The Columbus Free Press


Part 42

The San Joaquin Flyer

by Thomas C. Fleming, Jul 8, 1998

For my first two years on the Southern Pacific Railroad, from 1927 to 1929, I worked on the San Joaquin Flyer, which ran between Oakland and Los Angeles, a distance of about 400 miles.

Thomas Fleming in Oakland, California in 1929 at age 21,
when he worked as a cook for the Southern Pacific.
The Flyer was put into service after the Southern Pacific discovered how successful was the Daylight, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with more than 100 miles of track directly along the Pacific Ocean. The Daylight was a scenic delight -- one of the most picturesque rail lines in the nation.

The San Joaquin Flyer got its name from the San Joaquin Valley, a rich agricultural region in central California. The train left Oakland at 8 a.m., stopping at all the small and large cities in the Valley, and arriving in Tinsel Town at 11:30 at night.

At the end of every stop, the conductor shouted, "All aboard!" Most of the time it sounded as though he muttered only "board." He waved to the engineer, who was sitting in the cab watching for the signal. The conductor and the brakemen climbed the steps, and the engineer slowly increased speed amidst much puffing and groaning, as the train began its next leg of the journey. At towns where we didn't stop, we would sweep through amidst loud shrieks from the whistle.

There were separate cars for passengers, dining, baggage and mail, all linked directly behind the locomotive. The clerk in the mail car busily sacked mail for every town on the route. Mail was dropped off and picked up in every town, whether we stopped there or not. A large pole was erected next to the tracks, and mail sacks were attached there by means of a special contraption. With a hook, the mail clerk snatched the waiting outgoing sack and dropped the sack the train was bringing to the town, without the train's reducing speed at all.

The only white person working in the dining car was the steward. He was the headwaiter, who saw that everything in service was religiously followed by the waiters.

The chef always listed the kitchen's needs, which he wrote on order blanks and passed to the steward, who in turn brought them to the commissary in Oakland. The steward collected all monies paid by the passengers for their meals.

In the five years I worked as a cook for the railroad, I never saw a white waiter or porter, but I did work with one white chef. He was a hell of a nice old man, and a very good cook. I don't think color made any difference to the Southern Pacific for the kitchen crew. If they needed you for a job and you were qualified, they'd hire you. That chef also belonged to the Cooks and Waiters Union. He was the only member I ever met who wasn't black.

The conductors served as sort of sea captains on land. They had some legal powers on the train to enforce the behavior of the passengers. If a traveler became unruly and threatened the health and safety of the other passengers, the conductor could call on the brakemen or other workers to assist him in restoring the peace. When the train reached the next stop, he would summon law enforcement officials to remove such individuals, and according to law, they could be incarcerated in such towns where they were taken off the train.

Usually there were two brakemen who worked hard to be promoted to conductor. One worked the front part of the train. The other one, when the train stopped, walked about a city block behind the train with a red flag. At night, he carried a kerosene lamp with red glass. His duty was to stand there and hold off any approaching train on the same track by signalling the engineer to slow down or halt.

In the early part of the century, before the railway workers were organized nationwide, there were many black males working in the South as engineers, firemen and brakemen. Whites did not take to jobs on the railways because they had so many other industries they could enter. Some white males simply thought the job too dirty and fit only for blacks to serve, until the Big Four railway unions became a reality. They won a good boost in pay, which made more white males anxious to work as railroad men. No blacks were admitted to membership in these unions.

Black engineers, firemen and brakemen soon became very scarce, and even the few who survived were replaced by whites upon retirement. In the South, one could find an occasional black fireman and engineer up until the mid-1920s, still lingering on branch lines in rural areas.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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