Thursday, February 20, 2014

Wishram, Pt. II/Spring break destination, 1978!


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.


15 comments:

Andrew Hamblyn said...

Blair, your photos depicting the human element of railroading are simply outstanding. Did you ever get hassled or receive any anti taking the photos, or were people back then not too worried about it?

B. Kooistra said...

Andrew, I really had free run of the place, and I experienced that in many places back then, BN and Milwaukee Road especially. Part of it I attribute it to the more relaxed attitudes back then, but I also think that because I was just a teenager (or at the most, very early in my 20s) I wasn't seen as a threat by my subjects to their employment. Today, there's so much paranoia in the States that doing stuff like this would be pretty impossible at a large railroad where you're not a regular visitor. That's why anymore I prefer to do my rail photography on shortlines which are a bit more open to giving a photographer better access on the property.

taintez@att.net said...

This is such an incredibly great story. I wish I had known of Trains Magazine before I hired out, just to get a feel for what I was getting myself into. Blair, you have really captured what it was like. Thank you!

Nick Fotis said...

As I was shooting around 2000, I had discovered that the cost of slide film (Fuji Sensia 100) was nearly on par with negative film if you included the cost of printing.

And the big ALCos were some of my favorite locomotives - don't know why the C636 never was built in H0 scale model, though. Their brutish appearance attracts me.

N.F.

Nick Fotis said...

It seems I should have checked before writing...

Just discovered that Bowser has announced the C636 in BN colors (yay!), besides other liveries like SP&S, with delivery expected in May 2014...

N.F.

Bee Java said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bee Java said...

Wow, Blair, takes me back to the day when RBA & I were young railroaders in Wishram. I hired out in 1976 there. I was the clerk who moved the train board chits around,.called & shagged crews, and marked switch lists under the direction of Beulah.

Patrick said...

Thanks for the memories. Worked there 1973-1995 as a clerk, trainman, engineer. Busy times working the extra boards. Will always remember the good people and town. Patrick

Jim Fisher Jr. said...

I lived in Wishram until I was 5 or so, (early 1980's) my dad was an Engineer, my Grandma a Beanery Queen. These photos gave me goosebumps and churned up fond memories I may have otherwise never found again. Thank you!

Jim Fisher Jr. said...

I kid you not, I actually smelled the inside of the old depot and beanery when looking at this article, my grandma used to serve me little cubes of cheese and "superman" icecream at the counter.

Jim Fisher Jr. said...

I kid you not, I actually smelled the inside of the old depot and beanery when looking at this article, my grandma used to serve me little cubes of cheese and "superman" icecream at the counter.

Jim Elliott said...

These two writings, with the photos, are really an excellent window back in time at a most favorite spot along the tracks. Wishram seems to tell so much about northwest railroading, and you've really chronicled it perfectly. Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother lived in wishram for many many years I grew up in wishram during the summers peggy mckinney was the most kind person I ve ever met

Anonymous said...

I see my grandfather in one of your pictures at the roundhouse. His name was actually Richard Troutman..(not Robert ). I was overjoyed to see these pictures. Looks like one of our family albums. :-)
Sincerely,
Rachel Fahlenkamp (Partlow)

Anonymous said...

Wow
What a great bunch of Remarks and so awesome photos. Those photos remind me of being on those tracks. I spent 39 years working on the Railroad. Probably 27 out of Wishram. I graduated from the high school there and within 6 months was a brakeman. My family 2 brothers 2 sisters and myself couldn't have been raised in a better place. My dad (Fred Thiel) worked there for ever and for everyone who's interested he is 89 and living in Pasco with mom (89). Those Photos are so real and bring back many memories. I remember jumping off that bridge right into the river as we'd swim for hours around there. Other times we'd fish close to the bridge and if we got called the crew caller would call the bridge attendant and he'd call us on our boat marine radio and inform us of what time to be at the depot. And of course I cant count the many times I was on those long rides across that bridge. Theres an old railroad song that goes like this, ----Called one morning at a quarter to 4--kissed my wife goodbye at the kitchen door---I said ah honey don't you worry and don't you fear I can handle it I'm a good engineer----to the yard office I did stride cause i knew it was the hotshot I was to ride, the train rolled in it was 30 minutes late had alot of power but not much fright, I got on and we started to roll the block was clear and i knew we go, conductor said as we was leaving town, he said, puttem in 8 and don't slow em down, broke over the grade doing 75 the brakeman said " I HOPE WE MAKE IT ALIVE" I said don't you worry and don't you fear I can handle it I'm a good engineer. As we got to the other end of the line that ole train it was right on time. the conductor said thank God were here, I said "I told you I was a good engineer. Doug TWow
What a great bunch of Remarks and so awesome photos. Those photos remind me of being on those tracks. I spent 39 years working on the Railroad. Probably 30 out of Wishram. I graduated from the high school there and within 6 months was a brakeman. My family 2 brothers 2 sisters and myself couldn't have been raised in a better place. My dad (Fred Thiel) worked there for ever and for everyone who's interested he is 89 and living in Pasco with mom (89). Those Photos are so real and bring back many memories. I remember jumping off that bridge right into the river as we'd swim for hours around there. Other times we'd fish close to the bridge and if we got called the crew caller would call the bridge attendant and he'd call us on our boat marine radio and inform us of what time to be at the depot. The railroad and the people what a wonderful place to grow up. Good Job. Doug Thiel