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Railroads and Railroading



Dennis Matthews

This is my memory of railroading on the Dakota Division of the Great Northern Railway as a young man just out of high school at age 16.

The terms "railroads" and "railroading" have been used here with the thought that railroads were the tracks, trains, depots and other physical equipment that provided the basis for railroading which, basically, was using the facilities to provide the service. This all combined, however, into the ROMANCE OF RAILROADING for many of us who were directly involved in those years and this is my memory.

I learned the Morse code for sending and receiving telegraphic messages at an early age by being around the depot with my father. Once the Morse code is soaked up by a young sponge-like mind it is like an indelible pencil marking the brain because it never leaves you. During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I earned a few dollars after school by lighting heaters in the ends of box cars to be used for shipping potatoes. Oddly enough they were called "refrigerator cars" even though they had heaters in the end to use for shipping potatoes during the winter. It was surely learning the business from the ground up.

The Great Northern Railway sponsored a class at Aaker's Business College in Grand Forks to teach telegraphy and station agent training because they needed Relief Agents and Telegraph Operators at the time and, since I had some time before entering the service, I was accepted for the school. The Morse Code was elementary for me because, as stated above, I already knew it and I sat up in front of the class demonstrating to the others. As soon as we finished the classes in accounting; learning the Book of Rules for the Movement and Handling of Trains by Train Orders; and other aspects of station management we were ready to be sent out as relief agents or other positions.

Learning the rules of handling trains was critical. Trains were controlled by Dispatchers in the Dakota Division Office in Grand Forks. They knew the exact location of every train in their division and when orders (instructions) needed to be delivered to trains they would call up the station agent on a special telephone and say "copy three" or "copy six" or however many copies the dispatcher wanted delivered to the train crews. The agent had special onion skin type paper with unusually heavy double-sided carbon paper between the sheets so that when you pressed down hard while taking down the message with a stylus it would be legible through all the sheets. There were long sticks about the length of a long broom or pitch fork that had a "Y" on the top of them like a sling-shot so that string could be threaded from a catch at the bottom of the "Y" up to each prong and across the top of the "Y." The string was special with a slip knot type opening which, when applied correctly, would be in the center of the string stretched across between the top ends of the "Y" where the dispatcher's message would be tied in. It was then the agent's responsibility to stand close enough to the oncoming train and hold the device up high enough for the engineer to put his arm through the "Y" and pick off the string and the message. A second one was held for the Conductor who would reach out and pluck his message off from the caboose at the end of the train. The freight trains were pulled by the good old living, breathing steam engines.

It was also an agent's job to watch the trains as they went by the depot to detect any smoke coming from the wheel areas indicating problems with the brakes. If so, he would either motion to the Conductor at the end of the train, wire ahead to the next station, or advise the Dispatcher that the train might have a "hot-box."

It was essential to know the colors of lanterns used by train crews. Our examination on the Rules was given by the taskmaster, Trainmaster, Mr. N. L. Greer, who painted vivid verbal experiences for every rule in the book, he impressed us, as one example, on the fact that if you ever saw a blue or purple lamp posted by a train car that you would NEVER touch it or move it because it meant that some member of the crew was working in or under the train and he knew the train would not move as long as the lantern was there. The worker was the only person who could remove the light.

Another rule was to watch for the Caboose. Technically, a train was not a train unless it had an engine and caboose. If the caboose was not there, it might have been an indication that the train had split up along the way.

The flags on the front of an engine meant different things. For example, a white flag on each side on the front of the engine meant it was an "extra" train that was on a non-scheduled run.

The engineer's whistle signals also had their various meanings. One of the most important was the "crossing signal" which was two longs, a short, and a long that would have to last until the engine passed the crossing.

Each day the railroad yards at the depot stations were checked for new arrivals of boxcars of goods, or empty cars dropped off by passing freight trains to be used for shipping grain, potatoes, etc. The car symbols and numbers were noted each day and the agent would telegraph his car report to the Division office to advise each railroad car in the yard. The reports ultimately were fed into other systems which allowed shippers to "trace" their shipment to intended destinations when they were enroute.

The course at Grand Forks was good to alert us to the significance of such things as Order Bills of Lading which were negotiable commercial instruments of trade as opposed to a Straight Bill of Lading. At a station one had to be careful not to release a carload shipment to a receiver if it had been shipped on an Order Bill of Lading before the receiver went to the bank and paid for the value of the shipment. After the bank marked the Order Bill of Lading as paid, the agent would release it to the receiver. Freight charges for shipments would be paid to the railroad by either the shipper or the receiver and, therefore, be shipped either prepaid or collect depending upon the terms of the sale.

I was the first one sent out "railroading" from the class and my first assignment was as a Relief Agent at Cavalier, North Dakota for two weeks while the regular agent was on medical leave of absence. This was really great because I received 10% commission on Western Union and Railroad Express business in addition to the salary. From there, I was sent to Cando, North Dakota (north of Devils Lake and Church's Ferry) as the Cashier-Telegrapher where I stayed for about a year or so. I was also a Relief Agent at Hallock for 2 - 3 weeks once upon a time.

Learning railroading from the ground up was an invaluable experience because it started me towards a career.

After I was discharged from the Army, I graduated from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis majoring in Transportation in the Business School and later took courses in Transportation Law to pass the Interstate Commerce Commission bar examination which licensed me to practice before the I.C.C.

The Interstate Commerce Commission was the federal agency of the Congress who governed all interstate movements of traffic by public carriers. It was eventually eliminated in a budget reduction move of the government.

I could recite many events throughout my life where my early experience as a "railroader" helped me. I would just say that through it all I was always pleased that I had started from the ground level with the basic training of railroading on the Dakota Division.

I had not been back to Northern Kittson County for about 50 years and was shocked and saddened by the absence of the railroad depots which were such a colorful part of my younger life. I can vividly recall the "Dinky" going north around noon and going south later in the afternoon. The Dinky was two or three cars long and carried passengers, railway express, and a little freight. Then, there was the "Flyer" - a passenger train that would leave Minneapolis the night before and come through Kittson County early in the morning and return south again late in the evening.

The depots and the colorful "Romance of Railroading" obviously could be removed from the country but for those of us who were directly involved in railroading the memories will never be forgotten.

It would be interesting to hear the experiences of others who were "railroaders" in or around the Red River Valley.