(Written with Permission)
We wanted to share with our subscribers the following column written by Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times. The article is a tribute to Mr. Brown’s father, Jack R. Brown, who started his railroad career on the Toledo, Peoria & Western railroad.
As Mark shared the story of his father’s days on the TP&W, it reminded me of my summer job in the 1970s working as an Extra-Board Freight Clerk on the former Sante Fe Railway Company. Part of my work duties was to check the car list to the train’s consist as the TP&W pulled into the Fort Madison, Iowa yard.
After reading the tribute, I wonder if Mr. Brown was the conductor who handed the waybills to me as the caboose rolled by.
We say thank you to Mark Brown for penning such a moving tribute to his father, which also stands as a tribute to all railroad families.
April 16, 2002
Sweetest is the sound of that train's horn
The urgent wail of a railroad horn at night is considered a nuisance by many who live in our area.
That's understandable. But for me, it is the most soothing of sounds, because it's the sound that meant my daddy might be coming home.
My dad worked for the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad, the TP&W for short, the Tip-up to the old-timers.
In its prime, the TP&W was a darn good little railroad, and my dad helped keep it that way. So did his father and his brother. For a while, so did my brothers and I.
The main line of the TP&W cut straight across the belly of Illinois, connecting the tired old bankrupt Penn Central on the East to the great and prosperous Santa Fe on the West.
Its bread and butter was to snatch a load of freight cars from the Santa Fe at Fort Madison, Iowa, and hustle it across the state to the Penn Central (later Conrail) at Effner, Ind. At points in between, the TP&W serviced the factories, chemical plants, grain elevators and warehouses that provided the bulk of its local business.
The main switching yard and corporate office were in East Peoria. My grandfather is buried in a cemetery on the hill overlooking the rail yard, where he gruffly held sway for a couple of decades as the first shift yardmaster, then dropped dead from a heart attack a year after retirement.
My grandmother never wanted my father to go to work on the railroad. She considered it too rough-and-tumble and hoped he'd find something better, a reasonable point of view considering that my grandfather had survived wounds from a shotgun blast fired by a company strikebreaker during one particularly contentious labor action.
The railroad president who brought in the strikebreakers was later murdered in an outright assassination. An old railroader recently told some of my siblings that one of my relatives was considered a chief suspect in his death, and while I categorically deny any involvement on his part, I pass along the rumor because I kind of like it.
The responsibilities of providing for a family caused my dad to overlook his mother's misgivings. There was good money to be made at the railroad in those days for anybody willing to work hard and even for some who weren't, and nobody worked harder than my dad.
He started as a switchman. The job title was derived from the task of throwing the switches, the equipment that directs which track the train will use. With enough seniority, a switchman could hold a job as a conductor.
With even more seniority, he could work as the yardmaster, which was a union job akin to being head foreman. On some occasions, my grandfather was the yardmaster on first shift, my uncle on second and my father on third. The Browns had the TP&W covered 24 hours a day.
My dad usually worked what they called the extra board, a rotating on-call system for filling train crews that would maximize his potential for making money, but also maximize the number of hours spent away from home and on the road. When your name got to the top of the board, it was your turn to work, ready or not. Neither Little League games nor Christmas dinner would excuse you for missing a call, but with five kids to feed, he wasn't looking to miss many.
The TP&W's tracks passed at least three miles from our home at the nearest point, but that was close enough to hear the trains rumbling through the valley as they made their way into and out of the main yard.
On a summer night with the windows open, you could gauge the direction of the train by listening for the horn at the various crossings and by whether the engines were straining as they pulled up the hill or were coasting down it.
When we'd hear the horns, my mother would sometimes say that was Dad leaving town or Dad getting home. When we were little, we'd pester her about whether that was him every time we'd hear the sound, especially at night, when we missed him most.
After a while, we learned that there were an awful lot of train horns and precious few having anything do with my dad.
Worse, we found that Dad didn't always come straight home when his train got back to town, and sometimes didn't make it at all.
While I was still in grade school, my dad got a promotion. It was a middle management job in operations. We were very proud of him. He had to start wearing a suit and tie. He had to work harder than ever. All the trains were now his responsibility, along with all the derailments and all the blocked road crossings and all the other foul-ups that befall a railroad. He was home even less. He had his first heart attack when he was 40.
My parents got divorced after I went away to college, an education financed through summer jobs at the railroad, where I worked as a yard clerk and laborer loading piggybacks. My dad steered me away from the more rough-and-tumble (but more lucrative) train service. I think he was afraid I'd get the bug.
My father had the bug. Railroading is hard work, but the dirty little secret is that there's a part of it that's similar to grown men playing with their toy choo-choo trains. Dad loved the railroad, as did most of the men who worked there. He was also very good at it, which he didn't mind telling you. In a pinch, he could even serve as the engineer.
My dad remarried soon after the divorce, and while he didn't work any less, he mellowed considerably as he took on the responsibility of a second family. He even learned to say, "I love you," a difficult task in his younger days. He learned to be happy. We were happy for him.
And then a strange thing happened.
The Santa Fe took over the TP&W and transferred my dad to Chicago, where I had already landed with the Sun-Times. He worked in a pressure cooker job they call the trainmaster at the Santa Fe yards on the Southwest Side and in Willow Springs. He bought a home in Bolingbrook, just as far away from Chicago as he could be.
He mostly hated it, and the job stress contributed to his need for a second bypass operation. He suffered a stroke coming out of surgery that left him partially but permanently disabled. His railroad days were done, along with his fishing days and his handyman days and a lot of the other things that gave him joy and purpose.
Just the same, he hung in there, moving back to central Illinois and taking pleasure from his grandchildren and annual trips to Arizona.
Jack R. Brown, 68, died Monday at his home in Washington, Ill., from congestive heart failure.
He taught me how to play baseball and catch a fish. He taught me the importance of hard work. He taught me how to size up a situation or a person and how to cut through the b.s.
I'll miss him, but I'm comforted that there's always another train horn to be heard in Chicago.
And every time I hear one, I'll know: My daddy's home.