Thursday, January 14, 2010

Railroaders: The Men in My Family

Railroading seems to be in the blood of the men in my family. The combined service of my Grandfather, Dad, brothers, nephew and husband covers just over 150 years. In fact they have been in the business of riding the rails across Nebraska and into the Dakotas for what has now been the continuous service of a century. Their lives started in the days of steam engines, wooden boxcars and cabooses and stretches into today with the modern diesel locomotives with their high tech controls and sleek designs.

Frederick Millard Coleman, Grandpa, was living in Broken Bow, Nebraska when he started his career. In 1911 he married Opal Gardner there and was at that time working for the Chicago, Quincy and Burlington Railroad. He worked on the West Local between Broken Bow and Seneca, Nebraska. In 1917 he brought the family to Alliance and worked out of here for about 3 years and then returned to Broken Bow where he worked until 1930. The family then again moved to Alliance which was a division point for the CB&Q Railroad. Fred held conductor rights and worked both freight and passenger trains until his retirement in about 1958. Grandpa had put in 47 years with the railroad by the time he retired.

My Dad, Frederick Dale "Freddie" Coleman, grew up in Broken Bow, Nebraska and rode trains with his Dad at an early age. (In those days is was quite common for family members to occasionally go along on a run. I even rode the caboose with my Dad to Edgemont S.D. when I was 6 or 7 years old, during the 1950's). Dad was in the 5th grade when he rode with Grandpa on a trip to drop off cinders or "track ballast" between Anselmo and Dunning, Nebraska. As kids are known to do, he was doddling along the track playing while the train was slowly dropping the ballast and he got left behind. The engineer happened to see him and backed up to pick him up. Dad always recalled that he rode both the steam engine and caboose on that one trip. His railroading career really started at quite an early age! Freddie made several memorable trips as a kid with his Dad from Broken Bow before the family moved permanently to Alliance in 1930.

Living in Alliance, my dad and a friend ran a motorcycle delivery business, worked part time as a painter for his future father-in-law and graduated from Alliance High School in 1932. Dad went to work for the CB&Q Railroad in 1935 and continued to work for O.C. Moore's painting business during the first few years of his railroad career. In those years it was common for the railroaders to get laid off and only work minimally. Freddie married Irene Moore in 1936 and by the early 40s had fairly steady employment with the railroad. Dad spent 40 years railroading between Ravenna, Nebraska and Deadwood S.D. He worked the "extra board", rode the front motor as a flagman and brakeman, worked passenger trains and was also a rear brakeman. All types of freight and passengers were shipped through the Alliance rail yards in those days. Cement, coal, oil, gas, sand, lumber, feed, farm implements, machinery, livestock, grain and gold were all moved through Alliance. Dad was a brakeman in the latter years of steam engine days and also was an express messenger between Alliance and Deadwood, S. D., on the "Highlines". He made many trips from the Homestake Gold Mine, carrying armed shotgun messengers and well over 1 million dollars worth of gold bullion that was destined for the Denver mint. World War II brought many trains which carried war materials, troops, prisoners of war, and even poison gas that was shipped east from Provo, S.D. to be used in bomb production. Railroaders were considered essential to the war movement and were not routinely drafted into military service, although many did serve during WWII. Presidential trains went through Alliance, including those of Harding, Roosevelt, and Coolidge. Both Grandpa and Dad worked during those years and witnessed the diversity of travel through our area. All of my "railroading men" have worked under arduous weather conditions including the famous Blizzard of 1949 and other fierce Nebraska and South Dakota blizzards. During the '49 blizzard, the trains carried extra crews and it often took two and a half days to go the 111 miles to Edgemont, S.D. (A trip that can be made in 4-5 hours). Many railroad men lost their lives working the rails during adverse weather conditions. Dad once recalled a wind and hail storm that actually blew so hard that their normal train, No.79 which was headed west from Hecla, Nebraska was blown to a full stop for several minutes! After the demise of passenger trains, Freddie worked freight trains full time and he retired on April 30, 1975 with 40 years of service.

Next was the third generation to go to work for the CB&Q. William G. Coleman, my brother, followed in Grandpa and Dad's footsteps. "Bill" went to work for the railroad in 1956. He worked night baggage and as a dispatcher/clerk until 1958 when he became a brakeman and went into road service. He worked at the same time as his Dad and Grandfather until Fred M. Coleman retired later in 1958. Bill worked freight and some passenger trains and spent quite a bit of time working the "Highlines" through the Black Hills area of South Dakota. Bill saw some passenger service but mostly worked freight trains, was promoted to conductor in the mid 1960's, and served in that capacity on the Alliance Division until he retired in 1995. Bill Coleman had worked for 39 years upon his retirement. Another brother, Richard "Dick" Coleman was a crew caller out of Edgemont, S.D. during the year 1959 but decided that he did not want to follow railroading as a life long career.

My fourth generation railroader is William R. Coleman, "Billy". He is the great grandson of Fred M. Coleman and son of William G. "Bill" Coleman. He started his career working for several years for what had become the Burlington Northern Railroad here in Alliance, Nebraska. He worked in the roundhouse and drove the crew taxi before he moved on to another career. Billy rejoined the ranks of railroaders in about the year 2000 when he became a conductor for the Union Pacific Railroad, working out of western Nebraska. His job is mostly hauling freight and coal out of the Wyoming coal fields. As of this writing, he is still employed with the UP Railroad.

In the year 2004, my husband, Geoffrey T. Hopkins, joined the family ranks to further the legacy. Geoff retired in 2001 from a 30 year career as a communications tech with Quest Communications. After about three years of being retired, he decided to apply at the BNSF Railroad as they were again hiring. He met the "age quota" and trained to go to work. Geoff works all directions from Alliance: east to Ravenna, west to Edgemont, S.D., and south to Guernsey, Wyoming. They mostly haul coal but on occasion there is some other freight and specialty items such as Boeing airplane bodies and parts. I can still remember the day in 1971 when my husband was offered a job with the railroad here and also with the telephone company which was then Northwestern Bell. My Dad and brother both advised him to take the telephone job which he did at that time. Here we are now and have come full circle back to the beginning and he is employed by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe as a conductor in this year of 2010.

Four generations of the Coleman family plus a son-in-law: all together my men have a proud legacy as Railroaders. Over the years I have heard hundreds of their stories, some told with great pride and others of disgust with the railroad company itself, but all have imparted the TRUE story of their 150 years of combined service. For each one I have a great pride in their honored service to their company, country and especially to their families as railroaders and their families sacrifice much of their private lives for their work. All of my men have displayed prime loyalty to their profession and to them I would say: "You are the best!" With love to Grandpa, Dad, brothers, nephew and my loving husband.