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Life on the rails

St. Cloud man worked 42 years for the railroad without missing a single day


When William Reed was young, he spent a lot of time with his father Stillman A. Reed, a passenger conductor on the Great Northern Railroad on the Willmar Division in central Minnesota. He spent so much time by the rails that he know the rails well. That knowledge would come in handy as soon as he was old enough to work.

“During my senior year at Willmar High School in 1938, I learned that the Great Northern was short of telegraphers, and I was offered extra credit for attending the Morse Telegraph School at the Great Northern Depot in Willmar for two hours every weekday,” he said.

While there, he was taught everything about railroading that he didn’t learn from his father, the 97-year-old St. Cloud resident said. “I learned the book of rules, which is the Bible of the railroad, the handling of train orders for train movements on all the tracks, the local routes, and bookkeeping.”

And, of course, telegraphy.

There were several others in the class, he said, all taught by a regular railroad telegrapher who was assigned to do the job, and would come in and teach them.

William Reed, 97, of St. Cloud worked a variety of jobs on the railroad from 1938 to 1985, and during that time, he didn’t miss a single day of work. Contributed photo

William said learning the Morse Code is like learning another language. “So once you learned the code, you had to practice until you could type it correctly, get the messages on paper, and deliver the paper to whoever it was necessary. The more you used it, the better you got at it. ” He typed about 60 words per minute, he said.

When he graduated high school in May of 1938, he had the weekend off, and the next Monday went right to work as a third telegrapher at Cokato. “That was my first permanent position. The next year, the Great Northern started closing stations. Cokato closed in late 1945.”

Then he became an extra, and could be sent to any of the seven stations in the division.

“I moved to different areas to relieve a station where someone was sick, or on vacation, usually for two weeks at a time, until the five-day work week began in 1949, and I bid for a second-shift position at St. Cloud from 4 p.m. to midnight, and was assigned there late in the year.”

More Than Just Morse

“That position taxed my intellect to the nth degree,“ he said, because of all the other jobs his position entailed. “I copied train orders from four different dispatchers, delivering them to the crews going to work.”

He also sent and received Morse code messages from five relay offices -- Willmar, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Grand Forks, N.D, and Superior Wisc. “As well as all the stations on the branch lines connected to St. Cloud.”

The messages from the relay offices could be about anything, including diversions for the freight trains, sending them to different places than their original destinations.

“Mostly that was potatoes coming from North Dakota and western Minnesota, heading east. When carloads or an entire train of potatoes were routed through St. Cloud and then diverted, the diversion was sent to me at St. Cloud. These shipments would be changed to a new destination, requested by the new buyer. I copied that necessary information and changed the route of those particular cars to a different location. Sometimes I did 50 to 125 diversions a day.”

He also handled Western Union messages after the downtown office closed at night, copying and delivering those messages after their hours.

Passenger Trains

William was responsible for two, three, or four passenger trains a day.

“I quoted rates for tickets at the ticket counter, sold tickets and trip insurance, gave change, did the bookkeeping, and at the end of the day the money had to balance. I planned trips to all destinations, and made reservations for Pullman space by calling the office in St. Paul. I answered questions on the telephone: ‘Is the train on time?’ ‘Are paychecks in?’ ‘Can you give me information about a trip I would like to take?’ and others.”

He also operated the switchboard to change the track switch about eight blocks away that would alter the direction the train could go, putting it on new rails and a new direction.

Late trains was a big no-no, William said. “It was sacrilege to delay the train. You had to have a real good excuse or reason for doing that. Passenger trains needed more information about the division they were entering, and to make sure they weren’t late leaving from St. Cloud, I delivered the orders right to the engineer up front in the train engine, which usually stopped about five cars past the depot, so I took the orders right up to the engineer, so he didn‘t have to come and get them from me, and then go back to the engine, and take a chance on delaying the train. When things were late, everything was rushed a little bit to get things back on schedule. The information told the engineer where he might meet another train, and tracking conditions en route.”

“After the company added the Red River passenger train, with four coaches and a lounge car of reserved seats, ticket requests really kept me overly busy,” he said.

The railroad must have thought so too, as they had an efficiency expert sit with William for eight hours.

“At that time, I was busy enough that I had to sit and eat my sandwich and telegraph at the same time, while having four freight trains to move, and two passenger trains to service – the Western Star running from St. Paul to Seattle, and the Winnipeg Limited from St. Paul to Winnipeg. So I only sat down when I was working with the Morse Code and on the phone. At the end of eight hours the efficiency expert said, ‘Boy, you need help.’ And that was true. I had one 20-minute break during my shift, but I rarely got any part of the 20 minutes.”

A hail or sleet storm might cause wire problems at times, William said. “Then everything slowed down a little bit, but we managed to work around it. We’d all been in the business long enough to know that something different like that would happen and have to be taken care of.”

Sometimes the wire chief of the division that had the problem would contact William. “He instructed me to put a patch on the proper place of the switchboard to bypass the problem.”

Other Railroad Work

William had to deal with paychecks every two weeks, some with the car shop, which employed 500 workers fixing and building new railroad boxcars from scratch.

“After paydays, I delivered the left-over payroll checks to employees who had been sick or on vacation. I got to meet a lot of people out at the car shop that way. I think the camaraderie of the job was a lot of why I liked my work.”

He also did the same for workers at the roundhouse, too, so he learned how the roundhouse worked.

“In those days, engines could only run one way, and you always had to have the nose cone forward. The building was round, and the turntable was round. Engines were driven onto a track on the turntable to be worked on, or to turn the engine around. It was kind of like a Lazy Susan, where you turned the turntable with the engine on it until it came to the right door, and was sent back the other way. If it came in facing east, it left facing west. That was what the turntable was for. But I was never really involved with that because it wasn‘t in my realm of expertise.”

Each telegrapher that William dealt with began each message with call letters. “St. Cloud was DX, for example, and Willmar was WI. So the minute those letters came on, I knew who it was, and actually knew many of the people that I was working with, as I had met some of them over time.”

What he enjoyed most about his work was knowing that everybody had to depend on his doing what had to be done. “If I didn’t do the job, everybody else had to wait.”

William also worked as passenger representative between the company and customers on the Empire builder, where he started in St. Paul, went to Chicago and stayed overnight, took the train to Seattle the next day and spent the day there, and at three in the afternoon, left Seattle and started back and got off at St. Paul. “I did that for about a year, but found out that it wasn’t very good for the domestic life, being away from the family five days a week, then home for three days. That didn’t take care of what a family needs.”

Outside of that, William built a round house in 1970 in seven months with one carpenter. “Try doing that today,” he said. After retirement in 1985, he attended the local St. Cloud Technical & Community College and built a Kiwi RSX3 automobile using a Suzuki 750 engine and drivetrain. “That was my first project after I retired in 1985, and took about six months to complete. I did all the body work and designed the trailer. The students in automotive and painting classes helped me where I had no expertise.”

10,700 Work Days in a Row

One of the fantastic things about William’s work was that for 42 years of working for the same company – starting with Great Northern, which became Burlington Northern, which became Burlington Santa Fe – he never missed a day.

“There were always transitions, because they would close stations, and the districts that were covered became larger. But I was always needed, and not everybody could do what I was doing.” It helped that he was very rarely sick.

“I actually didn’t feel like I was working,” he said. “I didn’t mind going to work, and had no problems with management. I just liked to do it. What I was doing was the love of my life.”


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