Milwaukee Road

Our union, the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, had a great health plan.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin was a haven of hopscotching warm snuggeries for an elementary school kid. Always places to nip in to and get warm while you waited for the bus: ward sheds with pot bellied stoves sprung up from the frozen November ground for election time,the Milwaukee depot the Milwaukee Journal sheds where the paperboys subbed their sections together — a coal stove, fingerless gloves and steamy exhalations. When at seventeen I started with the railroad, the second floor of the depot was a welcome hideout when the snows pounded in, driven down from Duluth or over from Michigan 90 miles across the frozen lake. The flagship of the Milwaukee Road fleet was the Hiawatha.

“Gee but it’s great after being out late
Walking my baby back home...”

No stove in summer for the depot, a big bladed black General Electric fan oscillated on the fire escape outside the night operator’s window. There was no air conditioning. Bob Orsiniak the yard bull played his guitar — a Nick Lucas Gibson — and sang If We Could Sing Like the Birdies Do, a Nick Lucas hit. Nick Lucas went by the nom-du-disque The Singing Troubadour. We drank canned beer and sang and played. It was a rare night that brought more than two calls an hour to the Milwaukee Road Depot. There were derailments when all hell broke loose, but these were unusual.

“We stop for a while, she gives me a smile
And snuggles her head to my chest...”

— Walking My Baby Back Home, a hit for Nick Lucas.

Good girls didn’t smoke in public...

“Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, how may I help you?” The approved formula was a mouthful and then some; the daytime Phone Ops answered their calls this way. There were five of them plus a chief operator who superintended the PBX room from the Railroad Deco flat-topped oak desk angled against the second story windows. The high wicker-backed operators stools featured a footrest in the shape of a ring. The polished rings were hitching posts for high heels, business footwear of the day plus flouncy blouses and neat bolero jackets all in a row.  Buttocks sheathed in wool skirts lollopped on the brushed nap of upholstered seats. The Phone Ops were prey to leg cramps and curvature of the spine and nipped out for a smoke in the Ladies’ Room across the hall. Good girls didn’t smoke in public. The red sawdust of the sweeping compound moved as of its own volition. Morsels and crumbs wedged themselves into the cracks of the hardwood flooring. Up here on the second floor the hardwood had not been replaced with terrazzo and through a magic of neglect was kept oiled and swept more regularly than the depot downstairs where mahogany benches and the Union News restaurant had been oiled and mopped within recent memory. The restaurant was closed with demobilization after WWII; a snack bar was all that remained, a memory of lost elegance lingering on as a 24-hour luncheonette. The GIs were the last great riders.

The depot was a hinterlands accommodation to railroad elegance. Built late in the late 19th Century, the Milwaukee Depot had been remodeled Art Deco style in the 20s. Milwaukee had never been a destination resort like the Canadian Pacific’s Banff, Alberta. But we had photomurals of Banff in the lobby. And the Milwaukee Road connected with the Northern Pacific to Seattle. The stars of the photomurals were the Hiawatha and the Olympian Hiawatha, out last streamliners, taking a turn through the wild rice marshes of the Wisconsin heartland. Southern Pacific vistadomes circled awesome scenery Out West. They were not the Milwaukee Road’s but we made the connection. Passengers relaxed with a drink and reveled in scenic America passing by in the lounge at the tail of the train where curved atrium windows opened on star-spangled nighttime skyscapes and daytime painted landscapes of desert mesas.

At night, it was “Miiiil-waukee Road…” announced from the throat, pushed by the diaphragm. A homage to John Cameron Swayze delivering the news on the Camel News Caravan. Ed Crowley taught me how to do this.

Diagonal galoshes tracks trampled a path through waist-deep drifts between the boilermaker bar near the baggage dock and the Hotel Antlers where the poolroom was. Transients found each other as they drank together in the blue and yellow glow of the Schlitz and Miller’s signs behind the frost covered plate glass windows on the Square. The deep winter snows on Lake Michigan’s shore turned Depot Square into an isolated plains village.

The night operator’s job at the Milwaukee Road depot was a definite step up on my seventeen-year-old career ladder, and it did not come without the pulling of strings. With the job came a union card from the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks describing me as telegrapher. Neat. I was bunking with my Aunt Flora, helping her with caring for her bed-bound mother, my grandmother, after a paralytic stroke. Grandmother died and I stayed on for a while. Florence Ulrich — Floss — a Wednesday evening card party chum had told her about the opening. “Ed needs some relief on the weekends and the girls don’t like to stay late.” There was no more noticeable hazard in after-hours Milwaukee than in the suburbs, but they were uncomfortable with what went on at the Antlers Hotel. They felt the disordered passions of traveling men as night sweats and chillblains and woke up covered in red patches. And the Phone Ops listened in all day long. At night they listened too, but were embarrassed by what they heard. Wakeup calls to train crews at the Antlers might be answered by a female voice.

antlers Hotel

Tip toe to the window, by the window
That is where I’ll be, come
Tip toe thru the tulips with me...

— Tiptoe Through the Tulips was another Nick Lucas hit. It featured in the 1929 film Gold Diggers of Broadway.

Eavesdropping was good, clean fun

The men, the men usually, called the Depot to check on the tracks to St. Paul. If they were not yet clear there was womanly, knowing laughter just out of the mouthpiece’s range and a muzzy-voiced male request that I book a room at the Antlers. The night operator was, after all, a public utility. Later the same party would call the night operator asking to be put through on a long distance call. He was checking in at home. He was stuck and the railroad should pick up the bill. This was a courtesy we extended to stranded passengers. The night operator completed the call and, pulling the jack halfway out — there was a trick for doing this without inserting any betraying click on the line, listened in as a suddenly sober, deliberate and weary man calmed a worried and distant spouse.

Ed Crowley was a retired brakeman from the Soo Line. Not really old as railroaders go, he was in his mid-fifties and waiting out the years to his pension working at an inside job. Ed had done some long hauling on the CB&Q — the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy — on a transfer crew riding the Northwestern tracks to Ashland, Wisconsin. Five years of that, but for most of his career he had opted for sleeping at home nights, and that meant yard work. Making up and breaking down trains. Except for those rare situations that happen mostly in the movies, William S. Hart or Tim McCoy crawling forward on his belly over the roof catwalks to engage the manual brake wheel on a runaway, a brakeman’s life is coupling and un-coupling. And in all weathers. The fifteen-minute breaks warming his hands with some coffee near the coal stove in the yard caboose are not long enough to get really warm. Except for coaling and taking on water, the guys who ride the long hauls stay in the caboose all the time, doing paperwork. Thanks to union work rules after years punctuated by crushed bodies and shattered bones, and the appearance of the Westinghouse air brake that you didn’t have to go up top to apply, the brakeman became a supercargo. Not so in the yards. Same pay, same railroad brotherhood, same rules, but they keep you hopping. What Ed did was roll cars down a three per cent grade to a deadhead, getting cars started manually with a car puller, a lever device made out of wood and shaped like the letter j. With this, if the journal bearings had been kept greased and the wheels hadn’t squared themselves hanging too long in their trucks, one man could single-handedly move a loaded freight car without an engine.

Ed was crippled with arthritis that twisted his hands and wrists. Thirty years in the yards in all weather and the brakeman’s job had done for Ed as a brakeman. The only parts of his hands that he was still able to articulate were the index and middle fingers before the first joint. With his wrists turned in he would yank at the patch cords and make their weights rattle in the falls, looking like a praying mantis going at its dinner. Ed showed me, along with the regular chores of the depot telegrapher, how operators could listen in on the telephone, and the callers be none the wiser.

“Here, look at this plug,” he was holding up the brass tip of a switchboard cord polished bright with many connections. “There are three sections — ring, tip and sleeve. The trick is to get it in the hole balanced on the ring and the tip. The sleeve, that’s us here in the relay room, and 42 volts ringing current when we key back on the trunk lines, see?” With the phone plug half inserted he keyed back as if to alert a handset down the line and a little blue spark jumped the gap to the jack field. “If you want to listen in without disturbing the callers, just the ring and the tip. Operators can listen in undetected if they don’t put the plug in all the way. That’s how you do it, kid. You can listen in and there’s no one will be the wiser.”

This eavesdropping was authorized in the work rules in case a connection had been up inordinately long. The operators were allowed to check if there was anyone still talking. If not, we were supposed to break it and clear the lines for incoming calls. “Listening in is good, clean fun and it helps to pass the time.” Ed pulled the cord out as far as it would go, then released it to fall free and sort itself out. There was a rattle of weights pulling the slack back to the trough where the PBX lines lay at rest.

Nights and Weekends

“T.J.Hanlon — Communications and Signals” — the boss was across the hall with his name dead center in his glass between the battery room and the ladies’ room — “Women.” The Railroad didn’t want women working nights, which was when Ed Crowley and I took over. Nights and weekends, the signals division ran single-handed, and since the men’s room — “Men” — was at the other end of the building, we had an easement to use the ladies’ as our necessarium. It was designed as a real women’s toilet — there were no urinals, which suited us just fine. Since all the plumbing in the depot ran off a water tower, there were no water closets, the flush mechanism worked with a toggle called a vacuum breaker. The ladies’ room with its extra stalls was our beer cooler. Coming on shift, Ed would offload eight big, brown bottles of Schlitz (It made Milwaukee famous) or Gettelman (the $1000 Beer) from his Boy Scout knapsack into the toilet farthest from the door, run the flush a while to get the water cold, then chock open the restroom door with the Chicago Yellow Pages. This announced to any stray woman that she must use the men’s room. One had to cross the hall and hit the flush twice an hour in the summer. The battery room across the creaking varnished cavernous hallway with frosted glass partitioning where dwelled the mysteries of the daylight hours. Varnished squeaking oak with coffered walnut ceilings, gold letters on the doors. Railroad opulence. The nighttime telegraph operators were on duty.

“Clerks — Phone Ops.”  The letters on our door were spidery gold leaf outlined in black. From the inside, the letters backwards through the glass were all black with lacquered feathering all around the edges. Gold leaf to add to your name showed a proper nineteenth century rectitude and added an illusion of permanence. Gold is forever, right? Jewelers, commission brokers, all the doctors and dentists in the professional suites at the Pilkington Arcade, and each and every door in Milwaukee’s 1920s Art Deco skyscraper, the Wisconsin Tower before it opened fully rented, had acquired an application of leaf: Suite 1001, Suite 1102, Porter, Fire Exit. It had taken weeks. Even the manager’s cage in the green felt jungle, the billiards and snooker room at the Hotel Antlers had Manager in gold leaf discretely in the lower left of his glass, though at the Antlers Billiard Room the partitions did not reach to the ceiling and the glass was clear, not frosted, so he could keep an eye on the tables.

Red lines straggled where a thread of sweeping compound had escaped past the trailing edge of the janitor’s dust mop. “Hmmm…the thin red line. Harry’s in a hurry,” Bob the yard bull evoked a Sam Spade persona. “Must be the new counter girl at the Union News.” That was Ginny who looked just great in the Union News counter uniform. I, too, had gone out of my way to make her acquaintance. Ginny had her own toilet facilities behind the lunch counter. The railroad thought it all right for a woman to work through the night in the depot waiting room proper, under the watchful eyes of the ticket agent and the railroad police, one or the other always on duty in the lobby.

“We start in to pet and that’s when I get
Her talcum all over my vest...”

Bob Orsiniak, the Phone Ops’ resident yard bull, reached for the guitar case Ed kept under the day bed that served for cat naps during long watches — we could set the telegraph and the switchboard on full alarm for incoming messages, and a bell that could wake the dead would bring us bolting to the board. Before arthritis, Ed Crowley had played the guitar and sung. He was a natural. It was something he had just picked up and gotten good at right away and, during the long isolations in the caboose over his five years riding the trains, he learned hundreds of songs. And some jazz pieces, too, for Ed didn’t just chord along, he could really play the instrument. Bob Orsiniak played too, in the style of Nick Lucas. Both Ed and Bob were fans of The Singing Troubadour, and while Ed sang in a pure, high tenor with a theatrically telling vibrato that he could ride effortlessly up and down the scale, Bob did not sing. They become a team.

In the case was a Nick Lucas model Gibson guitar — small and round, even hippy, but with a large sound hole high into the fingerboard and a deep body that deceived the critical eye and gave it a fuller sound than the arched-top rhythm guitars that were then so popular for jazz players. It was just fine for accompanying voice.

The Gandy Dancers

On the long winter nights when there had been no derailments — which was usually — it was a fine, manly thing to share a beer and some music. The snow was swirling in Depot Square, two stories below, and Bob would come stomping up the stairs from his two AM rounds, tracking a trail of wet to where he unbuckled his galoshes to dry near the steam riser.

Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & PacificEd told me the night crew watched out for one another. There was the time a conductor from Superior Division died on his train. If the yard bulls called in the local cops, the body would be hauled off to the morgue and the medical examiner. The train crew packed him in ice at the Fruit House with the grapes and cantaloupes and deadheaded him back to Superior where his family waited. The ticket agent to whom we forwarded information calls would nip out across the square for a drink. He alerted the night ops and they — Ed Crowley and me — would take the calls. Reservations we promised and took down the booking info on a pink “While You Were Out” slip. If we promised an impossible connection — a roomette to Albuquerque without a change of trains at St. Louis — Howard could fix things when he returned. Bob, the yard bull, liked to play guitar and catch a nap in the equipment room. Yard Bull. Even into the 1950s there was treasured jargon from the days of taming a continent: the golden spike, immigrant labor gangs, coffee boiled in a can, the Great Depression and hobo jungles.

The Gandys. The gandy dancers had once been the gangs of coolie labor who with long iron poles levered thousands of miles of ballast loosened by passing trains back under the crossties. In the mid-fifties gandyhood was a life style choice for the transient unemployed, usually free spirits who chose to remember only the happy times of the collapse of ’29. Or alcoholic. Or opium-smokers. The yard bulls were now the custodians of a geriatric petting zoo; the gandys had become an anchor of a constantly re-imagined history. A man and his wife, in their 70s, came through the Milwaukee Depot, riding the freight cars, home to winter in Florida after a season cooking in the labor camps. Every year, like clockwork. They ate at the Union News.


Nick Lucas:
Milwaukee Road Historical Association: and on Facebook
Carl Swanson’s most excellent Milwaukee Notebook
Milwaukee Road Routes (Wikipedia):
Special thanks to railroader Ben Ingrassia for the Antlers Hotel ephemera.

copyright 2020 Rob Hunter

Home | Sitemap | Bio | Print | Contact

All content on this website, unless otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons license