Page 28


Your spouse won’t listen? We LAW OFFICES OF Martin H. Boozer MATRIMONIAL LAW Creative solutions for one of life’s most difficult problems. 902 Rio Grande Street 512. 476.7500 [email protected] I3oard Certified Family Law More jolting for many in town has been the fact of diminishing gas royalties. In 2009, gas prices began dropping as competing shale deposits began showing up in other states and Canada. Between July 2008 and August 2009, prices fell from $13.58 per million BTUs to $3.25 per million BTUs, according to the Times-Review. It was the inviolable law of supply and demand closing down the spigot. The result was job cuts and royalties slashed up to 60 percent. Now that the gas industry in Cleburne is fizzling, will it light out for greener pastures, as the railroad did? Even if it does, the effect will hardly rival the economic and social derailment caused by the railroad’s departure. The railroad was more than a job. It was a spiritual essence, a romance, a family tradition, a cultural myth, a subject for story, poem, easel and song. What gas industry-related tunes are there to replace “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” “The Orange Blossom Special,” or “The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe?” What gas-field movie rivals Murder on the Orient Express or Strangers on a Train? The trains that left the Cleburne yards, including the last one on Oct. 1, 1989, not only inspired art, but promoted community, friendship and family. My classmate, retired switchman Bill Shehorn, said five starters on Cleburne’s 1956 district-championship football team were born of fathers who worked with the railroad, himself included. We were all hooked up, it seemed, like the cars in a hundred long trains. My grandfather was a railroader, as were my wife’s father, grandfather and brothers. Her uncle W.F. Stepp worked on 3417 as a machinist and general foreman. “That engine made a living for a lot of people in this town,” he told me once. His father had been a carman, his daughter an extra board call clerk and his son an engineer. Cleburne was headquarters for one of the largest repair facilities on the line between Galveston and Chicago. More than 500 engines and 6,000 boxcars were repaired here each year. Its infrastructure, comprising 232 acres and 67 miles of track, had its own fire department, telephone system and water supply from six deep wells producing 800,000 gallons a day. There was a Harvey House restaurant, built in 1894, above the depot at Border Street and East Henderson. On the way home from junior high school, I used to stop and rest at that depot every day with classmate William Parnell. His dad, an old-time boilermaker, worked on 3417. Today there isn’t even a plaque to signify that the depot or Harvey House was there. Railroaders generally blame government deregulation and mergers and the shift to the trucking industry in the 1980s for the closing of train yards in small railroad towns. Retired conductor Tommy McGee, another classmate, now drives a water truck parttime for one of the gas-drilling companies. He said the Santa Fe had been moving toward contract labor for a long time, but accelerated “when Reagan busted the air traffic controllers union. They knew we were better workers, but the cheap, non-union labor was just too much of a temptation.” These days the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Fort Worthnow owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.contracts the work to Gunderson Rail Services, which is owned by the Greenbrier Cos., a nationwide boxcar concern. Since the trains had always been there, we thought they would go on forever. Retired trainman Melvin Burt, a classmate dating back to Santa Fe Elementary, told Times-Review columnist LaRue Barnes how his grandfather participated in the 1922 Cleburne railroad strike, and how his father washed dishes for the Harvey House in 1922 before hiring on at the repair shops seven years later. Other railroading Burts include Melvin’s brother Jerry and five cousins. One cousin, R.P. Benson, another of my classmates, rose to the office of superintendent. Cleburne and its retired railroaders have kept their heritage alive and beautified the town with gas money. The Santa Fe’s symbiotic kinship with the community can be seen in engine 3417. It’s now asbestos-free and shining with a new coat of paint, and the grass no longer grows through South Main’s sidewalks. The trash is gone from the engine’s smokestack, and the original high school building near downtown has been renovated as the Guinn Justice Center. Interloping cats no longer raise families in 3417, and a restored Johnson County Courthouse is open for business. There’s a new theater, The Plaza, on South Main Street, where White’s Auto used to be. The historic Liberty Hotel on South Caddo Street has been restored. Buffalo Creek has been cleaned up and walking paths added from Hulen Park through downtown, and even along its east fork all the way to the railroad yards, in my old neighborhood. When times take a turn for the better, it can be easy to forget the bad. So engine 3417 continues to stand on display as a reminder to future generations of the local lesson in corporate loyalty and largesse. The Santa Fe contributed greatly to Cleburne for more than a century, but it highballed it out of there when it felt like it, because a corporation never drops roots deeper than the bottom line. CI Author; reviewer and radio commentator Tom Dodge writes from Midlothian. Santa Fe depot, circa 1970 COURTESY OF THE LAYLAND MUSEUM, CLEBURNE VIEW Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad photos at MAY 14, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER