The Columbus Free Press


Part 55

A Different World

by Thomas C. Fleming, Oct 7, 1998

I have been a reader of newspapers since the age of 8, and when I went to work for the Southern Pacific in 1927, I would pick up the papers at the cities where we stopped, and read them whenever possible during the trip. Sometimes I'd try to discuss the news with other members of the dining car crew. But most of them didn't know much about what was happening; it was a different world to them. And those who would get into a discussion generally didn't know what they were talking about -- just wasting a lot of gas.

I served as fourth cook, or dishwasher, for only about three trips. Then the third cook got promoted to second cook, so I moved right up into his place. I needed the job to help my family. We were poor working-class blacks. My sister Kate was just 17, and had not gone out into the world yet. I was all of 19, and was the chief breadwinner in the house. Mama worked as a domestic, and I had a strong sense of responsibility.

I began working for the railroad in June, and was lucky that first year, as I survived the layoffs that usually occurred at the end of the heavy tourist trade in late August.

The routes between California and the East did not show too much diminishing of travelers in the cold weather months. And along the East Coast, there were several competing lines that operated trains from New York City to Florida, which were as luxurious as any in the nation.

Magazine advertisement for the New York Central, known for its luxury
passenger trains between New York and Chicago. This 1947 ad described
the company as "the world's largest post-war luxury coach fleet."
Those lines did their big volume of business in the wintertime, when thousands of well-heeled white people fled the icy Northeast for sunny Florida. I knew guys who went back East every winter to work on those trains. You could take a train overnight -- a full night and a full day -- to get from New York or Boston to Florida. I never heard of any blacks who rode those trains except as workers; they didn't have that kind of money.

All the luxury trains had observation cars at the end, where people could sit outside and watch the scenery going by. Inside, they had big lounging chairs on each side of the aisle, and an attendant who sold cigarettes, candy and soft drinks -- and after Prohibition, hard drinks.

The train crew got their orders from headquarters by telegraph. The dispatchers would send messages to the different stations along the route, and if the train didn't stop, the conductor and engineer would each snatch up identical copies of the message with a hoop. It would say who was up ahead and what they were supposed to do.

All the trains had toilets, but when you'd flush them, everything would simply drop on the track. When you were walking along the track, you'd see that crap out there.

I worked on both limited and local trains. Locals stopped everywhere, and limiteds stopped at only a few places. There were sleeping cars and club cars on all the limited trains. A lot of businessmen traveled at night; you could leave New York and get to Chicago in about 16 hours. They hauled more passengers in that area than in any other part of the United States. But not everybody could sleep on the trains. You felt the movement of the cars, jerking all through the night.

The trains' rocking didn't affect the dining car; the glasses didn't fall off the tables. But because trains run on steel tracks, you're going to feel it more than you would in a car. They have heavy springs on them, but they roll and lean slightly, particularly when they're going around a curve.

I never had trouble sleeping at night. The black crew members all had a place to sleep on all the overnight trains. But except for the steward, who was in charge of the dining car, all the white crew members got off and slept on land.

The train routes were laid out in divisions, and at each division point, they changed the conductor, engineer, fireman and brakemen. They would probably be on the train for only about four hours. When they reached the next division point, another operational crew would take their place. That's the way it was all the way across the country. In a lot of those divisions, the railroad had sleeping accommodations for them near the depot. After a night's sleep, they would catch the next train going back in the other direction.

When I was working, all the Southern Pacific locomotives operating in California were oil burners. I was told they didn't allow coal-burning locomotives in California because of the danger of forest fires, from all the hot ashes blowing out of the smokestack. Outside of California, most locomotives did burn coal, which was easier to get.

On the early locomotives, the fireman had to shovel coal into the fire box and keep it up for the whole trip. By the time I was working, all the bigger locomotives had a mechanical coal stoker, which the fireman operated.

It was hard, dirty work, but it could lead to a better job. The firemen were the engineers' apprentices: they learned everything that the engineers did, and in time, many of them moved up to become engineers themselves. But outside of some parts of the South, blacks never had that opportunity.

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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