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Love Letter To The Railroad Yards

Railroad-450In 1976 and 1977, I photographed the railroad yards of Denver, Colorado, using black and white infrared film, an exciting, unpredictable medium that worked best in the magic yellow light of a late afternoon spring or autumn day.

I longed to make beauty out of one of the oldest areas of the city–an industrial wasteland to some, an unknown world to others. Through this work, I truly came to love Denver. The photographs are perhaps all the more poignant now that the tracks have been torn up and the valley reconfigured for a new century.

In 2012 I published a number of photographs in the publication “Love Letter to the Railroad Yards.”


“Planet Railroad” (forthcoming July, 2013)

Not long after I left my job on the railroad in 1979, I wrote several stories about my time on the Rio Grande. I’ve collected three of these stories into a short memoir, “Planet Railroad.” The first story, entitled “Huerfano,” is not only about learning to run locomotives, but about the men I worked with who had to accept me—or not—as a pioneer and their equal in the workplace. “Huerfano” means orphan in Spanish, and both refers to a geological feature on the Eastern plains of Colorado as well as my own feelings at times as the only woman in the yards, at the roundhouse, and on the road.

First there was the chain gang.

Twenty-one straight days and nights of work for minimum wage so we could experience all the different jobs a new locomotive fireman would work.

Eight of us had hired out as firemen in Pueblo, the first group in many years. We were a mixed lot: four white men, two Chicano men, a black man, and one white woman—me. Perhaps the white guys were there to balance “us” out. I couldn’t tell, but conveniently they had higher seniority.

“Fireman” wasn’t what you would think. Unlike steam engines, diesel electric locomotives don’t need to be “fired,” of course, but the position remained even after the steam engines were gone. We would take on a few jobs that engineers didn’t work, and then as students of experienced engineers, ultimately learn to run trains ourselves.

I don’t know who coined the term “chain gang” or if it truly pertained to this period of breaking in on the job. Visions of black men in shackles driving spikes or laying rail raced through my head. What cynical entity decided to name this probationary time the “chain gang?”

I had been fascinated by the railroad for a couple of years. I desperately wanted to work on trains, either as a brakeman or an engineer; I didn’t care which. Affirmative action was in force in America and I was determined to benefit from this opportunity. Several different railroads rejected my applications, but finally a road foreman in Pueblo called my home and asked if I wanted to “go out firing.” What did that mean? He laughed and offered me an interview. Would I like to be a locomotive fireman? Amazingly, I was quickly hired.

New to the railroad, we would hold the hostling jobs, run switch engines in the yards and up at the steel mill, or work on the helper engines in the mountain town of Minturn, 181 rail miles from Pueblo. It would be many months before we could start learning how to run trains on the mainline. The first days were full of physical tests in the yards. We had to carry and “pack” a knuckle three car lengths. Knuckles are part of couplers that close on impact and connect freight cars together. Each one weighed sixty pounds or more. If a train broke in two, a knuckle might have to be carried to the break. Before I hired out, whenever I ran into a railroader and expressed interest in a job, the mantra invariably was, “Women can’t carry a knuckle.”

The night before the test, I hoisted a five-gallon bottle of Deep Rock spring water and carried it around the block a few times. The neighbors were amused but the next day I had no problem with the knuckle or hauling a large chain that we were told could be lashed to a freight car with a damaged coupler. There were more tests. I managed to climb a ladder on the outside of a stationary boxcar to turn a brake wheel near the top. Then I stumbled while learning to glide on and off a switch engine as it moved slowly up a track. My little hands, sweaty and used to the rigors of typing and playing piano, tried without success to yank an airbrake handle off the control stand of the same engine. Finally I got to run the engine a short distance, forward and back. It was only a switch engine, a “goat,” but it was a great feeling.
We went to class in the depot, a beautiful 19th century red sandstone building. Rule books and timetables for both the Colorado and Utah divisions were handed out, and an official began to teach us how things worked, and how to stay safe. Early on, he issued a warning. “Every rule in the book is written in blood…”

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