Railroad Stories: Railroad Job Opportunities Often Turned Into Rewarding Career

I was born in Valley Junction, Iowa, now West Des Moines. Valley Junction was a railroad town located at the junction of two railroads in the Raccoon River valley. My father, uncles and grandfather were among the many who took advantage of the railroad job opportunities.

My father worked in the switchyard as a clerk. His office was about six blocks from our house. Sometimes my brother and I took lunch to him, which entailed walking through the switchyards and the roundhouse. I was 6 or 7 years old at the time, and the walk was awesome and somewhat frightening.

Many of the steam engines would have their boiler fronts removed, being prepared, and I would view them as living beings, with their gaping mouths ready to devour two young boys. As the workers hollered at each other, my imagination ran wild. I envisioned them being devoured by the monster. My older brother gleefully encouraged my thoughts. Eventually I outgrew my fears and traversed the route alone.

Back then, they didn’t have a 40-hour work week, no paid vacation, no paid sick leave and no overtime. Time off was rare. Dad worked from 4 o’clock in the afternoon until midnight every day. This was during the Great Depression, before there were electric lanterns. Dad did his records on a clipboard by the light of a kerosene lantern.

In 1942, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and served until November 1945. During the war, I was trained to be a radio operator, which encouraged me to follow the Morse Code venue into my civilian life. Eventually I became a telegrapher/train-order operator for the Rock Island Railroad.

My contact with other railroaders was enjoyable and rewarding. Many of the trainmen that I delivered orders to were men I had known as a child; they were neighbors and friends of my father. I was proud to be earning top wages, which enabled me to provide a living for my family.

Unfortunately, during my first year as a telegrapher/ train-order operator, I was on duty when a horrific crash occurred. I made it through, although I was useless for about 30 minutes when my nerves gave out on me. The accident happened around 6 p.m. and I worked it until my shift ended at midnight. What a dreadful experience.

I eventually wound up working for the railroad in Iowa City, Iowa. It was initially a temporary position but turned into a permanent position. By this time, the unions had negotiated a 40-hour work week, but there was a shortage of telegraphers so I got one day of over-time pay each week. That extra income paid to furnish our first home in Iowa City. After five years in that position, the ticket agent retired, and I moved into his position. I thoroughly enjoyed my job.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, automobiles and airlines became big competitors, and our passenger business dwindled. Efforts were made by the Union Pacific and other railroads to take over the Rock Island Railroad. I considered leaving but stuck it out hoping the merger would happen soon and my future would look better. When the merger didn’t happen, I found employment at a local bank and worked there until my retirement. The last passenger train through Iowa City was in May 1970.

Robert J. Libby
Iowa City, Iowa

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.