It all started with a Western Pacific Railroad business car, a young car man named Charles Sweetwood, a nurse named Julia Rigutto Pagan and the advent of the Korean War.
The Pullman Company built the car, WP 106, in January 1917 as one of three private cars in Lot 4490, with the cars named “Patriot,” “Pilgrim” and “Pioneer,” respectively. “Pioneer” was destined to ultimately one day become the “Charles O. Sweetwood.”
The “Pioneer” went through a few monikers, including a re-christening of the car in 1927 as the “Davy Crockett.” By 1942, the car was visited by WP’s E.E. Gleason, who arranged for the repair and refurbishing of the car.
The arrival of WP 105 and 106, all-steel business cars, quickly put WP 106 into the care of the Superintendant of the Eastern Division for WP, Jack Duggan, assigned to Elko, Nevada.
At this time, a young man named Charles Sweetwood was working in Elko and the care of the 106 became one of his duties. With the advent of the Korean War, Sweetwood was sent overseas as a medic and was killed in action as he went about saving his wounded comrades in arms.
During this period, WP was looking for a way to contribute to the war effort and a unique plan was concocted: turn the train car into a rolling blood collection system.
A proposal of this magnitude had never been attempted before and WP quickly connected with the American Red Cross to change history, one blood donor at a time.
WP 106, formerly the “Pioneer” and “Davy Crockett,” became the “Charles O. Sweetwood” military blood procurement car in honor of the first WP employee killed in the conflict, and the WP quickly staffed the car with four Red Cross nurses and a car porter furnished by the WP.
“This was something extraordinary,” said Eugene Vicknair, a docent at the WP Railroad Museum in Portola. Vicknair described the impressive dedication ceremonies that followed the arrival of the blood donation car in Oakland, with speeches, music by the Sixth Army Band and an introduction from WP President Frederic Whitman.
Following the ceremonies, Sgt. Charles Sweetwood’s mother and brothers entered the rolling blood bank and became the first individuals to donate blood aboard the car and were often first in line to donate at any given stop.
“The rolling blood bank operated for almost three years with the help of the Red Cross and Red Cross nurses,” Vicknair explained. “This car went all over the western United States, from the Bay Area to Salt Lake City, Utah. After some time passed, other railroads began participating as well, as far east as Denver, Colorado.”
This is where the story takes an interesting turn. Fast-forward nearly 64 years to July 8, a hot summer day at the WPRM.
Nearly 64 years after the rolling blood bank’s service ended, one of the four original nurses employed by the American Red Cross in January 1951, Julia Rigutto Pagan, made her way toward the retired Sweetwood car, with excited family members helping at every step along the tracks.
“This is a total surprise for her,” one family member said with a large grin. “We didn’t tell Julia that we had found the car, or that we would be coming to visit it.”
As Pagan drew closer to the car, she inhaled sharply with an exclamation of “My gosh, what a surprise this is,” as she realized that she was nearing a car that she never thought she’d see again, with family members teary-eyed and smiling as their surprise of bringing Pagan to the car became an instant success.
“We’ve never actually had the opportunity to speak with anyone who worked on the blood procurement train,” Vicknair said excitedly to Pagan as she settled into a chair inside the old car, fingers tracing the black and white photographed faces of the past.
“We are so excited to hear what it was like for Julia as one of the four original nurses on the car,” said Vicknair.
Vicknair then introduced Bill and Marie Sweetwood, who had been awaiting Pagan’s arrival inside the car. “Bill is the nephew of Charles Sweetwood,” Vicknair explained to Pagan.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Pagan exclaimed as she shook his hand.
Sweetwood and Pagan took a moment to speak about their common link in time, with echoes of the past all around them in the car as history came back to life in full color.
“I started working on this car when the WP and Red Cross initiated the blood bank,” Pagan reminisced. “I wasn’t on the car for the entire duration of the collection efforts. I think I was here for about seven months, from the inception of the rolling blood bank until I got married.”
Prior to working on the Sweetwood, Pagan worked for the Red Cross, stationed at blood banks in various areas around the country. “I don’t know why they chose me as a car nurse,” Pagan laughed, with her family surrounding her.
“The women I worked with were all volunteers and they were wonderful — so happy to be doing something important,” Pagan went on, remembering her comrades on the Sweetwood. “Us railroad women were tough.”
“I kept in touch with some of the nurses, but I think a lot of them have already died. I’m going to be 96 at the end of this month,” Pagan said. “I met so many wonderful people when I worked on the Sweetwood, all of them so positive.”
Vicknair went on to inquire about some of Pagan’s memories that stood out during her stint on the Sweetwood and Pagan spoke a bit about one trip to Salt Lake City, where so many people wanted to donate blood that the car stayed in place for several weeks. “People wanted to give, so we just stayed longer,” Pagan recalled.
“There are a variety of stops on record,” Vicknair added. “Some stops showed thousands of pints of blood and there was one particular stop that garnered three pints.”
“Yes, we had plenty of nice places to stop,” Pagan recalled. “Everyone that I worked with and met were not only cordial; they were just wonderful.”
Pagan went on to explain how the California Zephyr passenger train would follow the Sweetwood as it traversed the United States, as the Zephyr had refrigerators to keep blood cool since it was transported rapidly on a daily basis to the Cutter Laboratory in Berkeley.
“There were many interesting people that wanted to give blood,” Pagan said. “At one point we had a Native-American Shoshone tribe in the car, giving blood. Everybody was so happy to be doing something for the war effort.”
“I still remember one donor that sticks in my mind,” Pagan mused as she examined the interior of the car, with photos of days gone by catching her eye. “Normally, if we would stick someone twice and we couldn’t find a vein due to whatever reason, we would stop. There was one woman that came on board who was determined that she was going to give blood if we had to draw it out of her feet.”
The Sweetwood car is credited with saving thousands of lives and after returning to the WP on Nov. 9, 1953, the car had travelled 28,488 miles over 11 railroads in four states and had achieved the collection of over 25,000 pints of blood.
After walking down memory lane with family, Pagan was then artfully surprised once more. After orchestration from Patty Clawson of Big Fish Creations, many public figures came together to commemorate the special day inside the Railroad Museum.
American Red Cross representative and director of communications for Gold Country region Stephen Walsh presented Pagan with a Certificate of Recognition for her service, followed by a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition presented on behalf of Congressman Doug LaMalfa by representative Shane Starr.
After many photos, handshakes and exclamations of joy and surprise, Pagan said, “I have nothing but good memories of my time on the Sweetwood. It was a pleasant time when so many were happy giving.”
This September will mark the Charles O. Sweetwood car’s 100th birthday and according to Big Fish Creations, plans to celebrate this significant milestone are in progress with the hopes of a guest appearance by Julia Rigutto Pagan, members of the Sweetwood family and the American Red Cross.
Other plans centering on the Charles O. Sweetwood are also moving along behind the scenes, with WPRM looking into restoration costs to bring the Sweetwood back to its former glory. According to Vicknair, “The idea is to get the Charles O. Sweetwood car Amtrak certified, with the goal to potentially start using the car to draw blood again.”
For more information about the Charles O. Sweetwood American Red Cross Blood Procurement Car and the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, call 832-4131.