[“Byways” by Robert Kerr, Texarkana Gazette, 1-22-1987, from the EE Webb Collection]
In Albert Wheeler Bragg’s day, working on the railroad meant really working.
He started with the railroad in 1908. He made $45 a month for working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. His job was calling the railroad crews whenever it was time for their train to head out.
That might not sound too tough, but since there were no phones in Texarkana then, “calling” the crews meant walking to each crew member’s house anytime a train was ready to go.
A couple of years later he got a promotion. This time he got to stop walking and ride, by shoveling coal to fire in the coal-burning locomotives.
“I’d like to see all the coal I shoveled piled up in one pile,” he says. “It’d be a big one.”
The job had no regular hours, and 18-hour shifts were common. And more than once he got in from one of those 18-hour days and barely had time to eat, clean up and maybe take a nap before they called him back for another.
By the time the United States entered World War I, Bragg had become an engineer, so the Army sent him to France to run trains there. During the war he took wounded soldiers to hospitals and after the war he helped move troops from the countryside to the coast so they could ship back home.
The whole time he was only paid $1 a day, but at least he got formally certified as an engineer on French railways.
After his tour of duty, he came home and went back to the T&P. But even as an engineer, his work was no picnic.
Sometimes he would be gone more than a month, and often had to leave without knowing when he would be back. His wife wouldn’t have a clue until she heard a train whistle blow down at the rail yard. Bragg worked 25 years before he got his first paid vacation.
He had started his railroad career in Bonham, Texas, but in the early 1930s, the Great Depression left him jobless.
“I had 27 years seniority then, and when that Depression hit, I got cut out of a job for a year,” Bragg recalls. “If anybody had told me I’d be out of a job with that much seniority, I’d have told them they were crazy. Oh boy, that Depression was something.”
Bragg had a wife and four children to support, so he visited Texarkana to try and get a custodian’s job he’d heard about at the Federal Building that had just been built here. While he was in town, a railroad friend saw him and helped him get a job driving a small train that hauled gravel for Gifford Hill & Co.
After about a year, he got back on with the Texas and Pacific and has lived in Texarkana ever since.
During the 51 years he worked for the railroad, he eventually drove oil-burning locomotives when they replaced the coal-burners, and then later he drove diesel engines. The longest train he ever had was 134 cars long, with three diesel engines.
Trains are considerable longer today, and the rest of the railroad business has changed as well, especially in Texarkana. The old Union Station that was the hub of city activity in Bragg’s day has become no more than an abandoned pigeon roost.
“It’s something the way things have changed,” he says.
He never visits the railyards anymore. At 95 – “I’ll be 96 if I make it to March 22” – his arthritis stiffens him if he doesn’t keep moving, so he walks a dozen or more blocks most days. “If I didn’t, I’d wind up in a wheelchair.”
A.W. Bragg’s story is not one of fame or fortune. His is just one more profile of the many uncelebrated among us who quietly work their way through hard times and just keep going.
Tell us your stories about the people you know who worked for the T&P.
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