STEAM LOCOMOTIVE FIREMAN
In thirty years I have not yet met a co-worker who was not proud to be a railroader. This also applies to the retirees I have known. The active and retired railroaders' pride ranges from being a little proud to moderately proud to very proud. Retiree Glen Pepmeyer, who hired on as a steam locomotive fireman in 1941, fits into the upper echelons of the very proud. What accounts for railroaders' pride in their profession? In Glen's case being a fireman and later an engineer gave him the opportunity to do a job well that he enjoyed with co-workers who enjoyed their jobs and did them well. He also had railroading in his blood.
Glen was born on December 20, 1920 in Burlington, Iowa. For his first Christmas, when he was five days old, he was given a toy cast iron steam locomotive which he still has. His dad Harry Pepmeyer was a CB&Q engineer with a fireman seniority date of 1905 and an engineer date of 1912. By the time Glen was born his dad was working Way Freights out of Burlington to Mt. Pleasant, Quincy, and Washington. Glen said that his dad liked working the Way Freights, because they started at a regular time, worked days, and he could be home at night. He remembers his dad driving a Model T Ford to the old Burlington Roundhouse to report to work in the 1920's. It made Glen feel secure as a boy that his dad was never laid off from his railroad job during The Depression.
The Pepmeyer family lived in northwest Burlington across the street from the Aspen Grove Cemetery where the Perkins Monument is located. Charles E. Perkins was a driving force in the early formative days of the Q and was president of the railroad from 1881 to 1901. As a boy Glen and his friends rode their bikes to the Main Street crossing in Burlington to see and hear the steam locomotives pass. The thunderous chugging sound of the powerful behemoths reverberated off the nearby buildings. There was nothing like seeing and hearing a steam locomotive, he said. Many people in those days stopped their cars along country roads to watch a passing steam locomotive.
Glen was a good athlete at Burlington High School (Class of 1938). He was named to the Iowa Honorable Mention All-State basketball team as a guard his senior year, and his team advanced to the state tournament quarterfinals. But his first love was baseball, and he had dreams of playing in the Major Leagues. A fine center fielder in high school, he attended the Jersey Joe Stripp's Baseball School in Orlando, Florida in the summer after he graduated. Joe Stripp, who began his career with the Cincinnatti Reds as an infielder in 1928, opened his school to develop young Depression-era men into Major League prospects . They played on Tinker Field in Orlando which was named after Hall of Famer Joe Tinker, an adviser at the school. Tinker of "Tinker to Evers to Chance" fame played for the Chicago Cubs from 1902 to 1916. Despite his best efforts Glen realized that he would not become a professional baseball player, so he returned to Burlington.
A friend's dad encouraged him to attend the University of Iowa. He enrolled and made the freshman basketball team. In his sophomore year he made the Hawkeye varsity squad but not the traveling team. Disappointedly he left the university. His luck changed in the summer of 1941 when his dad told him that the Q had decided to hire fireman in the Ottumwa Division for the first time since the onset of The Depression in 1929. Here was the opportunity that he had dreamed of. In a state of excitement he talked his dad into driving him in the family's 1936 Chevy to Galesburg to see Master Mechanic Ed Fritts who hired firemen. They arrived at Mr. Fritts' residence in the evening, and Mr. Fritts told the young man to come back the next day. He did, and he and R.J. "Bob" Coe were hired on June 21, 1941. In looking back over his railroad career Glen said that he wouldn't have traded it to be a Major Leaguer or President of the United States.
After several student trips Glen worked the East Ottumwa Fireman's extra list. Sometimes he caught the second shift Burlington switch engine with a crew that consisted of an engineer and fireman and three switchmen (foreman, pin-puller, and field man). They switched cars at local industries like C&E Furniture, Murray Iron Works, Burlington Basket, and J.I. Case. They also switched inbound trains and made up outbound trains in the Burlington Yard. Sometimes he worked the Helper Engine that helped pull heavy through freights up the West Burlington Hill. Yard firemen made $6.98 per day in 1941. He occasionally worked way freights. He recalls with fondness working the Washington Way Freight with his dad. Sometimes he worked the Ottumwa Way Freight which spotted and pulled cars at Danville, New London, Mt. Pleasant, Lockridge, Fairfield, Batavia, and Ottumwa. He talked about the "Shop Train", a switch engine and six coach cars, that made several stops in Burlington to pick up and deliver employees to the huge West Burlington Shops.
When Glen was ordered for a way freight, he reported to the old roundhouse near the Burlington depot. A hostler would have already parked his power (locomotive) with plenty of coal and water on the Ready Track. As fireman it was Glen's responsibility to check that there were oil and lube oil available on the locomotive as well as tools (monkey wrench, alligator wrench, hammer, and packing hook), one white oil lantern, one red oil lantern, a red flag, and and a green flag. He said that the fireman was supposed to provide a can of water for the head end crew. When all was ready, a tower operator let the locomotive off the Ready Track for the Main Line and then to a departure track where their train with fifteen to twenty cars (mostly loads) was made up. Because radios were not available on way freights at that time, the conductor might have to stop at a telephone box along the train's route to talk to the dispatcher. Enroute the head brakeman watched the train on curves, and the rear brakeman did the same from the waycar. If a problem was spotted, such as a smoking journal, they used hand signals or fusees to alert the other. In an emergency the conductor could apply the air brakes from the waycar. Way freights had to give clearance to passenger trains and through freights which had priority.
Glen's detailed description of hand firing the locomotive conveyed the pride he took in doing his job. The fireman stepped on a pedal to open the locomotive's firebox door. When he removed his foot, the door closed. You had to develop a rythym in opening the door and tapping the coal-laden shovel against the bottom of the open door frame to spray the coal evenly into the box. Coal was in the tender directly behind the locomotive. The fireman wanted to keep the grates in the firebox covered with a level dose of coal to prevent air updrafts. The fire should be kept bright and white to create a light haze of smoke out the stack. Iowa "hardtack" coal was notorious for creating clinkers which had to be removed. When the train stopped enroute, the fireman, sometimes with the help of the head brakeman, shook the grates of the firebox to cause the ash to fall into an ash pan below the box.
It had to have been tough working next to the firebox on a hot summer day. On a winter's day it could be cold and drafty if the wind was just right. Cinders were in the air. The engineers and firemen wore caps. They tied red and blue-patterned kerchiefs around their necks to keep cinders from going down their shirts. It wasn't easy being on the extra list. You could get called for a job at any hour of the day. You had to adjust your off-duty life, so that you would be rested and alert when you were called to work. Sometimes the crew was on duty up to sixteen hours. There were dangers. On rare occasions boilers blew up. Also rare were fatal head-on collisions when switches were lined wrong. Glen didn't dwell on the hardships and dangers. He was young and enthusiastic. He didn't complain about getting tired. Doing his job with a team of men who did their jobs, like the center fielder on a baseball team or the guard on a basketball team, was something he liked.
The powerful and fast 5600 series Class O-5 Northerns used in passenger and through freight service were impressive steam locomotives, Glen said. They had a 4-8-4 wheel arrangement. The first eight locomotives of this class were built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works and put into service in 1930, according to Steam Locomotives of the Burlington Route. The next thirteen Northerns (Nos. 5608-5620) were built at the West Burlington Shops in 1937. Nos. 5621-5635 were built there in 1938 and 1940. Glen said that some of the Northerns had enclosed cab vestibules and augers which delivered coal directly from the tender into the firebox.
He spoke with reverence of the old engineers that he worked with in his early years on the railroad. To prove their longevity and experience he showed me a 1946 East Ottumwa Engineer/Fireman seniority list. At the top of the list was H.C. "Harry" Turner with a fireman's date of 1895 and an engineer's date of 1903. Next on the list was G.H. Hunger with a fireman's date of 1899 and an engineer's date of 1907. Harry Pepmeyer was tenth on the list. Glen said that most of the old engineers treated the new firemen like sons. They were gentlemen, patient, kind, and willing to teach "like good coaches". An older engineer or fireman was called "slick", because he did his job well. Glen didn't want to be a "know-it-all". He listened to the older men and asked questions.
Harry Pepmeyer took pride in being an engineer, and he did his job well for fifty years. Glen considered it a great compliment when the older men challenged him to be as good as his dad. He had long been proud of his dad. When he was thirteen years old, his dad was chosen to be the pilot on the Pioneer Zephyr on a run from Burlington to Monmouth to show off to the public this first of the famous Q Zephyr passenger trains. Glen got to ride in the locomotive cab with his dad on the run.
Author Patrick C. Dorin in Everywhere West, The Burlinton Route wrote that "The largest fleet of 'named' streamliners in the United States was the Burlington Routes' famed Zephyrs. . . .The trains can lay claim to being world famous and people from other parts of the USA often traveled to 'Zephyr' land just to ride the shovel nose speedsters. No where else in the world could one find and/or ride such a fine fleet." The Pioneer Zephyr made quite a name for itself on May 26, 1934 when it raced non-stop from Denver to Chicago in thirteen hours and five minutes. To take advantage of the public's fascination with the Pioneer Zephyr's feat RKO Studios made and released the movie Silver Streak later that year. The movie, starring Charles Starrett as the man who developed a high speed passenger train, featured the Pioneer Zephyr, renamed and remarked Silver Streak, which rushed iron lungs on a 2,000 mile whirlwind trip to the Boulder Dam region where a polio epidemic had broken out. The Pioneer Zephyr, which made a public run through Galesburg in April, 1934 and the movie Silver Streak made a big impression on Galesburg. The name Silver Streaks was first applied to the GHS basketball team during the 1934-35 school year, according to the Galesburg High School website,
". . . [b]ecause the locomotive was speedy, an attribute identified with the 1934-35 [GHS] players. . . .To compliment the Silver Streak name, the GHS basketball team had a small wooden locomotive constructed. It was a replica patterned after the well-known Silver Zephyr. This device was used for years by team managers and held medical supplies and towels."
Glen continued to work the firemen's extra list until he was drafted in late 1942. He was inducted into the U.S. Army in December as he neared his twenty-second birthday. Thus began an interesting chapter in his life. While he was in basic training at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, he was told that he would be assigned to a desk job in England, since he had some college. The idea didn't sit well with him. He much preferred to be assigned to an army railroad battalion, so he wrote the Secretary of the Army making that request. His request was granted. He was assigned to the 725th Operating Battalion of the U.S. Army's Military Railway Service (MRS). The C,B&Q sponsored another MRS Operating Battalion--the 745th. After his training he was shipped from Los Angeles to India on an unescorted troop ship. He landed at Bombay and took a troop train to Calcutta.
The 725th, the 745th, and three other MRS battalions operated the Bengal & Assam Railway in northeast India, including the vital 658-mile stretch of meter-guaged track between Katihar Junction east to Ledo. From Ledo the military equipment that the MRS transported was airlifted over the "Hump" into China and trucked into Burma. It was hard duty for the American railroaders moving freight cars called "wagons" in that tropical northeast Indian climate. It was hot. There were monsoons. Much disease. Glen was hospitalized for a time with malaria during his twenty-three month stay there. It was also dangerous work. Richard C. Overton wrote in Burlington Route, A History of the Burlington Lines that in the spring of 1944 "the Japanese penetrated to within four and a half miles of the yards at Mariana, where the 745th was on duty." British and American troops drove them back, but danger posed by snipers continued. Glen said he carried a .45 revolver for protection. Despite the hardships and dangers Overton wrote that there were some "amusing" incidents like using elephants to switch cars in yards when locomotives were unavailable.
Glen said that his time in India went fast, because there was so much to do in moving the freight. The end of the war surprised him and his buddies and was greeted with a lot of joy and relief and drinking "bamboo" liquor to celebrate. He said that he and his fellow soldiers were giddy "like little kids" when they landed on a troop ship at New York City on their return to the U.S. He was discharged from the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in January, 1946.
The young man was anxious to get back to the railroad after his discharge and was grateful to have a job to come back to. He resumed working way freights and sometimes caught passenger jobs out of Galesburg. In 1949 he and his wife Bette moved to Galesburg. He enjoyed his increasing opportunity to work diesel passenger fireman jobs, including the California Zephyr and Nebraska Zephyr, because they were cleaner and quieter than the steam locomotives. In 1952 he was promoted to engineer and worked the extra list on through and way freights. Most railroaders have experienced job abolishments and bumping. Glen said when the engineer's extra list was cut back, he bumped to a passenger fireman's job. At times he found himself back working the Burlington switch engine. In the early 60's when passenger service was being cut back, he still managed to work passengers regularly. He worked #7 from Galesburg to Ottumwa. Besides carrying passengers #7 moved U.S. mail, Railroad Post Office (RPO) mail, and REA freight. It made stops at Monmouth, Kirkwood, Biggsville, Burlington, Mt. Pleasant, and Fairfield. He returned from Ottumwa to Galesburg on #12 in the evenings. After Amtrak took over passenger service in 1970, he worked freights part of the month and the California Zephyr for the balance of the month. During his last six years on the railroad he worked the Monmouth switch engine and the California Zephyr.
Glen retired from the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1984 at sixty-four years of age with forty-three years of service. Since he retired, he and Bette have traveled extensively and enjoyed time with family and friends. He was president of the Galesburg Railroad Museum in the late 90's and is still on the Museum's Board of Directors. He serves on a committee which oversees the 3006 steam locomotive displayed near the Museum.
He has many fond memories of the good people that he worked with on the railroad. Probably his association with them over his long career explains his pride in being a railroader. He recalled a few of them. He said that West End conductor Dale Foster was "knowledgable and good to work with." He liked Seminary Street Tower operator Webb Allen although he occasionally called Webb on the radio when he brought his train toward Galesburg to ask, "How long you gonna hold us out?" He mentioned dispatcher George Fleisher and his wife Mary who was a PBX operator. He called trainman Cyril Butts who he worked with frequently a "nice human being." Fred McCarthy was an excellent conductor, a nice guy, and a gentleman.
Some engineers have had the haunting experience of fatal crossing accidents. Glen is no exception. He said that the California Zephyr on which he was the engineer struck a car at a crossing in Fairfield, Iowa in the 1970's. The car had a family in it on the way to church. The father was killed. At the other extreme is the happiness he felt when he told me about saving a little boy who was on a track in Monmouth as Glen's switch engine was approaching. Glen jumped off the engine, ran ahead, and scooped the little boy off the track. He proudly showed me a photograph that the little boy later sent him. On the back of it were the words, "Thanks for saving my life."