In late 1984 the Burlington Northern Railroad began operating its newly-constructed yard in Galesburg. The new yard featured a single automated hump. Inbound trains were shoved by switch engines over the new hump and switched to classification tracks in the bowl based on their destinations. Switchmen, as they had done for many years, still uncoupled, or "pulled pins", on cars as they were shoved over the crest of the "hill", but the rest of the humping operation was different. It was controlled by a computer. Cars coming down the hill were retarded to slow them down by a computer which also switched them onto classification tracks. Prior to the automated hump, tower operators, or towermen, retarded and switched the cars that rolled down two humps, the East Hump and the West Hump. When the West Hump was put into operation in 1942, Galesburg had the largest hump yard operated by a single railroad in the United States and held this distinction for many years.

Seventy-nine year old R. R. (Dick) Olson was a towerman. He graduated from Galva High School in 1942 and commuted to Kewanee to work at the Wallworth Plant, the city’s largest employer, which manufactured pipefittings and castings. The plant had many large buildings, including two foundries, and was about two blocks northeast of the present-day Goode’s Furniture.

In March, 1943 Dick was drafted into the army and reported to Camp Bowie, Texas for basic training with the newly-activated 773rd. Field Artillery Battalion. The 773rd. shipped out from New York City for Europe in July, 1944. On July 30 they landed in Liverpool, England, and on August 25 they set foot on Utah Beach on the Normandy coast of France. Dick was a section gunner corporal in "A" Battery which fired its first round from St. Marcel, France in September during the campaign for Metz, which the battery history called "our longest and our proudest engagement." In February, 1945, the 773rd. became Security Guards. They arrived in Aachen, Germany in March to enforce martial law and prevent Nazi sabotage. In May A Battery was assigned to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Dick described the sight of piles of dead bodies and living "human skeletons" in the camp as "horrible." The 773rd. received five battle stars for its participation in the Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe campaigns.

When the 773rd. was about to ship back to the U.S. after the war ended, Dick began experiencing a sharp pain in his side, but he didn’t report to sick call for fear of missing his boat home. His buddies carried his gear onto the ship that was docked at LaHavre, France. Once the boat was at sea, Dick reported for sick call, and the doctor told him that his appendix had burst and he was near death. The ship’s captain made arrangements with a passing hospital ship from the States bound for Europe to take Dick on board. His surgery was done on the hospital ship on which he was the only patient. He said he got the "royal treatment". The hospital ship moved on to load up wounded and sick GI’s in France and England and then headed for the U.S. It landed in New York City, and Dick was transported to the Newton D. Baker General Hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia to recuperate. He said he had hoped to be sent to Mayo Hospital in Galesburg for his recuperation, but that didn’t happen. While in West Virginia, he met his future wife Anna who worked at the hospital. They were married on May 15, 1946 and became the parents of a son Daniel and a daughter Becky.

Dick and Anna moved to Galva when he was discharged, and he returned to his job at Wallworth in Kewanee. He operated two machines. He didn’t care for the strenuous piece-work on his machines which frequently broke down, so he quit and hired on at Best Manufacturing in Galva where he ran a punch press for the firm that made display racks. Dick’s brother Floyd was a towerman at the CB&Q yard in Galesburg. He encouraged Dick to see the Chief Dispatcher, who was headquartered in Galesburg, about a job. He hired on as an extra list towerman in March, 1948.

Towermen were members of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers (ORT) union which also included telegraphers (operators), agents, agent-operators, wire chiefs, levermen, tower and train directors, and block operators. The CB&Q/ORT labor agreement Rules and Rates of Pay for Telegraphers effective September 1, 1949 put the new federally-mandated eight-hour day and forty-hour work week into effect. The agreement listed many Galesburg and area ORT positions which have been gone for many years due to changes in technology. It listed Wire Chief positions in the Galesburg Relay Office that were paid $1.88 per hour, Towermen positions in Galesburg at $1.67 per hour, Willis Yard Operators at $1.59 per hour, Operator/Levermen at Knox Street and Waterman Tower at $1.61 per hour, and Seminary Street Tower Operator/Levermen at $1.63 per hour. It also listed a variety of Agent/Operator, Operator/Leverman, and Operator positions at Knoxville, Maquon, Yates City, Abingdon, Avon, Prairie City, Bushnell, Woodhull, New Windsor, Viola, Aledo, Henderson, Rio, Alpha, Barstow, Galva, Altona, Oneida, Wataga, Cameron, Monmouth, Kirkwood, Biggsville, and Gladstone.

When the towerman jobs went from six-day to five-day workweek positions in September, 1949, more towerman jobs were put on. Dick was able to get off the extra list and onto a regular job, so he and his family moved from Galva to Galesburg in 1950. He mostly worked second-shift with some third-shift "A" Tower from 1948 to 1954, second-shift "B" Tower from 1954 to 1972, and day-shift "A" Tower from 1972 until he retired in 1984. The East Hump had been put into operation in 1931 with Towers A, B, and C. There was a dispute at the time as to whether the switchmen or ORT would get the tower work. Switchmen had been doing the tower work at the Lincoln, Nebraska hump, but the ORT got the work in Galesburg.

When an inbound train stopped on an East Hump or West Hump receiving track, it was inspected by carmen while a clerk at Willis Yard manifested the train by changing destinations or statuses of cars as required. After the train was manifested, the clerk sent the train list over teletype to the yardmaster and towermen. The list showed the initial and number, contents, weight, and destination of each car in the train. The yardmaster would get on a speaker to each towerman and announce, "We’re going to hump such and such train on such and such receiving track." He would go down the list and tell the towermen which car would be switched to which classification track. The East Hump classification bowl had forty-nine tracks; the West Hump bowl had thirty-five.

As the cars, which were uncoupled by a switchman on the crest of the East Hump, rolled down the hill, the towermen controlled the speed of their movement by using retarders. "A" Tower had control of two retarders at the top of the hill and a single retarder in front of the tower. One retarder controlled cars for tracks #1-14, one for tracks #15-42, and one for tracks #43-49 in the bowl. "B" and "C" Towers had double retarders. The speed of the cars rolling onto classification tracks had to be controlled to prevent excessive impact between cars which could damage contents or cause a derailment. The thunderous booms that Galesburg people have heard for many years from the railroad yard is the sound of a cars banging together on a bowl track. Weather conditions, hot, cold, wet, dry, and wind affected the movement of cars. Some tracks rolled differently than others. Classification Tracks #1 and #2 were "slow" tracks, because they curved; Tracks #29 and #30 were "fast" tracks, because they were straighter. Dick said towermen didn’t want to retard cars too much. The idea was to keep the cars moving in a rhythm with the switch engine engineer who was shoving the train over the hill and with the other towermen. You had to get "the feel" of tower work; it took "common sense." If a problem developed, like a car hanging up in a retarder, the "A" Towerman could set a red board on the crest of the hill to stop humping.

East Hump bowl tracks, which held twenty to thirty cars, were designated for cars with certain destinations. If a track filled up, cars going to the same destination could be switched to a "swing" track. Dick recalled the designation for most of the tracks, e.g. Tracks #1,2, and 3 were for West Hump transfers, #4 for city cars for Galesburg companies like Butler, Hansen, Simpson-Poulson, and Alexander Lumber companies, People’s, Christie’s, Miles’, and Coal Bucket coal yards, Lagomarcino & Grupe’s, W.A. Jordan, Rinella’s, Builders’ Supply, Howe’s Bakery, Rath Packing, Swift Packing, Meadow Gold, Mower Bros., Riling Building, and Wilson Paper, #5 and #6 for bad orders, #7 for Congress Parks, #13 for Kewanees, #16 for Mendotas, #19 for EJE’s, #21 for Clearings, #24 for Zearings, #29 for Clintons, #33 for Davenports, #36 for locals, #38 for La Crosses, #40 for Savannas, #42 for Peoria propers, #44 for St. Paul’s, #45 for hold cars, and #49 for cars to be weighed. He said that although cattle and hog cars were humped, horse cars were never humped for fear that the horses would fall and break a leg. Cars with explosives were never humped. About four cars could be humped and classified per minute; a 100-car train could be humped and classified in twenty-five minutes. 500-600 cars were normally handled per shift; 1000 cars were handled on an exceptional shift. Yard "D" switch engines would pull tracks with transfers, city, and bad order cars from the north end of the bowl and would double classification tracks together to make up outbound trains.

Dick remembers many fellow employees from his railroad career. Most of his memories are fond ones. He said that Roy Dyer was the Terminal Superintendent when he hired on. He described Mr. Dyer as "mean and rough" and a "blowhard", but he thought that inwardly he was "soft-hearted", a quality he tried very hard to hide from his employees. Mr. Dyer was a "good railroad man", who had come up through the ranks as a clerk, yardmaster, and terminal trainmaster. Dick told a story about coming into work one time on second shift in "B" Tower when Mr. Dyer got on the speaker to the towermen and gruffly asked, "Who worked "B" Tower last night?" Dick responded, "I did." Mr. Dyer boomed, "Who’s ‘I’?" Dick said, "R.R. Olson." Mr. Dyer exploded, "What’s R.R. stand for? Railroad {W}Recker?" Then he asked why two cars on #30 track had hit so hard last night. Dick looked at the train list in question from the previous night and saw that #30 track was clear when he had switched a car to it. When it got to the north end of the bowl, it started to roll backward and impacted hard with another car that had just been dropped to #30. Dick explained this to Mr. Dyer who said, "Yeah, that’s probably what happened," and that was the end of it.

When Dick hired on, Bill Cole, Levi Johnson, Willard Jacobson, and Howard Mitchell were East Hump Yardmasters. Towermen were his brother Floyd, Jim Stout, Sr., Charlie Parnell, Louis Leahy, Tommy Davis, Gabe Johnson, Dale Panther, John Karlovich, George Fleisher, Fred Weichert, Kenny Alexander, Lyman Alexander, Leroy Heath, Clyde Miller, and Phil Johnson. When Dick retired in 1984, Dick Leahy was the day shift East Hump Yardmaster. Senior towermen were Dale Panther, Bill Petentler, Lee Brooks, Bill Crain, Jim Stout, Jr., Jim Peters, Vince Mooney, Dave Barstow, and Dick Sundquist.

Dick recalled sharing rides to work on second shift with his friend and fellow towerman LaVerne Markham. He remembered kindnesses extended to him by fellow employees. Dick’s mother passed away in 1958, and he missed two day’s work. There were no paid bereavement days then. When he received his paycheck for that period, he noticed that he had been paid for those two missed days. Fellow towermen Ray Colclasure and Clyde Miller had graciously worked Dick’s missed shifts on their days off and gave Dick the pay. Later, when the Rich Falk-led Galva High School basketball team played Galesburg in a regional game, Clyde Miller worked Dick’s shift and gave him the pay, so that Dick could attend his alma mater’s big game.

When the new automated hump was put into operation in October, 1984, the towermen were no long needed. The towers were torn down. Dick decided it was time for him to "pull the pin" on his railroad career. He spent his last two weeks on the railroad breaking in with Jamie Peters on the old Seminary Street Tower Operator job. On October 15, 1984 he took early retirement.

I first met Dick in the late 1970’s when I delivered mail in the yard as an extra list Willis Yard clerk. Twenty years later I discovered that he had been in the same artillery battalion that my dad had been in during World War II. They were in separate batteries. Dick said he didn’t know my dad. In 2002 retired switchman and former Galesburg American Legion Commander Carl Hamilton drove Dick to Peoria to attend his first battalion reunion. Dick enjoyed seeing old comrades from many years before. In retirement he has remained active in racing and raising homing pigeons, a hobby he began in 1950. He is secretary of the Galesburg Racing Pigeon Club and has been recognized as being one of the foremost racers in the United States. He is proud of his children and their families and enjoys spending time with them.

Mike Hobbs