Yakutat and Southern Railroad
Amazing Train Stories
"When I first started working for Bell Can we had 5 men assigned to the "River" which included the railroad and the fish buying. One guy just ran the train and the scow had a skipper and 3 pick-up men. Prior to the season we had a crew that worked on the railroad. Libby had a policy of replacing every 5th tie in a 5 year program. We stretched that to 7 years the first year I was there and then gave up the policy completely, replacing ties when we jumped the track or the rails spread too far apart. The next year we had 4 men assigned to the River and one quit soon after the season started. He was not replaced and the three of us also took turns running the railroad. The following year we were two men and that's where it stayed as long as I worked there. Sometimes they would send someone to drive the train but not often - the tracks were getting to the point then that if you didn't have every tricky section anticipated and dealt with you were gonna jump the track. It was a lot more reliable and safer to just run the rig in turns between the two of us. Leaving town was a snap, you just got all the speed you could and dumped sand constantly in front of the drive wheels to keep from slipping and losing traction. The switches were set for the outbound trip so it was just a matter of turning the engine around on the turntable at Johnson Slough and hooking up for the next trip to town. It was the trip to town that was interesting. With just the two of us on the River we had to make a fast round trip so we could load up with the gas, oil, coal and grub orders and get back out, load up, and run the scow back downriver and anchored for the next round of fish buying. We learned to be resourceful in ways to save time. A big time waster was the switches, you had to stop the train, throw the switch, pass through, stop, go back and throw the switch back for the outbound, and do the same twice more as you used the "Y" in the track to back the train down to the cannery." What I did was to get the train in the lowest gear, jump out, run ahead and throw the switch, let the train pass me, throw the switch again, run like hell to catch the train before it reached the end of the track, jump in, stop it, put it in low reverse, jump out, throw the switch, let it pass by, run past the train to the next switch, throw it, let the train pass, reset the switch for the out bound and race back to the train before it started slipping and gathering speed on the backing down the hill ordeal. The first time I tried this I noticed a lot of concerned looks from the passengers, some even bailed out. After awhile it became standard operating procedure and no one was concerned. I sometimes reflect on what might have happened if I had have tripped or worse yet, get the switch only halfway open.
"One day on the outbound trip with a good number of passengers I met two moose on the tracks just short of the Lost River trestle. They turned around and ran down the tracks, I followed, blowing the horn and seeing just how fast they could run. When they got to the trestle, the smart one (the cow) jumped off into the brush and the young bull decided he would try and jump the 75ft trestle. He landed about 10ft out on it with all four legs hanging down through the ties. I used the air brakes and dumped sand frantically but could not stop. I slid directly over the moose, bumping his horns a bit but not hurting him any. As he struggled mightily the whole rig bounced around and the passengers were having a ball. I couldn't get out of the cab as the moose's head was thrashing around right at the door. Finally the moose got several legs over the track and rolled off the trestle, doing a mid air roll and landing feet first in the Lost River mud. As he ran upstream I noticed something hanging from a horn but couldn't figure what it might be. When I got to Johnson Slough I found out. It was a 5ft section of air brake hose. I managed to stop and the next trip into town I reported to the cannery mechanic, Emil Meissner, that the air brakes were out. He demanded to know what happened and I told him truthfully that: "A moose made off with them". He muttered something abound damned smart ass kids and crawled under to check things out. I happened to be nearby when he came back out and I'll never forget the strange look on his face as he stood there with a broken section of hose in one hand and a double handful of moose hair in the other. He was too stubborn to ask me any further details however. (There were several passengers with cameras on that trip and I noted quite a few pictures being taken ( I wonder if some may still be around?)"
"One fall it had rained a steady downpour for a week, all the streams were over their banks and everything was awash. At a low spot several hundred yards from the Situk the tracks were completely under water, I crept slowly through and stopped at the Situk trestle. It was the highest I ever saw it, the water was even with the ties and the water was so dirty and turbulent you couldn't see if the pilings were intact. I walked gingerly across and returned to the rig. I decided to cross but had all the passengers get out and walk across. When they were all safely on the other side I backed up a ways and got ready for a swift dash across. I got out and checked out everything first and when I looked in the back I saw that I still had two passengers. It was an old couple and they were kneeling together with folded hands praying out loud. I figured it would be too dangerous to have them try and walk across the trestle so I made the run and made it across OK. It was probably the prayer that did the trick. That was the most water I ever saw at Yakutat - you could run the scow to the landing at low tide! The old couple was Mr. and Mrs. George Johnson."
The Run Away Car
"Another late fall day in a big Coho year I was running in late at night. Earlier we had had an electrical fire in the dash and we were completely without instruments or lights. It was pitch black and raining. Everything else worked so I was driving in by my watch and known track irregularities. When you had a big load of fish aboard you had to really gather speed prior to Ofir Creek in order to climb the hill on the other side. As I felt us go downhill to the bridge I gave it the gun and it just shot across and up the hill like a sport car. I knew something was bad wrong so I stopped and walked back. All I had was a cigarette lighter so I lit it to check the car load of fish. It was gone. The hitch had come loose and the tow bar had dropped off. As I stood there wondering what to do next I could hear a humming noise and looked toward the noise. All you could see was a slight gleam from the tracks, something really big was coming across Ofir Creek really fast and it occurred to me I best get the hell out of there pronto. I dumped all the sand and had sparks flying off all the wheels and tracks as I tried to outrace the car and its load of 3,000 cohos. It was close - I felt a firm bump and managed to gear down and get it stopped. I tied the car to the rig with rope and left it at the top of the hill. We found the tow bar on the tracks halfway to the airfield the next day. I often contemplate what might have happened if I had walked to the back about 20 seconds later. I would have been nothing but a grease spot plastered to the end of the car."
"One year prior to the season it was decided to brush the worst of the alders and willows from the tracks. Bob Welsh had several drums of vegetation killer (Agent Orange?) that was supposed to defoliate and kill anything if was sprayed on within a couple days. We mounted an air compressor on a flat car and Mel Renner and I went to work. Mel had a full body suit and hood with air filters and was in charge of the spraying. I was to drive at a steady 5 MPH while Mel, with a sprayer in each hand, sprayed the brush. We intended to spray the upriver side going down and the beach side coming back. All went as planned and we were doing a fine job until somewhere between Lost River and the airfield. I fell asleep and with all the face gear Mel couldn't holler loud enough to wake me. Finally, we gathered enough speed where the bouncing around roused me. I looked back at poor Mel trying to spray the brush at 30+ MPH! He looked like an out of control windmill and failed to see much humor in this slight setback. I backed up a bit and we got most (some) of the missed sections but it always was a bit spotty on the beach side of the track after that. As it turned out it was a mistake to clear the brush, the roots were all that was keeping the ties to the tracks and after we killed the brush we really starting jumping the tracks."
Early History Fish! The Train Today Amazing Train Stories
E-Mail UsRecounted from the experiences of Norm Israelson