Photo courtesy of Blair Kooistra.
"Back in the waning years of Iron Rails and Steel Men, this is how you railroaded on the branchlines of North America.
"It's harvest season and Burlington Northern's called an extra "Withrow Turn" off the extra board at Wenatchee to bring wheat to the market "forty feet at a time" off the Mansfield Branch. It's the waning days of grain movement of 40' boxcars to the Pacific Coast elevators on the light-railed branchline stragglers the railroad hasn't yet been able to persuade the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon, so in the late summer of 1983, railroading goes on much as it had since this branch was laid at the turn of the 20th Century.
"The entirety of this 60 mile branch to Mansfield--BN's 16th Subdivision of its Spokane Division--was dedicated to the seasonal movement of wheat to the Seattle area. Two Geeps would be called before sunrise, running to Columbia River siding on the mainline east of Wenatchee, where it would fill out its train with the requested number of empties from the rusty fleet of ancient "B102" boxcars stashed at Columbia River or up the branch a few miles at Voltage. Then, with the sun rising over Moses Coulee's towering cliffs, the train would head up into Douglas Creek canyon to emerge at Douglas, the first of five clearings in the rolling wheatfields where old tin-clad grain elevators would dispense the Golden Grain into boxcars with 6' wide doors "coopered" about 3/4 the height of the opening to allow a spout to dump 50 tons of product into the car.
"Up at Supplee, the crew arrives to pull loads and spot new empties. But there's a problem: the elevator has shoved its loads past the east end of the elevator track to foul the main. No worries: the four-man crew are all veterans, and deal with this matter-of fact: shove the offending cars east of the switch, make the cut, reline the switch, and then shove up the main to the next stop at Withrow, 5.6 miles.
"SOMEONE has to ride the point of the cut of cars ahead of the locomotive: this is no democracy, and the junior brakeman--who probably has the strongest arms on the crew, anyway--takes his place hanging off the side of the Burlington Northern boxcar leading the way. Assuming the three-point contact with the side of the car, eyes forward, 2-way radio in hand, he's alert to any traffic that might become a conflict at the train winds through the wheatfields for the next 20 minutes. If a collision is imminent, he'll give an excited "washout" call over the radio, then consider riding it out or bailing off into the weeds.
"'They don't railroad like that anymore' was never so true. These days such moves are frowned upon if not outlawed by modernized safety rules. The brakeman would ride in a contract van from crossing to crossing and call and "all clear," then drive on to the next crossing. Back in 1983, the concept of a Hallcon van to shadow a crew the whole day was as foreign a concept as light jointed rail and 50-ton boxcars full of grain would seem to most railroaders today who weren't even born when this photo was taken on August 1, 1983."