By Lee Dixon


My father worked for the railroad in Southern Oregon. My entire childhood, we lived in a railroad car sitting on the ground.

My dad was a signal maintainer, and part of his job was to keep trees from growing into his signal lines. But he wouldn't cut them down in summer; he'd cut them just before Christmas. No one, in my hometown, ever went without a tree if Dad knew about it. He would bring loads of trees in on his motorcar, a gasoline-driven vehicle that ran on the railroad tracks, and give them away.

Well, I spent two Christmases in Vietnam; and, for both of them, he wanted to send a tree, for me and the other soldiers. He didn't because I told him not to. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have said yes. As I look back on it now, I realize how much it would have meant to him to do it. He sure liked to give away Christmas trees.

But, do you know for the life of me, I can't remember what we did about a tree in Vietnam. I don't know if we had a fake tree, exchanged presents, or got drunk. I feel fairly certain we did the latter, since we did that at every excuse. It's like I've totally lost those sectors of my hard drive--corrupted.

But I do remember my childhood and what my father did.

"A Son Remembers"

In the lumbering community of Glendale, in Southern Oregon where I grew up, time is measured in sawmills. Glendale had over half-a-dozen. Now it has one.

My dad, LeRoy, never worked for the sawmills, however; he was a railroader. His father was a railroader in Illinois, his step-father was a railroader in New Mexico, and LeRoy was a railroader in Oregon.

The only railroad Dad ever worked for was the Southern Pacific (SP). He started out on a welding gang, before World War II, in Northern California and Southern Oregon. He was living at Klamath Falls in 1941 when he went home for Christmas to Deming, New Mexico. He talked my mother, Marcella (or Marcy), into marrying him.

When the war started he got a notice to report for a draft physical in El Paso. They told him he had flat feet and Rheumatic Fever. They sent him back to the welding gang.

It was because of the war that his hands and feet and around his neck were all cover with splotches from burns. You see, during WWII, the good steel went to the war; and the poor steel went into the rails and other uses here at home. The burns occurred when the steel would explode while the welders were working with it. Even wearing gloves and long sleeves, the hot metal would slither down an opening and burn the skin. The burns wouldn't tan, just sunburn.

Years later people would ask him about the burns; and he'd say very offhand, with a grin, "Just a case of Leprosy."

It looked worse than it was. He had more long term problems with his back. He always had a tendency to be heavyset, and that didn't help either.

It was while working on the welding gang that he'd originally hurt his back. The motorcar, on which he was riding, hit a car at a crossing. He was thrown off and landed on his back on a rock the size of a grapefruit. This accident fractured his back and put him the SP Hospital in San Francisco. He always had stories to tell about how tough the nurses were at that hospital. They didn't put up with any ""crap" and ran the wards like drill sergeants.

When he was well enough to get around, he used to walk all over San Francisco. Years later, he would take me to many of the spots he had visited. I remember enjoying Flyshacker Zoo, the Cliff House, and things in Golden Gate Park like the Japanese Tea Garden.

Eventually, he bid off the welding gang and onto the signal gang. During these years, my folks lived in an outfit car. They stayed at almost every siding between Dunsmuir, California, and Portland, Oregon. They used to talk about places like Moduc Point, Chiloquin, and Chemult. They also spent time around Crescent Lake, Cascade Summit, and Oakridge. I remember them saying how my mom wouldn't get into the water at McCredie Springs. My dad did and almost passed out when he got out.

The outfit car was a converted boxcar. It had a few small windows, some linoleum on the floor, a kitchen, and a sleeping area. The bathrooms were outside in an outhouse. There was a tank above the coal stove for hot water. Someone would have to climb up and fill the tank from the roof whenever it got low. They were living in the outfit car in Canby when I was born. My first bed was a clothes basket next to them in the outfit car.

They bought a house in Eugene but kept it only a short time because Dad got the Signal Maintainer's job in Glendale. Signals are the silver-colored semiphore boards or lights along the tracks that tell a train whether to stop or go. He was also responsibile for the crossing bells and gates. That was the last job he ever had. Of course, he kept that one for over forty years.

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When we moved to Glendale, we didn't buy a house. We moved into a Pullman passenger train car that was sitting on the ground. That was the only home I ever knew until I left for college. It was about twelve feet wide and ninety feet long. One side had been added on for a utility and bathroom. The things that I remember about that house was that it was cozy, clean, unique, and rent- free. My schoolmates would always ask what it was like to live in a train car. I'd tell them it was fine but that I was always worried they were going to pull it away. "I'd come home and my house would be gone," I'd say with a smile.

My mother grumbled about it over the years. She always wanted it to be nicer. My dad would explain that there wasn't a need because, when he retired, they wouldn't live there anymore. Then, my mother would make up her mind and start on a project during the day. When my dad came home from work, he would get all upset; but after that, he would get busy and finish the job. My mother would just smile and never say a word.

The Pullman was about seventy-five feet to the mainline. Trains would come through all hours of the day and night. When we first moved into the house ("carbody," as my mother called it), my dad built a white picket fence all the way around the property. As a little one, I was never let out of the yard; and they spanked my butt if I tried.

Well, dad had been building a utility trailer from some old running gear. It was right outside the fence in the back. You guessed it. I had to have a better look at that trailer. I slipped on the greasy axle and hit my head on a piece of angle iron. It was right between the eyes and blood was everywhere. The folks jumped in the car, and we headed for Grants Pass, 30 miles away. This was before we had I-5, but dad made it in 29 minutes. He said he looked for a cop the entire way but never saw one.

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That old road (99) was pretty bad. Just north of Grants Pass is Sexton Mountain. The old road had a sharp curve on the south side called "deadman's curve." Now I'm sure there are deadman's curves all over the U.S., but this one earned its reputation in a most terrible way.

When I was little, the Grants Pass football team was coming home from winning the State Championship. The bus went over the side on that curve and several players were killed -- including one fellow who was out and went back to help his teammate. Wasn't a very happy homecoming, after that.

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Growing up, I spent many hours with Dad around the railroad. Many nights, as a young child, we would go over to the depot and meet the passenger train. He'd check with the train crew to make sure all the signals were working right.

This was steam, huffing and puffing into the yard, with all the sights, sounds, and smells that went with it. The steel rimmed baggage cars squeaking across the platforms, porters with their starched white jackets, and the hustle and bustle of people coming and going would be the last activity of the day for me. No wonder I had trouble getting to sleep when I got home. I'd lie awake wondering where all those people were going.

All those years, Dad was always on call. The only time he wasn't was vacation. If he was away from a telephone more than three hours, he told them where he would be or had another maintainer cover for him.

When steam was leaving, he made sure that I got a ride--thirty miles in the engineer's seat from Glendale to Grants Pass, blowing the whistle and having a great time. Little did I know that they would be a thing of the past.

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On rainy days, I watched for him to get in at the tool house; and with my mom's permission, it was over there I'd go. He'd do reports, and I'd sand the rust off nuts and washers with a piece of emery paper. He needed them for the batteries he made.

And batteries he made. He must have built a hundred thousand sets of batteries in his life. Well, maybe not that many but he'd come home dragging after a day of building batteries, and he built a lot. These were wet-cell batteries in large glass containers. He'd haul the caustic soda, the lead elements, the water, and the little bottle of oil to go on the top down Cow Creek Canyon on his motorcar.

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Winter was hell. The snow would put trees into the lines or, if it was a really wet snow, the lines would snap on their own. Track walkers ran every night to check for rocks or washed out places along the road. Sometimes they caught them, and sometimes they didn't. More than one train, or part of a train, went over the side into Cow Creek. Had a lot of trouble with tunnels, too. As I recall, one tunnel had a bunch of debris come down inside onto the tracks, and a train hit that. They had a hard time getting that one cleaned up. Maybe that's why, when you go down there now, several of the tunnels had been opened up into cuts.

There were probably seven or eight tunnels in the canyon. While the tracks went through the tunnel, the signal wires went over the top. And the only way to check the wires was to walk it. You can imagine carrying all your climbing gear and tools up a mountain to find a break in the line so it could be repaired.

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Winter meant something else, too. All summer long, Dad would pick out certain trees under the signal wires. Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, he would cut those trees and take pieces of rubber inner tubes and bundle them up. He gave away hundreds of trees around Glendale. Anybody, that couldn't get a tree, was sure to get one from him. He'd carry them in on the motorcar across the lifting handles.

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Occasionally, I got to ride the motorcar. It was usually at night so no one would see me because it was against the rules. One year, at Thanksgiving, he took Mom and I down to West Fork in the motorcar to spend the night at the hotel and have Thanksgiving dinner with the people who ran the hotel. Here was a hotel in the middle of Cow Creek Canyon, and the only ways in or out was by train and pack mule. That's right mule.

You see, this was the jumping off point for the mule trains that took supplies and people into the lower Rogue River. I used to have a snap shot of Zane Gray on a mule at West Fork. He was on his way to his cabin where he wrote the book, Rogue River Feud. The mail went this way too. The post office was called Dothan. They had several buildings around the hotel to store the mail and supplies because, when snow came, not even the mules moved. Dothan closed down in 1947.

I remember a big stuffed bird at the top of the staircase in the hotel. I don't know if it was an eagle or not. The hotel register was on a little stand by the front door. I don't think there was a desk like we think of hotels today. They used to have a "bell doe" in the back of the hotel. Someone must have found her as a fawn and put a bell on her neck.

I've got pictures of the doe. How did I get the pictures? They were in the boxes of pictures that my dad saved just before they were going to put gasoline on them and burn them with the rest of the hotel.

When a company called Multnomah Plywood bought all of the land in those parts from Robert Dollar, they tore down the hotel to make way for a logging camp. Pushed it over with a cat and burned it. My dad always regretted not getting the hotel register. I think he said someone with Multnomah Plywood took it back to Portland. Probably rotting away in some attic somewhere.

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One of the men who carried the mail and supplies with those pack mules was the biggest liar of Oregon. I mean like, the biggest liar that Oregon ever had. I know you think you know some politicians that come close, but none of them compared to Hathaway Jones. Hathaway Jones was a son and grandson of pioneers of the Oregon Trail. He was born in 1870 and died an accidental death in 1937 when he fell off of his mule on the trail between West Fork and the Rogue River. Here's a couple of his short ones:

One day, whilst I was riding up the trail on the Rogue, I spotted me a big bear across the river feeding on salmon. I shot the bear. I had me a pestle-tailed mule that was bigger and ornerier than most. I tied my saddle horse to a tree, climbed onto the packsaddle, and swam the mule to the other side. I tied the bear on the mule's packsaddle and started back across the river, but that pesky mule balked at swimming. I couldn't budge him. I had to get that bear across the river. So, I took it off the mule and started to swim with the bear on my back. About halfway over, I thought I was swimming pretty deep in the water. I looked up and saw that darned mule had climbed on top of the bear.

One day, I was out prospecting for gold, down near Mule Creek (named after the trail), by drilling some holes on the face of a ledge. All of a sudden I heard the bells of the animals startin' out on the trail for home. I dropped everything and ran to head them off. I didn't get back to the ledge for a month or more; but when I did, I found gold oozing out of the drill holes.

One of the fellows who could really retell these tales was Loson Winn. Loson and Mexia Winn ran a pie shop just south of Canyonville on 99. You can still see where they live from I-5, but I think the shop is closed. Loson could tell the stories with the same lisp that Hathaway had.

[For more about Jones, read Tall Tales from Rogue River, edited by Stephen Dow Beckham. Linda Barker collected a series of anecdotes and a few tales of Jones in the mid 1960s. The accounts were by Joel Barker of Grants Pass. Her manuscript is in the Randall V. Mills Folklore Archive at the University of Oregon.]

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Another place down the canyon was called Langdon. The man that lived there was named Henry Wadell. His spring is still there next to the paved road that follows Cow Creek from Glendale to Riddle. For many years there was a sign there that said "Henry's Spring," but that's gone now.

Henry had a swinging bridge across the creek to the railroad tracks. When we would go down to visit Henry, I'd walk across that swinging bridge; and it would take my breath away. You could see between the boards to the water, about fifty feet below. It could just as easily been a mile down because it looked like a long way to me. Dad would pickup Henry's mail for him in Glendale and drop it off at a box near the tracks. We also put our newspapers (Oregonian and Journal) back together, and gave them to Henry as well.

Henry had quite a garden and orchard. He built an elaborate flume system to water it. We always got lots of vegetables and fruit from him. In the evenings, Henry could sit in his front yard and look across the creek and tracks to the meadow above the tracks. There he would see many of the deer that grazed there.

Dad would usually try to schedule his day to be at Langdon at noon and would sit there next to the tracks and have his lunch with Henry. This went on for years and years until one day he pulled up on the motorcar and found Henry sitting in his chair waiting on Dad. He'd passed away. Dad never did talk about Henry after that except to say, a couple of times, he missed him.

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Most everything is gone now, like the sawmills -- the house (carbody, as my mother always called it), the toolhouse, everything at West Fork -- and the most important treasure of all: *my dad*. He passed away a few years ago.

All that is left are the memories and a few pictures.

But I'll tell you something--I'll always remember that he was one hell of a fine signal maintainer for the Southern Pacific as well as one hell of a Dad.

copyright 1994, in tribute, by Lee Dixon, all rights reserved
edited 1994, with love, by Deanna Gail Shlee