Digital Asset Information
Project: Railroads of Alaska
Date of Interview:
Narrator(s): Gale Wetherell
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider
Transcriber: Carol McCue
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Growing up in Talkeetna
Some of the miners in the Talkeetna area
Trapping with Shorty Bradley
Staying in trapping cabins
Dealing with mice in the cabin
His early fascination with the railroad
His first job working as a brakeman
A persistent stowaway on the train from Nenana
Flagging down the trail and Irene Stepan
Hauling heavy equipment for the miners
The train engineer's duties and a disconnected train
Hitting a vehicle on the tracks
His thoughts on the future of the railroad
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BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is May 19th, 2003, and pleased -- I'm Bill Schneider, I'm pleased to be here with Gale Wetherell. And we're at his home here in Anchorage, in Rabbit Creek area. And so thanks for taking the time to do this. Let's -- let's start with maybe talking about your early childhood and growing up in Talkeetna.
GALE WETHERELL: Okay. Well, I came to Alaska when I was two years old, and that was in 1935. And we came to Talkeetna because my grandparents were there. And this was during the Depression, so my mother and dad were looking for ways to make some money because it wasn't very good where they were from in Idaho and in Oregon.
So we moved there and spent about, I think, one winter there, summer and winter. And then I think my real father, which is Gale Thompson, he was pretty good at running machinery, and so he got a job there on the Alaska Road Commission. And also a little bit of work out on one of the mines, I think.
And so he worked that season, and then he got another job down at Moose Pass, moved a dredge out of Talkeetna, and he went to Moose Pass and spent about a season there. That didn't pan out. Came back to Talkeetna and he decided that Alaska wasn't for him. He wanted to move back with his folks back in Idaho and go back to the sheep ranch, and that wasn't my mother's cup of tea, so she kind of said goodbye. And they eventually got divorced.
My mother stayed in Talkeetna with my grandparents, and she met George Wetherell, who is my stepfather. And so they got married. And -- and my sister also was there, but my sister, I only had one sister, and my grandparents and my mother got together and my aunt and uncle lived in Fairbanks. Actually, my uncle, most people know my uncle as Jim Crawford, and he was -- ended up to be general manager of F. E. Company. Had a pretty nice home there. So they decided that Talkeetna was kind of a -- not a very good environment to raise up a girl, so they adopted my sister. But of course, we got to visit back and forth, but she went -- she went to Fairbanks.
And we lived there, and we -- we had a freighting business out to Cache Creek, took care of all the miners in the summertime, take their mail, take their groceries, keep them supplied with their supplies. And we -- and we also run the roadhouse for a while in Talkeetna. And we had a trapline that we trapped on in the wintertime. So we had two -- two sources of income there. We had the mining, the freighting, we did a little mining on the side by ourselves, and then we had trapping in the winter.
And of course, I went to school there, just a one little -- one room schoolhouse, no electricity, gas burning lights, coal stoves, outhouses. There was no electricity in Talkeetna at all. The only way you could get to Talkeetna was by railroad or by bush plane. And I would estimate the population of Talkeetna was probably around a hundred or maybe a little less. And they were mostly miners and trappers. They were mostly single guys. I would say an average age was probably 35, 40 and on up into the 60s, 70s. In that age bracket.
There was very few married couples there. There was a few. Like I'll go to Bill and Mac McDonald, and they run a trading post right across from the roadhouse that we had. And we bought our roadhouse from Jack and Frieda Devault. And we leased it -- no, we didn't. No, I take this back. We did not buy it, we leased it from them. We leased that for probably two years.
And Bill's -- and Bill's roadhouse was right across the street from us, and it was called the Talkeetna Roadhouse, and it's probably been there since Talkeetna, the city started. Then right up the street from us, toward the railroad from the river was Nagley's store. And he moved his store from Susitna Station into Talkeetna probably in the early 1920s, so Bill was sort of first, and Nagley's was next, and then Duvaults that we leased the roadhouse from, they were probably next.
And then there was the Fairview Inn Hotel, which was the most modern hotel that was probably built in -- probably around '34, '35. It was a two story building. And it did not have -- it did not have electricity or it did not have -- they had outhouses, too, but it was still a very modern building. And Neuman was the person that run that place.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Hang on a sec. Let's see how we -- okay.
GALE WETHERELL: And so Neuman had the hotel and he sold it to -- probably in the late '30s, he sold it to Campbells. They run it for quite awhile, John and Nola Campbell. And then -- well, I don't want to go through, there's so many different people that owned the different buildings, but they were the first two originals.
And then I guess I can tell you a little bit about people out on the creeks that I knew. I'll start out with Adolf Trosky (phonetic), he had a mine pretty close to where our camp was, and he was a single man. And probably in his fifties. He liked limburger cheese real well and Granger tobacco he smoked in his pipe, I remember. Kind of a roly poly guy. And he always wore this big old apron, rubber apron, had his boots pulled up, in a hydraulic mining outfit that he had.
He had a little cabin there and he had a ditch up above Cache Creek where he brought the water down through a pipeline system and a Giant. He had a field Giant and a tail Giant where he could pipe into his -- to his sluice box with a -- like a big tin up there to deflect the gravel and stuff. And then when the tin got piled up in the bottom of the sort -- where the gravel come out of the sluice box, of course, he would clear that out with that other tied, and he'd switch that gate off, go back and forth from one Giant to the next.
And I'll tell you about one incident I thought was quite funny with Adolf. He could tell a pretty good story. When we came by there one day and we were dropping off his mail and stuff, and we asked him, well, how is it going, Adolf? And he says, well, I had quite a little catastrophe. He says, the leaves were coming up in my -- where I draw my water from the ditch, and they were plugging up the screen so I kept losing pressure. So he said, I got tired of going up there and cleaning the leaves out, so I just went up there and took the grate out and the screen out. And he says, I'm piping away and I next thing I know the Giant blows up the pipe and I'm out in the middle of my pit.
And so George, my stepfather, said, well, what caused that, Adolf? And he says, well, a beaver got in my pipe and come down and plugged up the Giant and blew me right out in the middle of the pit. The pressure was just shut off right now. And so that was a funny incident. So then he said it took him half a day with a -- with a big iron rod trying to get that beaver out of that -- unplug that Giant so he could get it hooked back up again and get back into his operation again.
And then there was another gentleman up the creek a ways, his name was Hans Erickson, and I remember he -- he would always have tea. That's all he ever drank. And every time you came there, would you like to have a hot cup of tea? I've got some tea here. And he was -- he was a nice gentleman. I really liked him. And a hard working miner. And he would go out real early in the spring and get set up, say, like in April, and the snow was quite deep yet, and he'd have one of the bush pilots fly him out. And he'd have enough groceries and supplies until we come in late May or early June to hold him over.
And he was one of the first miners on the creek that would -- Upper Cache Creek, in a little cabin there. And had a little placer mining outfit, one man operation, just like Adolf Trotsky had. So he was -- he got situated there early in the spring and Sheldon had just taken off, and as soon as he took off, he heard the dogs were barking and raising a ruckus. So he went outside and here's this great grizzly bear out there trying to -- to attack these dogs.
So he had this 30 -- 30.40, I think it was a 30.40 Craig rifle, something like a 30 but not quite as powerful. He had about three shells, and he put both -- all three shells into that big grizzly bear, brown bear, and it didn't kill him. So the bear is wounded. And the bear is just thrashing around, bawling, and making all kinds of racket. And swirling around in the snow, and the snow is deep, and he dug himself down about 10 or 15 feet all the way to the ground, this big hole and this wounded bear down there bellering. And he took his dogs into the cabin because he was afraid that the bear would get up and get his dogs.
He didn't know what he was going to do about the bear because the bear wouldn't die, and so he says, I -- finally I had to figure out something. So I went and cut a big old long pole and he took this butcher knife and -- and strapped the butcher knife on the end of the pole, and then he got up on the top of the bank and tried to keep from slipping down there and poked the bear with that butcher knife. And he said he had to saw his neck practically half off before he finally did the bear in. So that's another character on the creek.
Then I -- I could go talk about Shorty Bradley, I guess, and Florence Bradley. They would go up -- they were farther up the Cache Creek. And this gentleman and his wife had horses, and he would go out every year and we'd ferry him across the Susitna and Talkeetna River, and then he'd have a wagon and these horses and he would take the 40 miles out to the creeks with him, with these horses and all his gear.
And -- and later on with Shorty, and I'll go into a little story, getting away from the mining, I -- I took a winter off and went on the trapline and spent a winter with Shorty on the trapline. And I think that was one of my most -- most adventurous tales that I can probably tell you here because I had more fun with him on that trapline than anything I think I've ever done in Talkeetna.
So this particular winter, his wife, who used to go with him but she was ailing a little bit and she didn't want to go out on the trapline. And I was taking a course to -- homeschool course for high school, and wasn't having too much luck with it, and my mother said, you might as well just go trapping. Forget about the school and we'll make it up next year. So that was fine with me.
So basically, we -- we were trapping for beaver, but we did trap for -- we did trap for mink and marten, but beaver was the main -- mainstay for trapping back there because we got the best -- the best price. And there was a limit for 10 per person. So if there was -- if there was 2 of you, that was 20 beaver. And sometimes they kind of did a little cheating on that and got 10 beavers for all their kids, some of the families that had lots of kids. But as long as you had the person, you could get 10 beaver for that -- those -- that person.
So we started out and we got lost going in because Shorty wanted to take us a different way. He thought he had a better way to get into where was going towards my mother and dad's cabin was, and was going to spend the night there, and we were going to split up, and then Shorty and I was going to go on to another cabin. We spent the night -- like they say, if you get caught out, and there's a term for it and it's called si washing, you spend a night out underneath the trees and it's not very comfortable and it's 20, 30 below, and you don't have no sleeping gear or anything with you, so we did that. And we got the -- the dogs got played out and we had to do that.
So the next day we made it into the -- into the cabin that my mother and dad had, and then from then on, Shorty and I split up and we went up to -- I think it was Byers Lake cabin, I think he had a cabin there. We spent some time there. We set out several traps. And we got several beaver, probably was a couple weeks there.
And I was skinning beaver there one day, and I was sitting in the doorway skinning the beaver and I was cutting the feet off and I was going to throw them to the dogs, and Shorty says, what are you doing with those feet? And I said, well, I'm going to give them to the dogs. No, give those to me. I said, why would you want beaver feet? He says, I'll show you. So he takes the beaver feet and throws them on top of the Yukon stove and he's turning them and roasting them around. And it wasn't long after that and I was looking over there, and he says, here, do you want some? And he's peeling the black skin off of there and just eating away on these beaver feet. And I said, no, Shorty, I don't think I'll do that. I think I'll go cut some wood. You can have my beaver feet.
And so then the next -- next cabin, we had about three different cabins, three or four different cabins, we had about 60 miles of trapline combined with my mother and Shorty Bradley's, my mother and dad and Shorty Bradley's trapline. So the next cabin we went to was Home Lake. And that -- this is all up the Tokositna River valley, and it goes right up to the -- the last cabin is right up the face of the Ruth’s Glacier, and it's very beautiful in the wintertime. You can see the glacier, you can hear the wolves howling across the valley at night, the Northern Lights out, it's very -- it was very -- very beautiful country to be in. And beaver houses everywhere. Lots of game. Lots of moose.
And so this particular cabin was a nice cabin, but it had a very narrow door. And I couldn't understand why it had such a narrow door. A nice big cabin and this narrow door that you have to almost go through sideways to get into it. So I'm telling Shorty, I says, why is this door so narrow? And he says, well, Red Cruden (phonetic) had this cabin, and he was another character which went way back and I didn't know that -- know him too well, but I did -- I did remember him.
And he had the cabin. And he said that the bear -- when he built the cabin, there was so many bears around there, he said, I'm going to build a real narrow door so I can strain out the bears, that the big ones won't be able to get in. That was the story he give me. Well, that was fine. And we had a good time there. And got some more beaver. And then we moved on up to the Ramstick (phonetic) cabin. Now, this is a real story here.
We're mushing all day long, and I'm really getting tired, and the snow is wet and we have to break trail for the dogs. And I'm just about to the end of my rope, and I'm telling Shorty I can't go much farther. And he says, well, it's not much farther we have to go, it's just up the slope there. And I says, you keep telling me that. Now, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to believe you if you keep telling me that. If you tell me that one more time, that's it. No, it's right there. I'm telling, you it's right up the slope there. See those big spruce trees? We cross this little beaver pond and it's right up there. Okay. So we keep plugging away and we finally did get up there. And he says, well, the cabin's right here. And I'm looking around and all I'm seeing is snow. I says, well, I sure don't see no cabin.
Well, he says, it's here. He says, you take care of the dogs and get them untied, tie them up and get them fed, and I'll take care of the rest. And I said -- he said, I need the ice chisel. I said, why do you need the ice chisel? We had a long pole with a chisel because we had to chisel through the ice to set our traps. There was no chainsaws back in those days to cut holes. And so -- or ice augers or any of that kind of stuff.
So anyway, he got this -- I was watching out of the corner of my eye while I was tending to the dogs, and he got the ice chisel and he went over to a tree and he was pacing off so many paces, I could see him pacing himself, then he got the ice chisel and he was poking it down into the snow. And I thought it was a little strange, but pretty soon, he says, oh, here it is. Just give me the shovel. I says, well, here's what? He says, the cabin. It's right down here. You mean it's under the snow? Yeah, it's under the snow a little ways. And we had to dig down about 2 or 3 feet to the roof of the cabin.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, no.
GALE WETHERELL: And then tunnel down into the cabin, had one door. And the cabin was -- the inside of the cabin was probably about the size of a large bathroom. Maybe about 8 by 6 or something like that. There was a place for two beds, bunk beds, one on the floor, one on -- up above and a moose hide, I don't know what -- it was a moose hide stretched across them poles. A little table, a couple blocks of wood to sit on, and a little Yukon stove in there. No windows, only -- there was no window. It was just a -- just a door.
And after he dug in there, he was letting out some cuss words. And I says, what's the matter? And he says, oh, looks like a wolverine got in here or something and tore the stove all apart. Well, he said, I think I can fix it. So he got it fixed up, and he got the stove all fired up, and it got real warm in there because of all the snow around it, it was all insulated real good. And it was just a dirt floor. And we got a candle going and we had a little supper, not much. I was pretty tired. So he said, I'll tell you what, he said, I'll take the top bunk and you take the bottom bunk. And it was just some straw down in the bottom bunk. And I says, oh, okay.
So once we climbed in our sleeping bags and blew the candle out and it was super hot in there. And I had only brought along one of these mummy bags, Army mummy bag type sleeping bag. And I zipped it up and I said, oh, that's not going to work, it's too hot. So I unzipped it all the way down so I could cool off, and I'm laying there and next thing I know something crawled on me. And I wondered, what in the heck is this? And maybe I was just imagining. No, then something crawled on me again. And I said to Shorty, I said, something's going on here, I got I've got creatures down here crawling on me.
Oh, he said, there might be a mouse or two in here since we warmed up the cabin. They probably think it's spring or something, he says. I says, well, I'm not -- I don't like this too good. And next thing I know, another one, another one, another one. And it was all these shrews that started climbing all over me. So I said, I'm having a hard time sleeping like this. So I had to zip that sleeping bag all the way up to my face, and I took my coat and I tied it around my face tight so they couldn't crawl on me and that's the way I slept the night. And I was just burning up but I was so tired, I slept anyway.
So the next morning, we get -- we get up and we get breakfast and I'm having a little discussion there with Shorty. I said, you know what, I'm not sleeping in this cabin anymore with these mice crawling on me. And he says, oh, I'll take care of that, don't worry about that. I'll -- I'll get rid of those mice. And I says, all right. I'm just telling you, if there's mice in this cabin tonight, I'm sleeping outside. I'll just put my sleeping bag out underneath the tree. I'm not going to sleep like that no more. So he says, well, I'll take care of that situation. Don't worry about that.
So anyway, then we -- we go out and set some traps and -- and he messed around in the cabin there while I was hooking up the dogs so I didn't know what he was doing. But he dug a hole in the -- down in the floor, because the -- into the dirt, and he took a 3 pound coffee can, set down in there, and he took a piece of bacon rind and threw in there. And we left. And when we came back, he says, go look in the can and see if there's any mice in there. I looked in there and it was half full of mice, shrew. I said, now what are you going to do with them? I says, if you take them outside, they will come back in the cabin.
He says, oh, just put a board over the top. I says, do you think that's all the mice, Shorty? And he says, yeah, I think that's all of them. So I think I -- maybe one mouse climbed on me that night, so it wasn't too bad. So I kind of forgot about it. And we just stayed on our trapping thing and I wasn't even paying much attention about it, and one day I went over there to look in the can, and there was one big fat mouse and about 2 inches of tails in there.
So these mice were carnivorous, and they -- once they ran out of food, they attacked each other, so this was the situation.
So -- so after that little incident, we -- they had a deal there that -- that winter where the Fish and Game are doing kind of an experiment with the trappers. They decided that they would come out and -- and tag the beavers on the trapline instead of letting the trapper come in. They kind of wanted to see how the trappers were doing their trapping and stuff, probably wanted to check up on us that we were doing everything legal and stuff.
But we got in kind of a situation there where we were running out of food and we couldn't get across the Tokositna River. And so we had -- we knew the season was -- was running out for beaver, so we had a couple of illegal traps out, just for -- for meat for us and for the dogs more than anything. And so they discovered the traps. And when they discovered the traps, they were up -- Shorty wasn't there and I was just cutting wood, and so they come in there with this big old Norseman, and they were, like, flying right over the top of the cabin and gunning the engine up and down. And I was just kind of hiding in the cabin, just figuring that maybe they will go away.
But I think finally pretty soon they set that plane down in a very bad place to take off in the snow. I didn't think they could do it but they did. And then they come walking up to the cabin. And we had killed a dog that was sick, we had to shoot the dog, and the dog kind of looked like a wolf but it wasn't a wolf, it was a German Shepherd type dog. And we had him out, laid out along the trail out there, we were going to bury him, before we left, in the snow. That's about all you could do with a dog.
And they come up there and they asked me -- first thing they asked me, he says, why did you shoot that wolf and leave it laying there? And I said, that's not a wolf, that's a dog. And then they started questioning me about these traps. Of course, I'm a kid and I'm -- I'm not going to say anything, I just dummied up and I said, well, all I do is cut wood for Shorty and help him out. I don't know anything about traps. I'm just a helper in the cabin. Well, we found his traps, we think they are beaver traps. And I says, well, they might be, I don't know anything about it, you'd have to ask Shorty. And well, I said -- he said, well, where is he? And I says, I don't know. He's out down the trail, doing -- doing something.
So they were kind of getting on me and putting a little pressure on me, and I was getting nervous, but I looked down the trail and I seen Shorty, so he must have heard them so he was coming up the trail to the cabin. And I says, good, here comes Shorty right now, he'll explain everything to you. So he -- he came up there, and yeah, he says, we -- we had some traps up because we're out of -- we can't find a way to get across the Tokositna River and we need dog food and food for ourselves and we're eating -- all we have to eat is cornmeal here, cornmeal mush.
And he says, oh, okay. Well, we didn't know. And then the pilot got very agitated because he didn't want -- he said, I didn't want to set this plane down in this -- in this small beaver pond because I don't even know if I'm going to get off safely. And -- and he was pretty agitated with the game warden, but he told the game warden that if you do -- the game warden said if you do find anything in those traps, you know, you're going to have to turn it in. You can keep the meat but you have to turn in the pelt. And, oh, yeah, we'll do that.
And so we did, we did turn one beaver in to them. And we met them down at Home Lake cabin. We finally found a way across because they said they saw a place, when they flew over, they told us a way we could get across, and they figured we could get across. And we made a date to meet them, and we pulled the trap, and so we skinned it out and it was a small beaver. And -- and George was -- my mother was down there when we met them,
and this game warden was so inexperienced that he -- when he -- when he did see the beaver, he says, well, that's the first time I ever seen a beaver -- what did he say. How did he put it now, I forgot, but he said the first time he ever seen one flat, I guess. He never seen a skin like that. So he just seen the live beavers. So we thought, well, we could have pulled a trick on him. We could have skinned out a muskrat and stretch it around and he never would have known the same and he probably would have tagged it for a beaver.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Might have worked.
GALE WETHERELL: It might have worked, yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you had some tough crossings on the rivers, too, didn't you?
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah, they were very treacherous because the beaver season was like in February and March. And -- and that's when breakup time comes, so you had to be careful. Because you start to get overflow and you get breakups and you can get yourself in a spot, you know. And so that's why you run into this -- this particular incident. But it was very much adventures with Shorty. Any time I was around with him, he kind of was -- to describe his character, if you ever watch Beverly Hillbillies, that character on there named Jed kind of looked a lot like Shorty.
They called him Shorty but he was a very tall and skinny person. But he -- he'll always be in my memory as a real character.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, that's neat to hear about those guys.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. And so there's many, many more, but that's the one I associated the most -- the closest with. And --
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's pretty good. Tell us about the railroad and how you started on the railroad.
GALE WETHERELL: Well, I was fascinated with the railroad all the time I was a kid. And it was steam and -- steam trains there when I was growing up in Talkeetna, there wasn't any diesel in that period. And when we -- every time a train came, if I wasn't in school, I was up at the depot when the train arrived. And I knew all the crews by first name. And first thing we would do is, of course, we were fascinated with the steam engine, so we would head up to the head of the train of the steam engine and they would let us climb up on the steam engine.
And Otis Harrington was the one I remembered, he was an engineer and he looked just like Casey Jones; he dressed like him, he had the bandanna around with the striped coveralls and the striped hat, and the big gloves, you know. And he always had candy in his bag and he'd give us candy. And then he would, while they were switching, he would let us jump up in his lap, sit in his lap, and when he wanted to back up or go ahead a couple car lengths or so, he would have us blow the whistle. And we'd have to pull on the rope, pull the old steam whistle, three times, now, we're going to back up, blow three times.
So we would blow it real hard. We would just fight to get up there to blow that whistle. And then he would let us pull pull on the throttle. Pull the throttle out now. Pull it out a couple notches more. That's enough. And then he'd -- and we just got such a thrill out of that. He was really -- he was really good to us kids. And of course, the trainmen were, too. And they'd always -- Shorty Long was the conductor, I remember, and he -- he was a real character. And he would always ask me, where are you from? And I'd always -- I had kind of a little accent, when he'd ask me, where are you from? I would say, Talkeetna.
I always called it, when I was a kid, Talkeetna. And he got a real charge out of that because that's the first words that come out of his mouth when he'd see me. Now, where are you from? Talkeetna. And so he got kind of a charge out of that, I guess. And so we'd talk with the men while they unloaded that freight, and they had to check it all off, and they'd unload it in the carts, and then they'd wheel it into the little depot. And they had a coal stove in there to keep everything from freezing up in the wintertime. And we'd watch them, they'd set out a car, they'd pick up the car, we'd watch the whole operation, and then they would take off and we'd wave good bye to them until they come back again.
And this one particular summer, I remember, I had a bicycle supposed to come on the train that my mother and dad ordered me a bicycle. And so I kept meeting every train looking for my bicycle. My grandparents actually are the ones that -- that ordered me the bicycle. And I didn't get it and I didn't get it, and I couldn't figure out what was going on. So I'd go tell my mother, when's my bicycle going to come? So they got nervous about it and they went and ordered another bicycle. They ordered a bicycle. Because they -- I guess they figured that the one order must have got lost.
So I'm back up to the train again. All -- all summer this was going on, practically to the -- to the end of the summer. And finally, oh, your bicycles are here. I said, what? My bicycles? Yes, you got two bicycles. So I got the one my grandmother ordered and the one -- I could just run home, I couldn't believe it. I was jumping up and down telling my mother, guess what, mom, guess what, mom, I got two bicycles. Well, you can't keep two bicycles. I said, I know that, but I want a bicycle. Okay. You pick the one you want and we'll sell the other one to one of the other kids here in Talkeetna. And I was, oh, that's fine. So that was a real funny incident.
And then another time I -- we watched old Shorty go into the section house there to copy a train order, and they thought he was on the caboose, and they left him. And so once they got across the bridge and went around the corner, then he come out of the -- out of the section house, was waving his arms, but -- and they -- they didn't realize he wasn't on the caboose, so he got out of sight and the brakeman saw him, I guess, and stopped the train, and back -- backed up to pick him up. And there was just this narrow walkway, I mean, about 2 feet wide, and he walked out on that walkway to get on the caboose.
And the brakeman tried to spot the caboose right at the platform but he would miss it. He didn't get stopped exactly, and Shorty wouldn't get on the caboose until he -- he spotted. So he had to see saw back about three or four times. And all us kids was watching this and were laughing. It was just hilarious because he was so fuming mad that he would not get on the caboose; he said, you put it right here. The step's right here. So I'm not walking on the dirt to get on the caboose.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And that's not easy to do with a steam engine.
GALE WETHERELL: No, back in those days. But the engineer and -- the engine crew and -- and the train crew, back in those early days, they didn't get along as good as when I worked on the railroad. They were a little feuding. There were -- there were different unions, totally different unions. They got along, but there was a little friction. And they were always kind of cantankerous to one another, a little bit more than when I worked on the railroad.
But I was just fascinated with it, and it was just something I -- boy, I'd sure like to work on the railroad when I grow up. And that's exactly what I did. I went to high school and I had to farm out on high school because they didn't have a high school in Talkeetna, or schooling; I went to the eighth grade. So my first year, I went to stay with my aunt and uncle in Fairbanks my freshman year, and my sophomore year I went out to the Lower 48 and I lived with my sister because she was married then. And I went to high school out there.
And then my last two years, I -- I went to Palmer and boarded out on a farm with Harold Thurmans (phonetic), and it's Kertulla’s farm right now, it's right across from the fairgrounds. It's still there. So -- so I had some good memories there, too. And then went into the service, the Army, spent two years at Fort Rich in Anchorage. And right out of the Army, I went right down to the railroad and hired out as a brakeman. And I spent totally, with the -- the time with the federally owned railroad and state owned railroad, I spent a combination of 40 years with the railroad as a railroad conductor. Started out as a brakeman.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. BILL SCHNEIDER: I bet you've had some experiences.
GALE WETHERELL: Lots of them. Lots of them. I don't know if there's enough tape here for all that experience. But yeah. I did. I had lots of experiences. I hired out on the extra board, and took my student trips. Back then you'd take -- take three -- three days in the yard and two on the road, and if you were right up to speed, you were hired out as a brakeman and you was making the same wages as a brakeman that had been around for 20 years or so, but you didn't know much. But it took -- it took a lot of years to really get the knowledge on the job. But they have a lot more training programs nowadays, of course.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Uh hum.
GALE WETHERELL: And your wage scale doesn't come up as fast. You go as kind of a tier system; they've got a whole different system. But yeah, it was back in the days when I hired out, there were -- it's so much different now because it was cabooses had coal stoves in them, and we had kerosene markers on our cabooses. And they had -- well, there's just different -- I mean, totally different.
We had way cars, we delivered way freight, and we had cars that had to be iced down, we put ice on them, which now they have regular refrigerated cars, they have electric, everything's electric. They have oil stoves, totally modern. But we did have diesel locomotives. I didn't work with hardly any steam locomotives.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You didn't have experience on the steam, then?
GALE WETHERELL: No. We had a steam -- a few steam cranes and stuff like that we worked with, but we didn't have any -- we had one steam railroad plow for a while when the snow got deep.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us what a brakeman does, or they did in the old days, and how that's changed.
GALE WETHERELL: Well, they went from five man crews down to two man crews. And every -- every train had two brakemen, one conductor, and an engineer and a fireman. And the brakeman was basically to help with the switching operations and help with the -- of course, we did a lot of way freight. Back in all the sections there, every 20 miles they had a section. And there was no way to supply these sections back then. The only way they could get their supplies was by the train to keep -- maintain the section.
Set all the fuel for them, for the gas cars, and you had all their supplies you need to work on a track, and their groceries had to all be unloaded off the way cars. So some trains like the local would even have three brakemen.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And so you had to do the unloading?
GALE WETHERELL: Right. Unloading by hand, yeah. So a typical day like leaving Anchorage, and you'd go from Anchorage to Healy. It would take you 16 hours to make that trip, just because of all the work you had; and probably you wouldn't get it all done, probably some of it you would have to run by a local freight. But I worked -- I worked -- my beginning years were mostly between Healy and Fairbanks, because of my seniority bracket, that's not the most popular place to work in the wintertime, so mostly the high seniority's down in the south end and the low seniority goes to the north end of the railroad.
And yeah, I was -- I was lucky enough to get on a -- on a local freight that run between Fairbanks and Healy, like we'd make -- we -- I think we only had one day off, we had worked -- go down to Healy -- let's see, like on Monday you'd go down to Healy and come back Tuesday, and it was a six day assignment.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah, there was an incident in Nenana that was -- that was kind of funny, that this gentleman wanted to ride our train. And we don't have a lot of people doing that, especially in the winter months, in -- on our railroad because it's just too treacherous and just too cold for survival. And this gentleman was standing in front of the depot, and it was about 20 below zero in the middle of the winter, we had been doing a little switching. And when they were pulling out, I was ready to catch the caboose.
And Tommy Sommers (phonetic) was the conductor, an old head conductor, been with the railroad probably 30 some years at this time, and I had only probably worked a couple years. He was a very good, meticulous conductor. And so the gentleman asked me about are you going to take this box car that's over there on that adjacent track, are you going to put that on your train and take that to Fairbanks? And I think he was thinking about riding in that box car would be a good place to ride. And I says, we're leaving right now, we're -- all we have is coal and we're -- and we're heading for Fairbanks. He says, oh, you're leaving right now? I said, yeah.
I catch the rear of the caboose and come in the rear door of the caboose and this particular gentleman catches the -- the front door of the caboose. And so Tommy Sommers was looking at him and he says, we let section guys ride on the cabooses once in awhile because in the wintertime there's not that many passenger trains and they can't get to town; that's no problem, as long as they are employed with the railroad, we let them ride. So he asked him, well, what's your name? And he says, well, I'm -- I can't remember his name now, so and so.
And he says, well, that's funny, he says, I never see you. Do you work on the section here? Oh, he says, I don't work anywhere. Oh, you don't work anywhere? No. Well, he says, this is a freight train and we don't carry passengers on this train. Well, I just am going to Fairbanks. And he was warming up by the potbelly stove there and we're rattling down the track. And so he looks over to me and he says, Gale, he says, get on the radio and stop the train. So I says, okay. I said, dial to 1508. So he says, that will do. So we start coming to a stop. And as soon as we stop, he says, you get off because you can't ride on here. It's against the rules. You have to catch the passenger train; there's a weekend passenger train goes through.
So he's kind of grumbling about it, but he got off the caboose. And so he says, okay, Gale, tell them to go ahead. Go ahead 1508. And I climb up in the caboose, in the cubical in the caboose, Tommy's still down at the desk doing his paperwork. And I said -- said, brakes are released. And then I tell him when we -- when we start having movement. Caboose moving. Okay. And then I look up in the coal cars and this gentleman climbs up into the coal cars.
So I tell Tommy, I says, he climbed up into the coal cars. He's riding on a coal car now. He says, really? And I said, yeah. And he says, he's really asking for it, isn't he. I said, yeah, he wouldn't survive two miles on the track at this temperature. He just has a light jacket on and stuff. And so he says, well, stop him again. So I said, that will do 1508. That will do, he says. So we stop again. And we get out and holler at him to get off the cars. You can't ride up there. He reluctantly climbs down. And we start the same procedure again, release the brakes, caboose is moving.
We're moving again, and next thing I look up, he's on a different car farther up. He climbed up again. And I said, Tommy, he's persistent, he's back up in the cars again. And we stop again. That will do 1508. That will do. And we stop. And he gets a brake club this time and he gets -- he walks up the side of the train and he told him, I'm telling you, get off the train, stay off the train, you can't ride in the caboose or the cars. This is a non passenger train, you'll freeze to death there, stay away.
So he got away and then we got -- movement again, told him we're moving again and stuff, and the engineer says, are you sure you know what you're doing back there? And I says, well, we're having a little trouble with a guy that wants to ride the train to Fairbanks. Well, let him ride. So they can't be stopping this train off going and stopping. I said, well, I think we got it taken care of now. So just keep going. But the guy, he got behind us, and I turned around and looked behind us and he was standing in the middle of the track and just shaking his fists.
He was really irate. But basically, pretty good to people and would let them ride the train, but it's -- it's not -- it's not too good a deal to let somebody ride that's not an employee because if something happened, then it could be a lawsuit involved, so we just have to follow the rules if something like that happens. So...
BILL SCHNEIDER: In the old days, there used to be stops along the way and people that had camps and stuff out in the woods.
GALE WETHERELL: Uh hum.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Could you talk about that some?
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Some of those characters?
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. We did a lot -- a lot of that's done mostly between Talkeetna and Hurricane, in that area, because it's not accessible by -- by highway. So that's going on right now to this day. And it was before, it was going on like almost the whole railroad before the highway went through, the Parks Highway. We'd stop for people, let people off at cabins. We would throw mail off to people. They would -- we'd open a baggage car off, they would throw mail on.
That's the only way they had to get their mail on and off. During hunting season we let hunters off and on all up and down the track, fishermen. And that was just the policy back then. But now they -- now they are doing it by a special train that just goes between Talkeetna and Hurricane, in that area, but we used to do it, yeah, the whole way, the whole route. And there was --
BILL SCHNEIDER: I'm picking up your recorder.
GALE WETHERELL: Oh, yeah. And from miners and everybody, I mean. Yeah. And then just white flag, get out on the track and wave the white flag, and we'd give two toots, that would be the answer that we're going to stop and pick them up. There would be a lot of that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Do you remember some of the characters?
GALE WETHERELL: I remember a few. I remember Montana Red. He was kind of a character. He was down by south of Talkeetna around Fish Lake. And he walked with a real limp and he had red hair and a red beard, and he said he -- he knew the Younger Brothers, and back in -- in the Wild West. That was his story, anyway. And he would usually ride the train from Fish Lake into Talkeetna and pick up his supplies, stuff like that. And we had another -- now, I could go -- well, I'd be backtracking a little bit.
I could go back to Talkeetna with a story about this lady, a Native lady, her name was Irene Stepan (phonetic), and she lived at Montana Creek. And she would come in once a month or so, get supplies. She's an older Native lady, she's probably almost late 70s or 80 years old when I was a kid working in the store. And she would -- when she bought her supplies at the store, I used to work putting up orders, and basically, that's what I did, push orders, and orders for -- like they had courier, and a lot of people had a courier, would order stuff from the store.
And I would go in the back room and I'd have a list of the groceries that the particular person had bought and I'd box it all up and get it on the -- on the train. And I liked that job. It was the B & K Trading Post then because Negley had all sold out to him. Well, this one particular time, and Irene would come to the store, Don Baird was -- owned the store and he couldn't have the patience to serve her because she would buy one article at a time and pay for one article at a time, whatever it was. Like if it was -- she'd get a half a case of eggs, she'd say, I want a half a case of eggs.
How much? So as soon as she'd come to the store to buy her -- her groceries, Don would say, Irene's coming, you handle her, I've got some errands to do. So one item at a time. She'd go through the whole list, like six cans of beans. How much. Take it out of her purse. Count the money out, and pay for that item. On and on down the list. Two pounds of bacon. Three -- a bag of sugar or 10 pounds of sugar. Five pounds of flour.
And at the very end she would want two gallons of wine. She always wanted her wine. And she'd say how much? And I'd tell her. Oh, I don't have enough money for wine. I'd say no, you don't. Take back the flour. How much? Well, not quite enough. Take back beans. And now I got enough for wine. Okay. I'll take the wine. Then -- then she'd box it -- we'd box it up for her, and the train didn't come through until late in the afternoon.
She would go out, open up one of them jugs of wine, sit on the steps outside the store, and by the time the train got there, we had to bodily take her up to the train and her groceries. So like they say, pour -- had to pour Irene on the train with her groceries too. But some --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me fix your recording thing a little bit. I'm picking up a little bit of rustle. Okay. I think that's better. Well, one of the things that listeners may not know about is that whole supply and the role of the train supplying early day Alaskans that lived along there. Can you talk about that a little bit, and some of the big operations, I suspect, as well as some of the smaller mining camps and folks that were just trapping out along -- along the road.
GALE WETHERELL: Well, everything came by -- yeah, all the machinery and everything would have to come by rail to Talkeetna. Like heavy machinery that they would -- like Cats and tractors and stuff like that would have to come by rail to Talkeetna and be sent out by freight cars. All the heavy freighting to the gold mines was done in the wintertime. All the fuel was taken out to the gold mines with Cats and sleds when the river was when the rivers and the streams were frozen over, say, like, December, January,
and they'd still have to build -- build our bridge approaches off the -- on the river sometimes because it wasn't strong enough to hold up the big Cats and stuff. And sometimes they even would use pumps that pumped more water on top of that to freeze it. Yeah, that was quite an operation. But like the stores, they got -- I remember once in awhile they would -- they had a warehouse down by the railroad and they would get a carload of groceries in, mostly dry goods, stuff like that. And the store would also -- Negley's store and so did Bill's store, there were grubstakes on a lot of these miners.
They would give them a grubstake, and then at the end of the season when they had their cleanups, they would come in and they would sell their gold to them and pay up the bill when the rest of the money was there, the rest of the gold was there. And if it didn't pan out where they didn't make any money for one reason or another, there was always -- they always kept the -- the title to the claim would be signed over to the storekeepers, and if they didn't make their claim and pay for the grubstake, well, then, the claim become the owner -- the storekeepers owned the claim.
So a lot of -- a lot of --they all had a lot of claims, got a lot of mining claims that way. I don't know how good they were. And so did Negley, the Negley store did that, did the grubstake with the miners. So I suppose they did that in a lot of other little towns in Alaska also.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, did you -- so then you became a conductor after brakeman?
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah, after I worked four years, I became a conductor. And basically, I worked out of Healy. And once I became conductor, I worked out of Healy for almost 15 years. Switched coal mines, Usibelli coal mines, and worked through freights. Would change crews at at Healy and the freight would come into Anchorage and change crew, sometimes it was just a step on, step off operation. We would -- the other crew would step off and we would step on and we would go on to Fairbanks, and we'd turn around and leave our inbound train there and pick up an outbound train, and come right back to -- to Healy.
And I did that for a number, a number of years. I had lots of different things happen, but just doing so many years now, I can't remember all the stuff that went on.
BILL SCHNEIDER: The different mishaps along the railroad?
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. Quite a few.
BILL SCHNEIDER: I bet moose have been a problem.
GALE WETHERELL: Moose, yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah, they get -- they get under -- go underneath the train and break the air line, and then you have to dig them out piece by piece, which is not a very nice job to do. And when it gets 40, 50 below, sometimes it would take us maybe 14 hours just to go one direction from Healy just to Fairbanks, because you would have air problems, you'd lose your air, and you'd get drawbars and knuckles and everything else. And the air hoses get so stiff from the cold weather that you have to take two Zeus to -- to turn -- that rubber would just turn to pipe, you'd have to thaw them out to get it together.
The air pressure would just -- it's supposed to carry 90 pounds in the caboose, the air pressure would go right down to nothing. That would set all the brakes up. Yeah, it was kind of not -- it was not much fun when it got really cold. So if you shored up the trains, you wouldn't have too much trouble, but when you'd try to haul long trains, any time you'd pick up 30, 40 cars of coal on top of 30 or 40 other cars, and then you'd really struggle in the cold weather trying to get that coal to Fairbanks. Lots of incidents where we get drawbars and knuckles.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us what those are.
GALE WETHERELL: The drawbars?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Drawbars and knuckles.
GALE WETHERELL: Well, a drawbar is basically what connects one car to the next. And a knuckle is just part of the drawbar. And that will break quicker because it's just a -- not as thick, not as much metal there.
BILL SCHNEIDER: When it gets real cold, brittle?
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah, loses strength. And you lose strength in the metal when it gets really cold. And you won't have any trouble as long as you can keep movement, but if you lose your air, go into emergency, then that's when things start to tear up. Because the engines can't shut down fast enough and the train sets up too fast and you don't throttle off to get -- that's when you start pulling knuckles apart and drawbars and whatnot. So it can be real -- it can be real exasperating trying to get
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. What do you do you when that happens? Do you have to leave the cars there, or --
GALE WETHERELL: Well, if it's just a knuckle, you can repair that pretty easy. That's just -- that's not too much. There's -- they only weigh about 30, 40, 50 pounds maybe at the most, and there's just a pin in there, you take the pin out, the broken knuckle out, and put it back in. Now, if it's a drawbar, then the car has to be set out, and if it's on the wrong end, you have to cable it up and -- or chain it up and bring it up to the next siding and set it out.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And is that the conductor's job to make those decisions?
GALE WETHERELL: Right. Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So what -- what does the engineer do?
GALE WETHERELL: The engineer is -- runs the engine, basically, and follows instructions. Conductor's really like the captain of the ship. Yeah. So he kind of tells you -- tells the engineer what to do, where we're going, where we're going to set out, and where we're going to switch the cars to and stuff like that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But you had to learn about all those mechanical things?
GALE WETHERELL: Right.
BILL SCHNEIDER: That's a lot.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. Yeah. There's some tricks to the trade, of course, but you -- you pick up and you learn, and during my years there to -- when the brakes are -- the brakes a lot of times will set up on a car, and you can turn a valve and cut the brakes out, release it, so you can go on. We used to have friction bearings, a lot of friction bearing cars, they had oil and packing in them and we'd get hot boxes and they'd catch on fire. That's they don't have many of those now. But when it gets cold, we'd have lots of hot box problems.
We'd had equipment to -- jacks and other things where we could jack that car up, take that brass out, and put a new brass, new bearing in it basically, and repack it, and we could go on with it if we had time to do that. If we didn't have time, we would -- we had coolant and stuff we could put in it to baby it and go real slow to the next siding and set it out. And when we had a cold winter there, there was one winter we had, like, probably 30 or 40 hot boxes between Fairbanks and -- and Healy set out on the sidings. Most of the coal hoppers.
And one in particular -- one incident, we had a -- and if you don't catch them, if they -- and it's hard sometimes when it's blowing snow because you can't see it. We had one incident where we got just north of Nenana and the caboose was coming to a stop, and real slow, you know, came to a stop, we lost our we lost the air and it came to a stop. So I get on the radio and say, what's the problem? And I couldn't get anybody. And I kept trying, and I finally got the brakeman, he must have been on the rear unit, the engine crew couldn't hear me, and it was probably about 50, 60 below. And the brakeman said Charlie Bagley was his name -- what do you mean what's the matter?
Well, I said, we're stopped back here, what's the matter up there? Well, we're not stopped up here, we're going 49 miles an hour up here. I says, you are? Well, stop. Because we're stopped. And then I started questioning him again, I says, Charlie, I says, where are you? And he says, we're at Dunbar. You're at Dunbar? Yeah, we're at Mile 423. We're 9 miles apart.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Oh, my.
GALE WETHERELL: So what happened, we burned a journal off and then the car of coal come down, was riding just right on the doors, with only one axle, one axle was on the rail and there was no wheel on that side and was just riding on the doors, and they were dragging that car and they were dragging it 9 miles. Now, they couldn't back up, they couldn't take it any further ahead, or we didn't want to because we're scared to move it anymore because we're coming into a siding to a switch. Lucky he didn't hit the switch at Dunbar. He just stopped south at the switch at the Dunbar siding.
So I get on the radio and call the dispatcher in Anchorage and tell him that we're at Mile 423 with a caboose and 14 other cars, all on the track, and we have another car at Mile 429 that's derailed. And my plan is to -- for me and the brakeman to walk that 9 miles and retrieve that car there and get on the rest of the train and go to Fairbanks, but I need some flag protection here for these cars that are sitting on the main line. So I need a copy train or can you give me a train order to do that.
And he says, well, this is one for the book. I haven't heard this before for a while. So he says, can you explain that to me real slow again so I get it right? So I went through the whole spiel. And he says, okay, copy the train order. So I copy the train order that the cars were on the main line on Mile 423, 14 cars, and no flag protection for these cars. And Mile 429, another car derailed, no flag protection for that. And so then we got in our grips and started walking, 60, 70, almost 70 below at Dunbar. And got that car and went to Fairbanks.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So then they had to send a crew out to fix it?
GALE WETHERELL: So -- and then they send a wrecking crew out to rerail that one car. Basically, they had to put another set of trucks under it. And get it off the main line, and then go back and get the rest of the train, put that car in the siding. And this all takes time. In the meantime, we're holding trains up because it's -- the cold weather and they need to get the coal to Fairbanks. You know. And we had one winter up there, I think it was 1961, '60, where we had six weeks that never got above 50 below zero.
And it was an emergency, we were just working every day, nobody had a day off for six weeks hardly, running trains back and forth to the mine trying to keep the coal coming to Fairbanks to keep the power plants to keep the city from freezing up. And lots of times we would take off -- we would have zero pounds of air pressure in the -- in the train line. Zero. And the radio wouldn't even work because it was so cold. We had no communication. We just was on our own back then. And no way of stopping the train because it didn't have -- the brakes wouldn't work.
But it was such an emergency that we ran that way anyway, we ran them kind of by the seat of your pants. But I had a pretty good engineer and I told him, if you ever run into problems, you can't get us on the radio or anything, like you've got a hot box, something has to be set out, and we -- up on the head end you need help, just stop the train, wait 5 minutes so we can get our gear on, 5 or 10 minutes, and then start -- if you want us on the head end and just start backing up slow. We had it all prearranged to do that.
Now, there was another incident like hunters, we had a lot of problem with the moose hunters getting on the track and with their hunting rigs and stuff. I was coming out of Healy with a train with about a hundred cars. Probably about, I don't know, probably a 10,000 ton train, probably. Heavy train. And lots of coal and trailers and stuff, we had a lot of trailers on the back, the big TTX cars, and we had all the heavy cars, coal was on the head end.
We come down to the Ferry Bridge, and this guy run his Jeep across the Ferry Bridge and they hung it up on the rail, just on the south approach to the bridge. Well, this is in the fall of the year, it's getting dark, and so there's no -- no reflection, no snow or nothing. It's the darkest time of the year. And we are coming down 50 miles an hour on the approach of that bridge, coming around the curve, and here he is out there with a little Eveready flashlight to flash us down. Well, it takes you almost a mile to stop a train, a 10,000 ton train at 50 miles an hour.
Then we pop around the corner, and there you see a flashlight waving you down, well, good bye Jeep. So they all scattered. We hit that Jeep and scattered it every direction. Went clear cross the bridge, and way the other side of the bridge we finally got stopped. And so I get on the radio. Well, what's the problem? Well, we hit this hunter. I don't think anybody's hurt but there's no more Jeep. You know, we hit the Jeep. Well, okay. Well, see if the air comes up. Go back and get his name and -- and all that information you need and check, make sure there's no damage, and we are all on the track and everything and then we'll get going.
Well, okay. They did that. And brakeman went back and got his name and stuff, and in the meantime, I'm watching the air gauge, and telling them we're not getting any air pressure in the caboose so I know something broke, we're broken, too. The train's broken, too, somewhere. So I said, well, we're not getting any air back there, I'm going to have to walk the train from this end. So I'd go about 5 or 6 cars up and here's a big TTX with a drawbar out. And so then we've got a problem with setting this out. And we -- we didn't have the -- they have the walkie talkie radios now, the little portable radios; we didn't have those back then.
All we had was a lantern and hand signals, and we got a train that's a mile long. And so we had to set this car out at Ferry and a little short siding. So it took some real -- real thinking to get this done. Because we didn't -- we didn't have enough bodies just to get -- to pass signals to the engineer. But the section crew was there. Section house was right there in the siding. And so then I called Healy on my caboose radio and I said, can you hear me on this radio? Yeah. I says, we're going to need you to set a car out here at Ferry and I want you to see if you can talk to my engineer on your radio.
He said, okay. And the engineer -- I said, can you hear the -- the operator there at Healy on your radio? And he said, yeah. Don Anderson I think is the engineer's name and Duane Frakey (phonetic) was the operator there at Healy. So yeah, we can -- we can hear each other. Okay. So I said -- I told the engineer, you mark your place where the engineer -- engine is right now, mark that place mentally in your mind exactly where you're at because you're going to need to know this later. He said, okay. Because we're separated back here about one car length apart from -- we're going to have to take this car up and we are going to have to set it out and we back the train back up to hook back up,
I want you to stop exactly where you're at right now. Can you do that? He said, yeah, I got the place marked right here. I said, now go ahead real slow. And give me a little time. Give me about 10 minutes to get up there in the rear of that car and go ahead slow about -- not over 8 miles an hour. And I'm going to get off at the section house. And the brakeman was going to go get off at the switch, the north switch at Ferry siding there, and I'm going to go in and get Duane Frakey (phonetic) on the telephone, and then I'm going to have another brakeman give signals to me out there, two brakemen out there, one to get the switch, one to give me signals on the telephone.
And when he tells me to stop, I'll tell him on the telephone, and he'll talk through the radio and tell the engineer when to stop. And the engineer says, do you think it will work? I said, I think it will work, but just go -- we're going to go in slow motion because we've got a big train here. Okay. So we did it that way. And we set that car out like that. And then I got a nice -- got it set out, I said, now we're coming back to the rest of the train, and you just go slow, and I'm catching on and the brakeman can stay with the head end. When you get to that spot, stop because I don't want you to ramming the rest of the train. So he -- he did that. Then I went back and got on the caboose radio and I brought him back one car length and made the hook and we took off.
So before we had the portable radios, you had to use a lot of ingenuity to try and figure out how you're going to do things.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Gee, I guess so.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. That was really -- yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So where does the conductor ride in the train?
GALE WETHERELL: You ride in the caboose. Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But now we don't have cabooses, right?
GALE WETHERELL: Now they don't. Only on special trains, gravel trains they'll have them. Mostly they just have a train end device back there that records the pressure and -- the air pressure, and it also tells the length of the train in feet so he knows exactly when he goes by a slow order, when -- you know, he can count off the feet so he'll know when the rear -- where the rear of the train is all the time. It's just a downsizing, saving money. You know. Just like in all industries. Railroad's doing it, too.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
GALE WETHERELL: And they've got the equipment where they can do it now where they couldn't back in those days, we didn't have all that modern equipment that we could do that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What's the future of the railroad?
GALE WETHERELL: Oh, I think it's really good. Yeah. I think there's --there's quite a lot of good business. There's a lot of coal coming out of Healy and a lot of oil coming out of the refinery at North Pole. That's the mainstay for the railroad. I think they are going to get some more export coal. And yeah. I think it's good.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Is there --
GALE WETHERELL: A lot of tourists.
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- anything else we should put on the record?
GALE WETHERELL: You mean for railroading? About the railroad?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Railroading or early years in Talkeetna.
GALE WETHERELL: Early years? Well --
BILL SCHNEIDER: We could do this again --
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: -- sometime, too.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. I was just thinking it's --
BILL SCHNEIDER: What typically happens is that I'll leave and you'll think of a thousand things you want to talk about.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. Are we still being recorded?
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, we're still on.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. Well, railroading is still the same from when I worked, it's just the downsizing of it and the downsizing of the crew. But I was -- I liked it because when I hired out, it was, I thought, more a colorful job than it is now by the way we did it, you know, by the -- by the old cabooses with the potbelly coal stoves and stuff in them. I enjoyed that.
And in my memory, I'll always remember all them incidents of the -- different incidents that we had back then, you know, in the olden days. We had to use our noggins a little more maybe to keep things going than you do now because you've got the technology to help you more.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, it sounds that way.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: From what you said, yeah.
GALE WETHERELL: Like they would -- sometimes they would go real slow, and if they didn't have communications, they would just use that angle cock back there and draw off air and stop it when -- where they want it stopped, and then they would dynamite it and release it, and that would be a signal to the brakeman to back up or to go ahead. I never did that. I never had to do that, luckily. I wouldn't want to do that because it's a pretty scary thing to do, but a lot of the older heads would tell me stories about that.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, explain that again. I didn't understand that.
GALE WETHERELL: Well, what they would do, like, if you wanted to stop the train, you'd tell -- tell the engineer, we're not going to have no communication on this move, so just go ahead slow. When I get you where I want you to stop, I'll just open the angle cock and I'll dynamite the train and bring it to a stop. And then I'll close the angle cock, your air will come up and the brakes will release, and when that happens, start packing up. When I want you to stop again, I'll just dynamite the train and stop it again.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Hmm.
GALE WETHERELL: And that's how they did it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah. So --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
GALE WETHERELL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. No problem. It's been fun to do.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay.
GALE WETHERELL: I've enjoyed it. But probably take more than one time to --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah.
GALE WETHERELL: -- to get this down.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, think about it, and maybe we'll try to do it again.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Thanks.
GALE WETHERELL: Yeah.