The Final Run by C.F. Dayley
Chuck Dayley is an ex-GN telegrapher who retired to the Spokane, WA area. I gratefully acknowledge his contributions to this web page. Chuck passed away December 30, 2002.
It was always exciting to climb the ladder and enter the cab of the Empire Builder's engine. The fireman opened the door and took my small overnight case. There was just time to greet the hogger and take the center seat in the cab before the radio came to life. "OK, loaded." The engineer released the brakes and touched the throttle so gently that, without any feeling of acceleration, we moved to about 55 MPH on the gauge. "Some folks are still in the diner. "Don't want to spill their coffee." the engineer explained.
Now there was time to shake hands. I had known him for many years. We had both been around since the days of steam. He had begun his career firing steam engines and now sat in the right hand seat of the engine of the Empire Builder, GN's classic streamliner. Time has erased his name from my mind. "Bill" sounds right though. His easy smile made me welcome to his cramped world.
Riding the engine on the Builder was rare for me, since casual riding was not permitted. This time, I had been called to Spokane for an early morning meeting with other GN brass. The notification came late, and I had a good reason to board the Builder.
Libby Montana, where I worked, was a scheduled stop for No. 31. Due in at 8:35 p.m., the train was on time, which was normal in those pre-Amtrak days. We were to make a token stop at Troy, gaining an hour as we moved into the Pacific time zone. There would be a quick flag stop at Sandpoint Idaho, nothing more until we arrived at Spokane at 11:35 p.m.. I would then walk the few blocks to the Ridpath hotel. In those days, walking the streets of Spokane at midnight was safe. I could easily make the 8:00 a.m. meeting.
The 40 plus mile stretch of track between Libby and Bonners Ferry, Idaho was the most beautiful I've ever seen, easily surpassing the better known Marias or Stevens pass sections. Leaving Libby, we settled back to enjoy the magnificent ride. The one sour note was the fireman, who was a non-stop talker. But the trip was too grand to be spoiled, so I quickly learned to tune him out.
Bill quietly nicked him early on when we saw the first signal. GN rules stated that everyone in the cab was required to call aloud the signal aspect. "Green," Bill said as we approached the west switch at Libby. "Green," I responded. The fireman was spouting nonsense. This was when Bill nailed him. "What does that signal say?" he asked sharply. "Uh, green," replied the fireman. "Sound 'em off then," Bill snapped.
The snow-fed Kootenai river would parallel the tracks from Libby to Bonners Ferry, and the ten miles to Troy was spectacular. A high and rocky cliff squeezed the railroad and U.S. Highway 2 into a narrow corridor with the railroad almost dipping its ties into the glacier green water. Even the fireman was silent as we traveled these miles.
Near Troy we passed through a short tunnel, the first of many. Troy is a small town of maybe a thousand people. This was when I learned that the trip was a special one for Bill. Entering Troy we saw a small home with a neat yard which bordered the tracks. The entire family was gathered on the lawn waving at us. No, not us, they were waving at Bill. We were moving slowly, and Bill had his window down. We could hear their calls. "Good-bye, Bill! Good luck!"
There was not time to ask the question, as we had to make the quick stop at the station. As we moved away, another group of people crowded a yard adjacent to the tracks. Again they were waving and shouting. The fireman answered my unspoken question. "It's Bill's last trip," he said. "His friends are here to tell him good-bye." "How did they know?" I asked. "Bill has friends all along the line. You'll see. They know what days he will be running. Over the years they have come to know him." "Honor him too," I thought.
Before we entered the deep Kootenai canyon east of Troy, we passed two more remote homes where people were waiting to wave to Bill. One person held a "happy retirement" sign. Bill responded to them all by leaning out the cab window and waving. He also blew a soft salute on the engine whistle. This would be repeated many times before we arrived at Spokane.
The track now entered the narrow canyon where rocky cliffs reached up on both sides. This 15 or 20 mile location could only be reached by rail. Track speed was about 40 MPH and there were many tunnels. It had been an incredible feat of construction to build the railroad in this hostile location.
Bill had reached for his thermos as we entered the canyon. It was apparent that this was the spot he always reached for his thermos. "Want to share my tea?" he asked. Both the fireman and I declined, and Bill sipped his tea in complete contentment as the great engines drew the orange and green train through the canyon. It was nearly dark now, but the powerful headlights drilled a hole through the darkness and bounced from the rock walls, lighting much of the canyon and the river. The sound of the powerful engine thundered off the rock walls, and in the tunnels was a physical force against the body.
All too soon we left the canyon, ascending a slight grade. Once more we began to see the lights of scattered farms and rural homes. "See the light in the window of that home up there on the hill?" Bill asked. I nodded. "Now watch."
He reached for the headlight control and flicked it to bright and dim, then bright again. As we watched, the light in the window blinked off and on repeatedly, then steadied at 'on'. Bill answered with a soft cry of the whistle. The light blinked once again.
"That's a 15 year old kid up there who is confined to a wheelchair. That's his bedroom. He waits for me every run and turns the lights on and off so that I know he's there." Bill mentioned the boy's name. "How do you know all that?" I wondered. "Oh, we started that several years ago. He wrote to the GN in Spokane and asked for my name and address. The G.N. passed it on to me. I wrote to him, of course and we've been writing one another ever since. He knows this is my last run and asked me to blow the whistle for him. Just this once. I guess this is good-bye. Well not really. My wife and I plan to drive over and see him one day soon. I've promised him that we would." Later I learned that many others had written the GN and Bill exchanged letters with some of them.
The mighty train raced through the small town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, then Bill added speed for the long stretch of flat track. There was one more waving group between Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint. They too were in a yard near the tracks. They held lanterns and candles, waving them back and forth. Bill responded by dousing the headlight and giving a small sound on the whistle. "The Coopers", he explained.
Enginemen don't talk much about railroad crossings. It's just not a topic to discuss. Most are terrified of them. Of course there is the danger to the head end crews, but mostly the dread of smashing into a careless driver, often with children in the car. During the journey, there were dozens of road and highway crossings. Only one or two were protected by lights and gates. Most were rural crossings with crossarm signals. Time after time, we held our breath as headlights approached the crossing at the same time we did. Each of us was silently saying, "Please, driver, stop. Stop." This trip, they all did. We did not even have a near miss.
Sandpoint was a flag stop, but there was no signal nor radio call, so we flashed through the small city, waving to the telegrapher on the platform of the depot. The scattered rural lights were mostly gone now as the hour grew late and lights were turned off. We were mostly silent for the balance of the journey. Even the talkative fireman was silent. Priest River, Idaho and Newport, Washington flashed past, as Bill was making up ten minutes on the schedule.
All too soon, we saw the lights of Spokane against the horizon. We rumbled through the big yard at Hillyard, and down the hill into Spokane. Bill had the speed cut back to 35 or so. We pulled into Spokane, crossed the river, and slowed, then stopped at the big station with its tall brick clock tower and the GN letters lighted atop.
Bill stopped the train exactly on the spot he had memorized over the years. He and the fireman picked up their grips, and let me descend the ladder first. We shook hands beside the softly idling engine. I wanted to tell Bill how thrilled I was to have made the last run with him, but couldn't find the words.
"Thanks Bill", I said. "Enjoy your retirement." He looked up at the tower, and patted the engine with his free hand. "Yeah." It was sort of like a sigh. "Yeah, I'll do that."