A story about a lad working as a messenger boy for the Great Northern Railroad in 1910
|Tuesday, February 22, 1910
Great Northern Train Camp
When the shack door banged closed, Ray Forsyth pressed his ear deeper into the pillow. When the footsteps went past the potbelly stove, Ray knew it wasn't one of the crew.
A man coming off the snowline never walked directly to his bunk. He stripped in front of the hot stove and draped his frozen clothes over the backs of waiting chairs. Teeth chattering, body shivering; some wasted precious minutes of sleep adjusting a chair before running to their bunk.
There wasn't a man on the crew who didn't audibly sigh when he relaxed aching muscles, and felt the cozy weight of blankets. Some ran a quick race against the chilly sheets, but all prayed for immediate sleep.
Ray hadn't slept, instead pictures of Maryanne waiting in Spokane, played behind closed lids. He knew better than to do that. A snowdozer working on Great Northern Railroad's Cascade line never wasted a moment of sleep. He never knew how long before the Call Boy arrived.
A railroad Call Boy ran messages for the Train Master and the Cascade Division Superintendent. Nearly all of those messages required bringing exhausted men back on the snow line.
The footsteps stopped beside Ray's bunk. He squeezed his eyes tight. It was too soon. Ray had been shoveling on the line for over twelve hours and hadn't been in bed for more than one. Maybe it had been less -- his toes and fingers still burned.
Nuzzling his nose into the pillow, Ray's cheek moved over a wet spot left by the melting ice on his hair. A chill ran up his back and shook his shoulders.
"Mr. Forsyth? Superintendent O'Neill wants you back on the line, Sir."
It was Tommy Delute, one of the Call Boys working in Wellington, Washington during the winter of 1910.
"Can't, Sir. The rotary plow is trapped."
"I said, go away! My feet are still frozen."
"Sorry, Sir. Mr. O'Neill told me that all the men have to come back on the line."
"Go get the others, then come back."
"I did, Sir. You're the last one."
Ray exhaled a long, tortured sigh and rolled on his back.
Stiff fingers scrubbed the heavy stubble on his face. From his upper bunk, Ray stared at the hanging lamp in the center of the room. Its soot blacked shade held his attention as he tried to remember when he had shaved last.
Yesterday, Ray thought, then forced his swollen fingers into fists before springing them free. The action did nothing to relieve the painful tension squeezing the top of his shoulders.
"The book, Sir."
Ray rolled his head to the side, and looked at Tommy.
He was no more than a lad, maybe thirteen years old. Still young enough to blush when his voice cracked. Tommy had joined the railroad in October, and had arrived in Wellington with the first group of Section laborers assigned to Superintendent O'Neil to fight the mountain snow. His cheeks and nose glowed with the bright flush of frostbite.
A tall, good-looking youngster whose green eyes reminded Ray of the grass none had seen since October.
The brim of Tommy's derby dripped melting snow onto the logbook, as he lifted it to the edge of the bunk.
"I know," Ray said, "sign the book."
Tommy held the logbook over Ray's hands until he took it. The book’s covers were black and greasy, just like everything else in Wellington, except the snow.
"Has it stopped?"
"No, Sir. It's falling harder now, nearly a foot an hour." Tommy pushed the pencil into Ray's waiting left hand.
Ray stared into Tommy's face. "A foot?"
"An hour, yes, Sir."
"Damn!" Ray scrawled his name on the last line of the page.
"Where's the plow?"
"Just East of Windy Point, Sir."
"Yes, Sir, with sloughing behind it."
Ray grimaced as he closed his eyes. "O'Neill's there?"
"Oh, yes, Sir. Up to his knees in it with a shovel, like everyone else." Tommy took the book and pencil.
"All right, get out of here. I'm on my way."
Ray's hands pushed hard against the rough planking behind his head. Arching his back, his yawn became a wailing moan. "Sloughing!" It was a snowdozer’s nightmare.
They called it sloughing when snowbanks created by the rotary plow's rooster tail plumes caved-in alongside the rails. Some banks were over thirty-feet. When they collapsed, they were as tough on the snowdozers as any slide. Tougher, Ray thought. Snow packed so tight you needed a pick-ax to break it.
I should have slept when I had the chance. Ray dangled his legs over the side of the bunk; moving his toes, while staring at his two pairs of boots sitting among twenty next to the stove. He hoped the pair worn yesterday was dry.
Seemed the only time his feet had been warm had been in the bath he took near a week ago, on Saturday. They hadn't had more than four or five hours off at one time since then.
The storm can't last much longer, Ray thought, These late season storms never did. Two days, three at the most was all the blow they had in them.
Ray would out last it because he planned to leave the mountain in five days and go home for a visit. He had promised Emily. March 1st was their anniversary.
Tommy trudged back to the tracks. It took effort to trudge through the new snow. Falling and drifting snow had filled the narrow trail he had forged to the shack only minutes before. Just a running dent marked his previous path. It looked like one of his Mother's frosted cakes.
The memory of his going away cake prompted him to tighten his scarf. His mother had knitted it from unraveled sweaters. He had worn that scarf and his 'thousand miler' shirt every day on the mountain.
The Thousand Miler shirt's rough blue fabric chafed his skin, but he didn't mind. You didn't wash it for a thousand miles. By his count, he only had 205 rail miles. Tommy figured its first wash would occur sometime in 1912. He didn't think 'walking' miles counted.
The shirt had cost a lot of money - five day's wages. But even if it had cost more, he still would have gotten one. All the railroad men wore them.
He was one of them now. A card-carrying member of the Great Northern Railroad. Tommy didn't have a certificate yet. You didn't get one for being a Call Boy. But one of these days, he'd be as famous as Casey Jones. But Tommy planned to live through whatever accident brought him that fame.
The only accident in Wellington that month had been a switch-man getting his foot caught in one of the siding frogs. The man had kept most of his toes; got a ride back to Spokane, and 'six months twice a year.' That's what they call it when you lose your job. It was then Tommy decided he wanted to be an Engineer or a Conductor. They kept their fingers and toes.
Tommy squinted, searching for the telegraph poles running beside the track. Their four crossbars stood only a man's height above the banked snow. So close that Section Men knocked the accumulating snow off the sagging lines with their shovels. Won't be long before we'll be able to walk over the tops of them, Tommy thought.
Dense sheets of snow continued to fall. "Like plucked feathers," he had heard one of the men say, then watched the man wash his frostbitten ears with snow. Tommy remembered snowy days in Spokane being warmer than this. But on the mountain, the driving cold pierced through wool as though it were paper. Nothing could keep you warm up here.
The trapped plow and the engine pushing her were below. Tommy thought the men working around her looked like clumps of black dots and ants on a hill. The sound of their grunting, as they hacked at the snow, scarcely rose above the impatient wheezing of the steam engine.
It was a frustrating hum, like Old Mrs. Hemmel's fingers drumming on her schoolhouse desk. Faster, faster, it kept saying.
Tommy quickened his pace toward the cave-in. Men were tiered on the sloughed mound over the tracks. One above the other on tiny ledges, gouging cubbyholes out of snow packed harder than stone.
One-hundred-twenty men were fighting the snow on the mountain. Each one handpicked by Mr. O'Neill to keep Great Northern's track open through the winter. The Great Northern's Fast Mail and Oriental Limited traveled east to St. Paul, Minnesota on this track. Their final westward destination -Seattle.
Tommy dodged shovelfuls of snow thrown by the Section Men, while picking his way down the mound toward the snowbound engine.
It was never easy finding Superintendent O'Neill. You had to look close. He dressed the same as his men, and was always in the thickest group - wherever trouble was worst.
Beside the tracks, Tommy slowed his pace. He was looking for the Super's boots. It was the only way to find O'Neill in a crowd of bending men. O'Neill folded his boot tops down against his calf.
Thrown snow from a shovel caught Tommy in the chest. Thrown steps back by the force, Tommy stared wide-eyed at the bear of man.
"Get out of my way, boy!" Icicles hung from his black mustache and beard.
The man took a menacing step forward.
"Leave him alone, McGrubber!"
A man stepped out of bottom tier group. There was malice in the way the shorter man held his pick-axe. Its twin blades high, the handle low, like a scythe.
"Keep your mouth shut, Macaroni. You ain't no match for the likes of me!" McGrubber snarled. The unmistakable ethnic slur caused men in the immediate area to turn and stare.
Tommy saw movement along the line of men digging out the engine. He turned his head. O'Neil began rising to full height within the gang of men huddled against the wheels of the snowbound engine.
O'Neil turned toward the arguing men. He didn't say a word. Just looked at the two men and gave them a nod, like he was saying hello. Tommy remembered to close his mouth, but knew he would never forget how Superintendent O'Neill did that. One day he would be able to do the same.
The two arguing men lowered their weapons, with growled humphs, and returned to their jobs.
When Tommy reached Mr. O'Neill, he was back at his task -- digging snow from behind the fourth wheel of the engine.
"Mr. O'Neill, Sir?" Two men moved to the side and Tommy took a step closer. He waited only a moment to be sure Mr. O'Neill wasn't going to stop working and stand. He rarely did.
"All the men are coming back on line, Sir."
"How many, Tommy?"
Mr. O'Neill stopped digging with his hands. He turned his head and smiled. The stiff brim of his leather hat shaded deep blue eyes. His face was nice: clean-shaven and preacher-like.
Tommy returned the smile after he caught his breath.
"Tell Train Master Harrington to bring a relief crew in from Everett."
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." Every time Tommy spoke with Mr. O'Neill, he felt so proud.
The broad smile stayed on Tommy's face like a two-dollar raise as he turned back toward McGrubber and the men working on the sloughing. Not even McGrubber could scare him now. Tommy nodded hello, practicing what he had just seen, then started running towards the siding and Mr. O'Neill's private car to relay the message.
Maybe he would be Division Superintendent, like Mr. O'Neil. He liked that idea, and wondered if running would make him grow up faster.
Note: Snowdozer and dozer were terms used among the men to described their job - shoving snow.