Sunday, December 21, 2008

The KCS and Heavener (Part 3)

At the risk of boring people I am sending along another blog on the KCS.  I’m having fun writing this series on the KCS and Heavener.  I hope you readers are too and will contribute your memories via comments or a complete blog.

Life in a railroad town was controlled by the timing of the passage of the trains.  When I was a boy there were only two crossings to go from the west side to the downtown area.  The one at the south end of town was added later.  There was a third but it was (and is) located near the junkyard (now near the fueling site for the KCS).  Of course, for those of us who walked, we found ways to cross at other points.  But, driving a car was at the mercy of the trains.   Whenever a long train was stopped to change crews it was not unusual to have both crossings blocked. Among kids I knew, there was always talk about how to get under a train stopped or slowly moving (!) and blocking a crossing.  The prevailing wisdom was to lie down just outside the track and then roll rapidly under the train in the space between the front and rear trucks.  I’m sure some venturesome kids did just that but none got hit while I was in Heavener.

An even more pervasive influence on our lives was caused by the sounds of the trains as they passed through or worked in the Heavener yard.  Early on, I learned the whistle codes: two shorts meant the train was going to move forward; three longs meant it was going to back up; two shorts, a long, and a short meant it was whistling for a crossing; and four longs meant “repeat”.  The whistles were loud enough to be heard all over Heavener but most of us just tuned them out.  I don’t recall the switch engines using the codes religiously but I expect they did do it some of the time.  Whenever an engine was stopped the sound of the air compressor that compressed the air for the brake system could be heard and always reminded me (as a small child) of what I thought a large panting, fire-breathing dragon would make.  Even the small four-coupled (0-4-0) switch engines stirred my imagination with this sound.  Then, when the train was ready to move, the loud noise (sometimes a hiss, sometimes a roar) of the steam being released to blow the liquid water out of the cylinders would resound along the tracks.  While the engines had large steam whistles that had pronounced “personalities” dependent on the engineer activating them, the caboose had a small whistle that used the compressed air from the brake system.  It produced a shrill, much less harmonic, sound than the engines.  This whistle was used by the conductor and/or rear brakeman to convey information to the head end crew.  The other sound that remains in my memory is the one made when the drivers slipped on the tracks.  The resulting “bark” out the stack of the engine was unique as the engineer rapidly reduced the throttle.  In the Heavener yard the track was scarred many times as the slipping wheels generated “burn spots” on the tracks because of the heat associated with the slippage.

The next significant sensed effect of the trains on the town was the odors.  The acrid smell of coal was always around the depot and yard.  It mingled with the tangy smell of creosote used to preserve the wooden ties.  Smells near an engine or railroad car also had touches of hot oil.  Each of the journal bearings on the locomotive was oiled at short intervals of no more than 100 miles.  The roundhouse had all these odors plus an ever-present smell of hot metal.  It was not unusual to have four or more engines in the roundhouse quietly panting away.  Most firemen prided themselves on producing a nearly smokeless stack.  But, whenever flue cleaning sand was injected into the hot section, there was a large cloud of black smoke and cinders belched out of the stack.  The smells associated with this were also pretty strong.

In addition to the financial impact of the KCS via the pay to the workers on Heavener, there were some other benefits not usually acknowledged by most people.  One of these was the ice plant at the north end of town.  While a town the size of Heavener might have had a small ice plant, the one in Heavener was much larger and, consequently, provided ice at lower rates than most plants.  The ice plant provided ice for the “reefers” (refrigerated cars) that were used to haul the vegetables, fruits, and meats.  One of the sidelines of the ice plant was to sell watermelons in the summer.  The melons were always super cold because they were kept in a cooler at the plant.  Most people never saw anything about the ice plant except the cooling tower used to reject heat from the water.  However, whenever there was a leak in the ammonia (refrigerant) lines everybody within several hundred yards knew about it.  Another benefit to the town was the taxes paid by the KCS that were used to support the schools. 

Every kid in Heavener, at one time or another, placed a penny on the tracks to be run over by a train.  The resulting flattened piece of copper could usually barely be identified as a penny but sometimes the images and lettering were preserved and were legible.  I guess it depended on how many of the wheels ran over the penny before it was knocked off the track.  At the time I was cautioned by adults that it was illegal to deface money.  I think that was a fabrication that developed in an effort to keep kids away from the tracks when a train was passing.


At December 21, 2008 at 6:30 PM , Blogger Bill Hinds said...

Yup,I too had more than one penny smashed by the passing trains. I never tried crossing a stopped train by rolling under or crawling under or anything like that. I waited it out or tried to beat the train to the other crossing.

I really am enjoying this blogs about the KCS Glen. I didn't know about the signals they used by the tooting of the steam whistles and I sure didn't know they even had one on the caboose. So even tho I grew up in a RR town, there is much I didn't know about it all.
Thanks again.

At December 21, 2008 at 11:43 PM , Blogger Chuck Hudlow said...

Like Bill, I never thought about those whistles having any meaning. I just figured each Engineer was showing his 'personality' by pulling the cord (or whatever the control was) in a way to make the different sounds. It makes me yearn to hear those sounds again...and the smells. It's funny, but just reading your descriptions actually brought back some of those odors (in my mind).

I'm really enjoying these history lessons.

At December 22, 2008 at 10:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glen, here in Tyler, we live just a block from some rairoad tracks and the sounds of freight trains going by are just like the sound in Heavener when I lived just a block from the track. And, yes, I tried putting a penny on the track, in Heavener, not here. Memories, lots of 'em, what would we do without them? I assume the sound of the whistle has the same meaning now as it always did. Thanks from bring all the memories back.

At December 22, 2008 at 4:46 PM , Blogger Bud said...

Glen, I am enjoying reading your blogs about the KCS. Being the son of a locomotive engineer, I have some very fond memories of all the trains. I always wanted to be an engineer myself, but that hasn't happened...yet. I remember hearing the whistles and switching of cars in the yard, but like everyone else, tuned it out for the most part. I think I only put a penny on the track once--it came out oval-shaped. I thought putting coins on the tracks might derail the train, I guess. Most of my family were railroaders. I don't think we knew how dangerous those jobs were back then. But, I did learn to never race a train at a crossing--my dad would have killed me for doing that!
Thanks for these memories. I look forward to more!
Bud Turman


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