By Rex Burress
Not only have many grand old houses succumbed to the ravages of time, but half a hundred years ago Trenton still had a grand depot and cabooses trailed along on the end of a train.
Trenton still has a remnant of a depot, but nothing like the spacious, yellow-brown building that once stood along the Rock Island Railroad tracks down at “the levee.” There was space for many anticipated passengers, numerous windows lighted a high-ceiling interior, and rows of adequate wooden benches rimmed the room – as if the promoters figured on many years of business. A future of airplanes must have seemed as remote then as “satellite buses to the moon” do now in our present age.
The Trenton depot also contained a room for the telegraph agent to operate his business of dots and dashes, and I got a good look at that station and operator Charles Quilty. I spent many evenings in that office learning the telegraph skill, not totally aware that the lines would become obsolete in a few years as wireless took over. You could say that I was on the tail-end of the telegraph, but I learned enough to pass the test and gain an agt-opr job at the Spickard depot–and observe a part of passing history.
A continual flow of railroad train men popped in and out of Quilty’s office, just to “chew the fat” with the talkative telegrapher. The symbol of train workers was overalls, a watch chain hanging out of the front pocket, maybe a red handkerchief around his neck and a striped cap. My neighbor, Morse Kasperson, was an engineer and thus attired.
Spickard’s depot was even more rustic, painted with the traditional yellow-brown on a building that must have been many years old. I mostly commuted the twelve miles from Trenton, although I did rent a room behind Crystal’s Cafe in the “small-downtown-on-a-hill.” That was in case of stormy weather, but my assignment never reached winter as I was “bumped” by seniority, and I just up and “went west young man.” (Where Gene Autry and the telegraph station on the desert was a long gone memory.)
Spickard’s postmaster Ross wandered down to the depot quite often, not only to check on any packages for the post office, but he enjoyed the musical clicking chant of the telegraph and my friendship. He was a bulwark of backup in case I needed help down in that lonely depot, riveted to listening for my “SB” call letters. Receiving a train order from the dispatcher could mean life and death for the train. You had to get that message right, too, and repeat it back to the sender right down to the dot.
A couple times a week the train stopped for passengers or cream cans, but mostly it sped right on through, and any message I had for the engineer had to be handed up on a forked stick. It can be challenging to hold your ground as the train roars along at 70 mph. Handing up an order the first time can make butter out of your shaking knees. But those days are gone forever.
A boy named Sharon and his sister often came down to the depot, too. I coaxed Sharon on how to set his line in the Weldon River to catch a catfish, and we did some hunting together on my off days. Another beginner would sub for agents so that the “mail and trains went through.”
The depot at Spickard is gone now, but around the country, you can still see occasional yellow-brown depots along the railroad right-of-way, tenderly cared for by town-and-train-lore lovers. There is one preserved in Gridley, CA near Oroville, and also a large one in Chico, CA, now used for a bus depot and an art gallery. Oroville’s depot was converted into a novel restaurant with train pictures and original diner-car seats, but the train still roars by while you are dining.
Just as the depots have disappeared, the cabooses that used to trail freights are seldom seen on trains, although they endure as mementos of yesteryear when the little red tail-end served as space for a conductor. Maybe there are a few stranded in Trenton, just as in Oroville, CA, where there are several, and there is one at a pioneer museum 15 miles up the river at Cherokee, CA. They make great photogenic subjects. At Portola, CA in the Feather River Canyon there is a railroad museum with 17 cabooses, and there is one at Oakland Camp facing the dining hall as if it had jumped the nearby tracks.
There was a time when the caboose, or sometimes called a train guard, was a romantic aspect of trains. They were mostly painted red with red lights indicating the end of the train, and served as a nonrevenue safety measure from the1860′s until 1980, when it was a law that a train be so equipped. Conductors made little homes in the caboose, decorating the walls, and cooking food on a coal-burning stove until electricity finally became available from a wheel attachment to a generator.
Some cabooses had a cupola on top where the conductor could get a good view of the train as it wound around curves or on hill slopes. There were many styles of that viewing projection, and the Rock Island Line was the first to extend the cupola out to the side for a better view. One prime object was to watch for hot boxes, or burning wheel linings, just as it was expected of the depot telegrapher to watch for those burns. I only saw one in my year at the Spickard depot, and I rushed to the key to inform the dispatcher at Trenton. Someone else had already reported it. Shucks.
Although Trenton had plenty of accommodations for train crews, out in long stretches of western wilds where few towns existed, an elaborate house would be built for rail workers. One exists in the Feather River Canyon, just above Rich Bar where a rich deposit of gold was found in 1853.
Right alongside that picturesque house with the pine-covered mountain rising behind it, flows a sparkling Kellogg’s Creek. High up the trail is the Rich Bar cemetery, where the miners laid their dead to avoid using any of the gold-bearing soil. The gold output receded by the time the railroad was snaked through the canyon in 1907, and the highway was built in 1928, so the miners never heard the rumble and the roar of the Western Pacific railroad…nor were they worried about gold space being used.
That “listen to the jingle, the rumble, and the roar” sound has faded in Trenton as well, when once the rails were the life-blood of many towns and cities. Air space and roadways have taken the bulk of industrial transportation, although train flat cars are often stacked with truck containers. Many of yesterday’s relics are gone with the wind and erosion, leaving us with but faint clues of the past.
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By Rex Burress