It's 11:30pm, and train #75 pauses at Wishram for a quickie crew change before GP38-2 2090, and its GP9/F9A/C424 brethren move 108 cars east towards Pasco.
It took nine months after I moved to Seattle before I first visited Wishram, on a three-day, extended-weekend trip with fellow Seattle railfan Stan Lytle. We rolled into the remote division point near midnight after a long day on the road, sleeping in the back of his truck in a wide spot along an access road west of the depot. My initial appreciation of the place was hindered by the non-stop train action after sunrise; after a couple of hours, we left town in hasty pursuit of an eastbound headed to Pasco.
After my next visit--another quickie, with Portland railfan Dave Nicoletti in February 1978--I'd made plans to return for a longer visit. While many of my high school classmates were anticipating their last Spring Break holiday with friends on a beach, I was headed for the Columbia River and Burlington Northern. I was fully infatuated with writing a photo essay for TRAINS magazine, emulating the work of my hero, photojournalist Ted Benson, who'd just published an issue-length feature on Nevada for the magazine. From what I saw in February, the remnants of the old Spokane, Portland & Seattle would make a great subject for my own masterpiece. It was to be the first of many, many solo trips away from home photographing railroads, and it proved a memorable adventure, including stranding my 1975 Monte Carlo high on a hillside above McNary dam (rescued by some good samaratins who heard my pleas for help on the C.B. radio), and locking myself out of the car in the Lunch Room parking lot at Wishram (dilemma solved by breaking out a window). But for a week, I lived the nomadic railfan life, wandering up and down the Columbia, sleeping in the back seat of the Monte, taking a detour down the Oregon Trunk for a couple of days (where I upgraded my accommodations and slept on the floor of the South Junction depot) and generally spending a good amount of time soaking in the atmosphere of Wishram.
It was really my first good exposure to division-point railroading in the hinterlands, and being just 18 years old at the time, really had no reference point to what I was looking at. It was all new to me, but without much experience, I didn't know now that it was railroading largely unchanged--apart from locomotives and corporate ownership--from the 1950s.
The Lunchroom, universally called "the beanery," was particularly fascinating to me: owned by Burlington Northern, its operation was contracted out on the stipulation that it remain open 24-hours to serve the train crews. Train lineups shared space with menus on the counter. A hamburger, fries and a Coke was just a buck and a quarter.
Clerks still compiled train lists inside the large frame depot. Crew management was done the "old school" way, a big, clear plastic board holding chits representing each engineman and train man. After each run, their name reverted to the bottom of the board; as each man was called out ahead of them, their names moved up until, ultimately, they were "atop the board"--or "first out," in the railroad vernacular.
And outside in the dark, trains rolled in, crews stepped off and new crews stepped on, and then rocketed off into the blackness of a desert night. Over at the roundhouse, strings of big Alco locomotives including the massive C636, rumbled in the night, smeling faintly of oil and dust, their asthmatic rumblings far different than the purr of an EMD.
Unfailingly, the railroaders were friendly and accommodating of questions and their time. A conversation with midnight-shift train order operator Bob "RBA" Aldridge resulted in a repeated offer to help me ride out on a freight down the Oregon Trunk to Bend, Aldridge extolling the beauty of the Deschutes River canyon. With his long hair, big mustache and smartly dressed in a tailored vest, Aldridge seemed more like a hippy up from Portland than most of the railroaders working the place. And imagine my surprise nearly twenty years later rediscovering the negatives of the young railroader at work: I was a new-hire dispatcher in Burlington Northern's Seattle office, training on one of my first dispatching desks. . . with RBA himself!
What a week! And apart from a couple of cursory rolls of Kodachrome, it was all recorded on Plus-X and Tri-X--TRAINS magazine was largely still a black and white world back in 1978. I hurried home, worked up what I thought was original and compelling text, accompanied it with a dozen or so photographs, and sent it off to editor David P. Morgan, sure that "Ghost in the Desert" would strike publishing gold.
I was wrong. In retrospect, compared to Benson's "Nevada" story, my text was too. . .well, "derivative" would be a good word. I chalked it up to experience, and filed the negatives away, largely forgotten for the next thirty years.
But they survived. And here's some of what I saw in 1978.
The biggest Alco locomotives on Burlington Northern, 3600 h.p. C636's 4366/4364 await the call at Wishram's roundhouse. They're right at home here, delivered to Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway in 1967 largely for use on the Oregon Trunk from Wishram to Bend and on to California.
Quite the rakish dude with neat hair, sideburns, goatee/mustache and tailored vest, train order operator Robert "RBA" Aldridge types out a train order while working 3rd Trick at Wishram. Train orders controlled operations east and south of Wishram; CTC installed just before the 1970 BN merger guided trains to Vancouver.
Aldridge engages in little banter over a cup of coffee with roundhouse worker Robert Troutman in Wishram depot.
In the pre-centralized days of crew management, Wishram maintained its own crew and extra board engineer and trainman rosters. A trainman, top, checks his standing on the call board, above, while another, grip at the ready, registers in the ledger. Each round tag on the see-through board is marked with a railroader's name and depicts his availability to go to work relative to his position with the names of thers.
A reciept from the beanery calls the venue simply "Wishram Lunch Room."
The center of Wishram's social life during the daytime, the beanery was considerably quieter at night, when it served mainly railroaders on a 24-hour schedule. Waitress Rose Calvin serves a customer, top, and later rests her feet conversing with the beanery's cook.
Westbound train #138 crosses the Celilo Bridge into Washington state, silhouetted by the late afternoon light.