Next time try the train
The Spirit of Tehachapi
August 17, 2019
A few weeks back I was asked to speak to a crowd at the Friends of the Depot meeting. They wanted me to tell them about riding the passenger trains that used to come through. Many folk say to me, "You rode trains?" Actually, it was very simple. Just walk a block from where I lived, enter the depot and buy a ticked. A polite man would hop off the passenger car with a step stool and a helping hand as I got aboard. Nothing to it. But now, it's a thing of the past except for AmTrack but they don't come through smaller towns. One needs to go to them. The last passenger train that passed through Tehachapi was in 1971. I remember the bill boards that the Southern Pacific would post along the heavily trafficked roads that said, "Next time try the train."
Driving down Tehachapi Boulevard the other day and turning left on Green to cross the railroad tracks, I was to see the crossing bars come down. Aw gee, a train coming from the east! There's not much to do while waiting for a train to pass so I decided to count the cars on that long freight train. Why I say freight train, I don't know. There is no other kind anymore, passenger trains being a thing of the past. I may have miscounted but I think there were about 104 cars passing by me. That's a long train. Three engines in front and a couple bringing up the rear. While I was still counting another train came in from the other direction and it was kind of exciting watching them pass each other so closely. Both trains carried a zillion dollars in beautiful timber, sawed and packaged to perfection. My math could not even imagine how many houses or buildings that lumber would make. There were also tank cars carrying, I suppose, oil and, of course the usual art work on the box cars. Pretty nice art work sometimes.
There was one lone box car that looked almost ancient. No writing on it and the side door was wide open. It had that faded reddish color of boxcars of yesteryear. It certainly took me back to my childhood days when my father would be waiting for a train to pass and the open door on a box car would have hobos sitting at the door looking out. We'd wave and they'd wave back. They were out of work victims of the thirties' depression. They had to be careful not to let the Brakeman find them for they'd get thrown off of the train. Mojave was one of the "stopping off" places for hobos. These were not the much talked of "Knights of the Road" who made a career of hopping freights and seeing the countryside. Many were out of work men traveling the economy rate, looking for a way to make some money to live on. Most of them carried a bedroll on their back to make sleeping outdoors a little more bearable. They had heard of the gold mines in the Mojave area and were hoping to get hired. Mojave had a rule: "Hire local men first."
When we lived in Mojave we often had hobos knocking at our back door offering to work for a meal. My mother would sometimes tell them they could chop some wood but often she just fed them by placing the meal on the back porch. The axe was always on the woodpile. Thinking back about a lone housewife and small child with a stranger in the back yard wielding an axe, sounds scary but there was never any problem.
My Dad was employed, until about 1932, with the Southern Pacific Railroad as a Switchman. He rated something called a Pass. That meant that we could ride free. I recall, just barely, when I was about four years old, sitting with my mother and sister on the train. We were going to see my grandmother in Exeter. We both had new dresses that my mother had made for us.
The overhead lights on the train car were usually on, even in daytime. Sometimes, however, the lights were off and when the train passed through the tunnels going down to the San Joaquin Valley, I would cry when the darkness appeared. It took a lot of crying to get through all of those tunnels.
Going east from Tehachapi, about where the truck stop is now, was what we called The Y. It was a turn around for trains. If a train needed a helper engine coming up the mountains from Bakersfield it would lend its power and then when no longer needed, be uncoupled and travel to the Y and turn itself around and go back home. Only twice in my life did I ever see a train on the turn around. The "Y" part extended across the highway and road traffic crossed it. It wasn't a real rough crossing but it was wise to slow down while passing over it to save the car's suspension a bit.
There were section houses along the tracks in Tehachapi where some of the Railroad employees lived. The houses were painted the same color as the depot. Farther down, at Cameron and Warren there were other section houses. Betty Burgeis told me that her father, Paul Hifner, lived with his family at the Cameron Pump Station. He and another man, a Mr. Chaney, each worked twelve hour shifts seeing that water was pumped for the trains from Cameron to Mojave. Betty said the house, at first had no electricity or indoor bathroom. Later on, it was modernized and life was easier. One of my sons, riding down in that area, actually came upon the remains of one of the water systems, still in place. Warren was another station where Bill Marantos and his family lived in a section house. Bill was the Section Foreman in charge of seeing that the roads (tracks) were in proper condition. The old buildings are gone but there are still some shrubbery surviving to mark the spot.
As long as I seem to be moving verbally towards Mojave I recall that the lines were Southern Pacific owned and Santa Fe Railroad traveled them as guests (no doubt paying guests). During World War II my parents had a truck stop in Mojave on the corner of Highway 14 and the Barstow cut off (Hwy 58 now turns there). I was in High School and lived in the home place in Tehachapi with my sister and my sister-in-law. On weekends I rode the train to Mojave to visit my parents. If I rode the Southern Pacific San Joaquin Daylight Streamliner down the mountain I paid forty-five cents fare but if I missed the streamliner, I caught the Santa Fe steam engine later. When purchasing my Santa Fe ticket I had to pay seventy-two cents fare for a ticket to Barstow even though I got off at Mojave.
During that period in time - World War II - we used to see troop trains passing through town. Trains, in those days, had windows that opened and the military men would be waving at us and we, at them. Sometimes they tossed out letters for us to mail. Often they'd toss out their address and we'd write to them. Other times there were long convoys of men going through on trucks and jeeps. We waved at them, too. They were young men who would soon be overseas in the Pacific or European or North African Theaters of War.
It' s hard to believe all of that was so long ago. So much has changed, but some things remain the same. One can still hear the trains whistle as they approach the crossing. I can't decide which is louder, the old high pitched steam engine or the diesel horns. One's life sort of pauses until the whistles are silenced.
During that pause, if you happen to be waiting at the crossing for the train to pass and need something to do, you can always count the number of cars on the train!