By Mike Hobbs


Cyril Butts graduated from Corpus Christi High School in Galesburg in 1935. Jobs were difficult to find in those Depression days, but he eventually was hired by Martin Printing on Simmons St., and he ran a press for that firm for four or five years. When good-paying jobs started to open up with the CB&Q Railroad in 1941, the twenty-five year old was hired as a freight brakeman by Ottumwa Division Trainmaster Joe Ryan.

The U.S. economy was picking up steam in 1941 after more than a decade of hard Depression times. America was producing war materiel for shipment to Great Britain under the terms of the lend-lease program. The U.S. was also gearing up for its own possible involvement in World War II. In 1940 the federal government had begun construction of the Iowa Ordinance Plant at Middletown, IA, ten miles west of Burlington. Trainmaster Ryan, who lived in Galesburg, worked out of Burlington to provide railroad assistance on the construction of the plant which opened in 1941. It produced artillery shells and bombs. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan. When Germany soon declared war on the U.S., the U.S. declared war on Germany. America was now a full participant in World War II.

After working on the railroad for several months, Cyril was drafted into the army in February, 1942. He spent the next four years in the service with the first three years in a radio section in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. In June,1942, as a diversion for its planned strike on Midway Island, the Japanese landed troops on the Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu. In May,1943 American troops drove the Japanese off Attu, and the Japanese soon evacuated Kiska. On Adak Island Cyril was within fifty miles of the fighting on Attu. After three years in the Alaska/Aleutian Island theater he was assigned to Fort Belvoir in Virginia for engineer training in building Quonset huts and corduroy roads. Right before the end of the war in the Pacific he was shipped to Okinawa. En route to Okinawa his troop ship passed near the location in the Philippine Sea where the USS Indianapolis with 1196 crewmen on board had been sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945. When the survivors were spotted four days later, only 316 crewmen were still alive. In January, 1946 Cyril was discharged from the Army.

After the war he returned to his job as freight brakeman in the Ottumwa, or West End, Pool. He worked through freights which ran directly from Galesburg to Ottumwa and Ottumwa back to Galesburg and way freights, or locals, that would stop at stations along their route to do switching. By 1948 he had enough seniority to work as a freight conductor on the West End; in 1958 he became a passenger service brakeman in the Ottumwa Pool.

Freight work could be grueling. Crews were on call 24/7. You might get ordered early Sunday morning for a 3 AM train. You worked holidays, and you worked when your son had a ball game. On a way freight with a lot of switching, you could be kept on duty for up to sixteen hours. There were sometimes long layovers in Ottumwa awaiting your next train that would take you home. At home you were entitled to eight hours rest before going back on duty. During that eight hours Cyril would try to get some sleep, visit with his wife Anna Rose and his young children Betsy, Bridget, Bill, and Bob, take care of personal business, and then pack his grip (traveling bag), and report back to work. You were periodically tested on operating rules, and you had to keep current on newly issued notices and bulletins.

Freight work has always been dangerous. Cyril recalled that rear brakeman were expected to walk on the tops of the cars of a moving train to the head end to assist in switching. That practice is no longer allowed. He called switching in the rain "terrible" as you had to deal with slippery ballast and car surfaces and mud. You had to take great care with the potentially fatal work of coupling cars together. The first horror stories I heard when I hired on with the railroad were about brakemen and switchmen who had been coupled up. Cyril remembered a story he had heard about an engineer and a fireman who were killed in Danville, IA in the 1920’s when their steam engine blew up.

When Cyril was ordered for a freight train by a Galesburg crew-caller, he would report to the Old Yard Office. He took his grip that contained his lantern, extra clothes, and his book of operating rules. As conductor he would pick up the clearance and any orders that might apply to his train. The crew, consisting of the conductor, rear and head brakemen, engineer, and fireman, would walk from the Old Yard Office to the old Diesel Pit to get on their power, the locomotive(s) that would pull their train. In the early part of Cyril’s career, they would get on a single steam engine that would pull up to a 100-car train. Later, several diesel engines would be used to pull larger, heavier trains.

From the old Diesel Pit in the north part of the yard the crew would ride their power down the West Running Track to their train which was made up in the south part of the yard. As the power got near its train’s way car, or caboose, the conductor and rear brakeman would get off and walk to it. The engineer with the fireman and head brakeman continued to the head end of their train to tie on. The way car was nicknamed the "crumb box". Each conductor was assigned his own way car. On it the conductor kept his rain gear. The way car was supplied with a bucket of waste for the friction wheel journal boxes, a packing iron for the waste, a bucket of coal for the stove, drinking water, and knuckles. Cyril said that sometimes the conductor would drive his car directly to the Innisville shanty near his train to pick up his wheel report and way bills that had been sent through the underground compressed air tube from Willis Yard Office.

After the west-bound train pulled from Galesburg, the conductor and rear brakeman sat in the cupola of the way car to watch for problems, like shifted loads, that might develop in their train in transit. They watched for smoke from overheated friction wheel journal boxes. The head brakeman also watched for car problems. There were no hot box detectors along the line in the first part of Cyril’s career nor did they have radios for communication. If the conductor or rear brakeman spotted a problem, like a smoking hot box, they would signal the head end with a hand signal in daylight or a lit fusee at night. If the head brakeman didn’t spot the signal, the conductor or rear brakeman could set the air brakes from the way car. Once the train was stopped, and the engineer was apprised of the problem, the train would continue slowly to the next siding where the bad order car would be set out. There were sidings at Cameron, Monmouth, Kirkwood, Biggsville, Burlington, Dayman, Fairfield, and Mt. Pleasant. On way freights the head brakeman sometimes helped the fireman shovel coal for the steam engine. As trains passed through stations along its route, railroad operators would visually inspect the train and holler to the conductor as the way car went by him if he spotted a problem with a car. The eventual use of radios for communication on trains was "helpful", according to Cyril.

Way freight work could involve some long days as the train spotted cars at industries and railroad freight houses and picked up cars on its way to Ottumwa. Switching was done at places like Wells and the freight house in Monmouth, Eastman, Chittenden, the stockyards and freight house in Burlington, the ordinance plant at Middletown, Dexter in Fairfield, and the freight house at Mt. Pleasant. Sometimes cattle cars were picked up at Danville and New London. When the train tied up at Ottumwa, the conductor turned in his marked up wheel report and switch lists and time slips for himself and the two brakemen at the yard office. His way car would be tacked on to the next eastbound train for which he was ordered. He might catch a train like #68 or #70 that came out of the west. Train #74 was made up at Ottumwa. While waiting for a train that would take them back to Galesburg, crew members stayed at private homes in Ottumwa early in Cyril’s career. Around 1960 crews were put up at the Ballingall Hotel in Ottumwa. The railroad paid for their rooms. Crews ate their meals at restaurants near the hotel.

By 1958 Cyril had enough seniority to work as a passenger train brakeman on a Burlington-Chicago-Burlington job. To get to and from Burlington he would deadhead, or ride, as a passenger on another passenger train. While he laidover in Chicago awaiting his next train, he could get some sleep in the basement of Union Station where beds, restroom facilities, and lockers were provided for train crews. He worked Burlington/Chicago trains until the early 1960’s when he went on a Burlington/Omaha/Burlington job as a brakeman on the Denver, California, and Lincoln Zephyrs. The head brakeman helped the conductor take tickets from passengers. Cyril usually worked as the rear brakeman who used hand signals and fusees to protect the rear end of the train against oncoming traffic. If the train had to stop at some point along the line, the rear brakeman would put torpedoes on the rails at a prescribed distance behind the rear car. The front wheels of an oncoming locomotive would detonate these small explosive cartridges, and the loud report was a signal for the engineer to stop his train. When the federal government took over the nation’s passenger rail service with Amtrak in 1971, Cyril went back to the West End freight pool to maintain his seniority.

In 1977 Cyril retired from the railroad at age sixty with thirty-six years of service. He had been a second-generation railroader. His father, D.J. Butts, who had been general foreman at the Galesburg Roundhouse, had retired in 1939. His uncle, Frank Coomes, had been a machinist at the Roundhouse. He said he had preferred passenger service to freight service. He liked the regular hours of passenger service and regular time at home with his family. The Burlington to Omaha run took three hours rather than the sixteen hours he sometimes worked on way freights. Passenger service was cleaner and easier and less affected by weather conditions than freight work. He enjoyed the variety of people he met on passenger trains.

Cyril has fond memories of many of the people he worked with. About trainmasters, he said "some were good; some were bad." He said that Charlie Connett, who was the Ottumwa Division Superintendent many years ago, was a "good" official, and he is grateful to Burlington General Superintendent Mr. Grisinger for helping him get a passenger train pass from Chicago to Los Angeles for his honeymoon in 1948. West End Engineer Harry Pepmeyer and his son, fireman Glen Pepmeyer, who Cyril worked with on Burlington/Quincy way freights in the 1940’s, were "good men", he said. He liked Galesburg engineer Ralph Thielbert, and he liked Aurora Pool passenger brakeman Maurice Godsil who he would sometimes see on layovers in Chicago


Mike Hobbs