Report from the Rail City
We’ve all left the family SUV idling while we stopped at the mailbox, and then turned to see the ol’ Explorer bucking inexorably off through the boxwood hedge then into the tree beyond. Picture in your mind’s eye one of S.P.’s legendary cab-forward locomotives walking itself slowly off the track into the roundhouse pit, or crashing through the brick walls of the big railroad shop east of the Sparks Nugget – after a drowsy engineer left the behemoth “in gear” with the boiler fire down, yet slowly building up steam and finally creeping unattended in the wee small hours of the morning when Sparks was fast asleep. Ugly spectres indeed, but they’ve both occurred.
Tom Swart entered the world in 1912 in his family’s home on B Street behind the livery stable we all remember between 11th and 12th Streets and now the Silver Club’s parking lot. He attended Mary Ann Nichols, Robert Mitchell, and Sparks High Schools, Procter Hug Sr. his bookkeeping teacher; he then took a job with the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad in the locomotive shop for eighteen and a half cents an hour.
One of his shop duties was as a chainman – placing lengths of chains between the driver wheels of the big malleys and the track, to keep them where they belonged in the yard (malley, eponymous with Swiss mechanical engineer Anatole Mallet, a descriptor of the cab-forward locos accurate only through the 1920s but surviving to this day as a term of endearment.) Tom’s recollections of life in the SP roundhouse and shops could make a book – or a chapter in one coming out later this year. He speaks of the massive overhead-rolling crane in the shop – lifting the boilers and fireboxes off the axles and cylinders, all to go in different directions for maintenance, then be rejoined and repainted. The flue box area, airbrake shop, the huge vat of boiling water laced with carbolic acid that locomotive parts and the employees’ tools could be lowered into for cleaning, then cooled and drained periodically to retrieve the stuff. (Maybe we don’t even want to know where the wastewater wound up.) Tom recalls a mechanic falling into the vat and arriving instantly at the Great Beyond, his soul and bibb overalls cleansed. The flue rattler? All 2,500 residents of Sparks knew when the flue rattler was running – the giant vibrator the only way to shake the built-up crud out of the locomotives’ fireboxes and flues.
Tom recalls life in Sparks vividly – in his early youth an Indian reservation occupied the area now the site of City Hall on 4th and Prater Way. The U. S. Air Mail’s deHavilland biplane pilots that navigated by following SP trackage from Elko enroute to their daily arrival at Blanch Field on the site of the present Washoe Golf Course, rocking their wings to the railyard workers below. Conductor Heights south of B Street and west of the train yard (near then-17th Street, now Rock Boulevard), the preferred lair of railroaders and their families.
A gnarly railroad strike broke out in 1922 that would continue for two years, pitting S.P.’s management against the train operations and maintenance employees. Tom, as a ten-year old, recalls a powerful spotlight, placed on the roof of the roundhouse by management to ensure security in the yard, but also finding use as a tool of harassment, its powerful beam trained at union members’ homes and into bedrooms through the night. And railroad timekeeping? Once a pride and priority with the S.P., less so in the Amtrak days, time was set by the yard whistle sounded precisely at 8 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m., or available in the railroad’s clock in the window of W. R. Adams & Son Jewelers on B Street to set your Hamilton pocket watch with a railroad dial to.
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