About the Santa Fe Historical Society

Santa Fe - Lamar, Colorado

Remembrances of D. K. Spencer

The First Step of a 42 Year Career

Shortly after returning to La Junta, from my summer at Needles ice plant in 1943, my parents moved to Lamar Colorado. In June 1944 after graduation from Lamar High School, I contacted the Santa Fe in Lamar about going to Needles, but was advised their crew had been filled. I had a job with the school district as a janitor, but it was not railroading! I applied at the local freight house, and on August 9 I was called. I took my physical examination at the Santa Fe Hospital in La Junta by Dr. Looper, and started as one of two Utility Clerks in the Lamar freight depot

Joe Snyder was Agent; and C. W. "Mac" McClain was Chief Clerk, both exempt positions. Mac was the father of one of my school mates. Shortly after I started, Snyder retired, and was succeeded by William T. Mason. Others were Al Weston, Cashier; Art Crowe, Yard Clerk (retired at Garden City); Stanley Cox, Abstract Clerk; Jim Williams, Demurrage Clerk, and Everett Bland, Utility Clerk. A utility clerk did what no one else was assigned to do. Others later included Clarence Guy, Virgil Cattallo, Dick Flint, Dudley Pultz, Hugh Coyle, and Ray Hunter and others whose names are forgotten. Shortly after, I was bumped by Dallas Baldridge from Colorado Springs, and was permanently assigned to the position of Utility Clerk at Granada, which had been advertised with no bidders, establishing my seniority date of Sept. 21, 1944.

On Nov. 6, the position was abolished, and I bumped onto the Consist Clerk - Baggageman position at La Junta. The Lamar Utility Clerk became vacant in October 1945, so I went back. In December 1948 I was bumped again, and bumped the third trick Ticket Clerk at La Junta serving there until February 1951, when I returned to Lamar on the Billing and Revising (B&R) clerk position, which evolved into the Cashier position which I held until my final day at Lamar April 4, 1956 when force reduced. I bumped into Rocky Ford, and this has been my home to this day, working jobs at Rocky Ford and La Junta until I retired on February 14, 1986.

Freight Depot

The "Santa Fe yellow" freight depot was on the west side of Main street, north of the main line, now marked by a large windmill. It was107 feet long, and 24 feet wide, and was built in 1888. The outside was the usual "board and batten" consisting of smooth vertical panels, with vertical strips of wood on every upright stud. I imagine the office area had not changed much since the day it was built, except the addition of electric lights, and telephones. Compared to offices of today with all of the electronic gear, we were still in the pioneer days. The layout consisted of the Agent and Chief Clerk in the front office; and the rest of the crew in the back office, with a wall separating. A hallway on the north side was the customer area with a counter separation. I believe the lighting was fluorescent. The desks were all wooden.

The wall also contained the chimney for the large "pot belly" heating stove which used coal for fuel. It sat to the rear of the back office on top of a metal pad, backed with asbestos, very common then to prevent ash fires. There was a stove pipe laying horizontally above two desks to the chimney. There was a smaller coal stove in the front office. For the clerks sitting closest to the stove there was a curved, metal shield for protection.

Every spring the desks were covered with canvas, and the pipe taken down for cleaning. There was always a lot of soot, and it was a very dirty job. The inside walls of the offices were cleaned periodically with a brand of soap called "Dick-a-Doo", washing off the collected soot and grime. In the winter, all cigarette butts and scrap paper was disposed of in the stove. In late summer the scrap paper was stuffed into the stove to be used to start the first winter fire. One especially hot fall day, some one forgot about the paper inside and threw in a lighted butt, resulting in a roaring fire, that made that day one to remember!

Air conditioning was open doors and windows, thankfully fitted with screens. We had a inside unheated rest room consisting of a stool and a wash basin. The stool seat was part of the water valve, and in the up position closed the valve. When seated, the water ran continuously. In the winter, with no heat, and splashing water, rest breaks were taken quickly! Later, it was modernized with a normal flush stool and heating.

A Utility Clerk was also a janitor, and we had windows and walls to wash and rough wooden floors to be scrubbed with a string mop occasionally with creosoted water. That left the rooms smelling fresh, if you liked the smell of creosote! In the 1940's and 50's dust storms were daily possibilities, so dusting layers of grit was a daily occurrence.

Warehouse and Equipment

Adjoining was the warehouse, accessed through a door from the back office, and a small record storage room to one side. Since all freight charges are based on weight, we had a platform scale on wheels, and a scale built into the warehouse floor for larger articles.

The two wheeled hand trucks were heavy tubular steel about 26-30 inches wide with a large bottom lip, and two long handles that left an opening for a person to walk between as you pulled or pushed the truck.

The hand trucks were adaptable to many uses. You could slide the lip under a single object, or by using a wood "headboard" that fit down into the lip portion, could load several layers of boxes. The loads were easier to control if you pulled them, and had them balanced. For many years the wheels were bare, but later they had hard rubber tires that eased the handling immensely.

Many large objects were easily handled by balancing them on top of the truck, with or without the headboard, but you had to remember the possibility of the truck sliding out from under the load backwards into your face. Caskets in wood shipping boxes is a good example of a large load.

We handled all kinds of freight using combinations of hand trucks, crowbars, pipe rollers, specialty trucks and brute strength. One specialty truck was about 10 feet long, with a wooden bed and two 20 inch wheels in the center, one on each side, and one smaller wheel in the center on each end, that we used for long objects such as wrought iron pipe. We had a steel dolly with a roller in the middle about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. We never had a forklift or other modern means of handling freight.

A welcome addition later was two flat wood pry poles with a steel lip on the end, and two small steel wheels directly behind the lip. The poles were made of oak and were about eight feet long. The wheels served as the fulcrum, and with eight feet of leverage, we could move nearly any heavy item. I believe they were called "Hy Lifters".

A wooden dock, with steps on the east end, ran along the south side where freight was handled from rail cars spotted on the House Track, and three large sliding doors on each side of the building. Freight from and to motor vehicles was handled on the north side. In the rear of the building was the McKee Spur, a dead end track with dockage on three sides for unloading large items such as machinery.

Scattered on the dock were steel fire barrels filled with water, salted in the winter to prevent freezing. Each barrel had a cone shaped bucket with a wire bail (handle) hanging above it. A fire on the dock could have burned a long time since the wood had been soaked in creosote to prevent decay. One time a cigarette butt started the wood smoking, but was extinguished quickly.

Being in wheat country, we stored rolls of paper caulking used to fill cracks when installing wooden grain doors across the rail car doorway. For nine months of the year they just collected dust, which came down in clouds when the rolls were disturbed.

The "Do-It-All" Utility Clerk

My main work was handling freight, first from "merchandise" rail cars, and later from Santa Fe Trail Transportation semi-trailers. The freight was shipped and handled under the heading of L.C.L. (Less than Carload) and we handled as many types of commodities, as it took to keep a community going.

Any weight from one pound to several thousands of pounds would move as LCL, but rates were assessed on a minnimum of 100 pounds and the rates were higher than carload rates, since LCL handling involved railroad personnel. A drayage firm contracted with the Santa Fe to deliver these items.

Carloads are loaded and unloaded by shippers and consignees, thereby reducing the cost to them with lower rates. Each carload has a minimum weight however, usually 30,000 to 40,000 pounds.

Usually freight came in box cars, which were level with the dock and easy to unload. The open space between car and dock was bridged with large steel plates about 1/2 inch thick; 36 to 40 inches wide, and a bent lip on one end, and they were quite heavy. If possible, we left them leaning against the building for storage, or flat on the dock, then "walked" or trucked them to a car door as needed.

Occasionally freight came in a non-mechanical refrigerator car. The floor level was about a foot higher than the dock and had lower doorways. The car walls were thick enough that freezables were protected, but we hated those cars since the increased slope was hard to manage. If you were tall like me, you had to duck coming out the door. This maneuver also threw you out of balance. We always wanted those cars to be spotted west of the warehouse on the big wide dock, giving us more room to maneuver, per the following example.

Marx Master Bakery received large wood barrels of molasses, weighing 600 lbs. each. Once we had one in a refrigerator car, spotted during the night next to the warehouse. The dock width at that point was about 8 foot. A fellow worker tried to truck the drum out by himself and ended up with the handles of the truck busting through the warehouse wall, and him pinned between. Luckily he was not hurt, but we never did that again! The one commodity I hated the most, was green cow hides tendered for shipment by Bressler Hide Co as L.C. L. He bought fresh (green) hides; salted them for preservation, and folded and tied them into a square bundle with baling wire. When he had enough to ship to Kansas City, we would order a hide car. The hides would contaminate regular cars, so the Santa Fe had cars used only for that purpose. The salt would bring out the natural moisture in the hide, so they were wet with a type of brine, sometimes running out in a stream as you handled them. We wore jeans that were nearly worn out, since the salt juice was hard on cloth. We had to finish the day smelling like hides, since we had no company showers!

Another item was bags of wool. Shippers used burlap bags about 6 to 8 ft long, and they hired men known as "stompers" who were famous for how much wool could be forced into a bag. When we received them, they were packed so tight they were hard to get hold of. A bag might weigh 400 lbs! A wool buyer would cut a hole in the bag, burrowing deep to grab a sample and then strike a bargain with the shipper. If a bag was unusually heavy, or the shipper was not known for his honesty, the buyer would be suspicious of possible foreign objects such as a large rocks, etc. They would cut several holes feeling around for these objects. In my first dealings with both parties, I was not sure if I had the authority to refuse bags with holes in them, but I soon learned to demand the holes be sewed up. Buyers and shippers would grumble about that upstart kid and his demands, but they did sew up the bags! Another hated object were Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs. They were in twine tied bundles, both heavy and limber. The knots in the twine would unbalance any stacking, causing continuos re-handling. By the time you handled enough for the local area, your muscles and temper were sore! For a time, they came in mail bags, which was even worse. There were no handles, and a mailbag full was really heavy. We think of paper as being a light object, but concentrated paper can be very heavy.

We would have bundles of sheet metal, best handled by dragging, and leather gloves were most important for hand protection. Wrought iron pipe came in bundles, but while they were heavy, they were easy to handle on either the long truck or two wheel trucks by laying the headboard flat covering up the steel lip, and achieving a balanced load.

Two other instances stand out in my memory. A wood foot locker that we thought was clothing and personal effects, but contained lead type for the news paper, that weighed close to 1000 lbs. The other was a 2500 lb crate of plate glass that usually required handling on it's edge, but had to be tilted to clear the low doorway of a trailer, and not break it. It was a three hour process, using ropes, pry bars, and pipe rollers, and extra manpower from the section crew.

The building was infested with rats from neighboring stores, so we had a small trapeze platform to store edible goods. This was not always effective since rats would climb the walls, and drop down on the trapeze. At times we would find a box on the floor, apparently pushed off the trapeze by rats, with the usual hole in the side. Later, we had a thick walled walk in cooler, that solved the problem..

The '46 Blizzard

Early in the winter we had a snow storm with depths of four to five feet on the level. The area was completely snow bound, and area livestock were in dire need of feed. A local entrepreneur purchased 26 carloads of surplus army half-tracks, two to a car, and they were unloaded and sold from the west end of our warehouse on McKee spur. They served their purpose during that year or two, but for years after, many were setting in area fields slowly deteriorating. The city's streets were clogged and likewise our dock. We shoveled it off, but it just added to the drifts covering the tracks. The steam locomotives trying to break through the drifts, and would derail or stall out spewing out clouds of grit from their sanders to no avail. The main line was finally cleared, and a few set-out tracks. Merchandise cars were arriving daily, and by the time the streets were cleared, we had 15 cars on hand, many with freezables. We eventually unloaded them, but we had many claims for damaged merchandise. There was a secluded area on the north side of the dock that did not melt until spring. The one bright spot was a bumper wheat crop in June-July.

My Railroad "Cowboy" Days

One of my duties was the loading and unloading of livestock at our company stock yards, and being able to count accurately. The old adage was to count their legs and divide by four! I kept the yards clean and water troughs full. In the fall, we received sheep for winter pasture. Many were unloaded at blind sidings, or at Lamar to be trucked to pasture. If the sheep were hot and thirsty, they could smell the water, and were easy to unload, sometimes knocking a person down if he happened to be in the chute. Loading was a little more difficult. We would take one sheep by a front leg, and drag it up the chute, verbally "baa-ing" to get the bunch to follow. Once moving, they loaded good. They were nearly all double decked, and we sealed all doors for protection..

When sheep were loaded at blind sidings, they were brought into Lamar for main line pick up, and we had to seal those doors. Each deck had a door on each side and some older cars had end doors. We crawled up the side of a car, holding on with one arm, and manipulating the seal into position for locking. I never fell off the side of a car, but had some scary times. Some door handles had an extension, which you could hook a leg around for support. The worst was sealing at night, holding a lantern or flash light. Also, a sheep's cough sounds human, which makes one look at the ground good before coming down!

We handled livestock for the Lamar Livestock Commission Company across the road from our stockyards. Each week we loaded cattle going to market. We had a ground level scale built like a pen, to determine weights. The real cowboys from the ring, did most of the loading, especially bulls with horns. They were tied to the side of the car, to prevent goring in crowded conditions. The sale ring men would drop onto the back of a bull coming up the chute, and ride him into the car looping the rope around his horns, and tie him up while he was in the crowd. One particularly large bull backed out of the chute with the man aboard, and jumped (crawled) over the 6 foot high fence, giving him a ride he never forgot! .

Pigs from William Hog Company were a different lot. Most would load OK, but some laid down in the chute and refused to move. They were easy to injure, so we just left them until they decided to move. Several times they were there when the train left!

We also had old horses sold for market. We called them "soap" horses. Many were in pitiful condition considering how handsome we think a horse should look.

My Advancement in Skills and Earnings

On my return to Lamar in April 1951 on the B&R position, Mac kept after me to learn how to read freight tariffs. The highest paid clerk was Cashier, and Al Weston was the holder. He was also the tariff man. Al was badly crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, and Mac probably knew his days were short, and he wanted someone to learn how to look up rates in the 100 plus tariff's in our files. I made a feeble attempt for several months, finally knowing more than the rest of the office staff, but still not very much.

One Saturday in the fall of 1951, I was advised Weston was in the hospital, and I would be temporary on his job on Monday. Overtime was not authorized, and I found myself working on my own time many 12 hour days, including weekends, reading tariffs and struggling blindly along conscientiously doing my best. The underlying pressure was, "our future with the railroad depended on how well we did our work." Knowing my job performance was on the line, I was trying to do my best.

It was the start of our busiest season handling sheep by the thousands brought in to feed on harvested fields over the winter. Another major shipper was the Lamar Flour Mills, which received wheat, and shipped flour. We also had the Denver Alfalfa Milling Products, (later National Alfalfa Dehydrating & Milling Company) which shipped alfalfa meal, not only from Lamar, but from several blind siding stations on the Arkansas Valley branch which we handled. There were several smaller alfalfa meal shippers also. The Des Marteau Grain Company elevator was later built west of 10th Street, that shipped and received wheat.

Each car, regardless of commodity was handled on a document called a waybill. Each car had to be weighed, usually at La Junta, or could move under an Average Weight Agreement authorized by the Western Weighing Inspection Bureau, in which shippers were periodically inspected by the bureau to be sure loading weights were consistent, and proper records kept.

At the shipping station, collect waybills were issued usually showing a rate of even dollars, for ease in doing the billing. (Example: 40,000 lbs @ $1.00 = $400.00). Only waybills that have the charges prepaid at origin would have the correct rate assessed, and only then when the weight had been determined.

At one time I had over 300 waybills to report, representing about 30 days of inbound carloads. I knew the billed rate was only a "pie in the sky" figure and the actual total due might be more, or less. When correct charges were determined from our tariffs, we issued a freight bill for collection from the shipper or consignee. Periodically an auditor would come unannounced to check our books, and one came at that time. He chewed me and the boss out terrible. We made freight bills on the 300 plus bills, using the billed rate, in order to get them to Topeka for their tariff department to assess the proper rates. Out of all those bills, only a few were corrected! After the death of Weston, I bid in the Cashier job in January of 1952, and held that position until January 1955, when I was bumped again, and went back on the B&R job. After that rocky start, I spent much of my 41 year career doing tariff work.

I also sold train tickets at Lamar on second trick for a short time at the passenger depot, which required passenger tariff knowledge, but to me it was much easier than freight tariffs. The train order operator and I also unloaded mail and baggage from trains. The platform was brick paved from Main street to a little beyond the depot, and gravel beyond. It was near Christmas and the Centennial State that ran from Denver to Kansas City, (Nos. 9/10) carried quite a bit of mail. We would have 5 to 6 baggage truck loads, packed up high each night. Conductor Fritz Garrity was cantankerous. On his trips, he would stop the train where the passengers had paving, but we would have to pull the baggage trucks with their steel wheels through gravel, which was nearly impossible for two men to do. Head Ticket Clerk A. R. Baker told me to stand up to him and have him back the train up. The next trip I did, and he refused. We started back to the depot with empty baggage trucks, with him yelling, but in a few minutes the train started moving backward. We never had trouble after that! Sometime in 1950, the freight office was moved to the passenger depot, but we still handled freight in the warehouse. Train order operators then included Bill Rucker (later Agent), Elmer Sapp, Joe Baublits, R. O. Marston, Howard Holter to name a few. Clyde Strain was the Railway Express Agent also in the depot office.


As I was beginning my career, the steam locomotive was beginning to fade. One of my most vivid memories was being awakened one night by the wailing whistle of a steam engine coming into Lamar from the Arkansas Valley branch blowing for the many crossings. As I laid there listening, little did I realize how soon the multi-toned whistle would be replaced by the blaring beeps of today!

In retrospect I thank Mac for his pushing me to learn the tariffs. Those higher paying jobs helped at retirement, to insure I received a good rate. In April 1956 I left Lamar for the last time, moving to Rocky Ford, where I bounced back and forth between there and La Junta..........but that's another story!.

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