Don Detwiler of Pratt was once an engineer, working steam locomotives like No. 4014 Big Boy that came through Kansas last week. The 91-year-old traveled to Salina to see the Union Pacific icon as it crossed the state.
A pair of old friends who had never met came together recently and stirred memories from a time long gone by. When No. 4014 Big Boy Union Pacific steam locomotive made its way across Kansas, retired engineer Don Detwiler of Pratt got to pay a visit to the monster machine and it brought back a flood of memories when he worked for the railroad. While he never operated 4014, he dedicated much of his life to working on the railroad as a fireman and engineer.
When the train pulled into the Hays depot, Detwiler was disappointed that the steam locomotive was not under power but was being pushed by a diesel locomotive about three cars back. Still, 4014 is a very impressive piece of equipment. The locomotive and tender car are 132 feet long, carry 5,000 gallons of oil, 20,000 gallons of water and can produce 300 pounds of steam pressure.
Detwiler, 91 of Pratt, is a former fireman and engineer for the Rock Island Railroad. He started working for the railroad in 1945 while he was still in high school. Students could work on labor gangs and not miss school. A lot of their work was during the wheat and cantaloupe rush when the gangs had to load out trains with both products., Detwiler recalled that in the early 1960s a cantaloupe train derailed and there was free cantaloupe everywhere. There were also strawberry and grape trains as well as milk trains that would stop in Pratt to pickup cream and other products.
Detwiler graduated from Pratt High School in 1946. In 1948, Detwiler was hired on as a fireman. His job was to regulate a valve to regulate the oil in the fire box to provide a steady supply of steam. The steam had to be steady to keep the pressure gauge at just the right spot. If it wasn't, the engineer would get upset. He didn't care how the fireman did it, just as long as they kept the pressure needled exactly where it needed to be. Detwiler admitted there were times when he didn't keep the pressure up.
"I got my tail chewed out a lot of times," Detwiler said. "You got reprimanded severely. We had some tough engineers. My dad, Homer Detwiler, was one of them."
Homer's brothers Robert, Frank, Bernard and Sam were also engineers. As a fireman, Detwiler got to work with his dad three times and his uncle Bernard once.
Keeping the water level up was also important. Detwiler said he heard about a situation in Oklahoma when the water level was too low and ran back over a red hot crown sheet and there was an explosion that killed people.
Keeping the steam up on steep grades meant the train put out a lot of black smoke. When the train would go through Durham, the black smoke would pour out the smoke stack and it would mess up clean clothes hanging on the line. Detwiler always felt sorry for the women who had done the laundry. There was a hill at Durham that required the engine to be hot enough to produce steam to get up the hill and that meant a lot of smoke.
"This was one of the worst places to lay that smoke screen down," Detwiler said.
Sometime in 1964 or 1965, Detwiler was promoted to engineer. He still continued to haul freight between Liberal to Herrington. Many of Detwiler's trains were auto carriers but there was a wide variety of merchandise.
Besides freight, there were passenger and ice trains as well but Detwiler handled freight only and never engineered on those trains.
On one occasion, Detwiler showed his ability to cover a lot of ground and maintain a fast speed. He had a piggyback stack train that maintained 70 mph and traveled 244 miles in 3 hours and 58 minutes. One other time, he had a train that was almost two miles long. On a lot of curves, he couldn't see the rear end of the train.
Detwiler never worked on a passenger train but there were, occasionally, some non-paying passengers on the train. Detwiler said he never made these "bums" get off the train because that was up to the railroad detectives.
"If they didn't bother anything, they could have a warm place to rids," Detwiler said.
One thing the bums did was ride on the draw bar between the knuckles and the car. They could fall off or get crushed.
Through out his career, Detwiler enjoyed his career even though it required a sacrifice of family time.
"I enjoyed running the locomotive. I made a good living for my family. The pay check wasn't bad and it provided a good pension for me and my wife," Detwiler said. "But I hated being away from home. I missed out on my kids activities at school. I had to be on the road on holidays."
It was policy that crew members with the least seniority got called out on holidays. But there was a change in policy. A shuttle service was started at Christmas time. If a crew from Pratt was at Liberal or Herrington, they would send a taxi service so the crew could be home for Christmas.
The thing that irritated Detwiler most about his job would be when crew members would gripe about their job especially if they got called out for a run 3 a.m. in December or January. It was a good job and it paid well so those guys should get out there and do their job.
Most of the time, Detwiler's trips were uneventful. He arrived safely at his destination and the return was the same.
But there were times when people would try to beat the train at a crossing. People were hurt and there were fatalities.
One incident around Arlington was particularly memorable, not for a fatality but for a missing driver.
The train was two miles from Arlington and was traveling at 70 mph. A co-op fertilizer spray unit with tall tires and a tank was running along side the train and approaching a wide open crossing two miles from Arlington. The spray unit turned right in front of the train.
"We hit him at 70 mph," Detwiler said.
The applicator hit a glancing blow and only a little bit of scrap iron came off. But when the crew went to check on the driver, he was no where to be found. A search was made of the area but still no driver. So they went to Arlington to the co-op where he worked and there the driver sat in the office.
When a train is involved in an accident, dispatch is notified, the conductor and engineer do checks on the damage and record train operation and location at the time of the accident. Local law enforcement is notified.
The engineer and conductor and other railroad officials work with local authorities.
"You can't start weeping. You just have to get back on and go," Detwiler said.
On another occasion, Detwiler was east of Liberal and was a big cut by a bridge at Kismet. When the train entered that deep cut, there was a heard of cattle in the way. When the train arrived at the terminal, there was a stinking mess on the locomotive.
One thing about cattle on the track, engineers would turn off their head light and not sound their horn because that would make the cattle freeze in position and they wouldn't run away, Detwiler said.
Another issue in that same cut was tumbleweeds. Tumbleweeds produce an oil and when it got onto the rails, it made it very difficult for a train to make it up the grade at Kismet. The train would go slow enough that the crew could run ahead of the train and throw sand on the rails for better traction, Detwiler said.
Along with his engineer duties, Detwiler was also involved with Operation Lifesaver, a program that teaches drivers to always check both ways at a railroad crossing before going across the tracks.
While the tracks and scenery remained the same whether going from Pratt to Harrington and back, or Pratt to Liberal and back, each run was also different. They had different locomotives and cargo and crews. Each trip was different, no two trips were alike, Detwiler said.
Detwiler, who officially retired in June of 1990, saw several changes in ownership. On March 4, 1970, Cotton Belt took over the Rock Island followed by Denver and Rio Grand then Southern Pacific and now Union Pacific.
While Detwiler is long since retired, he is still Number One on the Union Pacific Seniority list.