Click to enlarge.
The Signal | Wednesday, October 11, 1967.
James Guthrie's father was a railroad man.
So was his grandfather.
And for all he knows, his great grandfather may have been a railroad man, too. But because his grandfather was orphaned off during the great war between the states — too early for him to remember his parents, James Guthrie will never know.
Today, at 43, Guthrie has spent 23 years of his life running trains. He plans to do it at least another 20 years before retirement, and if he has his choice, he hopes to spend them as agent at the Saugus train station.
He isn't sure he'll get to, though — "You're never sure in railroading," he says — but there is one thing he does know for sure.
His son, now a sophomore at Hart High School, will never be a railroad man.
Surrounded by the familiar green walls — which look like they have been repainted at least as many times as the ancient station is years old — Guthrie sits in his chair and watches the board, and between times when trains aren't coming through, leans back and listens to the huge old pendulum clock behind him tick and tock the time away.
"There's no future in this business anymore," he says, quite matter-of-factly, like the knowledge is something painful that he has lived with for many years now. "There are fewer and fewer jobs in the business. Everything is becoming automated."
Guthrie started out in railroads almost immediately after high school. About the time he married some 20 years ago, he was doing just about what he is doing now. He was a tower telegrapher for Kansas City Southern, and he met his wife, because she was a waitress in the little cafe he used to go to after he got off work at midnight.
Today he is a telegrapher-agent, as opposed to just a telegrapher. That means, he explains, "a few more cents an hour and the fact that as agent, I'm boss of the station."
At other times in his career, Guthrie has even been a dispatcher. A dispatcher is the man who controls a section of track and sends orders to the telegraphers along the way to tell the trains whether another train is coming or not.
Guthrie was once a dispatcher in Mexicali, just across the border from Calexico.
He is happy to be a telegrapher, though.
The section of track between Burbank and Mojave is one of the last few places in the country on a main line that hasn't been automated. That means it's one of the last places left that still has telegraphers.
Listening to Guthrie shout into the old-fashioned telephone, one would almost think he's talking in foreign tongues. It's a specialized language, of course, announcing and quizzing as to which trains are coming what way.
But really it's quite simple.
He takes the orders and puts them out on a hook for the engineers coming by. Sometimes he pulls the levers that operate the signals.
And it doesn't happen much more than about half the days out of the week, now, but sometimes there's a lonely passenger for whom he has to flag down the Daylight.
Even the school kids who used to come by to catch the train as part of an excursion don't come anymore. The Daylight now runs through Saugus too early in the morning and too late at night for the school day.
And it's been five years now since the last night passenger train came through. He remembers the last night the Owl came through. "I was sad to see it go."
"Passenger traffic is doomed," he says. "They claim they're losing money on it."
When Guthrie was a kid in Missouri where he grew up, he never played with electric trains. "I had big ones," he muses. "I used to go out and watch my dad work," he says.
Despite the fact that the Guthries and their five children live upstairs over the railroad station, he doesn't think his one son is very interested in trains.
"He's more interested in being a mechanic or something like that," he says.
Would Guthrie do it all over again the same way he did it?
His answer: "Nope. It's just that I never knew how to do anything else."