The Royal Hudson 2860 in San Francisco

by LeeAnn Dickson

The Royal Hudson 2860 in San Francisco

Crew safely on board, a relaxed and happy LeeAnn Preece Dickson with Big Daddy's long legs up in the cab to the left

5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning at the Bayshore Roundhouse and it's quiet. The hostlers and mechanics were long gone, but as the clerk, I still had to run reports and make the day shift's coffee.

In the 1970s, SP’s Bayshore Yard was a huge bustling place. The one exception to the hubbub was early Sunday morning. 24/7 crews made freight trains, and clerks tracked them. This was the only time you could hear the nesting pigeons cooing in the rafters.

I drove up to the yard office to deliver my reports and it was the usual Sunday ghost town. The long, wide metal building had rows of desks and tables piled with idle tariff and demurrage books. The computers and huge printers rested silently. The only sound was the hum of the Coke machine. The office was dark, only a halo of light from around the crew dispatcher’s door and a sliver of florescent white from the manager’s office, illuminated the cavernous metal box. I began pigeonholing the reports when Coast Division Superintendent J. F. Bays (Big Daddy) appeared. He towered over me by a foot and asked, “Hey, kid, want to do me a favor?” “Sure,” I said. Big Daddy and my dad were good friends and after my dad died, he took over as my at-work guardian. This was a good and sometimes bad thing (that's another story).

My three hours of overtime would be spent running a passenger crew over to the passenger depot at 3rd and Townsend in San Francisco. The British Columbia train, The Royal Hudson, was heading points east and a SP passenger crew was needed to pilot it down the Peninsula.

Still a rookie clerk, I was unsure of my driving skills in the huge carryalls (9-passenger Chevy Suburban). I climbed up into the driver’s seat and Big Daddy, with his long legs, stepped in next to me. He started barking directions and I hit the gas. At various locations within a 5-block radius we gathered the crew of 10 which included my brother, Brakeman Bob Preece, who sat directly behind me. As each man sat down, grip in hand (think briefcase), the conversation grew louder, truck heavier and I more nervous. The weighty vehicle, without power steering, was getting really hard to maneuver.

I drove down King Street where railroad tracks slithered through the cobblestone street. Deep, wide potholes punctuated the road’s surface. Add hundreds of rail fans (foamers) and I was getting sweaty. With the frenzy of an upturned anthill, the foamers and their photographic and recording equipment were everywhere. They moved blindly in all directions and only looked through their camera lenses for the train, fouling the track and in front the carryall, mindless and heedless of the huge, heavy, white vehicle.

Big Daddy's voice continued to boom and the crew fell silent. “No, LeeAnn, you are going the wrong way, turn around!” I was scared and his escalating tone made it worse: “All clear.” “Get this truck moving!” “Let’s go!” “The train’s gonna be late!”

Driving forward was one thing, but now I had to back up (not good). I put it in R for reverse and stepped gently on the gas, but the truck was so heavy, it didn’t budge. I gave it more gas. The carryall lurched backward. WHAM! The unseen street sign and rear bumper had become one. The metallic crunch made all the foamer’s cameras turn on us.

A stunned silence hung for a second in the truck. “Everyone OK?” Big Daddy commanded. Then uproarious laughter erupted. My brother put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Don’t cry.” We all piled out to inspect the damage.

The sign post was between the bumper and the rear of the carryall. In a flash my brother was on the roof. His black uniform coat and tie blew in the wind. With Big Daddy at the wheel and four guys on the bumper, Bob yelled “Geronimo,” and jumped. As he pulled the sign the others yanked the bumper, the carryall snapped forward and with the sound of twisting metal we were free!

“Get in.” Big Daddy yelled. As we climbed back in, he slid over from the driver’s seat, looked me in the eye and said “You drive.” The guys laughed and joked as we headed toward the train. Big Daddy and I dropped off the guys, checked out the train, and headed back to the yard office.

He took my dad's friendship and being my self-appointed protector seriously many times during my career. “Don’t tell anyone what happened,” were the only words he said. He took full responsibility for the dents and scrapes and the incident was never mentioned again.

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Historical Events, Family
San Francisco, CA
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  • Thanks for sharing, LeeAnn! Please write more stories...

    - George Pepper a few years ago