarded the position. We went
to work at 2:30 p.m. and since it got dark early in the fall, we had to
carry lanterns to signal with. The engine crew said they would like
to quit early and I said no problem as I was all for an early quit.
It all paid the same. The yardmaster and dispatchers would let us
mark off duty and leave providing we had all the work done, which we did.
It did not take me long to install several short cuts thus getting some
of the work done more quickly. Of course, we took chances, dropping
cars, kicking cars and making a Dutch drop once in a while. The engine
crew loved it and we had an early quit. Many times we were leaving
as early as 5:30 p.m. with all the work done.
out his photo journal
© 2002 Carl Edmond Freshour