Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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Everybody Has a Story: One time climbing aboard coal train was enough for kids


During World War II, my dad got a job working in a coal mine in eastern Utah. The town of Dragerton (now East Carbon) had been built by the U.S. government specifically to house miners working in the Horse Canyon Mine. The coal from the mine was shipped to Provo to fire the steel mill for wartime production.

Coal was shipped by rail on a spur line that began at a main line a few miles west of Dragerton and worked its way east and south to the Horse Canyon mine. There was a switching yard a couple of miles outside of Dragerton where cars were staged as trains were built for the trip to Provo.

Our neighbor sometimes worked for the railroad and sometimes worked in the mines. Leon, his oldest boy, was about my age, and we ran around together.

Leon’s dad had shown him how to get onto trains while they were moving in the rail yard. Leon showed us. Unbeknownst to our parents, we would sometimes catch a ride from one end of the yard to the other, where we would jump off. When cars were moved back the other way, we’d catch a ride back. If the rail workers saw us they would run us off, but we would come back another day and do it again.

One fine day a gang of us were playing around, and Leon had the bright idea that we could catch a ride on a train heading out, instead of just on cars being switched in the yard. Instead of jumping off at the end of the yard we could ride on down to the junction with the main line. Leon assured us that the train always slowed almost to a stop there, so the brakeman could jump off and throw the switch to put it on the main line; then after the train had passed through the junction, the switch would be set back. We could jump off there, as the train slowed for the switching.

After a bit of discussion and dares, the group of us hiked over to the yard and caught our ride to the main line by grabbing onto ladders as the train cars went by, and crawling up onto the top of the coal.

The trip turned out to be more of an adventure than we expected. For one thing, we found out that the wind from a train running outside the yard kicked up a lot of “dust” off the coal — and that “dust,” some of it as large as peas, didn’t feel very good when it hit bare skin.

It was even worse when it got in your eyes. We had to turn our backs to the wind most of the time.

Eventually, we all got into the adventure and started clambering around on the top of the coal, at first on hands and knees, then walking as we got bolder. After more dares, some of us even got brave enough to use the ladders at the ends of the cars to scramble down between cars as the train was rumbling along — although it was scary looking down at the rapidly moving track. If we missed while grabbing the ladder on the other car, we were going to die.

As the train approached the main line we saw a bunch of gandy dancers (railroad section workers) working alongside the tracks. At first, we feared that they would grab us and turn us in when we jumped off, but the real problem became apparent as the train failed to slow as much as we had anticipated. Instead, it started picking up speed again.

Leon started to panic. He said we had to jump now or we’d be riding the train all the way to the yard in Price, and maybe all the way to Provo. That would have been too much adventure, especially having to explain to our parents how we had come to be there!

So, even though the train was moving fast, we started to climb down the ladders and, one at a time, jumped off, running along until we could slow to a stop and watch the others bailing out. The trackside material was fairly soft dirt when the first guy jumped, but it then became sandier, and then it was gravel. My brother Bill was the last one off, and by the time he jumped, the trackside was big gravel and small rocks. Also by then, the train was moving much faster so he tumbled down for a ways instead of running to a stop.

Fortunately, he only got some abrasions and bruises. We were lucky, as Bill was the only one who got hurt at all.

As we were hiking back to town Leon told us, the reason the train didn’t slow down as he had promised was because the gandy dancers had thrown the switches for our train crew, so they wouldn’t have to make their usual slowdown.

Nonetheless, we never got up enough nerve to try that again. And it was a very long walk home.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.