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 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
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.
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
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
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
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!