Omaha Shops

by Richard Flebbe

Officially, I started my 16-year railroad career on Halloween 1973, as a new Machinist Apprentice. However, my earliest railroad memories began more than ten years earlier.

Dad was Engineer of Road Tests when I was in grade school, and often was away for a week or two at a time. He would ride along to oversee a variety of equipment testing, generally seeking improved power and/or efficiency, or simply testing new equipment. When he was home, I would often accompany him to his office at the “Lab” on Saturdays. I always looked forward to this, as there was always a variety of fascinating components and equipment either being tested or analyzed. There would be twisted and melted components that had failed on the road, and occasionally the lab techs would perform destructive testing on some new components. This was all pretty neat to a ten year old! The guys that worked in the lab were always happy to explain what they were doing, and answered every question I could come up with.

The absolute best times were when Dad was checking on preparations for the Test Car (UP 110). This car was equipped with all kinds of electronic test equipment, including cameras, speed recorders, stress gauges and more. Of course, it also had a small kitchen and sleeping quarters for the crew, as well as a large cupola for visual observation of the consist. On a couple of occasions, I got to ride along on a short run out to Valley or over to Council Bluffs and back. Truly a young boy's dream.

While riding the Test Car was pretty neat, it was strictly “self service,” unlike the fantastic Streamliners that our family traveled in for summer vacation up until about 1968. Riding across the country, enjoying the fabulous scenery from the air conditioned Domeliner will always be some of my very best memories. The sharp service and elegant décor in the Dining and Club cars really made our vacations special. I remember too, the special compartments in our berths where we would place our shoes upon retiring for the night. By morning, they would be cleaned and highly polished! As exciting as the trips were, it never took long to fall asleep to the rhythmic clackety-clack of the wheels.

The Omaha Shops were a large complex, where maintenance and complete overhauls of locos and cars were performed by about 2500 employees during much of my career. Most components were reconditioned here, or fabricated from raw materials. As an apprentice, my first three years were spent moving from one work gang to another, learning virtually every (mechanical) aspect of maintaining, repairing, and rebuilding locomotives and shop equipment.

I was fortunate in 1974 to be able to work on the 8444 when it was shopped for refurbishing. I helped to polish the side rods; rebuild the steam valves in the cab; and replace the piston rings. Of course, the best part was hanging around when she was fired up, and seeing (and hearing) all of that machinery in motion!

Over the years, I spent a great deal of time in the Wheel Shop, Glass House, and the “Floor,” where most loco maintenance was performed. I have to say that I enjoyed every bit of the work (most days!), but more than that, I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the guys.

“Diversity” has been a politically charged buzzword for a number of years, but railroaders have always been “diverse.” A lot of the Old Heads in the shops began their career as new, young, immigrants, or were first generation Americans. We all got along as true brothers. And let me tell you, these guys (and their wives) could COOK! Some of the best food I have ever had in my life was heated up on the steam pipes, or in a “re-purposed” drying oven. Italian sausage – enchiladas – ribs – desserts – breads - you name it, someone made it, and it was always shared. A lot of lifetime friendships were forged in those days, and there certainly were some colorful characters!

Yes, I do miss those days. In spite of the good natured tormenting that I endured as an apprentice, and the not infrequent shenanigans of certain "pot - stirrers" over the years. It was truly a great experience, and I learned a great deal that I still utilize in business and personal life every day.

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Passenger Trains, Steam Trains, Working at UP
Omaha, NE
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