Grandfather Smith and the Santa Fe Railroad

My Grandfather Smith (my father’s father) was an interesting character. He was a handsome fellow, and everyone liked him – but he was not too bright. He was a tenant farmer who failed at farm after farm – because he was such a bad farmer. His mind was always on other things – and not on his farm.

His family were poor – and when they heard there were jobs working for the Santa Fe Railroad in Ft. Madison, Iowa – they showed up. He got a job that was perfect for him – hardly no thinking was involved. He was a safety inspector – although his contemporaries referred to him as a wheel-knocker.

Whenever a train came into the yard, it had to be inspected. Grandfather walked the length of both sides of the train, tapping each wheel with a long-handled hammer – to see if it was cracked. All too often it was – and that car had to be repaired – right there, in the repair depot the Santa Fe operated called Shopton.

He also had to check for hot boxes – the journal bearings used then, were just boxes containing grease – one on each side of the axle. They sometimes seized up, got hot, and caught on fire. He was supposed to catch them before they got this bad. If they got hot, it didn’t take any special equipment to detect them – they were hot, and you could feel that, feet away.

He also had to check the air hoses. All the trains were equipped with the Westinghouse safety brake system. Compressed air ran from the engine to the back – with flexible hoses between the cars. If there was a break in this line – all the cars behind it slammed on their brakes. And the train stopped so the problem could be fixed (usually).

Two things had to be noted – the equipment was cheap – and accidents were common. The Santa Fe had its own hospital – and it keep it busy.

Like I said – this was the perfect job for grandfather. He could learn it in fifteen minutes, and all he had to do was show up on time. Many of the other workers were often drunk – but he did not drink, for religious reasons.

But there was a fly in the ointment – Grandfather was an ardent Union man. And when the Railroad Strike of 1922 happened – he walked out with the strikers. And never went back to work.

He tried to farm again, but suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side – and the family had to return to Ft. Madison, where Grandmother Smith went to work for the Railroad. As a cook in the Reading Room – where workers could eat and rest between shifts. She eventually developed heart problems and had to retire to a rest home operated by her church.

Those were hard times – and my father became determined to rise above his working-class origins.

Which he did – but that is another story.


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