Dad's Beginnings and Endings on the Big Four
Dad would often come home and say that Alexandria was open or some other station in one of the towns in the Michigan Division that would pay more and ask mom if she wanted to move. We knew he was never serious as all the money in the world couldn't have enticed him away from his beloved homestead where he had grown up. Dad purchased the old homestead when I was four so I got to grow up in the house where he grew up and enjoy Charley Creek like he did. His siblings were ecstatic when he bought the place and visited often to reminisce. Mom cut down a catalpa tree they had planted when they lived there and they were extremely upset so she got permission to make changes after that.
All those 45 years that dad stayed at the Urbana Depot trains became sleek and modern and diesels replaced steam engines and society as a whole made huge advances but the depot remained frozen in time staying just as it was built in 1874 with no rest room or running water inside and a tiny stove in the middle of the office area as its only source of heat. No matter how primitive the working conditions, dad never once complained as he loved what he was doing. Dad usually went to work everyday wearing a cardigan sweater over his dress shirt and tie. Layering was absolutely essential in a depot with such a small heat source and where you had to use a pump out back to wash hands or get a drink of water even in the bitter dead of winter so it meant starting with long johns. When I visited dad at the Wabash Depot in the summer of 1960 wearing shorts, I had to laugh as he was busy at work wearing his trademark cardigan sweater.
One day in 1950 mom, my sister and I headed to Warsaw to visit an aunt. Mom wasn't used to driving because my brother had wrecked the car in 1944 and since we couldn't get parts as automakers were making tanks and jeeps for the war we had to sell it for scrap. For the next seven years which was all of my elementary years we went without a car so I either walked or took the train except when I rode in grandma's car to her place for birthday celebrations and holidays and to go to Elkhart or Anderson. I was probably the only girl in Indiana who spent more time in trains than in cars. Dad rode to work with another man and extra money went to four siblings in college and then dental school and seminary for my two brothers. After mom returned to teaching full time Dad visited his brother in Detroit and drove home with a Nash Rambler. It really stood out as most everyone in Wabash drove a General Motors product or a Ford so there were none like it around. That day as we crossed the Big Four tracks south of Warsaw my sister screamed "There's a train". Mom stalled the car right on the tracks and couldn't get the car started. We watched the train come nearer and nearer and heard its whistle blow over and over and sat there patiently confident that mom would save us and the new car. In the nick of time a miracle happened and mom got it in reverse and jerked backwards off the tracks just as the train got to the crossing. Mom was so humiliated and made us promise never to tell dad what had happened. That evening when we sat down to eat dinner dad said to mom in a kidding way that he heard she had decided to park on the Big Four railroad tracks that day. Mom was in shock and she looked at my sister and me and we shook our heads and then dad laughed and said the engineer had recognized the car and told him what happened. He then gave us a lecture on using common sense insisting we get out of the car the next time as we might not be so lucky.
Dad would have spent his entire career at the Urbana Depot but the depot was closed by New York Central in 1960. He was lucky at that because he had so much seniority he was able to move up to the much larger Wabash Depot. It would have been ideal if he could have finished his 50 years there as he was approaching 70 but an agent at Manchester had a few months more seniority than dad so when the Manchester Depot closed a few months later that agent bumped dad from Wabash and dad spent his final years at Marion. That long drive everyday when it was still dark was stressful at his age as he had to be at Marion at 7:00. I still have the copy of the brief memo he wrote the NYC RR noting that after his vacation in 1966 he was retiring.
It was very traumatic for dad to see the vast changes going on with the New York Central including his beloved Urbana Depot being torn down as it had been such a big part of his life. Just as traumatic was the closing of the Wabash Depot which was soon to be leveled as it was a city landmark and an important part of his life growing up and our family's. The stable world of railroading he had known and loved so much was all falling apart around him and all the traumatic changes were just too much for him and a few months after he retired at age seventy he had a stroke. I felt so sorry for dad as he never had a chance to use the Golden Pass he got for 50 years of service which allowed him to ride any railroad line he wanted when he wanted. I truly believe he was so emotionally attached to the New York Central that when it began to die part of him died. Mom did use the Golden Pass on occasion but never as much as she would have if dad were alive. Dad had never ridden on an airplane and I wanted him to have the chance before he died so in 1968 after he was back on his feet after the stroke I flew mom and him to Lincoln, Nebraska where we were living. Though he was very weak the first thing he asked to do was go out and the see the Burlington Northern hump to the west of Lincoln where one man in a tower made up dozens of trains mechanically. Retired or not his mind was always on trains.
What amazed me all the time dad was with the Big Four was dad's love for his job and loyalty to the New York Central. Most years he had no real desire to take a vacation and was happy simply taking lots of weekend trips. One year we convinced him to take his vacation but when he came home saying his replacement was a woman and he was leery about her experience it didn't sound good. He insisted on waiting until after he checked on her on Monday before leaving town and when he found things were in complete chaos he promptly dropped vacation plans and returned to work the next day. We all laughed and shook our heads in wonderment that dad was more concerned about the smooth running of the New York Central than taking a vacation. If he had a fault, that wasn't a bad one to have. Dad had traveled extensively before he was married but there were still places where he had hoped to go. He would bring home maps of the NYC RR system and at night talk about traveling to remote destinations but it never got past the talking stages because we were always going to Chicago or St. Louis so I never thought it would happen. I don't know whether it was because he was nearly 60 or suddenly realized his "baby" (as I was often referred to because I was the youngest) would soon be gone but when I became a freshman in high school he suddenly decided to put his dreams in action and he didn't worry one bit about his replacements after that.
Alexandria NYC Station - Mid 1950s - Ron Buser Collection