A wall, a parking lot and right-of-way footage are all that separate The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad main line from Highland Village attorney William Brotherton’s desk and swivel chair.
“I’ve always loved railroads,” he said. Based on the location of his office, that may be an understatement. “And once you get railroading in your blood, you never get it out.”
Brotherton’s affection for the iron horse began in the early 1950s in Atlanta, Ga. Interstate highways were few, air travel depended on propellers and intercontinental travelers rented ocean liner berths for the week it took to cross an ocean.
His mother, a transplanted Vermont farm girl, loved trains, the dominant form of overland transportation at that time. She took her “Irish twin” boys William and Steve, born on opposite ends of one year, to wile away sunny afternoons under a pine tree near Southern Railway’s main switchyard.
The little family watched old steam and new diesel locomotives move freight and passenger train cars. The boys waved to engineers who blew their horns and whistles. “It was hard to believe,” William said, “those magnificent coal and oil powered steam engines were going the way of the dinosaurs.”
A German engineer, Rudolf Diesel, had invented an engine four times more efficient and comparatively maintenance free than the black iron giants once called Puffer Bellies.
Before the 1960s closed, Arlo Guthrie sang a wistful ballad about a train called The City of New Orleans that rocked and clacked its way to the “railroad blues” as the age of steam locomotives ended. High schoolers did a Motown dance called The Locomotion, and little kids still sang “I’ve Been Working on The Railroad.”
In the early Cold War decades after World War II, the Brotherton boys expected nuclear war at any moment. “The fright was so serious that people in our neighborhood invested in back yard bomb shelters.”
Given the imminence of destruction, the pair and their pal Walter decided to look for adventure. “And that meant walking on a nearby train trestle used by the Silver Comet,” a passenger train. Half way across the bridge, the tracks began to ping. Showing no sign of slowing down, the Silver Comet streaked toward them at top speed, which William now judges was in the neighborhood of 80 miles per hour. The terrified boys jumped 60-70 feet to the creek below the tracks. Two feet of water and “the resiliency of youth” saved them, but “we had a healthy respect for trestles forever after,” William said through his laughter.
Having been warned by numerous adults not to run and leap on moving trains, the boys decided to give it a try, and on the first attempt caught a slow ride 15 miles into downtown Atlanta. “We escaped a street gang, then called juvenile delinquents, then got a lift home to the suburbs in a police squad car.”
On their next trip the adventurers had to convince the police chief in tiny Winder, Ga., they were not runaways. This time, an unhappy William Brotherton, Sr. drove the four-hour Atlanta-to-Winder round trip. “We never caught a train in that direction again.”
William, Jr. grew up, attended college, married and worked for the Fulton County wastewater treatment operation. He answered an ad for an environmental manager willing to relocate to the vague “Midwest.” “My wife was not eager to leave the south. We made a wish list of all the things we’d expect from an ideal job. I figured there was no way I’d hand that over, and still be hired,” but it was difficult to attract people to Grand Forks, N.D., so the company made the Brothertons an offer they couldn’t resist.
The family moved, then bought and refurbished an 1899 Victorian house. “It was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting,” William recalled — complete with resident ghosts. Their daughters received visits from “nice ladies,” uniformed nurses thought to have lived in the place when it was a boarding house for long ago hospital staff. After some invisible force opened the basement door, and unceremoniously shoved the Brothertons’ wimpering dog down the steps, they learned “Granny,” a former owner of the place, had kept her garden tools right where the dog liked to doze.
Several years later William’s employer shut down operations, but the family had taken a liking to Grand Forks so he applied to work as a brakeman for the Burlington Northern Railroad. “I told them I had experience jumping on and off moving trains, and that won me the job.
“Before my time, brakemen rode on top of the train. They ran from car to car, and slowed each one by turning a roof steering wheel that tightened the air brakes on the wheels down below. Eventually the control wheels were placed at the top of a ladder on the side of each car.”
His most memorable ride was on a loose boxcar with failed brakes near Devil’s Lake, N.D. The temperature was 25-30 degrees below zero as the car picked up speed, and headed for two tank cars — each filled with propane. Concluding this was a bad day to die, he jumped off and landed in a snow bank. The cars collided but no explosion occurred, and the annoyed conductor wanted to know why Brakeman Brotherton hadn’t stopped the wayward car.
Eventually centralized brake lines controlled by the engineer from the locomotive cab changed the way trains slow and stop, but companies used their old equipment in out of the way places like small North Dakota towns. Today, brakemen are mainly responsible for connecting and disconnecting train cars and switching trains between tracks.
From time to time he worked with female brakemen, William said. Frequently, women lacked the muscle required to maneuver heavy train parts alone. For example, a coupler’s “knuckles” weigh in at 50 pounds each.
In the industry, locomotives are called a train’s power units. A long train can have as many as seven locomotives distributed at its ends. Sometimes “slave locomotives,” remotely controlled by the engineer up front, are placed midway in particularly long trains.
Lesser mortals calculate an automobile’s stopping distance on dry pavement as one car length for every 10 miles of speed. It takes imagination to visualize the distance required to stop, say, a 100-car train traveling 60 or 70 miles per hour. Add distance if all the cars are full. Conclusion: Playing chicken with an oncoming train is a foolish mistake.
Has Brotherton experienced collisions, derailments or runaway trains? “Fortunately only three or four low-speed incidents, but drunks, or suicidal people, bored teens and stalled cars or school buses are every train crew’s nightmare.”
Train firemen, personnel who, in bygone days fed coal into steam engines, were phased out after diesels took over. The railroads were union shops so it took a long time to match crews with the new equipment. “Conductors are the onsite bosses who know what’s in each car and where to make deliveries and pickups.”
When was the last time you saw a caboose? They too have been phased out, but those quaint little red cars used to be the conductor’s onboard office. “It also had a couple of bunks and a small kitchen for the crew.”
The second-story cupola, on top of the caboose, had two chairs where the conductor and rear brakeman sat and watched the train for fire and problems that might lead to derailments. “Riding in the caboose with open windows, through the woods in Minnesota on a sunny 60-70 degree day, fulfills every boy’s dream life,” Brotherton said. “People waved, we waved back.
Sometimes we pitched in for groceries, and the conductor fixed a meat and potatoes dinner. What a good time that was.” Engineers are never said to “drive” a train. They run or operate it. When there’s a labor strike, trainmasters step in as engineers.
After two y
ears as a brakeman, Brotherton was promoted to trainmaster on a Burlington Northern subsidiary in Denver. As trainmaster, he sat in a five-story high tower that overlooked the train yard.
“It was like looking at a gigantic model train setup.” He supervised the yard master who was in charge of moving trains and crews around on the ground. “I was supposed to make really big decisions,” there were plenty of those, “and enforce railroad rules.” If trains ran late, the trainmaster got chewed out.
Trainmasters work 12-14 hour days, six days a week, and are so devoted to the company they’ll come home mid-vacation. Well, maybe, maybe not. After William realized 30 years in the yard tower wasn’t his idea of a lifelong career, he resigned and then moved back to Atlanta, warm winter weather and wastewater treatment engineering.
Several years later, his wife suggested it might be time to move. Where? Well, she’d seen the television show Dallas, and had a hankering for the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He found a job, and they moved again. The new company put him through law school. That was 30 some odd years ago, and the Brothertons sunk their roots deep in the heart of Texas, and consider the Lone Star State their permanent home.
Ten years ago William authored a memoir, Burlington Northern Adventures: Railroading in the Days of the Caboose featuring a set of stories with memorable characters like Milwaukee Queen and Pisser Bill. “It’s been through three printings, translated into several foreign languages and still selling well. It’s available at Amazon.com too,” he said.
William is general counsel for the Museum of the American Railroad in Frisco. The museum houses 38 real trains on 3,800 feet of real track. Check out the website for information and hours of operation at www.dallasrailwaymuseum.com.
Contact the writer at [email protected]