Monday, May 5, 2008

So Long, Truckee

Skipping around again, but I woke up thinking about Truckee. Somewhere in mid to late '70's I was working on the Oakland station extra board. As such, I was able to work for a week at Truckee CA due to the agent there having had problems with his leg or knee. As I recall, it was late April, though my recall isn't always very good these days!

This was an interesting week to work there, as it was the last week the station was open. I was to work Monday through Thursday, then on Friday I would close out the books and that would be IT. Since I had never worked there before that, I jumped at the chance.

I always enjoyed working in Reno, and had a favorite hotel where I stayed. Truckee was close enough that I could work in Truckee and stay in Reno, so that's what I did. However, I didn't realize it might be more difficult than I had thought to find the station in Truckee!

Truckee, still basically a small town today, was even a bit smaller 30 years ago. There was one main road parallel to the railroad tracks. How hard could it be to drive through town and look for a railroad station?

What I found was that there were several buildings in the style of an old railroad station, none of which had obvious signs to let you know what was in them. And as always, I was right at the edge of being late - I would have been just a minute or two late if I had driven straight up to the right building and popped into the office right off. And one more thing - the first of the two daily trains was scheduled to arrive about 30 minutes after the station opened, if it was on time.

So here I was, driving through "downtown" Truckee, stopping at every railroad-station style building I could see. Finally I spotted a tiny Amtrak logo on a sign and pulled up to another station-type building. Thank goodness, this was it! I jumped out of the car and dashed in the door of the waiting room. There were a couple of people sitting in there, whom I greeted and said I'd be right with them. Looking around the waiting room I spotted the ticket window. What I didn't spot was a door to get to the area behind the ticket window. The only door was the one through which I'd entered.

I ran back outside and looked at the building. Nothing on the railroad side. I ran around the side and saw a door with an SP logo. The door was unlocked, so I ducked inside, where I found telephone equipment. There were several racks of wiring points nearly filling the room. I ran back outside and looked again. There was nothing of use on the street side, and now it's almost train time. I ran back into the telephone equipment room and found I could walk through it toward the tracks, where I found what was obviously a railroad telegrapher's office. And off that office was another door, which led to the ticket office! Whew!

Okay, open the blinds over the ticket window, say hi and tell the three or so people in the waiting room that you'll be right with them. What next? Ah yes, find out if the train is on time! This was before the days of small stations having computers, so I picked up the phone and started to dial the number for the Reno station. Oops, fast busy before I finish. Must need to dial 9 for an outside line. No, not 9. 8? No. Oh boy. It was an SP internal phone line, and I had no idea how to dial out. All right, assume it's on time and get moving!

I had the safe combination, so I dashed over and spun the dial - which fell off my hand. I stared at it, horrified. Then I reached out and tentatively tried the handle. It opened, revealing an empty interior - except for a small door with another combination lock on it. I tried the numbers I had, and it opened and there was the station working fund.

Back at the window, I quickly sold two tickets, then the third person wanted to pay with a credit card. No problem, it was under the amount where we were required to call for authorization (whew!). All I needed was the credit card imprinter. I looked around on the shelves under the desk - nothing. I looked on the shelves behind me, and finally found it. I thought it was odd that it was so tucked away, and pretty dusty looking. Oh well, must be a cash-based town. I put the card in the imprinter, put in the ticket, slid the slide. The slide grabbed the edge of the card, buckling it almost in half - but not imprinting the card onto the ticket. I flattened the card as best I could, and tried again. This time the card buckled badly enough to break it in the center. I took the card and ticket out, then tossed the imprinter over my shoulder. I landed on the shelf behind me and broke the window. I apologized like crazy and wrote out a new ticket, this time writing the card information in by hand. Fortunately the guy was amused rather than mad. Later on, I noticed that in the open part of the safe was another credit card imprinter, a new one, obviously a replacement for the other one!

By now the train would have come and gone had it been on time. A couple of the people had checked bags, so I had to get out the baggage tractor and just be ready for the train. So, back outside and figure out where they keep the tractor and trailer.

Unfortunately, once outside, I realized there was no garage, no outbuilding, nowhere to park a tractor. How strange. The only thing I could find was a big, very old-style highwheel redcap cart. It had a padlock, and the key marked "Baggage" opened the lock! This was a two-wheel cart, about five feet long, with high sides and long handles. Had a seat been installed on the bed, it would have looked like a rickshaw. This was the baggage wagon?

I put the bags on it just as I heard the train whistle. Looking up the tracks, I saw it was the westbound Zephyr (that would have been the San Francisco Zephyr back then - Amtrak wasn't permitted to call it the California Zephyr in those days, just as we couldn't call trains 3 & 4 the Super Chief). I wheeled the cart out to where I thought the baggage car might spot, feeling like a fool. I thought sure that this was meant to be an ornament, not the actual baggage cart. But I had to make do.

The train stopped on a curve. The curve was heavily engineered, banked very high. The floor of the baggage car was at the level of my forehead. Since the cart was only two-wheeled, there was no way to stand on it. So I had to heft the bags up over my head to the train baggageman. I told him I had to use this cart because I couldn't find anything else. He looked at me funny, and said that what I was using was what was always used! He handed down a couple of my bags and off went the train.

The rest of the day was unbelievably quiet. I had no one for the eastbound train, and no one off. No phone to answer, and no walk-ins. I ended up taking off my shirt and laying in the sun on the redcap cart. No wonder the regular agent loved this job so much!

This continued for the next couple of days, until finally on Thursday I sold the last ticket to be issued from the Truckee station. I knew the next day would be even quieter, just paperwork, so I partied a bit heavier than I should have and ended up arriving really, really late on Friday. I had planned to work as long as needed to finish everything off. I was surprised, though, to get to the station and find the regular agent there. He had come in and finished everything up. All I had to do was put the stuff on the westbound train and take off for home. The ticket stock went to Reno, where it was held for several years - more on that later!

So that was Truckee.

1 comment:

Greg Fischer said...

Ken, this is great! I'm a former Amtrak employee and have always wanted to see the story of Amtrak written by the folks who worked in the first couple of decades.

I used to work with Alan Orchison so I'm going to send him a link to this.

More stories, please!