Railroad Stories: Night Track-Walker for Katy Railroad Was Lonely Work

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By Capper's Staff | Jul 25, 2011

My father was a railroad night track-walker – an occupation followed by few and found by all to be among the loneliest in the United States. His companions were the moon and stars, the mighty Missouri River and the elements. The worse the weather, the more he was needed to stand at points of vantage and wave his lantern to reassure passing trains that all was clear on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, also known as the Katy Railroad.

Just like postal workers, my father plodded along in snow or rain, sleet or storm, taking everything in stride, with the exception of hail. In that, he would take cover in one of the many natural shelters in the river bluffs until the worst was over. Part of his job was to watch for rocks or earth that might fall or slide from the bluffs that lined the north side of the tracks where he walked.

He also inspected the track for defects, such as loose connecting bars or broken rails. Along his route, he rarely saw anyone, but he did see wildlife.

That sort of loneliness would drive an average person to distraction, but when he was asked about it, my dad said, “I always did sort of like to go it alone. It’s lonely work but not lonesome. Sometimes I go down the track singing, sometimes humming. Ain’t got nobody to fuss at me and nobody to fuss at.”

The hardest thing for my father was getting used to sleeping during the day. He started work at 7 p.m., and finished at 4 a.m. He would usually get to bed around 5 a.m. and sleep until noon. He worked Tuesday through Saturday, making $242.22 for a 40-hour work week in the 1950s. He walked about 75 miles a week. He drove to work, then got his lantern and signaling equipment from the tool shed and walked down the track about 100 yards to a small shack he used as his base of operations.

My father carried a bag containing three fuses, six torpedoes and a red flag. He also carried a white lantern and a red one strapped to his back. He walked down the center of the track, shining his light on each side. There wasn’t an animal in the country that frightened him – he always walked his route unarmed.

The track my father worked is no longer a railroad track, it’s now a bicycle track that runs from St. Charles to Sedalia, Mo.

Mrs. Wilfred Knapheide
Warrenton, Missouri

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.

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