The statement from the C&EI Railroad for the work crew was $500. That was a crushing amount for a high school student working a summer job in 1956 to pay.
It didn’t take a master mathematician to figure out 75 cents an hour could be divided into $500 a whole lot of times. The bill was the result of an incident that occurred while moving a railroad car at Rodgers Grain Company. The grain elevator was located at Brothers Station in central Vermilion County.
The rail car involved in the incident was loaded with bagged feed and had to be moved down the rail siding to be unloaded. To do this properly, a rail jack would inch the car along at a snail’s pace until it reached the desired location.
To do it quickly, a truck was hooked to the rail car with a long chain, to assist the jack. When the car was moving at a good clip, the chain was unhooked. “Quickly” was the standard method at the grain elevator.
On the day of the incident, Don Burton was manning the jack to get the car rolling, Russell Rodgers, owner of the grain company, was piloting the truck chained to the rail car.
I was on the rail car to operate the high brake to slow and stop it. A first for me. Being promoted to brakeman was quite a promotion from my regular duties of mainly handling heavy bags of fertilizer and feed.
Watching this high tech operation was my cousin Bernice Schramm, the C&EI station agent. Bernice occupied the little depot at the end of the rail line at Brothers.
Russell had given instructions on operating the brake on the car, tighten it enough to slow the car, but not to stop it until it was in front of the doors of the warehouse. If it was not quite in front, it could be jacked the last few feet he told me. He also smiled and warned me not to run over his truck.
The operation began smoothly enough, Don Burton placed the rail jack under a box car wheel, pressed down a few times and the car began to roll.
Russell had the slack out of the chain and when he pulled, the rail car picked up speed. It was a long siding and quite a distance to the warehouse so I turned the brake wheel slowly.
It was surprising how fast the rail car gained speed when it reached the downside of a slight rise in the rails, so I turned the wheel faster, but it had no affect on the car’s momentum.
I was amazed at how fast Don Burton could move as he ran up along side the car to unhook the chain. I had not realized he was so agile. He got the chain unhooked before the car began dragging the truck with it.
Bernice was smiling as I passed her and the depot. By that time I had become aware of all the slack in the brake chain.
As the car zipped over the road in front of the grain elevator I was frantically spinning the brake wheel in the opposite direction of the way I had turned it earlier.
It was a little late, the rail car rapidly covered the distance to the end of the siding and crushed the pile of rail ties there like they were tooth picks. The wheels didn’t go far once they plowed into the dirt after leaving the rails, but they did sink into the ground a respectable distance before they came to rest.
The regulars who occupied the loafer’s chairs in the grain office were on hand right away to offer their condolences on the catastrophe. They also were a little critical of my railroading skills. Russell judged it a “hell of a mess” even though his truck had escaped the runaway car.
Bernice requested a work crew and the next week the car was back on the track. I received the $500 bill about a week later. When I showed it to Russell he said we should discuss it with cousin Bernice.
She predicted the railroad would probably let me pay the bill over time, considering my youth and embarrassing financial status. She said as station agent she would take care of the details.
She speculated the company might want to take a lien on the old jeep I drove. That was fine, because the old World War II surplus jeep belonged to my brother. She said she would have something worked out in a few days.
This went on for a couple of weeks and then I received a call from Russell Rodger’s wife. She evidently couldn’t stand to see me worry about the debt any longer.
She told me there was no cost for putting the car back on the track, Bernice and Russell had made up the charge to have a little fun out of me. Bernice had typed up the statement on a billhead she had at the depot and mailed it to me in a C&EI envelope.
The next day I told my cousin I was so worried over the statement I was going to take it to the railroad’s office in Danville to see what kind of terms I could get to pay it off.
She confessed to the prank but pointed out it had been an excellent caper, one they had all enjoyed.
I knew just what she meant. I felt the same way a couple of years later when I watched her come out of her little, smoke-filled depot on a cold winter morning. Someone had sealed the chimney that handled the smoke from the old, pot-bellied stove inside.
Life at Brothers Station in the 1950s.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.