By Mike Hobbs
When Gene Pearson graduated from Galesburg High School in 1941, his father Nels wanted his son to come to work for him on the railroad. Nels Pearson was the foreman of an eight-man gang that maintained railroad bridges at Rock Island and Quincy and worked on depots and coal chutes. Nels Pearson`s father had come to America from Sweden. Some of Nels bridge employees were Swedish-Americans. They often conversed in Swedish. From 1942 to 1945, when he retired, Nels Pearson was the Bridge and Building (B&B) Foreman at Galesburg. He was succeeded as foreman by Hugh Unger, father of retired car foreman Frank Unger.
Instead of following in his fathers footsteps in the B&B, Gene hired on in the Galesburg Car Department as a carman helper in August, 1941 at 58 cents an hour. A helper worked with a journeyman carman, who made 90 cents an hour, repairing and doing maintenance work on freight cars in the Repair Yard located in the center of the railroad yard. There were nine tracks in the Repair Yard. The first five tracks, west to east, received cars that required extensive work that sometimes took weeks to complete and was called the Heavy Side. The next four tracks which received cars that could usually be repaired in one day was called the Light Side. Repaired cars would be switched out and needing repair cars would be switched in to the Light Side on a daily basis.
Track maintenance was labor-intensive work when Gene hired on in 1941. Track gangs were sent to distant locations in the CB&Q system and worked for lengthy periods of time. They slept in bunk cars. Their meals were prepared in cook cars, and they ate in dining cars. Bunk, cook, and dining cars were converted from boxcars, sometimes coach cars, on the Heavy Side of the Galesburg Repair Yard. The conversion would take a two-man carman crew several weeks to complete. Floors and ceilings were installed, and the walls were paneled. Eight to ten bunk beds were put in the bunk cars. A long picnic table would be built in a dining car.
#5 track on the Heavy Side was the "flat line" on which flat cars were rebuilt from the wheels up. Two carmen worked on the wheels and underframe; two others replaced the wood decking. On the Light Side repairs that usually took one shift to complete, like changing out wheels, couplers, and brake beams, were done. Gene recalled that there were over fifty carmen and helpers who worked in the Repair Yard.
Much of the work done by the carmen in the Repair Yard was hard and heavy. To lift the end of a car two screw jacks were placed on each corner of one end of the car. Carmen would use a bar to operate each jack in tandem with the other. Gene said air jacks were just starting to be used to raise cars when he hired on. If a Storehouse clerk wasnt available to pick up a coupler with his crane, carmen would pick it up to install it. Heavy draft gears and yokes would be slid up a steel plate onto the bolster, and the end of the car would be jacked down over it. Most of the heavy parts were delivered to the carmen in the Repair Yard by Storehouse clerks with two-wheeled carts. Gene told of a Storehouse clerk named Ben Hinkson, who could pick up a 200-pound draft gear and set it where the Carmen needed it. Harry Carlson was the Storehouse Substore foreman when Gene hired on. Henry Christianson was the Storehouse crane operator who handled wheels. Bud Knight later held these jobs.
Gene worked as a helper until he was drafted in March, 1943. Many other carmen were drafted at that time. He went through basic training at Biloxi, MS and then took an "A&E" (airplane and engine) course in New Orleans followed by further training as an airplane engine mechanic at a Ford Motor plant in Michigan. In June, 1944 he shipped out to an air base in India near Calcutta from which B-29 bombers flew missions to targets in Thailand, Formosa, Burma, Singapore, China, and Japan. Gene was an engine mechanic for a nine-bomber squadron, part of the 40th. Bomber Group commanded by General Curtis LeMay. On Christmas Eve, 1944 the Japanese bombed Genes base in India. In May, 1945 the 40th. Bomber Group moved to the island of Tinian in the Pacific Ocean from which bombing missions against Japan were made. Gene was discharged in November, 1945 and returned to his helper job in the Repair Yard in December. Wages in the Car Department had been frozen during the war. Gene recalled that the equipment used in the department improved in the years immediately after World War II.
J.R. Linroth was the General Car Foreman (GCF) when Gene hired on in 1941. The Repair Yard Office, a converted coach car which housed the offices of the GCF, Assistant GCF, and a clerk, was located west of #1 track on the Heavy Side and south of the present-day Assistant GCFs office. Marshall Fowler was the clerk. Gene said Linroth was an "old school" supervisor who knew his craft and carried a lot of authority. He was not a "yelling" supervisor. He was low-key in his assessment of discipline on his employees. He could speak Swedish to the carmen for whom Swedish was still the primary language. The Assistant GCF was Oscar Gustafson. Later GCFs during Genes career were Harold Wickman, Harry Hazzard, Charley McKenzie, E.K. Hunter, Felix Podwojski, Jack Harding, and Garth Sanders. J.W. Eagle was the foreman on the Heavy Side. Bill Addis came later. Gene worked as a helper until 1952 when he was set up as a carman. He worked the Heavy Side. In 1970 he became an air brake tester, and in the late 1970s he began rebuilding air brake cylinders. He also worked as cook on the 250-ton derrick when it was called out for derailments. He retired in May, 1984 with nearly forty-three years of service.
I met Gene Pearson in 1980 when I worked Storehouse equipment operator jobs on the Heavy Side and One Spot repair building, which was built in 1963. According to a booklet printed for the 1978 Railroad Days, the Galesburg Repair Yard was "the largest repair facility on the entire Burlington Northern system." Over 300,000 cars had been repaired at the One Spot by 1978.
Carmen have long been nicknamed Car Knockers. Gene wasnt sure how this nickname originated. I watched carmen use sledgehammers to bang the heck out of sliding boxcar doors to close them and to beat bent appliances like car ladders to straighten them after they had been heated. Maybe their liberal use of the sledgehammer earned them this nickname.
In working around the carmen I developed respect for them. Their work was still hard, heavy, and dangerous as it was when Gene Pearson hired on in 1941 although improved technology had made it easier and safer in some respects. They were a good bunch of guys to work with. Tchey had nicknames like Roundy, Knobby, Ox, Rile, Maggie, Squeak, and Squint. They did their work professionally with resourcefulness and pride in their craft.