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Riding the rails

The Spirit of Tehachapi

Since the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, people have had a love affair with trains. Not only for transportation but the thrill of seeing an old steam engine going by, and then waving to the engineer and having him wave back. I remember when the San Joaquin Daylight streamliner became part of the train world with much enthusiasm from the folks in our town.

Upon reading Jon Hammond's fine article in the February 27 - March 13 edition in The Loop newspaper, I thought, "Hey! I've been there, done that!" After reading Jon's description of places I'd seen and passed in former days, I decided to share a few old memories from the days when trains were a common mode of travel.

My earliest memories of train riding are when my father worked as a switchman, sometimes brakeman, for the Southern Pacific Railroad out of Mojave. He rated something called a "pass" by which we, his family, could ride free.

I was probably about 4 years old when my sister and I would be sitting with our mother in new dresses that mama had just made for us. We were going to visit our grandmother in Exeter. Mom, I guess, had seen the scenery enough to just read a book she'd brought along. Being so young, I only recall the tunnels that appeared on the way down the mountain to Bakersfield. If the train lights were not on in our car it became pitch black while our car entered the first of many such tunnels and I would cry until daylight appeared. I cried a lot on those trips.

Then I believe my mother asked if the lights could be turned on, even if it were in the day time, for I recall being happy not having to cry. It probably made the other passengers happy, too.

My grandmother lived in Exeter but the train stopped in Tulare, where we got off and I suppose someone picked us up. The train continued on without us. When grandma came to visit us, we met her at the now, long gone, depot in Mojave. When it was time for her to go home I liked to go to the depot to see her off as she always let me have any change she got when buying her ticket.

The Depression hit hard and the Southern Pacific decreased their working force. My dad was one of the employees to be known as the "lay-offs." He had a Model T Ford truck so he became the man to call if someone needed some trash hauled out into the desert or perhaps someone needed a load of sand for building purposes. Finally, he was hired by the State Highway Department for paving and maintaining the highways. The railroad free passes were a thing of the past.

Skipping down a few years, we moved to Tehachapi and, later when in high school, riding the train to Bakersfield or Mojave was easy and not really expensive. I did not cry when we passed through the tunnels anymore but I never was able to count the tunnels. I was told there were 17 of them but something always distracted my attention and I'd lose track. Still, it was a thrill to ride the "streamliner" officially known as the San Joaquin Daylight, down the mountain to shop in the stores for the all important clothes needed to stay with the current fashion trends.

Sometimes, I'd miss the streamliner and take the later Santa Fe connection which was an old steam engine. I always wondered what the funny noise the train made as we neared the Loop. I found out that the engine's wheels were slipping and they were applying sand to the tracks. Egads! We always made it. The engine used whistles going up in that same area. It was pre-computer days and probably even radio contact did not exist between the engineer and the conductor riding in the caboose. Anyway, there were whistle signals that meant something.

Riding down on the streamliner was pretty elegant for the seats were comfortable with a light sage green upholstery. Sometimes, when I felt I could spare the extra cash, a friend and I would have pie and coffee in the diner. It was expensive though, for pie and coffee in the diner was 85 cents. At that time, pie in the café that would one day be Kelcy's, was 15 cents and coffee a dime. There were no waitresses in the diner but male waiters in crisp, white uniforms.

I lived a block from the depot and would board the streamliner at 11:20 in the morning and be able to catch the returning streamliner and walk home at 4:40 in the afternoon. Not bad for a shopping trip.

I neglected to mention the loud speaker on the streamliner frequently came on to describe the scenery on the way down from Tehachapi. We heard of the building of the Loop was completed in 1876 and further down we were reminded to notice the orange groves and oil derricks. The derricks were sometimes 100 feet tall and made of wood.

I recall buying a ticket to Mojave cost 35 cents. That was for the streamliner. If I missed the streamliner and had to take the Santa Fe steam engine I paid 72 cents for a ticket to Barstow but just got off in Mojave. The line was owned by the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe were on it as "paying guests" and that's the way it was.

A round trip ticket to Los Angeles was $5 and, I believe, 4 cents. Once in a while I had reason to travel that far but generally we drove. However, Union Station in L.A. was an architectural dream. Beautiful building but, even with my young untrained ears, I noticed the acoustics were fantastic. Hundreds of people could be within the station yet there was no verbal noise. For the second time in this article I must use the word "elegant."

Still talking about trains, but in a different light, let me speak of the train whistle. As a person who worked as a telephone operator in the 40s I must add that the sound of the train as it approached the crossing with its "two long and two shorts" signal was somewhat deafening for those who were serving telephone customers just across the street from the depot. The operator would simply say, "Just a moment please until the train passes by."

I think that the old steam engine whistle was more ear shattering to the eardrum than was the diesel streamliner. Both stopped every audible sound when passing but I think the high whistle would be more apt to set one's teeth on edge.

The waiting room in the depot was a room I seldom entered. I just walked into the back door and talked to whomever was on duty. The little waiting room was cozy and in the earlier days had a large pot bellied wood or coal stove. A massive, attractive piece of equipment. Later, into the 40s and 50s it was replaced by an oil heater. When the old depot was rebuilt after being burned, the builders did such a wonderful job reproducing the old structure that one can forget it's not the original. The only difference I can notice is that the ticket window in the waiting room is larger than the original was.

One other thing, during World War II when the troop trains would come through and stop for water and whatever else they needed, the troops would open the train windows and flirt with whatever girls they saw and also hand letters out for people to mail for them. No stamps needed; just the word "free" in the upper right hand corner of the envelope.

The main thing I noticed was the absolute courtesy of the conductors who were on duty, plus never once did I enter or depart the train without a helping hand from the railroad personnel. I realize it was for safety sake but it made one feel good.

Footnote: The name of this piece, Riding the Rails, refers to uninvited passengers on freight trains. In the early and middle 30s I used to like to wave to them as we passed the train. Those riding the rails would always wave back.