About the Santa Fe Historical Society

School Vacation and a Santa Fe Job
in Needles, California
How Hot Can It Get!

Remembrances of D. K. Spencer

I first worked for the Santa Fe in the summer of 1943. Seven high school juniors and seniors went to Needles, California in May to work in the ice department. We had been recruited in La Junta by Guy Van Cleave Sr. who I believe was assistant superintendent at La Junta Ice Plant to a Mr. Brown. His son, Guy Jr, was a member of our 1944 class. I believe Guy Sr. was somehow connected at Needles, either through previous work, or as a relief supervisor.

We traveled on a trip pass on train No. 3, the California Limited, or possibly 123 (?). Our first experience was getting off the air conditioned car in the early morning with the temperature well into the 90's, and many times that summer the temperature would hover around 110-120 degrees. This was in the Mohave desert. One day, according to the camp thermometer, the temperature equaled the USA heat record of 133 degrees.

The area was home to an U.S. Air Force base, and a base for mechanized warfare training in an desert environment, and uniformed soldiers were a normal part of life. Most were kids a year or two older than us, and since we had an Air Force base at La Junta, it all seemed life as normal.

We were met by a camp truck and taken to the plant about three miles south of town, and placed our gear in barracks on a hill above the ice plant, and were fed breakfast. Each barrack room had three double bunk beds, and open windows and doors for ventilation. I would lay in my underwear sweating until about 4:00 a.m., then would be pulling a cover over me, before getting up at 6:00 a.m.! Six of the guys returned back to La Junta about three weeks after we got there dissatisfied with the work and heat.

Our first day was spent in getting the paper work done, and being issued our identification badge of name and social security number. The badges were required for claiming mail and paychecks.

The main plant consisted of a large brick building, which I estimate to be 500 feet long and 300 feet wide. . The largest portion was on the north side, and was about 300 feet on each side, and 100 feet tall and divided into two working areas, with a wall dividing the areas. The larger area was the winter storage, and the smaller the day storage. Access to the winter storage was stairs and doors at various levels above the day storage room. After the summer icing season, ice was made and stored there awaiting the next season.

When we arrived in late May the winter storage had ice almost to the ceiling, and was beginning to be used. Workers wore crampons (spiked shoes), over the top of their regular shoes as they broke apart the cakes of ice with pry bars, to be sent down a long spiraling slide placed around the inside perimeter of the building, (about 18 inches away from the walls), to the day storage room through a hatch in the wall. By the end of June, the room was empty, having served that many trains.

The inside walls were lined with an insulating material that looked like cork, covered over with plaster or stucco. Over the years some of the plaster had broken off, exposing the cork. The refrigeration machinery kept the temperature at a constant 18 degrees.

The day storage was where most of the daily activity took place in icing operations. It was between the winter storage and the battery (See MAKING ICE) and was a smaller room in height. Newly made ice from the battery and the older storage ice came together in this room to be conveyed by belts to the outside platform.

Adjoining the day storage was a large room containing the battery; power generating machinery for making ice; a machine shop; and the office. I remember two huge diesel motors, and a flywheel with a long, wide belt to the motors. We participated in dismantling one of the motors for repair during my stay, using a chain hoist to pull the pistons out.

The staff was mostly summer workers consisting of about 25 anglos then known as "whites"; 300 Mexican Nationals known as "braceros"; and 75 Navajo Indians. The war had taken most eligible adult men. The resident permanent workers were older men not eligible for military service and were the office staff, and mechanics who maintained the plant.

The rest were high school kids too young to serve in the military who did the "clean" inside work. The Indians and braceros did the hot outside work. It may seem somewhat racist today, but the braceros and Indians were used to the heat, and the braceros had been brought in specifically to work the dock.

The ice platform could handle trains with 90 plus rail cars of vegetables coming out of the Imperial Valley. In the beginning, we kids were working either on the ice platform out in the heat, or inside the winter cold storage area, at 18 degrees above zero.

We were told to bring light coats or sweaters, but when we tried to work in winter storage, we about froze. All of us lucked out there, as they put us to work in warmer jobs.

On the first day we were putting ice in the car's roof bunkers from the platform, when several aircraft with Japanese markings made a low level simulated strafing run down the length of the platform. They were a part of desert maneuver but it scared the pants off me, since we were new to the area. The old timers enjoyed that!

We were fed in a dining hall by Hanlin Supply (a subsidiary of either the Santa Fe, or Fred Harvey) for which we were charged 25 cents per meal. Since the war was on and many things were rationed, the cooks allowed one soufflé cup of sugar a day, which was consumed with the morning coffee, leaving no sugar for the rest of the day.

Being used to more sugar, we each found a quart beer bottle, and filled it with sugar from our ration coupons sent to us from home. We held the bottle between our legs during meals, and stashed it in the barracks for the rest of the day.

My first day, I noticed most of the braceros would take some dried red peppers from a bowl on the table, and crush them between their hands spreading the crumbs over their food. It really looked and smelled good, so I tried it. My first bite sent me to the compound ice water barrel, where I learned water does not put out the fire! I later learned that a slice of bread works wonders!

This was my first time to eat beans three times per day. The air was nauseous most of the time! I do not believe we would have recognized fresh air if it hit us in the face!

As time went by, they decided to cut down on the coffee usage, since it was also rationed, so we had fresh coffee for breakfast, then using the same grounds, iced coffee for lunch and supper. I actually got to the point where it tasted good, even if it was weak at supper. Of course a lot of sugar helped!

Later when we had money to spend, we ate breakfast and lunch at camp, then either walked or bummed a ride to town with some of the permanent resident workers and ate supper at the AIR CONDITIONED Fred Harvey Hotel.

We always had to walk back to the plant which was an adventure in itself. Just west of the plant was a hermit, who liked dogs, and he would take in all strays. At one time, I counted over 90, and the dogs would always rush out at us barking and snarling. In the daylight it was no problem, but at night it was scary! He lived in a shelter made from scrap lumber, orange crates, and whatever. Pretty much a hobo camp. Just before I left the authorities cleaned out his dogs and left him with three.

We would walk down the right of way at times, but that too had problems with hobo's and such. A few times we would hang a ride on the side of a train going out to be iced, but one time we got on the wrong train. It was headed for Arizona, so we baled off going head over heels, luckily into a sand pile! The company took a dim view of riding cars, and we could have been fired. This would have left us there with no free ride back to La Junta!

Having worked for Fred Harvey in La Junta in 1941, I felt at home in the Needles Fred Harvey especially when I found out that one of the relief chef's from La Junta was working there. In making small talk one evening with one of the waitress's, I was comparing the operations of the La Junta and Needles hotels.

As I went to pay my bill I was accosted by two Secret Service Agents wanting to know more about me and my curiosity. With several military units around and jittery war nerves, the waitress had gotten suspicious and reported me as a possible spy or saboteur. They finally accepted my excuse, but I never put myself in that position again. A well known axiom then was "loose lips can sink ships!" and mine almost sank me!

After supper, we went across the street to the AIR CONDITIONED drug store for dessert including flirtation with some local girls behind the soda counter.

Then we would go to the AIR CONDITIONED theater which changed their films five times a week. As you can see, AIR CONDITIONING was the prime requisite for our recreation!

There were very few refrigerated air conditioners that nearly every business has now. Most were large evaporative coolers with squirrel cage blowers. The evaporative coolers in La Junta at that time had only fan blades, and were not near as efficient.

The cool air for the multi-storied Harvey house was unique. They had ice filled refrigerator cars joined together with piping and blowers to move the icy air thru shafts under the rail yards for about 500 feet, into the hotel, and it was very effective! The whole building was delightfully cool! We filled the cars about every four days.

They used the same principle in the ice plant office. There was an area in the middle of the office that was fenced in, with a drain in the bottom. Fans would blow over the ice to cool the office.

Making Ice

To make ice at Needles, a salt brine in a huge tank called a battery was used. The tank was covered with wood and metal hatches, each hatch allowing eight steel ice cans to be nestled together for the freezing process. The battery had an overhead crane that was electrically operated for the up and down process, but also hand operated as we pushed the crane on overhead rails to the end of the battery.

The crane had eight hooking devices that were lowered simultaneously, and attached to each can thru holes in the center of each can's rim. Each can produced an ice cake weighing 300 lbs. The cakes were standard size of that time, probably about 5 ft long, 2 ft wide, and 12 inches thick.

When the connection was made, the crane pulled up eight cans of ice until the cans cleared the top of the battery. We then pushed the crane to the end of the battery, with the cans of ice ahead of us edgewise. At this point, there was a tank of water, and all cans were lowered into the water to loosen the ice cakes, then raised and placed on a rack and secured; unhooked from the crane; and tipped over sideways allowing each cake to slide out into the day storage. At the end of the heavy shipping season, they were taken into the winter storage room for stacking. I had left when this stacking began, and cannot remember how they were raised to each level of the stack. I assume they had an elevator or conveyer belts.

After the cakes were released, the eight cans would return to the upright position, and be filled with water. The crane would then be attached, and all taken back to the origin hatch, and lowered into the brine. This was tricky and required some dexterity. The cans would be swinging, and had to be dropped exactly together, or you would have cans of water spilled all over! Each eight hour shift pulled 360 cans of ice, around the clock, totaling 1080 blocks each day. We understood the plant at Stockton would pull twelve cans with their crane.

Most small plants like La Junta would pull one cake of ice at a time, take it to a tank of water and dip it in to release the ice from the tank, then back to the battery and refilled with a hose.

The salt brine in the battery would ruin shoes pretty quick. When that happened we could go to the ration board to get an emergency coupon, but only for work shoes.

Most of the ice was called "white" ice, made with untreated water, and used strictly for the bunkers of the cars. We also made "clear" ice from distilled, treated water for use in human consumption, and for the "blow" ice used to cover produce directly. The clear ice was ground into a consistency of granular snow, and blown in the doorway onto slatted crates of produce needing special cooling. The plant had it's own tower for distilling the water, and the afternoon the breeze blowing through it on the shady side provided cool sleeping for several who worked third trick. They slept on the roof of a attached shed, and occasionally got a little wet when the wind blew hard!

At either Needles or La Junta we occasionally had special cars that had brine tanks in each end, instead of bunkers. We filled them from the top, then broke up the ice with long steel forks, and poured in rock salt, just like making home made ice cream. I do not remember for sure what they were loaded with, but it seems like they were a meat product.

We had soldiers come onto the grounds from maneuvers looking for ice for drinking water, and they were discouraged by plant officers for fear of being injured by ice falling from the platform and also from using the not pure white ice. We workers would steer them to the clear ice when we thought we were in the clear, but even then, we sometimes got into trouble.

My main job was in the "pit". The ice house was in the middle of the 90 car platform, and I adjusted the flow of ice to whichever end of the platform it was needed, also counting and recording the cakes and clearing any jams that occurred. The conveyor belt from the day storage carried cool air to the pit, which in itself was about 15 ft below ground level. With average daily surface temperatures of 110-120 degrees, the pit was a comfortable place to work. .

I enjoyed the work at Needles, learning some Spanish from one of the braceros who was a college professor during the winter. Most of our conversation was pidgin English and gestures, and he probably knew more English than I did Spanish. Most of the braceros were good people. The Indians were aloof and I did not get to know them at all.

There was a Hispanic family living nearby, that made extra money doing our washing . When I was not in town, I used my free time fishing in the Colorado river behind the plant, and tinkering in the machine shop when they would let me.
My parents always encouraged me to finish what I started, and to see the good side of everything I was involved in. This made me something of a loner, and I was having fun living away from home, testing my new found freedom, so I stayed until middle August, when I returned home to gear up for my senior year, and worked until late September at the La Junta Santa Fe ice dock.

During my senior year, my parents moved to Lamar, Colo. seventy miles east of La Junta, and I graduated there. Upon graduation I applied to go back to Needles, but I was too late. The crew had already been chosen. However, I did get a job offer from the Lamar freight house, and was hired to begin my 41 year Santa Fe clerical career, but that's another story!

We went through Needles a few years ago, and the ice plant and dock had been removed. The diesel powered mechanical refrigeration car eliminated the need for an icing operation. As with all things, nothing lasts forever!

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