My Railroading Days – by:  Pam Paden Tippet


It was spring or early summer, as I recall, when Casey Keal hired me to work the “extra-board” at the Missouri Kansas Texas (Katy) yards in Parsons, Kansas.  Everyone started out working the extra-board – meaning you were an extra for any job that needed filled whether because of illness, vacations, or somebody just wanted to “lay-off” for a while.


I am remembering that I had to read a lot of rule books, take some tests, and spend many hours training before I was declared “qualified” to begin working.


I’ll never forget – my first day of actual employment at the Katy railroad.  Right off the bat I had caught a “hold down” job for six weeks, as the Agent of the Erie, Kansas Depot, to cover the usual agent’s vacation.  A little nervous about my newly acquired duties, I arrived at the depot on this very hot summer morning and nearly had heart failure.  Were my eyes deceiving me or did the railroad track, not far the depot, actually resemble McDonald’s arches?  I couldn’t get the door unlocked fast enough, and it seemed like forever before I heard a voice on the other end of the dispatcher’s phone.  “Yeah, Erie – what is it?”  “I think we have a ‘sun-kink’” – I almost yelled in his ear.  “What do you mean – you think?” he says.  “Well, sir” I said, “I’ve never seen one before but the track looks kind of like McDonald’s arches.”  Well, the cursing began and everybody up and down the Katy line was being dialed-up to copy train orders, and I guess I had done my first official Agent job.


I loved the railroad terminologies, and I guess working the operator position was my favorite job. That was where the action was – copying train orders from the dispatcher in Denison, Texas and getting the orders to the Conductors and Engineers.  Real people ran the railroad back then – not little computers hanging off the train where the caboose used to be. We did have the ability to talk with the train crew via radio, but all instructions went through the dispatcher in Denison. There were times that they depended too much on the radio use and found themselves in a predicament if they lost communications.


It was also during my Erie Depot Agent job when I found out about the consequences of losing radio communication. I was playing pool with some friends at the American Legion in Parsons one summer evening when someone said I had a call from the railroad. This was before cell phones, of course, and I had told the yard office where I would be just in case something came up – which never ever happened – not in Erie.  Oops! – The “North Yard” (dispatcher’s name for Parsons’ yard) operator said, “…dispatch says to get yourself to Erie, pronto!  You have to put flares out and hang orders.” 


It takes a little bit to drive from Parsons to Erie, and even though I’m sure I was driving over the speed limit, it seemed like it took an eternity – and in my state of panic my heart was racing faster by the second.  My head was spinning with horrible thoughts, “…what if I couldn’t get the flares lit, oh damn, I was wearing barefoot sandals, and I had to climb that tall order staff in the dark of the night.”  And then I started rehearsing in my head what I had read about how to fold the orders in the string so that the crew could grab them off the staff.  “…what if I messed up?  What if the train blew right by me and had a head on with the on coming train?”  This couldn’t be happening – nobody had to use these antiquated methods for delivering orders any more. But it looked like I was going to have to.


After unlocking the depot door in record time, I heard the dispatcher’s phone ringing as I entered the room.  Somehow, some way, a miracle happened and somebody got through to the train crew and told them to stop in Erie for orders.  I was so happy to hear Johnny Miller’s voice – he was one of my favorite dispatchers that seemed to really care about people. The train wasn’t going to “blow by me” as I had feared, and all I had to do was copy train orders for them.


Not all of the dispatchers were as nice as Johnny Miller.  Some of them, like many of the railroaders, didn’t believe that women had any place working there.  One dispatcher in particular – John Robert Nash – had the reputation for really disliking the women and being so hateful to them that he would make them cry. 


I recall, quite well, the first time that I worked with John Robert Nash. Someone had laid – off, or was ill, or for some reason, I was working the week-days operator job. It was time to “call a train” – give the dispatcher the engine numbers, number of railcars, crew, etc. in order to obtain the necessary orders for the train to proceed. Several times I had tried to contact the dispatcher by giving the “North Yard” sign-in.  Finally, after having received no response from dispatch, and having no orders for the train crew, the yardmaster came into my office and asked if I had started “102”.  I have tried several times, I told him, but dispatch doesn’t answer.  Well, I am assuming that the yardmaster had taken some steps in this matter, and finally Mr. Nash replied to my call.  I have never in my life encountered such a rude man.  He purposely gave me a hard time, questioned everything I said, dictated train orders so fast that some of the other seasoned agents along the line were having difficulty keeping up, and was outright discourteous to me. Once I had copied all of the orders – with no errors or problems – he said to me, “…well go on about sweeping the floors or whatever it is that you do there.”  Knowing his reputation and his dislike for women, I don’t know exactly why, but I found this to be extremely humorous.  I remember laughing so hard – and Phil “Beetle” Bailey was working the “callers” job that day and was also in my office. He asked why I was laughing so hard – and I told him what a jerk I believed John Robert Nash to be.



Yes, those were the days my friend – and I don’t care what the old-timers said – I loved my railroad days despite the whining egotistical women haters!


Some of the best people ever to work for the MKT – Katy – Railroad were:   Casey Keal – Bill Chandler – Johnny Pellin – Alex Cruz – Richard Chavez – Phil Bailey – Sue Gilliam – Nola Beach – Steve Culbertson – Ron Rife – and all of the great Engineers & Conductors of the 70s.  There were many more that my forgetful mind has forgotten, but if you would remind me – I would remember.