Railroad Brat: Growing up in Portola in the 1930s and ’40s

Jim Jenner
Special to Feather Publishing
Jim Jenner proves he still enjoys the outdoors in this recent photo provided to Feather Publishing. Jenner, 81, who was born in the old Western Pacific Hospital, said Portola was a “wild and wooly” place in the 1930s and ‘40s. He said the bustling railroad town was rough around the edges and provided a kid like himself many opportunities for adventure.

Editor’s note: Jim Jenner submitted the following recollection of growing up in “wild and wooly” Portola during the town’s railroad heyday. Jenner, who was born in the Western Pacific Hospital in 1932 and has subscribed to the Portola Reporter for more than 45 years, lives in Berkeley.

Memories of growing up in a wild and wooly railroad town like Portola during the 1930s and ’40s remain the most vivid of my life. That experience alone should qualify a lucky kid like me as some kind of latter-day Huck Finn. 

My grandfather, William Jenner, came to Portola in 1909 as one of the first Western Pacific telegraphers and locomotive engineers. Railroad pay, he said, was a damn sight better than what he got teaching school in Ohio. He suffered a cruel fate, however, dying in Portola in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which also nearly killed my father and his sister. 

My dad, Paul Henry Jenner, followed William’s footsteps, quitting school at age 14 to work as a WP callboy in 1916. His job, in addition to notifying crews in person of impending assignments, involved being yardmaster, crew dispatcher, engine herder for passenger trains, delivery boy for Western Union messages and janitor. His pay was $50 per month for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Why it was necessary to personally notify crew members of impending assignments remains puzzling, as Alexander Graham Bell’s magnificent invention had been around for well over a decade. But, many are the vagaries of railroad life, as you’ll soon see. He rose through the ranks and became a locomotive engineer in 1928, finally getting promoted to the main office in San Francisco in the mid ’40s. 

Railroaders were a fascinating bunch of oddballs. Every one of them seemed to have some kind of unique, often wacky, nickname that was associated with a landmark event in their career. For instance, my dad was nicknamed “Boomer.” Old Mr. Johnson, who lived across the street on California, was called “Highball.” And then, of course, there was the inimitable “Over the Road Ray.” 

Any given day on Commercial Street you could be sure to see a gaggle of railroaders all standing around talking shop even though it was their day off. There never was enough railroading. Consequently, wives often became rail widows and tall tales would proliferate. One in particular deals with how the town of Portola got its name. 

According to legend, Ignacio Bertola, one of the early citizens, was hit by lightning under a large pine tree near where land was being leveled to build company houses. Bertola had been missing for a day or so when he was finally found stone cold dead, prompting a compatriot to murmur, “Poor Tola.” 

Another tale, told by Hap Manit, a legendary rail character in his own right, involved my father. Hap claimed that there was a Jupiter locomotive in Reno that needed to be brought back to Portola. There wasn’t a sufficient crew available to man the locomotive with both a fireman and engineer, so my dad was sent over to bring it back alone. He engineered and fired the locomotive all the way single-handed, which may not qualify him as a modern day Casey Jones, but did make him somewhat of a legend in his time. I believe this locomotive may be the same vintage as the one at Promontory Point in Utah at the site of the original golden spike ceremony. Whether or not such stories are true doesn’t matter. A story is just that, no more, no less — with the passage of time a tradition held dear.

Working on the “road” in those days was very dangerous. Railroading, in fact, was more dangerous than coal mining or working in a steel mill, both notoriously dangerous professions. Accidents involving death and severe injury far exceeded those in the mines and mills. Paul Jenner himself was nearly killed in a train wreck near Reno Junction. A rock had rolled off the mountain at Scott Siding and was lodged directly in the middle of the track, leaving no time to stop and avoid a collision. 

My dad, the engineer, saw the accident developing and yelled at the fireman to jump. Dad jumped and cartwheeled three or four times, breaking his leg in several places. The fireman stayed with the train and was crushed and scalded to death. Dad was laid up for almost a year. Evidently, there was no equivalent of worker’s compensation in those days. This egregious inequity prompted people like my father to push for organizing rail workers so they could secure protection for themselves and their families. Big shot owners called these activists wobblies or, worse, commies. 

There were also many wrecks down in the Canyon caused mostly by slides; but perhaps one of the most dangerous places was the switching yard. When I was about 13 a hobo had been riding in a boxcar that had been spotted in the yard. Once the train stopped, he stuck his head out the sliding door only to have the car suddenly jolted by the engine up front. The door decapitated him. Kids ran down to the yard to see where they had placed sawdust to cover the gore. “Out, damned spot. Out …” Lady Macbeth would say. This didn’t deter us brazen young Huck Finns from hopping a freight car to ride as far as Blairsden, or even Spring Garden. Luck must have been on our side because we always managed to get back alive just in time for dinner, our parents none the wiser. 

One of the most mysterious places was the roundhouse-turntable complex. On days off my dad would take me down to the roundhouse to wash his coveralls. They had a metal trough filled with scalding water and steam where the engineers could take their greasy, sodden clothing to wash. After all, no self-respecting engineer would make his wife wash such filthy gear; and, believe me, filthy it was. Just spending a minute or two around one of those soot-belching iron horses was enough to cover you, head to foot, with grease, oil and just about every imaginable kind of dirt. 

Often there would be four or five engines lined up to go in the roundhouse for maintenance. One time the roundhouse foreman forgot to fill a boiler with water as an engine was being fired. It blew up, seriously injuring a couple of workers and causing thousands of dollars of damage. The foreman was fired unceremoniously in spite of more than 35 years of service. Due process? Are you kidding?

Another place for kids to explore was the freight house or shanty. The kindhearted foreman, a guy named Hance, would allow Tommy and me to go underneath the building in the crawl space on hot summer days. Mysteriously, a couple gallon jugs of Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer or some other goodie would inevitably come rolling down our way. What better use for salvage goods that were damaged in transit and were going to be destroyed anyway? One time we consumed over a gallon and a half of root beer. The next day my mother asked me why I was getting up so much in the middle of the night and whether or not I might have the flu. Now I get up for other reasons. To this day I cannot stand the thought of root beer. 

Not everything was idyllic in this rambunctious railroad town. Bars outnumbered churches. I believe there were four or five on Commercial Street alone, not to mention two houses of “ill repute” east of town. One was called The Seven Steps, the other The Green Lantern. 

Pug and I would sneak down through the pine forest to the edge of town and situate ourselves with a good view of the entrance to these infamous places. Pug had a cheap pair of Boy Scout binoculars. One day we saw a prominent railroader, whose name will go unmentioned, entering The Green Lantern. Pug looked at me quizzically and asked, “Does his wife know?” I got the distinct impression that most rail towns had whorehouses. In fact, a certain wag, well known for his risqué and hard-hitting railroad humor, described the town of Winnemucca as “Sinamucca.” 

And then there were the hobos and the gypsies. The hobos had a little tar paper, tin and cardboard village on the north side of the river. Most of them were only temporary residents, riding the rails from town to town searching for work. Banish the thought of calling these hobos bums. Many earnestly sought jobs even at the height of The Great Depression. I remember occasions when a hobo would come to our house and knock on the door, asking directly, “Food for work, ma’am?” My mother could not resist their plaintive pleas, making them at least a peanut butter sandwich. 

The gypsies were a different story. Their encampment was also on the Feather River, a little further out of town. They came in caravans of canvas-covered wagons often drawn by horses just like you see in the movies about Dracula and Transylvania. Their reputation was that they were all thieves. Whether true or not, the sheriff, not one to mince words over constitutional niceties, would issue an edict allowing them to come into town only on Friday afternoons between 4 and 6 to shop. Evidently no civil libertarians rose to their defense. 

One day a neighbor said she saw a wagon that had a bear tethered to the back. If you looked at the bear the gypsies would try to charge you money for the mere act of looking. Bold, those gypsies were, and very proud, too, as they steadfastly refused to camp anywhere near the hobos. The caste system had its infinite variations.

One of the busiest times ever in the history of Portola railroading was World War II. Troop train after troop train passed monotonously through, taking thousands of young men over to fight in the Pacific campaign. A very enterprising friend of mine suggested that since the trains all stopped in Portola, we make up a bunch of sandwiches and sell them to the troops. So we slapped a piece baloney between two pieces of white bread with a dab of mustard and mayonnaise, establishing quite a thriving little business. Our price was 10 cents a sandwich. I remember some poor soldier, destined for who knows what fate, leaning out the window and saying, “Hey kid, don’t you think 10 cents is a little stiff for a lousy baloney sandwich without lettuce?” Au contraire. I like to think we were contributing to the war effort. After all, anything must be a relief from GI rations. 

There are many other aspects of life in a rip-snorting railroad town in the 1930s and ’40s that left indelible impressions on a young man seeking his way. One of my most lasting memories concerns the language and dialect of railroaders. Let’s call it “Portolaise” or “Railspeak.” Although not rising to the level of a true folk language similar to “Boontling,” spoken in Booneville, it did come close, being virtually unintelligible to outsiders. 

In addition to a wild array of unique and sometimes wacky nicknames, railroaders had a heavy lexicon of slang. For instance, an engineer was a “hog head” or “hogger,” a switchman a “reptile” or “snake,” a cop a “bull.” Cars hauling livestock were not, as you would expect, livestock cars, but rather “pig palaces,” coal trains “black snakes.” The caboose was a “brain shack” and a locomotive did not have headlights, but rather “eyeballs.” 

The railroaders called themselves “rails” and anybody who had a high priority for train assignments was a “pool.” Woe be it for anybody not from Portola; they were all “tourists” from “down below” or just “below.” If you were going to San Francisco, you merely stated you were going “below.” Those pitiful characters who ardently desired to become rails, but failed, were called “foamers” — a sort of rail paparazzi. What a lowly job it was, too, if you did make the grade, only to be assigned a “goat,” i.e., switch engine. 

A favorite phrase I must share, risking disfavor, was, “go to beans.” This meant “eat lunch.” The restaurant in the old depot at Portola was called the Beanery. Most every rail town had a beanery. Beans must have played a major role in these early railroad years. One wonders what it was like having to ride 112 miles on the High Line (Fourth Subdivision) with members of the crew having just dined in the infamous Beanery, especially in winter when the windows to the cab were closed tight. Curiously, Paul Henry Jenner, no lover of the noble legume, was the engineer on the very first High Line revenue train from Keddie to Bieber in November 1931. 


The Western Pacific Railroad yard in Portola as it looked in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The use of common English, too, was often fractured. For instance, the word “don’t” often prevailed in place of “doesn’t,” i.e., “He don’t know anything (or nothing).” Ain’t was probably the most-used word in the English language. A husband was an “old man,” a wife was an “old lady” and everybody’s name was invariably preceded by the simple three-letter word “old” or “ole”: “old” Ray, “old” Jimmy, “old” Mr. Johnson, “old” Mrs. Murphy, etc. Even a mother, God forbid, was an “old lady”; a father an “old man.” 

I remember my mother constantly correcting me and Dad. Although we both knew correct English, we deliberatively avoided it. Cultural bonding required no less. After all, this rail town was a kingdom in its own right. This drove poor Mom nuts. 

Portola railroaders of that era (i.e., the 1930s and ’40s) definitely had a strong liberal bent and broad-minded view of the world. Many of them had traveled far and wide to big cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Reno, Elko and Salt Lake City. There, many of them had been exposed to a plethora of ideas and ethnic differences. As a matter of fact, having had to fight so hard, as we mentioned in our last installment, for the rights of workers, they voted Democrat almost universally. I can’t remember a single instance before a decade or so ago that Portola went Republican. No political ax to grind, folks, just stating a fact. 

As a result of this broad-minded atmosphere with its expansive acceptance of all types of people and philosophies, Railroad Brat himself benefited. When I moved to San Francisco later and enrolled in high school, my best friend was African-American. We were constant companions for three years, playing baseball night and day. I was bereft of all stereotyping. So, too, was the case when I went to the University of Colorado. Jerry, also African-American, and I became the first integrated college dorm roommates in the university’s history. 

Remember, a variety of ethnic types had helped build and run the railroad. There were the Chinese, Mexicans and southern Europeans, of course, and we often forget the Sikhs and Hindus, among others. In fact, the rail cart actuated manually was called a gandy dancer. Some attribute this name to the Indian name Gandhi (as in Mohandes Gandhi, a Hindu), although much controversy is acknowledged regarding its precise origin. 

The impression that Portola, a railroad town through and through, was a compassionate and broad-minded place was brought home in the middle ’50s when I returned for a visit and noticed that the United Nations flag was hanging in the high school science lab. Although I’m no politician and was not meant to be, I do know one thing for sure: Portola had heart. 

Many do not realize that the Western Pacific Railroad Inc. sponsored a semiprofessional baseball team during this era. They were called the Portola Railroaders, later the Solons, and consisted of railroad employees as well as young college baseball players recruited to come up and play for the summer season while holding down menial railroad jobs. Many of them came from leading universities like UC Berkeley. 

The team name change was attributable to the fact the players wore out their old uniforms, inheriting hand-me-downs from the old Triple-A Sacramento Solons, now the Rivercats. Play took place on a baseball field behind the high school that consisted of bare earth riddled with pot holes, rodent tunnels and nary a blade of grass in sight. You can imagine the bad hops this rugged terrain induced. Any decent infielder would sport at least one black eye per season. 

A player of particular notoriety was Johnny Lusar, a powerfully built first baseman who was a locomotive engineer. He not only had the physique of Mr. Universe, but was the spitting image of Lou Gehrig. 

The team was particularly active during the war and played such powerhouses as Tonopah, Fallon, Hawthorne and Herlong, to name a few. Admission was free and because there were very few seats most people remained standing. And, yes, there were no iPods or ringing cellphones. 

It was not unpatriotic to play baseball during World War II because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself had decreed that even Big League baseball should continue to be played since it was good for the nation’s morale. You history buffs may take note of the fact that it was during this era that baseball teams started playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the games to show their patriotism. This doubtlessly assuaged any extreme sense of guilt. The day after a big Sunday game, we kids would all run up to that same diamond and pretend we were hog-head slugger Johnny Lusar. 

When baseball season was over and winter was upon us, there was ice hockey. The Feather River, then unfettered by the Frenchman and Lake Davis dams, provided expansive frozen surfaces for home-brewed games. In fact, the Western Pacific used the freezing of this river to harvest ice to refrigerate cars for perishable goods. The ice deck was east of the old girder bridge and dam. Our tools of engagement were a shaved pinecone and modified broomsticks. I often wonder if Wayne Gretzky got his start near a railroad ice deck. 


Railroad workers use ice from the frozen Feather River to refrigerate cars carrying perishable goods.

Rails and their families had very few professional entertainment outlets in those days. One of the most exciting times, though, was when the carnival or so-called tent show came to town. Once in a while a Ferris wheel and other rides would be provided, but most of the time the tent show consisted of just a very large tent with various side shows and demonstrations inside. For example, there was a fat lady who you had to pay extra to see. You could also throw a ball at a guy sitting in a chair. If you hit the bull’s eye, he would be dumped in water. 

There were also those devices that looked like binoculars affixed to a machine through which, for a nickel, you could peep at a picture of a lady that was not a lady or a man, but both — an honest-to-goodness real-life hermaphrodite. We kids tried desperately to look in these machines because most of our education in such matters had been provided by National Geographic and magazines like Sunshine and Health Nudist, which had been swiped from the local smoke shop. 

The most rousing events in the tent show, though, were the boxing matches. The carnival invariably had a former professional boxer of low national ranking among its employees. Management would announce that their boxer would challenge any guy in town to fight with a big purse being awarded to the winner after a series of elimination bouts. The community’s very honor was challenged derisively. 

Every tough, strong man in Portola, railroaders to the contrary notwithstanding, took umbrage, thinking he could whip this lowlife, thus insuring Portola’s dignity and fame. A virtual mob of contestants lined up to fight. The carnival shill would invariably take a dive in one of the later fights, a local tough, not infrequently a railroader, being declared victor. This, of course, would foment a huge crowd for the rematch, which the carnival entrant usually won by a dramatic knockout in the last round. More than one rail bit the dust. The abused fans lost not only their admission money but whatever bets they had placed on the fight. 

Years later I met an old Shoshone Piute native in Cedarville. He told me that years ago he had fought in these tent shows and had been hired out of Reno to travel with the circus, specifically to garner money in staged fights. He said the toughest fights were with railroaders, who were “smarter than the loggers or miners.” He was 95 and didn’t have a scratch. God bless America.

The most miserable day of my life was July 1, 1946. That was the day my dad was promoted to headquarters, 526 Mission St., San Francisco. He was “kicked upstairs,” trading his overalls for a suit while his kid traded the wide-ranging adventures of a rambunctious railroad town for the fog-swept and lonely streets of a huge city where the people barely mumbled hello. It was a quantum leap for both of us. 

Paul Henry Jenner, who quit school at age 14 to work as a call boy, was now assistant to general manager in charge of safety rules and instruction, an “officer” or “management,” as they say. Since the safety record of the railroad was poor, brass had finally realized that something drastic had to be done. He was assigned an instruction coach that was hitched to various trains and ported over the Western Pacific line from Oakland to Salt Lake for the purpose of holding lectures on operating and air brake rules and all other aspects of railroad safety. 

The coach was a marvel to behold. It had room for 20 or more students and all the accoutrements of a true classroom. Also included were a kitchen, bed and small living area — a self-contained home away from home. He must have felt like Lucius Beebe being hauled around in a luxurious private Pullman. Far cry from the 14-year-old call boy of 1916! 

Boomer “pulled the pin” and went “whistling off” in 1963 after 46 years of service. The coach sits today in the yard at the museum, awaiting restoration under the able guidance of Norm Holmes, museum founder and director. As for me, I am left with only memories of those halcyon days growing up in a zany, broad-minded railroad community that afforded more adventures than even Huck Finn could endure. What more could Railroad Brat ask? Life was good.

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