Monday, May 23, 2011

San Luis Obispo operations

I want to take the opportunity to include some more of my 1992 interview with Malcolm “Mac” Gaddis. I visited him at home in San Jose, mostly to ask about operations on the Coast Division. I was well aware, from talking with academic colleagues about oral history, that “facts” which may be stated in such interviews are often erroneous. But factfinding is not the primary reason for an oral interview. The great potential value lies in the fact that only someone who was there can tell you how and why things were done.
     Another segment of some of Mac’s comments was in an earlier post (here’s a link: Mac went to San Luis Obispo as an electrician in September 1951. I began by asking him about cabooses.
     Gaddis: I was responsible for the cabooses. We had about 30 cabooses assigned, probably six to ten wooden cabooses used strictly for locals, like the Surf turn, King City turn, Guadalupe local, all wooden cabooses. Steel cabooses were about half and half cupola and bay window. All the steel ones were equipped with electric generators, 1 or 1.5 kW engine generators, and that’s the reason I went up there. That’s also about when the radios started on the Coast Division. I was involved in putting radios in F units at Los Angeles, all F units in those days. Later we got those SD9 engines and later the GP9.
     Thompson: As I read the timetables, it looked like train numbers were assigned by the subdivisions, and each one terminated, then got a new number to run to the next terminal. Is that right?
     Gaddis: Right, the trains had a number series, 800s or 900s, I’m not sure I can recall exactly. But they were scheduled.
     Thompson: Well, mostly 800 numbers. I noticed in the timetables that usually there is a long time between a scheduled arrival time of a freight, and the time the next one in that direction leaves. Why was that?
     Gaddis: Well, a train came in, they would switch it out, maybe shorten it to go up the hill, or make it bigger to go south. If you had really low-priority cars sitting in the yard, like empty drop-bottom gondolas, they might sit awhile before you had space on a train to move them out. Hot cars like perishables of course would go right out, usually on the WPB [Watsonville Perishable Block] if they were eastward loads.
     Thompson: Did the WPB operate extra, or did it have a scheduled number?
     Gaddis: Oh, it was a scheduled train. Other symbols were in use too. At the time of the earthquake in ’52,1 really worked a lot of hours, and I had to ride the WPB down to Santa Barbara, and come back on the Starlight or the Lark.
     Thompson: What about other hot cars? Would they go in the WPB too?
     Gaddis: I don’t know, but hot cars would have been in one of the manifests. Of course we had the “Zippers,” No. 373 and 374, sometimes 50 cars. [The “Overnight” trains.] We had 71 and 72 [the “Mail”], now 71 used to pick up strawberries in Santa Maria, Guadalupe and take them to Oakland. One time I was there, I just happened to see these express reefers come in on 71, then I rode the Lark to Oakland, where I boarded the City of San Francisco. I happened to see that those same two reefers were in the City when I got to Ogden, and when I got to Chicago, they were still at the head end. So they moved them right along, they were a hot cargo.
     Thompson: Were there express cars on 72? like milk from Oxnard into LA? There are photos from the 1930s that way, but I wondered if that continued in the 1950s.
     Gaddis: I don’t recall that, but of course that was on LA Division. But 72 was usually equally heavy as 71. That was the one the Superintendent usually had his car coupled to. That was Jimmy Jordan, he was Super for years.

     After relating some stories about Jordan, we looked at some more photos I had brought, showing the San Luis roundhouse and shop area.

     Thompson: You had a real car repair facility down there at the south end, I guess.
     Gaddis: Well, cabooses were up there on the caboose track. We had 15 or 18 machinists, but I was the only electrician there for several years, so I had to do all the annuals for electric components. Then there were three or four boilermakers too. We mostly did light repairs on locomotives. We had a pretty good size car shop, probably 75 or 80 people just in the car shop alone, working on car repair.
     We had inspectors in the yard. The unfortunate thing was that the inspectors were very fussy. It was a way to keep their job, you know, so they looked at everything. It was a 200-mile inspection at San Luis, so that’s where they inspected every car, lifted every lid, you know. But that was just on the day shift. Of course, there were just as many cars went through there on the afternoon and night shifts, as in day shift. So the carmen didn’t really have it covered as well as they thought.
     I guess there were nine or ten carmen in the yard, they did all the inspections on the through trains, and locals too, of course. And we had about a three-car rip track there too, in the shop area. You could change out couplers, you could change out trucks. We had several programs on cabooses, where they changed wheels, heavy repairs, and do some other improvements, even painted them.
     Thompson: I didn't know they did painting there.
     Gaddis: Oh, yeah. It was amusing, they had a thing called a “bazooka,” in five minutes you could paint the whole side of the caboose. That was after you masked all the windows and that. We had a relief outfit there too. I knew that fellow quite well, Lawrence Lightner, who was the crane operator. That was his primary job, running the crane, and he spent all this time fiddling with it. And he had a tool car that went with it, then in addition there was a kitchen car, and a flat car with three or four trucks, brasses, parts, all that. Sometimes there would be a car with ties and track parts. It had a tank car for water, because it was a steam crane, but I don’t remember how it was connected up to the crane.
     Cars in the relief outfit, whatever kind of car they were, were lettered as “tenders.” Some of those tenders that carried the trucks, they had small tanks on them too, just 4 or 5000 gallons of water.
     The MOW department would have their own Burro cranes, they would not use the relief train equipment except very exceptional conditions. They would have their own string of work cars, 3 or 4 or more cars, a locomotive and caboose, and would go out and do the work on their own, the work they needed to do, pick up rail and ties, do repairs.

     This concludes this excerpt from my interview with Mac Gaddis. Fascinating stuff if you want to model San Luis Obispo, or operate it, or both. I will post more of the interview material in future.
Tony Thompson


  1. "Fascinating stuff" also for who don't model SLO, Tony! Thanks for sharing with us. Lot of "cherries" to pick there, despite your warning.
    Keep going, please.

  2. Thanks, Enzo. I really enjoyed spending those two hours with Mac, and was very grateful for his willingness to share his memories. Luckily I did record the interview on tape, and then transcribed the entire thing onto paper, so I now have a record. Mac has now passed away, so I'm glad I interviewed him when I did.
    Tony Thompson

  3. Tony, many thanks for passing this on. I too model the SLO area (SM Sub) and stuff like this is simply "priceless"....

    Mike Madonna