Digital Asset Information
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Coming to Alaska after World War II
Working a section crew in Healy
Working as a locomotive fireman
Navigating the hills on the railroad route between Seward & Portage
Running a train off the tracks
Switching to diesel engines
Comparing steam and diesel engines
Transferring to Fairbanks
Loading the firebox
Rebuilding track and using a crane for train wreck recovery
Railroad employment system
Learning from old timers on the railroad
Primary concerns of the engineer
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WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Today is March 15, 1985 and I have Jack Ferguson here and we’re going to talk a little bit about his experiences working on the railroad and possible we’ll use parts of this recording in developing some of our radio programs if it works out. So Jack I’m happy to be here at your house and enjoyed chatting with your wife earlier. Lets give it a whirl by starting off with how you came to Alaska.
JACK FERGUSON: Alright Bill. I got my first look at Alaska during the war, the second world war that is. When I was in the navy, I was part of the crew of a gasoline tanker. We used to haul gasoline to all the little ports and islands along the coast in outer way on the chain.
But we were always just going by all the time. And so I thought, well one of these days I’ve got to get over there and take a look and see what it looks like on the inside.
Oh after the war was over and I had stumbled around down in Oregon for a little while. I made the jump and I got on one of their fast airplanes which landed in Annette Island and refueled. Eventually stopped in Anchorage. I think that initial flight took about eleven or twelve hours to get here.
And I made sure I wasn't too broke when I landed here, but I wasn’t too flush and so I was being pretty economical. I had a pack with me, I had intended to strike out into the bushes. And it’s a good thing that my plans changed or I’d probably still be out there trying to find my way back.
I spread my sleeping bag the first night in a big brush patch which used to be right where the parking lot is in front of the Alaska Railroad Depot. There were two or three of us camped in there.
I went up to town and I think the main street was about four or five blocks long at that time. And although there was, this was Fourth Avenue. There were a few stores over on Fifth Avenue, but not a great deal. So I walked down the street.
My first big impression was seeing every other walking down the street with a great big ice cream cone. Holy smoke we’re not really out in the jungles after all. It seemed as though Matanuska Maid had just won some kind of big prize down in the United States for making ice cream and they had a big promotion going on.
So naturally I had to have one of the ice cream cones. Then I just happened to meet a fellow on the street and everybody talked to everybody up here.
And so we talked a little bit and I told him what I had in mind and he said well what you need to do is to just go up the railroad a ways and take a job on a section, that’ll give you a chance to look the country over and see what you think of her. You could be making your expenses at the same time. That sounded pretty reasonable.
So I went down to the depot and I must’ve bought a ticket which, I couldn’t figure out how to bum a ride up there, so I must’ve bough a ticket on the railroad to Healy. I had written to Juneau, I believe, oh several months before, and asked them for information on Alaska. And what I got was a little tiny pamphlet from the Department of Agriculture, I believe, which told oh about two paragraphs about conditions in Healy.
Amongst them was that they did have a bunch of grass up there. I had in mind that I would like to raise some sheep up here. So I’ll go to Healy and take a look at it. Well they had a bunch of grass there all right, but you had to take a long jump between each clump of bunch grass.
So I got a job on a section and I worked there summer. And at that time everybody was young you know, there weren’t any old timers around it seemed. Well they were aright, but they were just, in a very, very small minority. And maybe because I was young it looked like everybody else was young at that time. And well we’d traipsed off into the bush and fish.
Boy I thought this was pretty good only things was, it rained all summer, all stinkin’ summer. I had planned initially on just being up here a couple of months, taking a look and going back to Oregon again.
So I thought, well just rained all summer so I’ll stick around see what it looks like this coming winter. And so I worked on a section, but it occurred to me that this was hard on the back, this working on a section here. And so, I transferred to working in the round house.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: What did the work on the section involve?
JACK FERGUSON: In the Healy area where I was working, it involved taking out rotten ties and replacing them with new ones. Keeping the track in alignment and keeping the humps and sags out of the track. That was done by, by raising and lowering the ties by at that time we did it by tapping it with the hand shovel.
If it was a particular depression then the rail would be lifted by inserting shims between the bottom of the railing and the top of the tie. And that manner they could achieve a pretty smooth track.
Huh, it was a never ending job, you were at it all the time. The track had a section crew at each, about ten mile interval I think. And this crew was responsible for the track in that section. Each crew would consist of anywhere from three or four to a dozen men depending on the track and condition of it.
The work really wasn’t bad. I was inclined to be kind of lazy when I was younger. We did get the chance to see lots of beautiful mosquitoes out there. I think that was on of the things that drove me into the round house.
But going into the round house was my introduction to the steam engine. And I enjoyed that, huh the steam engine was an entirely new monster to me and learning how to fire them and operating them was rewarding experience I thought.
Also they taught us to operate on the old steam cranes. We would climb on these, oh clam shells they called them. Though you’d have to, you’d have to fire ‘em up and then you’d operate them for a little while until they run out of steam and then you’d fire them up some more and you’d clam shell some more steam.
Ah in the winter time these old steam engines, many of them came from the Panama Canal, so they were pretty ancient. And they would leak a little bit of water, or the steam would leak and condense into water, and it leaked down into the gears.
And so if you didn’t get out there and move this crane around about every ten or fifteen minutes it’d build a glacier. And just weld those gears together to where the crane couldn’t be turned.
Oh we’d be running back and for the even if it was sixty below zero. And in order to replace the water they would have a water line extending from the round house out to the crane. The crane was situated about a hundred yards away from the round house adjacent to the coal stock pile that they had. They would back the locomotives up along side the coal pile and the crane and then the crane would clam shell the coal off the pile into the engine.
Well they were going to make a big improvement there one time and so they sent us up a new crane, a diesel operated crane that was operated by compressed air and it was supposed to be just the thing. So we were impressed with this high quality equipment. The round house foreman was going to get out and show us how to operate it.
Unfortunately lacked a good bit of their equipment, it was worn out before we ever got it. And so all of these fancy controls had a lot of slack in them. And he filled it up with coal and he brought it around to dump it into the engine and the swing button was slack and the crane swung way past where he had intended to, knocked the whistle off of the locomotive and dumped a good bit of the coal over the rest of the locomotive.
And so there the engine sat with all the steam running out of the whistle there. So they had to immediately run the engine back into the round house with what steam they had left in it, let her drain out and put a new whistle on it. But I don’t think they ever did let me run that fancy diesel crane there. I was stuck on the old steam crane.
Oh after a while I decided that the round house had its good points but there was more to be seen outside so I transferred over to B and A a car oiler.[ And so my job would be to walk along the string of freight cars and passenger cars and inspect all of the journal boxes to see if they had enough oil.
They had what they call a car inspector who would examine the car for any defects or problems but they would, they would always instruct us on what to look for. And the car oilers were, they were not apprentice car men because they had an apprenticeship program.
But what they would do would be, often work the men as, as car oilers for a certain length of time and then they would promote them to car inspectors even though they didn’t go trough their apprenticeship program.
Well so they would impart bits and pieces of knowledge to me and I would go along oiling the cars and pulling them on my sled and I must poured a million gallons of oil into those cars, I had oil spots in the snow for about two miles along that Healy siding there. Obviously I was pouring about half again as much oil in there as I should have.
So eventually it got to where they were trusting my judgment in inspecting a good bit of these cars for defects. And I enjoyed that, and so I would inspect them along there, but my memory wasn’t too good and I’d forget just where in this kind of cars a defect would be. And so I got a piece of chalk and I would find a defect and I would just write on the side of the car, defective bolster, defective this or defective that.
This went on several weeks and finally one of the car me, he got a hold of me one day and he says, these car men were my bosses by the way, he would say boy we’ve really got to be on the ball because there some foreman or supervisor down the track a ways there whose writing up all of these defects on the sides of the cars, so we have to be sure and get ‘em.
Well shortly after that I decided that time for me to change to something else. So I, I decided to be a fireman. And I went to Anchorage and talked them into lettin’ me be a fireman. They decided, well gotta do something with him, so we’ll make a fireman out of him.
And they sent me down to Seward to take the student trips. The student trips consisted of making three or four runs from Seward to Portage and back again. The run from Seward to Portage was over the mountains.
You travelled over two mountains in order to get to Portage from Seward. And at this time all of the freight or practically all of the freight that came into Alaska was coming to the Port of Seward.
And this was a boom period in ’51 is when I went to Seward. And they were running about three trains a day out of Seward at this time. I made the three trips as a student fireman. And I would, these trips would run about fourteen to sixteen hours a day. I hadn’t been used to that.
Well, I got back to Seward, I would wash up and I’d fall in the bed, then I don’t think I moved at all until a hand would be shaking me to come on, time to go out again. I would rouse and away we’d to again.
And so I finished my Seward or my student trips and then the choice was either go back to, well I did have to go back to Anchorage that’s were all the jobs originated. And I could either bid on a job up north, where they had some diesel engines, or back down in Seward.
Well there were lots of openings, because a lot of the young fellows didn’t want to work on those steam engines. But I thought, you know I don’t really know how to fire those things yet, I’m not going to let that stinkin’ locomotive beat me so I’m going to take that job down there and learn how to fire those things.
I, I think some of the engineers were a little disappointed that I did that, because I’m sure I did a poor job of firing for quite a while. But the one thing about those steam engines, they gave you a sense of accomplishment when you were working them, I think for the engineers, as well as the firemen. And so I did eventually learn how to fire them. And go to where I could fire up those, those hills.
There would be, I think it was about seven mile hill out of Seward and then about a five mile hill out of, out of, I don’t remember the name of it, half way between, between huh, Seward and Portage. And then when you were coming south again there would be about eleven or twelve mile hill coming out of Portage to the top of Grandview and then back down. And a shorter one, two or three miles over the last hump down into Seward again.
Eventually one would get to where the, you could fire up that hill and sleep down the other side, but you became adjusted to where there, I hope the engineer wasn’t doing this, this was the fire men that would do the sleeping down the hill. But you eventually became adjusted to where the, you could sound to sleep there, but one would always pop open every few seconds to watch that water glass and the steam gauge.
When I first hired out as a fireman, theres wise little ol’ foreman of engines got a hold of me and he dragged me up on the engines and he says now you see these, he says this is a steam gauge, he says that’s your job. This is a water gauge, that’s your life, if you let it run out of water it’ll blow up and kill you. So made a good impression on me.
My eyes always snapped open to watch that water gauge. This steam engine and firing those turns, we called them that was thrilling for a young man. And all the firemen were roughly the same age and it was like an exclusive club.
We huh, were pulling what you called double trains, at the time. We would leave Seward with three steam engines hooked together and we would have about forty cars. Now that’s what was called a double train. Now days they can pull a hundred cars out of there or more.
But we would pull the forty cars to the bottom of the first hill and then we’d cut off twenty cars and we’d take the twenty cars to the top of the hill, cut them off and then we’d come back down and we’d pick up the last twenty, pull them up to the top of the hill, hook ‘em back onto the first one and then we’d go on down until we came to the next hill and then we’d double the hill again and then down to Portage, where we would recoal and eat.
Eating was a specialty in itself, I think. I would get to thinning about it at times, and think that it’s humanly impossible for a person to eat this much and without killing them self you know, and almost worry me at times. We would burn it all up, it seems.
We’d get up in the morning and eat a big breakfast and I’d take a sandwich and I’d have that eaten in a couple of hours, about the time we got over the hill. And then we, we got over the first hill in, hit Moose pass, which was only a bout thirty miles out of Seward.
We’d stop for lunch and we’d go in and eat again. And then we hit the mid point, at Portage, they would have a meal waiting for us. These were big meals that we would eat. And we would eat again there and if it dragged on, we usually had to some switching in Portage which would require some times.
And we would start back at that time we were running over the loop. Midway between the bottom of the hill, when you left Portage, to Grandview. This was the eleven, twelve, I don’t remember the length of the hill anymore. But right midway in this hill was a tressel which I heard was supposed to have been one of the, what was it, one of the primary pieces of wooden architecture in the world, at that time.
The tressel must of stretched out a couple of miles, I believe and turned over itself twice, I believe it was. And then went into a tunnel on the other side of the mountain, you probably were probably over that Doris weren’t you?
The first time I came up over that, that loop there, we used to call it, I looked out of the cab window and we must of been a hundred feet over that ground and here those support planks on the side of that tressel were flopping back and forth, it looked like the whole thing was gonna come apart. Oh I, there was no way to get out, I had to stay with it.
Eventually we became used to that and we would often times slip down the engine when it would get a strong enough pull on sharp enough curve would often lose traction and then, you may have seen this in motion pictures or something, the wheels would just spin to beat the band and make a lot of noise and a lot of clattering.
So the engineer would have to shut off the steam and stop it. And it, this was a very proposition to get to the engine, or the train started again on a hill when you lost traction that way. So huh, they would have to shut off and they’d have to back enough to get a little slack in this train.
Perhaps I should explain slack; in a train, theres, I think they figure about six inches of slack in the draw bar mechanism on each car, and so if you have a, whatever number of cars is magnified by it, I think its six inches at each end, so you have about a foot of slack for each car. So the engineer would have to push the slack back far enough to be able to take a little bit of a run to get started again, but he still couldn’t push it back far enough to where the tail end started moving, because then it’d just jerk him down hill some more.
Sometimes they’s have to try half a dozen times before they’d get going. Sometimes they’d have other crewmen set up brakes on their rear-end to hold it and then get going. But we always made it, we huh, made a lot of noise up there and did a lot of scratching around but we always made it.
Some of those engineers were very good, very good hands. I never did huh, I never did work as an engineer on the steam engines. They were phased out before I was promoted. But I had a chance to see and be on the engines when some of the engineers were performing miracles.
We would go through the tunnel right at the top of the, top of the loop and then we would come out of that tunnel and cross a small tressel and then on through another tunnel and up over the top.
Then you were home free. Well eventually I reached the point where I, I could fire the passenger train. And so this one I enjoyed because you were getting out and going somewhere you were stopping and switching,
I always disliked stopping and switching along the way. And huh, every once in a while you, they get with an engineer whose a little bit nutty you know, and he’s really let it out and let it go, when he got to a good stretch of track.
And I was firing for, they had just put in some new rail, they had refurbished the track from, from Portage to Anchorage, at that time, and we had struggled over the hills and probably hit that new track, and there was a lot of curves in there. But when we reached a point, down around Potter there was a nice straight stretch there.
And this one particular engineer I worked with, I don’t know whether he huh, would deliberately let us get behind or not, but when we reached that track he sure loved to open it up. And I remember him pulling out his watch one time and he says, "we’re doing sixty miles an hour." And the speed limit was forty-nine I think at that time. Well we didn’t have recorders at that time, all he had was his watch. And we didn’t jump the track and we got back into town on time, that was ok. And although we did jump the track at times, never did it on the passenger train.
I was firing for an engineer one time on one of the Portage turns, this was a freight and we were coming back from Portage to Seward, at that time. We’d just left Moose Pass and we had a relatively short train that, about twenty, thirty cars. And we had two locomotives and for some reason or another we had to put one locomotive in back of the train and was pushing with that. We had gotten out of Moose Pass, oh four or five miles and were just approaching the end of Trail Lake, I believe it was when the engineer put the train in emergency.
He applied all the brakes he had and he said his poney trucks, those were the small wheels on the front of the locomotive, were on the ground. And when they dropped down you could see the fire flying and so he had to stop the train to keep it from leading the rest of the train off in the ditch. Well he stopped and he got on the radio and he called the caboose, the conductor, told him well he says our poney trucks are on the ground, is everything alright?
And the conductor said, "yes we’re alright, except the trains in the ditch." And so the engineer said to me, he exaggerates, of course he exaggerates he always exaggerating.
Oh the engineer got his flashlight out and I banked up the fire so it would hold and we started walking back along the train to see what was going on. And we got back about ten cars or so and he flashed his light around and theres no train. Just the end of these cars, I think it was tanks, we had about ten tanks and they were all right there behind the engine, but nothing behind them.
So he started flashing his light around but he still didn’t, here about oh, twenty, thirty feet off in the weeds were all of these coal hoppers. They were just scrambled up and scattered all over everywhere. And when we got back to the caboose, the caboose was setting cocked at about a 45 degree angle across the track and the engine behind it, the locomotive behind it had all of its drivers sitting on the ground.
And so they decided, well they’re gonna have to call in for something and tell ‘em. So they had an apparatus where they could reach up with a pole and they could snap a couple of alligator clips on to a telephone wire, which paralleled the track. And then they could use this portable telephone that they had to call into town.
So huh, one of the brakemen, who was a friend of mine then, well in order to use this we need somebody to hold this, this ground or whatever it was. So he gave me the end of this wire, "will you hold this out there will you?" "Alright." So I took that wire and I was down there holding it and holding it and holding it and eventually it began to dawn on me that this was a wild goose chase. So the boys were just putting me on the end of the wire out there standing in the cold to see how long I’d stay evidently.
That, that was, I think that was the only wreck I was involved in I believe. I was in episodes where the wheels dropped on the ground or we had put various cars on the ground but not when the whole train left the track. I went pass places where the locomotives had turned over and one where the steam locomotive was turned over and was lying on its side down on the lake ice. And it thought oh they’ve been killed alright, nobody hurt, nobody scratched.
Another time they put eight locomotives and a whole bunch of cars way down in a canyon there. And they had to build a whole set of new track down there in order to get that equipment out. Engines lying on its side and looked down there oh they’ve been killed, nobody even scratched.
Huh, fact I don’t know of any of the engine men that were, that were injured in any of those wrecks. I think that one fella that was hit on their leg with a radio that came loose form the other side of the cab, but it didn’t break it or hurt badly.
The brakemen they had the dangerous job though. That was one of the big concerns to me when I was an engineer and was switching was, concerned that I was going to injure one of those fellas, because they were in your sight and they’d be out of your sight climbing between the cars and out.
Well it was a way of life and I suppose one becomes use to it eventually, but I never really did completely get use to it. It was always a worry to me. And I can remember when I huh, when I did retire; somewhat a sigh of relief, well I got away from there without ever killing anybody. And that’s about it I guess.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That’s good. Lets back up a second, you said there was a boom in 1951. What were you hauling then?
JACK FERGUSON: Yes. In that time in 1951 everything was brought up by rail out of Seward and everything was off loaded by hand from the ships and reloaded into box cars or flatcars or gondolas and you didn’t have any of the containerized hauling equipment that you do now.
There was long shoring was the, was the stable employment in Seward. Once they went to containerized loads it must of cut the long shoring and huh, personnel by oh three-quarters I would say.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: How did that affect the railroad business?
JACK FERGUSON: About the same time that, that they huh, at the same time that they instituted the containerized cargos they switched over to diesels down in the south end. So where as they would connect three steam locomotives together and pull forty cars and have to double the hills, they get, put eight of those diesel locomotives together. What they call them was units to make up one locomotive.
They get huh, hook eight units together and pull a hundred. I think they pulled a hundred and twenty cars out of there at one time when I was there. And so it completely changed the picture for the railroad too.
Huh, when they switched over to, when they made the big switch over to diesel huh, the cut off I think I remember them saying seven hundred people in Anchorage there there, at one time. So with the steam locomotive and you had three locomotives attached together, you had an engineer and a fireman for each locomotive, so that made six people.
With the diesel locomotive they used only two, an engineer and a fireman, and then they eventually even cut off the fireman. So there was one huh, one engineer huh, operating the whole thing. Huh, this was, I still believe rather a foolish method of saving money, because the engineer had to maintenance personnel on the locomotives after that.
They would have oh, multiple a units and if anything went huh, bad in the back all he could do was stop the train and go back and try to find the cars. But huh, I can remember many times when firemen who were on locomotives, they’d save the railroad thousands of dollars by finding defects before they went bad.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER You were telling earlier about the change over to diesels, and maybe you could explain that in some detail here.
JACK FERGUSON: Well, the diesel is much more efficient than the steam engine, huh also it requires many less personnel to keep it operating. With the steam engines they had a functioning round house at every division point. They would have machinist and boiler makers and electricians, craftsmen of, of huh most kinds and complete shop established there.
Huh, with the diesels, although they still have a shop at each one of these division points, often there would be no one there except one person who would serve as foreman, machinist, janitor, you name it, who was there strictly for emergency repairs.
Huh the main efficiency of the, of the diesel seemed that they have a better tracktive effort. They can start a heavier load and, and they can, although they, they can’t go any faster, probably pull any heavier load once they, steam engine got the load moving, they could start the heavier loads better.
And they could hook, well I never see more than eight units hooked together, figuratively they could hook a couple of dozen of ‘em together. But what they do is, they’re prearranged to where that all, all of the units can be operated from one unit.
The engineer huh, had the controls on one end or the other, if he wants to he can switch the controls to huh, the opposite end. And actually the controls can be switched to any one of those, those intermediate units too, although some of them don’t even have any cabs on ‘em.
However you would never be able to operate them that way on the, on the road as we called it, because visibility is so poor, I would mean merely an emergency measure. And well there no argument that pulling the train of hundred cars, as opposed to a car or a train of twenty, thirty, or forty cars is much more efficient.
Personally it affected me almost, not just me but all the fellas in my seniority group, effected us almost as though we were starting over again from scratch, because the number of jobs were reduced so drastically.
Where as we had three trains a day coming out of Seward at one time, it was reduced to one train a day and then business would fall off a little bit, sometimes it would be down to two trains a week.
So those of us who could hang on were reduced to taking jobs as hostlers in a roundhouse and fireman on the yard engines and even we were, were promoted after a, after a three year training period.
And so even after we were promoted the majority of the younger men could not hold jobs as engineers if we wanted to stay home, because the jobs were held by old timers and they wanted to stay home too. Which is the way it should be.
I wanted to stay home, and so I stayed in Seward, oh for a number of years after I was promoted, even though I could an engineer’s job only periodically. Sometimes a couple of months a year and sometimes not at all. Then they, for some reason or another, there came to a shortage of engineers in the Fairbanks area.
And we had a system which was called a forced assignment. And which the engineer, the youngest engineer, who was working as a fireman, could be forced to take a job on which no one else had bid regardless of where it happened to be.
Well after I was forced up here to Fairbanks, a couple of times, and I think the last time I had to stay all summer, and my family was in Seward, we got our heads together and decided that our long range plan was to get somewhere where we would be able to send the children to the University, and that meant Fairbanks.
And Fairbanks was the end of the world anyway for railroad men. So if we came to Fairbanks and I couldn’t hold a job here there was no sense in remaining a railroad man, because that meant there wasn’t any jobs. But I was, I had enough seniority by this time that we felt that I could hold on in Fairbanks alright.
So we, we decided to make the move. We sold our house and we were going to make the move, but we decided well things were going pretty good in Seward about this time and we were making pretty good money there so we’ll stay one more winter.
Shortly before the fall the lady whose house we were renting, because we had already sold our house, came down to Seward and said I’m sorry I can’t rent you my house for this coming winter because I’m changing husbands and I’m going to need the house myself.
So we though alright so we’ll just go to Fairbanks a little earlier than we had planned on. So we took the kids and the dog and a tent and we came to Fairbanks and we pitched out here in the park here and we looked around until we found a house and made arrangements for it. And we went back to Seward in, what was it I worked, no we were just there a couple of weeks and then we came up here.
Well we just got established up here and the next spring was the big earthquake. And the bottom dropped out of Seward and the whole railroad yard sluffed off into the bay and the house where we had been living, even though it survived the earthquake, I would have scarred us to death because it was across the streets from the oil storage tanks and gasoline storage tanks. And some of them caught on fire and this was something that we were always happy to have missed.
So we, one curious thing was that the day of the earthquake huh, it could be felt a little bit here. Huh, I was operating a locomotive at that time and we were switching in the yards and huh, I pulled up along side a brakeman who was standing on the ground and he said, "Did you feel that earthquake?" And in moving the locomotive I couldn’t feel anything, there was no indication at all in the locomotive.
Well when I arrived in Healy, my first stop in Alaska, they had one diesel locomotive up there. And they were running a passenger train up there and back. But they were right in the middle of a track rehabilitation program that went to Fairbanks to Healy and which they would build up and improve the road bed and they put in a heavier rail.
Now it seems as though this was a progressive movement from north to south and as soon as they, as soon as they had improved a section of track they pulled off the steam engines and replaced them with diesels. And this movement gradually worked on south all the way through Anchorage and then down to Seward where I hit it there.
At the time they were rebuilding the track on the north end, I was not involved with the, with the engines. It wasn’t until they were working on it on the south end that I was involved in the engines. Now this rehabilitation program must have been dragged out over a period of four or five years, I would think, at least that yeah.
But the reason that I believed that the diesels were not introduced to the south end was because of, because of the bridges probably and the tressels. Huh, one incident that I huh, that I recall when we were operating the steam engines out of Seward, there was one stretch of track from, which was about a dozen miles out of Seward, out of Seward means north from Seward, a stretch of track from Snow River to about the end of the lake, to the end of Kenai Lake was an exceptionally rough section of track.
And when we were firing in a steam engine you had to stand up and this was coal fired with a shovel. And over this stretch of track many times, I’ve had to catch myself with my elbows against the, the huh edge of the cab and the edge of the tender to keep from being thrown out of the cab by the lurching of the engine there.
It was, it was rather comical all right, the way one would stagger around and eventually you would have to synchronized your moves with the lurches in order to huh, to get a shovel full of coal into, into the fire box.
What we had was a, was a air valve that we stepped on as a foot pedal. You step on this foot pedal, which would operate the air valve which would open the doors to the fire box which were butterfly doors. They would open one on each side.
Every once in a while the engine would lurch and you would either miss that, that foot pedal or else your aim would be off anyways and instead of hitting the fire body your shovel would clang against the end of the boiler and all that could would land in the engineers lap there.
I’m sure the engineers didn’t think that was too humorous. We were bouncing along one time and the, the engineer sat on a, a little seat which was held up by a little tripod which could be adjusted by notches, adjust it up and down. Well we hit one of those big bumps and this little tripod jumped out of the notch and the engineer landed on the floor.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: You were mentioning the tressels and the bridges in that southern part, that would take more work and so they planned to do that later?
JACK FERGUSON: Yes, see this rebuilding them was all part of the, the track rehabilitation program and huh, they huh, they had to strengthen them in order to hold a heavier diesel, the heavier, the diesels were considerably heavier than the steam engines. Probably because they were much more solid steel up there. The steam engine was big old hollow boiler sitting up there.
But the loop that I spoke of before never was rehabilitated, it was bypassed. They huh, just cut a groove in the side of the mountain and they put in a much steeper grade than they had had previously, but they bypassed all this wooden tressel that had been there for many many years.
The interesting part was that all the time that they were building this, this new cut to take up the new track, we were operating down the old loop and so they was no hold up at all there. It was extremely good timing on the civil engineers that build that. Because, I happen to be working the freights at that time and if I recall we went one way over the old loop and came back over the, over the new section. So they did a great job.
Some of the wrecking crews too, I think probably must have been some of the best in the world, because huh, they may not have been impressive to look at. But they huh, would take locomotives and cars out to some of the most inaccessible places and get them back on the track again. Build track right into these wrecks and run a crane in there and pick ‘em up.
Speaking of cranes I saw, I was out on a wreck one time and they had huh, a couple of cranes there and they were going to pick up huh, I think it was a pile driver, that had turned over and huh, so they had run a crane with a big long boom up along side this, this pile driver and the Alaska Railroad I suppose was much like many operations, for every workin’ man they had a couple of supervisors there.
And I remember there was, there was one little guy there who had to be right in there looking at everything. And the crane was run up along side the pile driver and the crane operator swung around and dropped his line down and they hooked it on to the pile driver and he started to take a strain and this supervisor, who ever he was, huh, was a little fat guy and he was standing right underneath that boom takin’ it all in.
Ánd this donkey engineer he tightened up the strain on this, on this cable and that big long boom just folded right in the middle, it just seemed like in slow motion, it just started coming down, and that little fat guy was standing down there watching and all at once it soaked in on him and he was just like a ball rollin’ out from under there boy he disappeared and I never did see him back there again.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: So that was quite a job when they had to get those back up on the track?
JACK FERGUSON: Oh yes, it was and there was some quite a bit of expertise involved. They had, they had a couple of fellows who specialized in that. And these fellows would just take huh, regular section crews from the closest place they happened to be and they would usually have huh, some carmen there would do cutting and welding for them too.
And huh, almost always had cranes and then they would, it depended on, on where the wreck was or how it was laying whether they had to use a crane or whether they, they put the cars back on the track with frogs, frog was a instrument that lay along side the track is in some cases some types of frogs would straddle the track and then the car would be pulled up over that frog and the frog would, would huh, force the wheel back on the rail.
Huh, the frog was the traditional way of getting the car back on the track if it had merely jumped the track and was sitting on the ground. If they were too far from the track, However then they would often need, need a crane or if the car was badly damaged then they would often need a crane.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: So on your career you came to Fairbanks you were able to maintain the engineers position up here to end of the line and that continued on for a number of years and did it get better in terms of opportunities?
JACK FERGUSON: Oh yes, the, the whole railroad employment system is, is run on a seniority system and so the more seniority you have the better job you can hold the more secure your job is. The more secure your job is. One problem with establishing yourself in Fairbanks was that there were not the job opportunities that there were in Anchorage where everything originated.
So one had to make the choice, do you want to stay home and work a yard job say, a job that is secure here, or do you want to take a job in Anchorage on the extra board where there the opportunity of taken out freight trains, passenger trains, whatever comes up.
Or when you get enough seniority do you want to, do you want to take a freight job that, say originates in Healy and comes to Fairbanks in the middle of the night and goes back to Healy again the next day. Well by the time I had gotten enough seniority to where I could hold one of the good freight jobs on the road I’d gotten to like to stay home. It had more appeal to me.
Although I could have held the freight job out of Healy and huh, much better jobs in Anchorage, huh, it was not worth it to me to leave home. I became a stick in the mud i guess and just preferred to work in the yard jobs and stay home. I did work the freight for a couple of years out of Fairbanks, from huh, here to Healy and back. This was a local freight and I enjoyed that very much.
I was working with an old timer and he would run one way and he’d have me run the other way and I got a lot of experience that I wouldn’t of had other wise. And it broke the monotony.
One thing that bothered me though about working that freight was that huh, they would supply that freight with, with the old worn engines and so he’d start out of here and he would have full tonnage and he do great ‘til he hit the hill out there about ten miles away from Healy and it was all up hill and we’d be pulled down to ten miles an hour.
And the ol’ locomotives were rattling themselves apart and the alarm bells for over heating would be going off and have all the ventilation units open, the doors open. Everything you could think of to cool the old locomotives off and they still just struggled and beat themselves to death to get into town.
I think probably anybody who had a, a regard for mechanical equipment would probably find that disturbing, because huh, it’s just not a way to treat equipment. The railroad, I don’t know what the policy is now but a number of years ago somebody came up with the clever idea that if they ceased making repairs outside of just emergency repairs, repairs on these locomotives... now when I say repairs, keeping them in good running condition. If they ceased doing that and just run them until they fell apart and buy a new one, it was more economical.
Was never convinced of that myself, but that was the policy for a number of years and the result was that we would up for a number of years using locomotives that were badly neglected. And I think it may have back fired on them, because I think maybe running them into the ground and found out the didn’t get an appropriation to buy new ones when the thought they should. But I suppose I didn’t worry too much about that. I got back on the yard job and put in my time, I guess.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: You mentioned that old timer who you learned a lot from on that run can you tell us a little bit more about him and some of the things?
JACK FERGUSON: Sure. Yeah. The old timer that I worked with on local freight out of Fairbanks was a fella by the name of Stubblefield. And of course the old timer then was about the same age I am now. Really he was about half engineer and half philosopher I think, because he spent huh, about half the time philosophizing with me. And he wasn’t bad.
I think he, I think he compared favorably to with a lot of them that I have read. He was from Texas and he had a very, very definite sense of what was right and what was wrong. If it was right that’s it, and if it was wrong, throw it out, altogether.
He loved to play pinochle. He loved to play pinochle. We would pull into Healy and the wheels wouldn’t hardly stop rolling before they’d be off with train and into the dining hall and have a pinochle game starting.
Then they’d, he I think between hands, and we always had to wait for our orders and before we started back, so the pinochle game would go right up until we got our orders and set out for Fairbanks again. I thing I was always regarded as something of a freak because I didn’t learn how to play pinochle.
That Stubblefield was an excellent engineer. He had complete control over the train at all times, see. He would, he was a kind of a guy who would count how many rail links there were between one particular place and another.
I never could get myself to do that, but he could tell you how many rail links and how many ties almost, were between locations. But after you’ve been on the road for a while and we all learned to did t to greater or lesser degrees, you learn to know the road, we called it, you would, you would memorize where all of the rises in the track were and where all the dips and the turns and what not.
And so that even if huh, you couldn’t see it, once you were familiar with these section track you, you would, you would know what was coming, because you always had to adjust yourself to what was coming ahead of you not just what you were on top of at the time.
I remember one time when I was working extra board here in Fairbanks and I hadn’t been out on the road in some time. I was called to take a freight to Healy. Well there had been a big storm just, well the night before I believe or part of that night I guess.
Fortunately the fíreman on the job was an old time engineer too. And he was familiar with the track and huh, I say fortunately because all of the mile post were covered with blown snow all the speed restrictions, which were marked along the track, were covered with blown snow.
And even station markers, now I had a pretty good idea where the stations were and likes of that, but I didn’t remember what the speed limits were between all of these places, but this fella had them all in his head. And he said well this is a forty mile curve or this is a thirty mile curve or here you can open it up again and so on.
So once, once a person had become familiar with a section of track they, they pretty well knew it inside and out. Stubblefield used to huh, have a kind of flamboyant air. We’d pull into huh, we’d pull into huh, to Clear on the way north.
He had a particular spot on the track where he’d stop and he’d set his brakes, you’d have to start setting your brakes you know a mile away in order to make the proper stop there. And so every once in a while I’d be runnin’ when we’d come in there. And god I’d never hit his mark, I’d never hit his mark. I either go by or come up a little short or what not.
My primary concern when I was out there was keeping the train all together and on the track. Gettin’ there in one piece. Which I was pretty luck, I did. I, I puller her into one time, boy I was, I was working for Stubblefield to, and we, we stopped, we stopped some where along the line for some reason or another, when we got started again Stubblefield got a knuckle at, the draw bar there, the things hold them together are called knuckle. Well although they’re steel this big around, when you get them hooked between the locomotive and the train they are very delicate.
So all you have to do is, is just let the tiniest little lurch occur and it’ll just snap that right off. So that’s not major damage, you can always take one from the rear end of the train and bring it up there and put it in and replace it.
Which they did. And I was kiddin’ him, I thought that was the funniest thing in the world you know, ha ha ha ha, here the old timer he snapped a knuckle in two. And the next day I think it was, or the next couple of days I did exactly the same thing there, snap one in two.
But huh, I was lucky that’s, that’s huh, as bad as I tore it up there. Probably because I wasn’t the road anymore than I was. I’m sure if I had been on the road more I would have had them torn up more than I did too. That, it was inevitable, if you worked on, on the road a great deal eventually you were going to have a problem where the train would come in two on you.
And huh, particularly as the trains go longer, so much power in the front, it’s just like adding more and more weight to a thread. And the thread doesn’t get any bigger it’s just the same size and so huh, you just had to be on tender hooks all the time and particularly startin’ ‘em and stoppin’ ‘em.
Even as the train was, was under weight the slack action had to be continually kept in mind and prevented from running out or running in. Because huh, she would, they called it pullin’ the lung out of them there. That was tearin’ the draw bar right out from under the car.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Pulling the lung?
JACK FERGUSON: Pulling the lung, that’s what they called it. Pulling the lung out of them.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Well you said some real interesting things about the differences between the steam and the diesels but it seems that the bottom line is you had to know how to control that power? You had to know the road.
JACK FERGUSON: Oh yes, yes that was the whole secret of it yeah.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: The whole secret was?
JACK FERGUSON: Knowing how to control the power and knowing the road. Because you had a long train and you were going into a dip you had to have part of the brakes holding and part of them released there.
So you would, you would make an application just before you huh, hit the hill or the dip or just as you were going into it and then it had to be released so that the, the front of the train was, was going up and releasing those brakes and the rear end would still be holding while she was going down until she started up the other side. Otherwise you’d get a snap in there which could pull you in two again.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: That’s real interesting and the way you learned was from the old timer?
JACK FERGUSON: Yes. Yeah. If one were lucky you’d get with, with an engineer who would teach you, a good instructor. And if you were not lucky then you had to get out there and learn most of it by yourself.
And that’s doin’ it the hard way and really an expensive proposition for the company too, because a man who hasn’t been trained well can tear up and awful lot of equipment in a short time.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Did the company realize that?
JACK FERGUSON : Oh yes the company realized that and they, they took pains, most of the time to have their fireman working with huh, with an experienced man. The only problem was that all of these experienced men regardless of how much they knew were not all good teachers.
And some of them were, although most of them were very good, I never did work with a real, a real bummer. Some of, you know like everybody, bad disposition were not inclined to teach much. Most of them were very good.
The railroad eventually went to a schooling system several years back in which they, rather than on the job training situation, they sent their, their huh, engineer candidates to huh, this school for a certain period of time to teach them to be engineers.
WILLIAM SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much. That was great fun and did a good job. A lot of useful information.