Harter Yard Memories

by J. Michael Hemmer

My railroad career began almost 45 years ago at what today is Union Pacific’s Harter Yard in Oklahoma City. The Rock Island hired me as a “90-Day-Wonder,” a clerk who worked other clerks’ summer vacations at the freight yard, in the passenger station, and around the freight house. I proudly joined the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline, Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees (BRAC) and set out to earn over $500 per month - a princely sum for an 18-year-old.

“Breaking in” started on the midnight shift, without pay, and lasted one week. Whatever I learned I learned from “Meadowlark” (everyone had a nickname; I became “Grasshopper”), who wasn’t much older than me, but taught me more than I could remember. Meadowlark had just returned from his honeymoon, so he broke me in about honeymoons, too.

Safety standards were more than a bit informal and, for 90-Day-Wonders, did not include the Code of Operating Rules. Meadowlark taught me how to hop a moving car in the dark while holding a lantern, a stapling gun, a switch list, a marking pen, and cards to staple to the sides of cars - in the rain. About six weeks later, a company safety officer showed me how to get off moving equipment more safely using my trailing foot, which was pretty amazing when I tried it. Meadowlark also showed me how to hand up paperwork on a tall, wooden “Y” to the head-end of local train 992, which seemed to be doing 90 as its locomotive roared right at me on the curve at Harter. I was blinded by the headlight and terrified the first time, but got the hang of it with tips from the telegrapher.

Rock Island didn’t have money for technology. To reduce costs, we were to use a crank phone mounted on the wall whenever possible. Eight cranks rang Memphis, but I never actually spoke to Memphis on that phone, despite screaming at the top of my lungs while a guy in Memphis screamed back. Reaching Little Rock was also a rare thing, but Booneville, Ark., sometimes answered. El Reno came in loud and clear. We also had no computers in 1967, so the yard clerks decided where to send empty cars. Meadowlark taught me the latest routing instructions and which cars to save for potential loads, including the ghastly “hide cars” for the packing plants, but he also explained how to dump empty cars on the evil Santa Fe, giving me a feeling of great power. One night Santa Fe dropped 126 empty CRI&P boxcars on us, repaying our favors.

We had a few special moments of excitement:
• Santa Fe interchanged early and very hot Shelby Cobra GTs, which we admired but dared not touch.
• Santa Fe also interchanged carloads of bombs bound for the Navy near McAlester, usually next to jumbo tankers of LPG for West Memphis; the switch crews were smart about those cars.
• One day the SP’s “Blue Streak Merchandise” detoured our way, introducing us to modern locomotives and a fancy caboose. Our conductor told me not to open the door because I would release the air conditioning. Maybe he was pulling my leg, but we were impressed.
• If we worked the day shift, we rode the switcher over to the Frisco interchange each morning to pick up Phoenix-bound autos off the Frisco-Santa Fe “QLA,” which the Frisco people liked to claim was the fastest freight train in America (they were almost right). Who knows how we got that business, because we didn’t run anything very fast on our line to Tucumcari.

My very first paid workday provided special excitement. After training all night, I was called for a rare day shift and an unusual, once-per-week job. I was to drive a Rock Island pickup to find every car at every Rock Island-served industry in Oklahoma City, creating a fresh inventory. That would have been a piece of cake had I ever driven a standard-shift vehicle, but I hadn’t. And this particular vehicle had a souped-up racing clutch that one of my fellow clerks had installed. I probably covered the entire city in second gear, and I can’t vouch for the condition of that clutch, but I found every car. I hope.

The yard office at Harter became a preferred home for me, more interesting than my regular one, especially after the first summer extended into holidays and more summers. The switch crews, telegraphers, and yardmasters became valued friends; I heard Neal Armstrong walk on the moon with some of them at Harter. We always watched out for each other, cleaning up the occasional mistake. Mistakes like calling the extra switchman who worked on Saturday mornings on Sunday at 4:30 a.m.

The local freight agent, Mr. Pegors, must have had a soft spot for me. What else could explain that no investigation was held after I transposed two almost identical TTX car numbers and sent 30,000+ pounds of Memphis chocolate to melt in the 100-degree Texas sun? Showing even more heart, the Rock Island gave the candy to kids in Ft. Worth. Mr. Pegors said only, “Don’t let that happen again.”

All of us cherish a few special experiences, and a few special people, that change our lives forever and send us down a new path. Harter Yard and its people changed mine that way. I never wandered very far from a railroad job again. I could not have imagined that I would someday work for a “real” railroad, which was how I thought of the distant, powerful Union Pacific that I had seen on a family vacation. And I could never have imagined that any railroad would accomplish what Union Pacific people are achieving today. Especially in safety.

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Community, Working at UP
Omaha, NE-Oklahoma City, OK
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  • Nice story. Brings back memories of my start 34 years ago. I started on the midnight shift in the UP yard office at the Armstrong Yard in KC, KS. I had similar mentors with nicknames like Rosebud, Yappy and the Snake Doctor. Like you, I must have had a guardian angel when I stayed employed after getting a jitney stuck on the EB main line.

    - Rick Rivera a few years ago
  • Congrats, Mike, on such an incredible career with the railroads. I had not heard the story of your first RR assignment - really enjoyed reading it. What a blessing to have spent your entire working lifetime in and around railroads. You reached a pinnacle with your long role at UP. Many would be pleased to have achieved that! Well done.

    - Coyle Schwab a few years ago
  • WOW! shades of a bygone era. Mike glad to see that you have made it this far and hope you have a hundred more of RR happiness.

    I too stayed at Harter till the bitter end

    Got very fortunate and was hired by the Association of American Railroads. Was transferred to the Charleston area of South Carolina.
    Retired from the AAR/TTCI in 2005 as a Senior Inspector MID.
    Like my family before me I have wonderful memories of the old Rock, and some painful ones also.
    The derailments were numerous, just about one every day and in the winter a lot more. Jim Patillo sent me a photo of a derailment we had that I had to rerail by myself. Four locos on the main line in front of the yard office. It was one of the easier ones had them back on and the mainline clear in less than an hour. LUCKY!

    Take care,


    - Ervin Engler a few years ago