Tell Tale Extra Iron Horse Whisperers Families of Fast Runners and a Few Famous Throttle Artists
The space for this page is made possible through the generosity of Mike Davison
One of the nice things about having an NP web page is that it serves almost as an electronic greeting card to all manner of fans and family. Last week, it prompted a reply from the latter.
''I enjoyed reading Gary Emmons' story [from Ruth Eckes' Rail Tales at http://www.employees.org/~davison/nprha/emmons.html] about Lester and Jimmy Darker in 1963. Jimmy was my great uncle. Maybe someone knows my grandfather, Philip D. Noble (5-1-13, 5-27-42) or my dad, Bill Noble (7-15-41). My great grandfather, John Dalton Noble, worked on the NP back in Minnesota. He was killed in 1902 in Staples, Minn., in a head-on collision.''
A look at engineer's and firemen's seniority rosters for the Tacoma Division circa the late 1940s reveal the breadth of family railroading (and perhaps nepotism) on the NP. For local fans and employees of the NP, it also reads as a 'Who's Who' of engine service.
Take engineer Henry D. Wolters for example. He went firing July 20, 1902 and was promoted to the right side of the cab on January 27, 1907. He had picked up the nickname 'Hard Dome' at some point during his career and was fourth highest in seniority (of 133 working engineers) in 1948. He was not the only Wolters on the Tacoma Division, however. Ira A. (2-26-06, 3-2-10) worked the South End and Edward M. (11-2-05, 9-24-09) worked with him on the North End and Mountain (a third on the NP died during the influenza epidemic of World War One).
Nor was it unusual to find fathers, sons, uncle's and nephews working together. By 1948, Herbert G. 'Pop' Saunders (11-8-08, 3-27-18) had one son already been promoted [William G. 'Bill' Saunders (9-20-40, 4-14-45)] and another [B.R. 'Bud' Saunders (6-28-41)] working as a fireman. Pop Saunders' wasn't the only example; on the Seattle District alone there were Lewis (6-20-03, 3-16-09) and Harlan Butt (10-7-41); Gordon (----, 3-10-10) and Frederick Louis Denier (3-4-42); Paul (9-10-12, 5-1-42) and Norman Paul Roselle (8-22-41); David (1-6-06, 12-13-09) and David Lloyd Norman (8-16-41); Leon (10-6-06, 7-1-13) and Leon Joseph Kashmark (7-18-41); Jack (8-18-08, 3-20-18) and John S. Denise, Jr. (8-15-41) and Paul (7-8-12, 8-29-41) and Henry J. Gupton (6-2-41).
As can be seen, many fathers and sons could be working as firemen simultaneously. Nor do the seniority rosters reveal cases where relatives were working for the NP in jobs other than engine service.
Seniority rosters are also illustrative of something which gets little mention: Firemen who never became engineers. For a multitude of reasons, including simply not wanting the responsibility of being in charge of a locomotive, most divisions had men who fired for the majority of their careers. On the Tacoma Division this included Charles A. Cunningham (3-29-13), who had helped found the Green River Lodge of the BofLF and E in Auburn, Clay Mowre (6-15-17) and Roy McOmber (9-6-36).
Dates shown for which men went firing or were promoted to engineer are also revealing. Note the long tenure of Paul Gupton, 1912 to 1941, as a fireman. In some cases this represented someone who might have been trying to remain in the fireman's seat, only to be promoted to the right hand side during the dire shortages of World War Two, in other cases, most likely the majority, it showed the lack of opportunity to become an engineer as a result of the Great Depression.
The Depression had blotted an entire generation of enginemen from the rosters. Elmer Aaron Sawyer (6-21-09, 4-14-18), number 57 in seniority and Anton Zuger (5-27-09, 10-2-39), number 58 are a testament to this. Every engineer on the 1948 list after Sawyer was promoted to engineer after 1939. Victor Bolke (10-10-18, 5-26-43) and Harry Iverson (9-15-36, 5-27-43), number 118 and 119 in seniority respectively, hammer home another point: nearly every man hired between 1918 and 1936 had lost their seniority or vanished from the ranks, they simply did not have enough seniority to hang on to their jobs during the cuts of the Great Depression.
The 1948 list is a treasure-trove of well known, well remembered and well liked engineers. As Bill Kuebler says, ''To focus on any one of them and paint him as a one-of-a-kind legend in his own time would be misleading. There were so many men on the Tacoma Division whose abilities were outstanding in some way, and whose train handling was notable.''
For example, Jim Fredrickson likes to tell the tale of how an official once asked Emanuel Maximillian [better known as 'Ed'] Foisie (6-26-04, 6-26-09) why he was running so fast. His response is one for the record books: ''Little Jimmy expects me to go that fast and that's how fast I'm going to go!'' In an age where a good time over the mountain was about three hours and ten minutes, Fredrickson states Foisie's better trips took about two hours and 57 minutes.
In addition to those already mentioned, there was Max King (9-5-17, 7-11-42), local railroad history author; Albert Farrow (9-28-36, 6-1-43), whose photos can be seen in many publications, including the Mainstreeter; Francis Scobee (9-3-40, 4-11-45), a future Road Foreman on the NP and father of Dick Scobee, one of the astronaut's killed in the Challenger disaster; and James Arthur Darker (6-22-17, 7-8-42), of whom we shall see a little more.
Finally, there is one young fireman on the 1948 list who is still in the cab in 1997--though sometime later John Henry Christensen (11-1-44) made engineer.
Young Jim Darker, son of the village dairyman at Hot Springs, Wash., needed a job in 1916, so he went to the Northern Pacific roundhouse in nearby Lester and signed on as a laborer and engine wiper. In the fall, in response to the wartime need for locomotive firemen, Jim rode to Seattle on his pass and obtained a job as a fireman on the Seattle Division.
When the Armistice was signed, firemen were not needed as badly. Jim found himself cut-off--out of a job. Fortunately, section men were needed to repair wartime traffic damage to the NP's lines, so he worked for several months with a spike maul and shovel, until recalled to service as a fireman. The Depression of 1932 proved worse than the earlier postwar recession, and again Jim found himself cut-off. This time, he was able to work for several months on the RIP track at Seattle repairing cars.
In 1942, with World War Two underway, Jim was promoted to engineer. This was a contrast to his younger brother August [Augie], who hired as a fireman in 1936 and had to work in that capacity for only seven years before being promoted to engineer as a result of wartime help shortages.
Jim is remembered as a cheerful little fellow who liked railroading, worked whatever job was available, and always did a good job. His good nature would temporarily go sour for a few minutes when something wen wrong, and at those times he was accomplished at cussing, but through all of it he was a dedicated employee and a good engineer.
One night in the early 'fifties, Jim and a fireman named [Luigi] Carollo were working a Seattle-Tacoma transfer known as Crew 5. While waiting for their pick up to be readied at Auburn, they noted a number of dead Z-6 Mallet locomotives on a nearby track, awaiting transport to South Tacoma for scrapping, as a result of dieselization. Jimmy had long appreciated and admired the deeper, steamboaty, musical pitch of whistles on the big Z-6s, as contrasted to the more shrill whistle of the W-2s, like his present engine, the 1911.
Somehow, the next day, the whistle off a Z-6 locomotive was presented to the roundhouse forces at Seattle, who installed in on Crew 5's engine, the 1911, during a routine boiler wash. After that, the roundhouse personnel made sure that engine 1911 was faithfully assigned to Jimmy Darker on Crew 5. Jimmy took considerable pride in 'his' engine; he used to show up for work early and wipe down the outer jacket, polish the bell, whistle, and gauges, sweep and dust the cab. When delayed en route, Jim would open a can of paint supplied by a friendly Roundhouse Foreman and paint soled or scratched portions of the engine.
The years rolled by, and nobody can remember for sure, but either Jim bid in a job as passenger engineer and had to leave the 1911 behind, or else his engine fell victim to dieselization and was scrapped, encouraging Jim to move on to passenger train service--in any case the parting was inevitable.
Jimmy finished his career in passenger service between Seattle and Ellensburg. Some other engineers may have been just as fast, but none were faster. Jimmy was a power braking expert and used to leave the throttle wide open and use plenty of air and sand to slow his train down as necessary in curves and other places; when the brakes were released the train would shoot ahead like a rocket, resulting in an excellent showing of recovered time when running late. Engineers of 1989 are forbidden use of this practice because it causes premature wear on wheels and brake shoes and wastes diesel oil, but not withstanding the expense it was practical and worked very well.
The author, then a young train dispatcher, rode with Jimmy from Ellensburg to Auburn on his last run on No. 1, the Mainstreeter, twenty-two years ago. We approached Lester at daybreak, it was jokingly suggested as a retirement-day prank that Jimmy highball the station without making the usual stop. Jimmy had a good laugh at the suggestion, but then reverted to his unmodulated, rather clipped enunciation and said ''Nope, that's-not-the-way-we-do-it.''
Jimmy passed away in 1988, at the age of 91. While the story of engine 1911 and how it got a Z-6 whistle may be unique, Jimmy in actuality is a microcosm of all the old engineers on all the railroads; Harry Iverson and Paul Gupton of the NP, Charlie Carleton and Pat Burns of the Great Northern, Frank Warren and Newton B. Edwards of the Milwaukee Road, and my friend A.W. Crafton of the Southern Pacific. While the author was principally a telegrapher and train dispatcher, he was fortunate enough to also have worked for a time in engine service and values highly the connection with people of that craft.
-D.T. 'Dave' Sprau, 1988
I'm not the best person to ask about Jimmy Darker, although I do have a few things I can and will say about him. Far better sources would be Jim Fredrickson, who dispatched him; various conductors, who worked directly with him; and Road Foremen of Engines, who supervised him. Since much of my knowledge of Jimmy Darker is from the latter source, I'll offer it for what it's worth.
One of my primary sources on Jimmy Darker was Road Foreman Glenn Staeheli, who was a very good friend of mine, adviser, mentor, and so forth... Glenn supervised all the engine crews who operated on the various sub-divisions of the Tacoma Division. He covered different subs at different times, and never all of them at any one time, but he did have the territory that Jimmy Darker worked on for quite some time: Tacoma's First Sub.
In any case, Staeheli knew Darker very well professionally and personally, and he thought he was one of the best on the division. Staeheli was even accused by some of ''favoring'' Darker, although knowing Staeheli as well I did, I know he didn't favor anybody to the point that he gave them big breaks. In fact, Staeheli's signal tests on engineers were notorious and known to be true ''gotchas'' and devoid of prior, err, ''warnings.'' He would intentionally pick the worst possible places, and no train was exempt. Even the hottest hotshots and, of course, the North Coast Limited, were snagged by the man hiding in the bushes. I highly doubt there was any meaningful favoritism from Staeheli beyond friendship, expressed more when off duty than when on duty.
We should highlight Jimmy Darker only with the understanding that there were many other outstanding NP employees in engine service--and in train service, too. In fact, perhaps that is the main point to be made in these accounts; the NP was loaded with a bunch of fantastic employees who operated in a family atmosphere combined with a ''can-do'' professionalism that is almost completely absent in today's society.
What a combination back then! Today, it's the opposite. The family atmosphere is non-existent; people are often little more than numbers in big companies--and costly ones at that. The professionalism is often displaced by a buck-passing attitude (''Well, that's not my job, you see...'') If there is any true lesson to be learned by us modern-day NP fans about personnel, it would have to do with this family-professional combination seen all across the NP system.
As for Darker, he was one of the ''passenger men.'' That is, he spent much of his career, especially in later years, in passenger service. Passenger service required a special qualification. Many enginemen did not qualify, usually for one of three big reasons: 1. they couldn't handle the speeds (You have to be thinking way ahead) and schedule-keeping procedures (Never get ahead of your leaving time; it's a good way to get hurt badly!); 2. They preferred the higher pay of other categories of service; or 3. They simply didn't have either the seniority--or maybe the desire--to work an assignment with a regular schedule. Other reasons, too, are possible. In earlier years, of course, Darker worked everything from switch engines to locals (he was on the Sumas job a fair amount of time, off and on) to chain gang--over the mountain--and so forth. Staeheli's contact with him was primarily, but not entirely, when Darker was in main line passenger service.
By the way, Jimmy Darker had a brother in engine service, August G. 'Augie' Darker (9-19-36, 5-29-43), who perhaps was not quite as illustrious, but was a super-fine engineer, as I understand. It reminds me of the Lewis family on the Fargo division. Although I knew Fred 'Fritz' Lewis personally and watched him work, I'm told his two brothers (Al and Jim) and his son, Bob (who retired just last year) were much the same: fantastic engineers who worked miracles with the air. They were all known as ''them Lewis boys, dontcha know...'' Must have run in the family, and maybe was a similar situation to the Darkers.
Staeheli saw Jimmy Darker as a perfectionist. To a merely good engineer, the definition of a ''spot'' was, say, plus or minus ten feet. A spot in passenger service is the exact spot a particular train is supposed to stop at each of its scheduled stops. If you think about it, you can see that the spots would be different for different trains at different places. For example, to use one I'm intimately familiar with, the spot for No. 25 at Valley City (Highbridge) was a little different than the spot for No. 1 there, because No. 25 obviously had a different consist than did No. 1, and the object in this or that spot was to position this or that group of cars at this or that spot on the platform. Thus, one square which must be filled when a new engineer is qualifying for passenger service is to ''learn all the spots for [Nos. 25, 26, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.]'' The spots for Nos. 3 and 4 were very different from the spots for Nos. 1 and 2 on the St. Paul Division, for another example. And on other divisions, too, I'm sure.
Anyway, a typically good engineer would generally define a successful spot as within, say, ten feet or so, of the targeted spot. There were exceptions where the tolerances were much less, of course--Fargo was one of them--and some where the tolerances were a little greater, such as Minneapolis. Well, Darker wasn't like that. He would aim for something within a foot. Just a personal little challenge. Even though the water hoses could easily reach their targets anyway, if he didn't stop exactly where he wanted, he was upset with himself. The typical result of this attitude: he usually nailed his spots.
He was also the type to ''instruct'' younger men in a way that was very pleasant. Some older heads were pedantic, almost condescending--that is, if they offered any help at all. Darker was usually the opposite. He would somehow slip a wonderful little technique into the head of his younger fireman--who in passenger service was usually a qualified engineer with too little seniority to hold a job of choice as engineer--in such a way that the fireman would hardly have realized that it had happened. He wouldn't have felt like a little kid. It might be the sort of thing that hit him later that day as to what had really happened. And he would never forget the technique, either, because it would be a very good one, to be sure. Like how to do a graduated release with No. 2 at the Cle Elum spot, for example, without those nasty little truck surges. For those of you who have traveled a lot by air, the aviation equivalent to what I just said would be the pilot's braking technique following touchdown. Many a fine, smooth touchdown has been followed--and ruined--by a ''head-smash-in-the-back-of-the-seat-in-front-of-you'' braking action not required by runway conditions (i.e., a short runway). You'd be surprised how many mediocre touchdowns followed by good, smooth and gentle braking would be labeled by the passengers as a ''nice landing, Captain!'' Well, a great spot with a passenger train could easily be ''ruined'' by the braking and release technique used by the engineer. The graduated or ''running'' release was rather difficult to perfect under varying conditions (like grade and track being wet or dry, anti-slide devices on lightweight equipment, etc.), and an ill-fated attempt could easily result in an embarrassment of some sort.
With guests in the cab--and Darker had many of those, both authorized and un-authorized--it was even more so an educational venture for the visitor. Jimmy commonly would explain what he was doing as he was doing it, what he was thinking as he was thinking it, in such a way as to hold the attention of the rider who would find himself rapt in thought and wonder at ''how much more to this job there is than I ever thought possible!'' It was not uncommon for the guest to be running the engine before it was all over, too. In the world of military aviation, there are ''instructor pilots,'' or IPs. If there had officially been a counterpart in the railroad industry (IEs, or Instructor Engineers?), Darker might have been the quintessential one.
Another point to be made about his perfectionism. The diesels really changed things. Really changed things! With steam, every engine was almost unique, even within a standardized class, such as the modern A-5 Northerns. Some steamed and handled just a little differently than the others. Some were lemons. The 2603, even in its early life, was known by Ron Nixon as a lemon, for example. He didn't like the 5103, either. Something about '03' engines? Anyway, with diesels, this all changed. One F7 was exactly like any other F7, and one F9 was exactly like any other F9. Ron used to refer to two different diesels of the same model, with a pained look on his face, as being just like the ''Sixty third and sixty fourth empty flatcars in a freight--there was nothing to look at, nothing worth hearing, and they were boring!'' Yes, I suggested that he was just a little harsh, but his point was still well made. Diesels were much more standardized. Except in Jimmy Darker's world, that is.
With Darker, there were little nuances, little differences between, say, the 6507A and the 6507C. Yes, believe it or not. In fact, Staeheli said that Darker had a little game he would play. He would often get on a train at King Street Station, whether No. 26 or No. 2, and study the train's consist. That is, he would actually look at a list of the car numbers, their position in the train, etc. (he could get this from the Conductor). Then he would assess the specific units in the diesel set, right down to the letter suffixes, and then come up with a set of figures before he even left the station. These figures were various speeds at certain key points along the way: his speed over the double-track switch at Stampede, his speed at this or that mile post or curve, i.e., places where he could use throttle eight without necessarily worrying about exceeding track speed limits, places which were on an ascending grade, or whatever. With this or that set of diesel units pulling a given consist, he actually tried to peg right down to the exact mile-per-hour speed what his train would be making at a given spot. You see, he figured that not all diesels were exactly the same, and he claimed things like, ''Well, the 6508C tends to load up a little faster than the other F7s--I know, because I've noticed this...'' etc.
Perhaps I'm making more of this than I should, but it was enough to cause Glenn Staeheli to sit up and take notice, for he had never seen anybody do anything like this. According to Glenn, Darker's accuracy rating was extremely high, too. I believe it really was, else Darker would have quit the ''game'' early on in frustration. But he played it to the end.
Finally, Darker must have had a special place for kids. I'm told he loved to have kids in the cab, whether the train was moving or standing. I don't know if that had anything to do with his appearance in a ''Tell Tale'' photo showing him giving some Boy Scouts a tour of No. 26's cab at King Street. Probably just a coincidence. His appearance in another photo, though, is even more interesting. Remember the NP's magazine, ''The North Coaster?'' It was aimed mainly at passenger personnel, travel agents, etc. Anyway, on the back of one of these there appeared an advertisement for the NP, and I understand that this same ad appeared in other places more widely known, such as National Geographic, although I never saw it myself in one of those well-known publications. I saw the one on the North Coaster only. Anyway, the ad is neat. It shows a picture of an NP engineer up close. He's looking to his left, sort of over his shoulder toward the camera position. He appears to be grabbing something, probably the whistle cord. He has this round, quintessential engineer's face, perhaps in his mid-fifties, with a striped cap on his head, etc., just what we would all picture as the typical engineer, our ''heroes'' when we were kids--and while we're adults for that matter. Under the photo is the opening line of the ad, something like, ''Your coffee stays in its cup when the engineer of the North Coast Limited puts his hand to the brake...'' It goes on to talk about the pleasures of NCL travel, highlighting the smooth ride (it was that, to be sure). Well, I'm almost positively certain that the man in the photo was none other than Jimmy Darker.
-Bill Kuebler, August 13, 1997
Jack Wolverton of Livingston was a truly unique engineer! And I do mean unique; one-of-a-kind. In fact, in my opinion, based on what I've observed across the entire NP regarding engineers, he is the only man who was truly unique. His engine and train handling, especially in the days of steam, was way beyond anybody else's, period. Some engineers, like Jimmy Darker were well known, but only on their home divisions, because engine and train crews, as well as dispatchers, tended to work only on one division. However, Wolverton was unique precisely because his reputation was known clear across the entire NP system, which really says something. Yes, he was that well known to dispatchers and crews--and management in St. Paul. There were engineers on the St. Paul and Fargo Divisions who had heard of this legend. Since he worked on the old Montana Division and, after 1932, the Rocky Mountain (at Livingston).
They called him 'Ramblin Jack,' and he was so unique that even Chet Huntley, the famous NBC newscaster of the 1960s (Remember ''Good night, Chet.'' ''Good night, David, and good night for NBC news?''), mentioned ''Ramblin' Jack'' in his book, ''The Generous Years," and even at least once on his nationally televised newscast!
Let's use the game of golf as an analogy. If the Darker's and Lewis's of this world had been golfers, they would have been the Ben Hogan's, the Arnold Palmer's, etc. Wolverton would have been none of those golfers. He was far better than that. There was no golfer like Wolverton, to continue the analogy. Had he been a golfer, he would have come to the golf course with, say, only three clubs in his bag: a driver and a couple of irons. He wouldn't have needed a putter, because he always dropped the ball in the cup whenever he was within, say, a couple hundred yards of the green. Get the picture?
One proof of his skills and stature lies in the fact that surviving old heads at Livingston are quick to say certain things about Wolverton that indicate extreme jealousy of him, like, ''Well, he abused his engines...'' or ''Well, anybody could do what he did--if they had run passenger trains for forty years like he did...'' etc. Yeah, right! The flaw in that argument is this: Many other men did run passenger trains for forty years! And they never did what Jack Wolverton did! Ever.
Incredibly, Jack Wolverton never had a single breakdown of a locomotive in his entire 51-year career! Not once. So, did he abuse them, or did he simply get everything out of them they could give? It was the latter, folks.
But, since he did not work on the Tacoma, I shall leave the rest of the story in my bin.
With thanks to Dave Sprau and Bill Kuebler, the latter of whom is no doubt giggling about his 'teaser' on Jack Wolverton.
As an aside, Bill is wondering if anyone has seen the Darker-North Coaster photo he mentioned above. ''I don't have the picture in my file--confound it--and it's been years since I've seen it! Staeheli saw it, too, very briefly, and told me he was almost certain it was Darker.''
If anyone can verify this, please drop me a line at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org - John Phillips