BRANCH LINE FIREMAN
by Phil Middlebrook
Originaly printed in DISPATCHER, Issue #8, Nov. 3, 1956
Phil Middlebrook, Dispatcher subscriber and well known San Diego railroader wrote the notes for this story over 30 years ago. He had intended to use them in a story and submit the story to a magazine. He never did. But he offered us the notes for use in this special issue. Phil is now a Santa Fe engineer on a San Diego switching job.
I had been fighting the extra board for over a year and was getting tired of irregular hours, hostling jobs, midnight goats and several other things which befall an extra man. A regular daylight run on the Escondido branch had opened up and as I thought I had enough whiskers to hold it I decided to bid the job in. Much to my surprise I was the senior and only bidder. Several of the boys advised against my going down on an outlying job. "Never be able to learn anything down in the sticks" was the main theme.
The run tied up at Escondido, a town of about 2500, some twenty miles inland from the coast. We signed on at six thirty in the morning, did what switching we forgot to do the night before and departed for Oceanside about seven ten. At Oceanside we did station switching and on arrival of Train 72 we went to Fallbrook and return on the other branch. Connecting with Train 74 we returned to Escondido for the night. No Sunday service gave me an opportunity to come home weekends.
The crew consisted of Engineer Bob Milligan, Conductor E. H. Day, Brakemen A. W. Fox and Gus Mathews. All were old heads. Fox and Mathews being Numbers one and three on the seniority list. Milligan would work a few weeks and then lay off for two or three months. Engineer William Angelo would come down and take the job. Later Engineer Frank Farmer bumped on the run. When Farmer was pensioned I gave the run up and have never been back on it.
The Escondido branch was laid with 51 pound rail and no ballast, so small engines had to be used. Nothing larger than the 724 was allowed. Once a month an engine would be sent down from San Bernardino for a change off. We had to keep the engine running and we did all the necessary repair work, boiler washing and so on. I soon learned to take apart and clean a brake valve, double check valve or tripple, replace broken brake beams, springs, spring hangers and pack pistons. I also learned many little tricks about getting the engine in with broken pipes, springs and other petty failures.
Chugging towards Escondido one rainy afternoon we flushed the granddaddy of all Jackrabbits. He loped alongside the engine for some little time and then decided to cross over ahead. Frank tooted the whistle in a series of short toots and Mr. Rabbit put on more speed. A freshly oiled highway paralleled the railroad at this point. When the rabbit hit the oil his feet went out from under him, he turned over on his back and slid across the road into the ditch. His legs were flailing the air as he slid and as he lay there in the ditch. Had he been right side up he would have been making at least fifty miles an hour.
Having lost a side rod collar, Frank sent for a new one. That night when we tried to put it on, the pin was too large for the hole in the drive wheel, so we tried to force it with a few taps with a sledge hammer. It wouldn't go in, and also wouldn't come out, and as it did not clear the guides the engine could not be moved. We tried every way to get the pin out but it was stuck fast so the only thing we could do was to saw it off. Another tragedy--there wasn't room for the hacksaw frame. By taking turns laying on our backs under the cross head we finally sawed the pin off by using the blade without the frame. It was some job. Glad I'm not a shopman.
One of the Escondido barbers lived along the track at a little station called Richland about four miles out of town. At intervals his mother-in-law would come to visit. She always traveled by train. When she had finished her visit, her daughter and she would walk to Richland station and flag the train with an old newspaper. The station was at the bottom of a short two percent grade. The section foreman would cut the grass at the top of the hill and in the flat at the bottom, but always leave the hill until last. The grass was exceedingly lush this spring and we were having a lot of difficulty making the grades. This day the two ladies flagged the train and Bob made quite a heavy brake application as he was going at a good clip. Every wheel on the train picked up and we went sliding merrily past the station. As we passed, the barber's wife hollered, "Why don't you stop?" Bob looked back over his shoulder, his moustache blowing in the breeze, and hollered back, "I cain't stop!"
Just as we stopped over the pit one night a spring hanger broke letting the spring fly up against the boiler. Bill started getting wedges and blocking to raise the engine so we could put in a new hanger. I suggested that we wrap a chain around the end of the spring and around the mainrod, then move the engine and pull the spring down in place that way thus saving a lot of back-breaking labor. He didn't think much of the idea but he agreed to try it. Instead of the spring coming down, the mainrod bent up. We had to take it off and get a rail bender and straighten it as good as we could. Then we put on the hanger in the old fashioned way. The main rod had several funny looking kinks in it, but it seemed to work all right, I don't know how Bill explained it, if he ever did. He told me to keep my labor saving ideas to myself hereafter.
Vista station is in a narrow valley with two percent grades in both directions from the station. Milligan would bring the train down the grade with the automatic air and just before making the station stop he would release the automatic and set the straight air on the engine. If we had twelve or fourteen box cars ahead of the coaches it was murder. Anything Albert had in the baggage car door to unload was unloaded along the right-of-way. Seasoned passengers learned to brace themselves. The conductor ranted and raved, but I never did see Bob make a station stop any other way.
Two girls kept pestering Frank to let them ride on the engine from Vista to San Marcos. One day Frank told them to get on and get it over with. About three miles out of Vista a spring hanger broke, not an unusual thing on the rough track. We all piled out of the engine and stood looking at the broken part. Frank put his hands on his hips and glaring at the two girls said, "Now look what you have done to my engine." We started removing the broken parts when I happened to look back up the track. There were the two legging it back to Vista as fast as they could go. We never did see either one of them again. I guess they thought they had broken down the whole Santa Fe system.
In spotting the packing house at Escondido the curve was such that it was necessary to pass signals to the fireman. Albert was quite nervous and unless he could see at least half of the fireman draped out of the window he would run all the way up to the engine to find out where he was. I had a hole in the back of the cab where I could look out and see him on top of the cars, but he couldn't see me. Bill would back up rather fast and Albert would start to scream and run, waving has arms like a windmill. Just as soon as he gave a stop sign we stopped. Then I'd stick my head out and ask if he had the cars spotted O.K. I should have been shot as he was one of the best hearted men I ever knew and would do anything for you he could.
We were making a drop of the merchandise car in on the house track at Oceanside. Albert was at the switch and Gus was to get the pin. For some reason after lining the switch, for the car to go in on the house track, Albert decided to run it down and ride it in. Gus after pulling the pin climbed leisurely up the front ladder Albert swarming up the rear one. Both popped their heads over the top at the same time and then climbed down and dropped off. After the car had passed they stood looking at each other and then started after the car, but too late. It had too much of a start. There was quite a lot of noise and dust when the car hit the ones spotted at the house. No damage except to Albert's pride.
Albert wore a regulation uniform cap in the top of which he carried the switch list, waybills and various other articles. He would put the switch list in his cap then sally forth to the yard. If late he would run up one track and down the other holding his hat in front of him checking cars against the list. One day the yard was full of stored reefers. The only switching to be done was spotting the house and an oil car for the pumper. An extra engineer who had been a switchman was on a work train. He talked the operator into letting him make out the switch list. He took one of the long lists and listed every car in the yard on it. Along in the middle of the list were two moves. Albert got this long list out of the box, his eyes bugged out. Cramming it into the top of his hat he raced out into the yard. For twenty minutes he ran up one track and down the other, the work train hogger rolling on the floor of the baggage room with glee.
The stem of the wye at Escondido just held an engine and two coaches. After setting the freight cars out on the house track we would back around the wye with the coaches, kick them back up the main line to the depot and pick up our freight cars and double onto them. One evening we were backing around the wye. It had been raining, and there directly back of the stem was the most perfect rainbow I had ever seen. I called the engineer's attention to it and we were both enjoying the sight when suddenly the engineer said, "I wonder what is the matter with Albert? He is way out in the hayfield having a fit." About the same time we stopped with a lurch. The back truck of the hind coach was off the end of the wye and over the dirt bumper. Luck was with us for it pulled right back on the track in spite of Albert's prediction that, "We'll all get fired."
One lesson I'll never forget. I learned it the hard way. We had broken a tank brake beam. After putting the engine over the pit Frank opened the main reservoir drain to get rid of the air before starting to remove the broken beam. As I walked around the back of the tank I reached down and yanked the angle cock open. The coupling on the end of the hose hit me in the knee so hard I was just able to stagger over to the pump house and lay down. Never have I had anything hurt so. From that day to this I never turn the angle cock without having a firm grip on the hose.
The Fallbrook branch left the main line two miles west of Oceanside, swinging away to the right between the Santa Margarita River and a series of high bluffs. About two miles from the Junction the valley widens out and the road crosses several side valleys. In the spring time this whole wide valley was one solid mass of wild mustard, a vivid yellow standing cab high. As the train passed through this mustard the blossoms and petals would eddy around and up into the cab and coach like yellow snow. I think my hay fever, from which I have suffered for years, started right here.
The right-of-way was not fenced off, so cattle, horses, pigs and other live stock roamed at will over the tracks. At a siding called Stock Pen, right where the Camp Pendleton headquarters are now located. It was quite common to find fifty to two hundred pigs sprawled out between the track, their heads resting on the rail. We would have to stop and shoo them off before proceeding. The tracks were built on fill between Ranch House and Stock Pen, several short bridges being used instead of pipe culverts. One day we saw a large Percheron horse standing on one of these bridges. On stopping we found one had slipped down between the ties, all four feet dangling in the air. It was necessary to get cowboys from the ranch, ropes and planks to extricate the unfortunate animal. I was standing near the horse's tail while the boys were getting ropes under his front feet in an attempt to pull them up on the bridge deck. The conductor admonished me to look or I would get kicked.
A short distance beyond Stock Pen the road leaves the valley and climbs over the hill to Fallbrook. The grade was nearly three percent. One morning the engine slipped down in a cut near the bottom of the hill. Investigation showed the cut literally alive with small grasshoppers. Try as we might we could not get enough traction to get the train through that cut. All the sand in the dome was used up and dirt was shoveled on the tracks. Fallbrook had no train service that day.
The section house was about half way up this hill. All water had to be hauled up in tank cars. The car was cut off the main line, as there was no siding, and chained to the track while the train proceeded on to Fallbrook. The section foreman would empty the car into a trackside tank and the car would be picked up on the return trip. The section house was so isolated that the turnover of labor was large. Mrs. Brown, the foreman's wife, had a contract with the school district to haul the children to and from school. One day a new section hand and his family boarded the train at Oceanside. They nearly filled the small coach with their household goods and eight children. Mrs. Si nearly had a fit for with the five children she was already hauling this extra eight was more than her old model T Ford could handle in one trip. Si had this man transferred to another section in short order.
When the going got too tough for trainmaster Wild, he would come down to Oceanside, where he kept his pet shotgun and hunting togs. If the motor car maintainer was not busy they would take a motor car and go off up the branch hunting. If the maintainer was busy he would ride up with us and get off at some favorite spot, always warning the engineer to be on the lookout for him on the return trip. He seemed a different man after trampling alone with his gun. He was one of the few people the O'Neills' allowed to hunt the ranch.
(Dispatcher Editor's note: Phil Middlebrook says motive power used on the Escondido and Fallbrook branches 30 years ago included 480, 260 and 724.)