Railroad Stories: Old Steam Engines Made Shipping Livestock Possible

Old steam engines and livestock provided boy with job.

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As a teen-ager in the late 1940s, I was at our county fair when a man I knew approached me and asked me to accompany him to the State Fair in Pueblo, Colo., to help him show cattle. I lived in eastern Kansas and had never been to Colorado. My eyes lit up, and I was ready to board one of the one-of-a-kind old steam engines.

One night in late August, we loaded 18 head of Ayrshire dairy cattle into the bottom of a double-deck sheep car and headed out on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The top deck was raised to accommodate the cattle, with their feed, water, straw, etc. We crawled around in the top half. My employer had a cot he slept on, but I was forced to sleep - or should I say, try to sleep - on the feed sacks. It got very chilly at night, too, and all I had was my suitcase and no blanket.

Our cattle car had open slats for ventilation and we were placed right behind the steam engine, since that was supposed to be the smoothest place in the line of cars. The black smoke came back into the car along with steam and the cold night air. All that combined with the clickety-clack of the tracks, the swaying of the train, the blowing of the whistle at each cross road and the speeding up and slowing down made a very uncomfortable ride.

The next morning, we pulled into a freight yard, where I found out that part of my job was to milk three cows. I started milking but the car kept moving around, as it was switched to another train. Suddenly, our car apparently got bumped by another string of cars, and the cows fell over sideways, like a bunch of dominoes, with me in the middle milking.

After things settled down, and we fed and watered the cows, the train crew stopped and asked if we wanted a ride to breakfast. So we hopped into the big steam engine and proceeded down the tracks to a small cafe. Inside, I was encouraged to order a stack. I had never heard the term before, but that's what I ordered – every morning for the rest of the trip. Those sure were good pancakes in that nice, warm place. Especially after the night I had spent. They cost $1. I had agreed to work for $3 a day, so I couldn't spend over $1 a meal.

After boarding the cattle car again, I found we had a small tub of pop bottles, but the ice had melted. I was told to look for a refrigerator car, also know as a reefer. In each end of a reefer, there was a big ice compartment, with a door in the top where they put the ice in. Whenever the train would stop, I would look for a reefer and run up the ladder looking for ice, trying to hurry so I wouldn't get left behind.

Here was all that pop, which I dearly loved, but I couldn't throw out the milk, so I cooled the milk and drank it instead. At one stopping point, I spotted some children playing, so I yelled at them to bring some containers and I would give them some milk. With some of the milk out of the way, I could drink pop for a little while.

We were on a local train, making stops all along the way. At one stop, in the middle of nowhere it seemed, we found that one of the cars had a hotbox. It was smoking, and we, along with the train crew, stood in the hot sun sprinkling water on the axle to cool it down.

After several hours, I proceeded to the caboose, climbed up in a nice seat and thought I'd ride in style. However, the conductor soon came along and chewed me out. I guess he thought I might send some false signals to the engineer.

By this time, we were running behind schedule, and my boss began complaining. Shortly afterward, our car was put on a Red Ball train, which didn't stop for anything, and we sped toward Pueblo for the state fair. We rode back the same way, stopping and showing cattle at two more fairs along the way. By the time I got home, I was black from smoke and dirt, with about the same amount of money in my pocket as when I left. I made $3 a day and spent $3 a day on food and the races and rodeos. I still love trains, especially the steam engines.

Charlie Wagner
Atchison, Kan.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.