Third trick — the midnight to 8 a.m. shift — could be a long, quiet time for railroad telegraph operators. Although during the summer months it gets light long before third trick is over, in winter, most of the shift is worked in darkness.
One night during World War II at the isolated station of Welch, Ariz., about 10 miles west of Williams on the Santa Fe main line, a passenger train slowed to a crawl. Two soldiers wearing MP (Military Police) armbands swung off and walked into the small yellow office. They sat quietly for an hour or more, saying nothing, asking for nothing. Eventually the operator on duty — my mother, who worked at Welch for a spell during those busy war years — responded to the dispatcher’s voice on the company phone and beckoned one of the young men over. He spoke a few words to the dispatcher, handed the earpiece back to my mother, nodded to his companion, and sat down again.
The block light went out. The operator reported to the dispatcher and then turned to the two men. “Your train will be here in a few minutes, and it’s been ordered to stop and pick you up.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Appreciate your warm coal stove on a night like this.”
“Did you find what you’re looking for?”
The men made no reply.
Around the bend, a locomotive headlight cut through the night. Accompanied by the operator, the two MPs walked outside and waited. The train slowed to a crawl, and the men each caught a step and climbed up into a car. The conductor highballed the head end, the engineer whistled twice, and the train, along with its two mysterious passengers, disappeared into the night.
My mother never learned about what — or whom — the soldiers were looking for. Rumors of military deserters made the rounds, which seemed the most plausible reason for two men to sit for hours in hard wooden chairs in such a remote spot, then leave as quickly and quietly as they’d arrived.
Most nights at Welch were just long and quiet; the biggest challenge was staying awake between trains. Once in a great while an incident occurred to break the monotony. One night the westbound Super Chief, train 17, had to stop at the block signal just east of Welch. A freight ahead had not quite cleared the main line yet. A few moments later, the semaphore went from horizontal to vertical and the streamliner resumed its journey. The red-and-silver diesels passed the station, the long string of brightly lit silver cars following, until the last car with its rounded rump and glowing “Santa Fe Super Chief” sign rolled down the hill.
My mother walked back into the office, OS’ed No. 17, then settled back into the hard wooden captain’s chair.
Several minutes later, footsteps sounded on the wooden porch outside, the door flung open, and a terrified, disheveled young woman burst into the warmth and light. Her nylons were ripped to shreds and her knees were bleeding where she’d fallen onto the ballast, trying desperately to catch up with her train, now miles to the west.
After calming her down, and trying to make sense of her frantic sobbing, my mother began to piece together the story.
After dinner aboard the streamliner, the train had halted. The young lady, thinking it was a regular station stop, stepped off the train for some air before realizing there were no lights, streets, or cars. She walked a short distance from the train before sensing all was not right. Meanwhile, the brakeman had climbed back on board, unaware of the missing passenger. He closed the vestibule doors and the train began moving, leaving one passenger behind.
Screaming, the woman ran after her now rapidly disappearing world of safety and comfort, only to realize she was no match for the 3,600 horsepower far ahead.
As the train’s noise diminished, she heard nothing but silence, broken only by a coyote whose howls bounced off Johnson Canyon’s rocky walls, sounding like a whole chorus. The night was pitch black, other than the stars above, and she was completely lost, alone, and frantic — and also fairly inebriated, although sobering up rapidly.
She spotted the light of the Welch office, a good half mile away, and, prompted by the coyotes, tried to run. Her high heels caught on the ties and she fell time after time, scrambling to her feet and continuing toward the only light visible in the wilderness.
My mother calmed her down, offered her a cup of coffee, and reported to the dispatcher. After ringing off, she told the surprise visitor that the next westbound passenger train would stop for her and would take her on through to Los Angeles. The woman thanked her, then slowly opened her until-now firmly clenched hand. She looked at a scrap of paper for a long moment, then showed it to my mother. It was the torn end of the Super Chief’s dinner menu, inscribed with Clark Gable’s signature!
Later my mother learned that the young lady had reached her destination safely, and that her belongings had been taken off the Super Chief in Los Angeles and were waiting for her there.
Those lonely train-order stations are now history. Two-way radios offer more timely communications between train crews and dispatchers, and there are few dots of light on such remote stretches of railroad. But who’s to say some young lady on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief still might decide on a breath of fresh air some night?