Riding the Freights
by Thomas C. Fleming, Sep 2, 1998
During the Golden Age of Steam, before the Great Depression, blacks could easily find jobs on the passenger trains as waiters, cooks, porters and maintenance workers, but not on freight trains.
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the great railroad tycoon of the 1800s, was famous for saying, "The public be damned." It was a surly sort of attitude, but the railroads made a lot more money out of freight. To them, carrying passengers was auxiliary.
Passenger trains had to have a big crew to take care of the travelers' needs, but freight trains usually had no more than five men -- the engineer, conductor, fireman and two brakemen. These professions were not open to black workers. Today, they've cut it down so much that freights sometimes have just two men -- an engineer and a conductor -- even if they're a mile long.
Freight cars at Southern Pacific's Mission Bay yard, San Francisco,
When you're hauling those long freight trains, you have to learn how to juggle them so the cars don't bump up together. It depends on how you use your speed, particularly when you're coming down grade. While going across mountains and around curves, you have to ease down gently.
circa 1930. In foreground is switch engine, which was used only
for moving cars in the yard. (Photo courtesy of Bill Yenne.)
Every freight train had a caboose at the end, where the crew stayed. They had bunks for sleeping, and a stove for heating and cooking purposes. Some of the older ones were made out of boxcars; they put a little cabin over the roof, with windows on all four sides, where one man could climb up, usually to watch for hotboxes, where part of the wheel would become overheated from lack of oil.
I was still working for the passenger trains when the Depression started, and I began to notice a lot of people riding the freights -- sometimes as many as 100 or 150, scattered throughout the length of the train.
During my years on the railroad, from 1927-32, I never worked on a freight train. There was no place for me. But after I lost my job as a result of the Depression, I sometimes rode one as an unpaid passenger, along with Charles Baker and Ken Levy, two black friends from Oakland. We were all attending Chico State College in north central California, about 175 miles to the northeast.
When we wanted to get from Oakland to Chico, we would go down to the yards in West Oakland, and talk to somebody there, to ascertain which freight was going to Sacramento, and generally we got the right one. The freights slowed down when they went through all towns. You would start running and grab the rung with the ladder on it and pull yourself on.
One night in November, we caught a Southern Pacific freight that was hauling refrigerator cars full of vegetables. We had to get up on top and lie down flat, and that wind beat the hell out of us, all the way from Oakland to Sacramento, 80 miles away. The brakeman came along, walking on the catwalk that all the freight trains had on top for the crew to move on. And he said, "You guys are going to have a cold night tonight." He didn't try to throw us off.
We got to Sacramento early the next morning, and when the train slowed down, we jumped off and ran. We wore a lot of newspaper in our clothes to break the force of the wind, but my hands were so numb from the cold that I almost fell off.
We waited alongside the tracks in the "jungle," where the hobos lived. They had a big blazing fire going, and told us to get up close, so we did. We were the only blacks there. They gave us hot cups of coffee and some stew they were cooking in a five-gallon can. Then we hopped on a Western Pacific freight going east, and jumped off at Marysville, 45 miles south of Chico. If we got there, we were in good shape, because you could get to Chico for 50 cents on the Sacramento Northern. The fare all the way from Oakland to Chico was about $2, but that was a lot of money when you didn't have anything coming in at all.
You have to imagine how many people were riding those freight trains. Some people would go down in the yards where they made the trains up, and try all the doors to see which one was unlocked; they were all sliding doors. If they found a door that was open on an empty car, they would climb in.
In 1933, at the height of the Depression, whole families were riding the freight trains in search of nonexistent jobs. That fall, Charles, Ken and I were coming back up to Chico on a freight train with about a hundred other people, and they did not harvest the peaches in the Sacramento Valley, because the growers weren't getting anything for them. They were falling off the trees.
When the train passed through Yuba City near Marysville, the engineer stopped the train. Everybody got off, ate all the peaches they could, and stuffed their pockets. If they had some sort of containers, they put more peaches in them. When everybody had done that, they got back on board, and the conductor signalled the engineer by hand. The engineer then gave two answering toots on the whistle, and the train started north again.
Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.
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