The Milwaukee Road Olympian - A Ride to Remember

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Product Details
ISBN: 0-9643647-7-8
Author: Johnson, Stanley
Pages: 360
Size: 8.5" x 11"
Type: Hardcover

A 1941 train trip from Chicago to Tacoma combines sights, sounds, historical asides, and behind-the-scenes operations of a railroad gone forever. Hundreds of photographs, charts, diagrams, floor plans, dining car menus, and reproduced timetables of the time augment the story.

This book is capable of making the oldest train fan remember and the youngest truly envious of such memories, as it describes in detail what it was like to ride more than half-way across the country from Chicago to Tacoma in 1941, the last year such trains ran.

Imagine a 13 year-old boy, already sophisticated beyond his years in train travel through numerous long vacation trips with his parents and just pure fun working trips with his father who was a conductor on the Olympian, being given the opportunity to travel alone from Kansas City to Chicago. Beginning with a day of sight-seeing on his own in the Windy City, spent mostly looking at trains, then boarding the Olympian in Chicago's Union Station for a train ride west through nine states to the Pacific Coast. Experience this true adventure with him as he writes of it in detail, still remembered sixty years later. Recall with him the flash of passing streamliners, the view from bridges across the Mississippi, the waving tall grasses of the prairie and forbidding badlands of the American Desert, the ascent of the Rockies and the twisting rights-of-way through the magnificent fir and cedar of the Bitterroot and Cascade mountains. See the panorama of passing towns from midwestern cities to prairie hamlets to mountain villages. Traverse tunnels, trestles and mountain passes with him as his ride is assured of becoming a treasured memory by the careful assistance of train crewmen, dining car personnel and a porter who was a personal friend of the lad's conductor father.

Nothing is forgotten. No detail is overlooked that might help satisfy the hunger of today's reader for such an experience. The book is probably best described by a reader who said, "I rode that train at almost that time and when I read these pages I recalled things long since forgotten. It has made forgotten things live again and cherished things still remembered even more treasured as I fit them once more into a past that I thought was gone forever."


"Steaming Through the Gap"
The Milwuakee Road Olympian: A Ride to Remember. Chapter 10

Originally called St. Joe City, it was the site of one of the largest construction camps during the construction of the Western Extension. In addition to housing many workers, the camp included piles of supplies, a lumber mill, and a floating hospital that had been towed up the river from St. Maries. A long ravine split a hillside across the river to the north. It was called Slaughterhouse Draw, and was where Coeur d'Alene Indians butchered cattle they had driven from their reservation for the beef they had contracted to provide for Milwaukee construction workers.

In more recent times St. Joe had shrunk in size, yet it was still an active little settlement in 1941. Dad's eastbound train almost always had an extended stop there for passengers and baggage handling. I had helped the baggageman unload freight from No. 8 here on its run from Spokane to Butte on a number of occasions. One of the items that I thought was fun to handle (and I had plenty of opportunity since we unloaded them at several different stations) were the octagonal metal boxes that held several reels of motion picture film destined for local theater projectors. When I had time, I liked to read the labels on the cans because I could find out what film was inside, often where it had been, and where it was going.

The railroad had originally intended to place the tracks through this area on the north side of the St. Joe, across the river from where St. Joe is located. William Ferrell had come here in 1900--almost eight years before the railroad--built a store, a hotel and a saloon on that north bank (dragging some of his lumber with teams of horses across the frozen surface of Lake Coeur d'Alene) and had called his own private settlement Ferrell. The town grew and when news of the railroad's coming to the St. Joe Valley was publicly announced, it blossomed. Almost overnight there were more hotels and saloons and Mr. Ferrell was selling numerous building sites. Saturday evening parties for residents and loggers drew people for miles around.

When the railroad sought to purchase a right-of-way, Ferrell and the railroad representatives haggled over the price and the railroad became increasingly frustrated, feeling that the price was being inflated. Finally, when Ferrell refused to compromise, the railroad purchased rights for a railroad grade on the south bank and underwrote the building of a railroad-related infrastructure there, with a depot to be called St. Joe at the site of the small settlement previously known as St. Joe City, directly across the river from Ferrell. Without the railroad, Ferrell was doomed, and it withered and eventually died as St. Joe prospered, growing despite floods and fires over the years.

The part of St. Joe I could see from the train was largely on a high bank overlooking the railroad from the south. A wooden auto bridge crossed overhead and then the road curved to parallel the tracks, dropping down to track level near the depot that sat on the north side of the tracks. A very long passing siding stretched beside us on the opposite side of the main line from the depot. There were a few buildings, mostly residences, to the north in a low-lying flood-prone meadow within a curving loop of the river. In earlier days when river traffic was still an important part of the everyday routine, there was a large two-storied, hip-roofed hotel with a full front veranda close to the river. Every picture you see of the hotel shows people sitting on that veranda watching this serene stretch of the St. Joe River. A few yards to the west was the town dock where the steamboats loaded, and up higher on the bank behind the dock was a store building.

The little settlement always looked mysterious to me, and I often wondered what was down the road and behind the top of the hill out of my sight. Dad knew generally what was there, but said he had never been farther from the tracks than the depot. Logging and the railroad were what kept the town alive, and the river frequently had booms of logs floating along the shore. Occasionally, while riding on No. 7, I would see a small steamboat helping a drive downstream in the mists of early morning. Railroaders and loggers both worked long hours.

Between St. Joe and St. Maries was the whistle stop station of Omega. Two things stood out in my memory of what I had learned about this little settlement of scattered dairy farms that predated the coming of the railroad. One was that many of the original settlers here had immigrated from Switzerland--initially only a handful--but these pioneers liked the place so much they wrote home and many more came at their invitation. For years, long after 1941, a significant proportion of the Omega folks still spoke a Swiss dialect and church services were Swiss in language and style.

The other intriguing memory about Omega was that there were two missing tunnels between St. Joe and St. Maries! The Milwaukee numbered their tunnels and the last one we had passed through was No. 37 at Herrick. The next one we would see would be past St. Maries and it would be No. 40. No.s 38 and 39 were nowhere to be found. Tunnels were expensive to bore and the railroad used them only when necessary. However, sometimes a tunnel site was evaluated as desirable but not absolutely necessary. In such cases, surveying and preliminary engineering were often done so that work could proceed rapidly when the project was considered fiscally feasible. The right-of-way segment that has Omega in the middle is full of curves. Two of them, one east of Omega and one west, are reverse--one curve immediately following another in the opposite direction with no tangent or straight stretch in between. Reverse curves are troublemakers. The double friction of wheel flanges on the side of the rail severely decreases the load a locomotive can pull through such curves, and derailments at the point where one curve directly meets another are more common than elsewhere.

Following World War I, the Milwaukee decided to eliminate these two reverse curves that bracketed Omega, replacing them with a straighter and shorter roadbed that would go through two short tunnels, No. 38 and No. 39, planned years before but never bored. In the late 1920s, engineering plans were drawn and the railroad applied to the county for construction permits. However, the onset of the Great Depression caused the Milwaukee to delay and then cancel these plans. The tunnels disappeared as a concept but remained as mysteriously missing numbers.

From Omega westward to St. Maries, a short and fast five miles, we ran through flat farming lands as the valley widened, finally spreading out just east of St. Maries where we went past the large lumber mills in which the Milwaukee had significant investment over the years. Mountains could still be seen behind us but to the west, the height of the hills was decreasing, and we were not far from the flatter Palouse lands of southern Washington.

At the west end of the lumber mills we crossed the St. Maries, a river almost as large here at its mouth as the St. Joe. Before the railroad arrived, the river hosted mammoth log drives to St. Maries, where its logs were joined with St. Joe River logs. Many were processed at mills in St. Maries, but more were towed down river to the lake and then on to sawmills at Harrison and Coeur d'Alene On the west bank of the St. Maries, just beyond the bridge, a wye track left the mainline, heading south to Bovill and Elk River, Idaho. This branch line, built concurrently in 1908 with the main line, ran for 72 miles through heavy stands of white pine and produced large freight revenues for the Milwaukee. It was constructed through a joint agreement with the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railroad (closely allied with the Potlatch Lumber Company); the two railroads join at Bovill, and for a couple of miles between Bovill and Purdue share the same trackage.

Past the wye we went through the backyards of town, underneath a highway overpass, and passed the maintenance facilities that were in the Milwaukee's east yard. The depot was just west of the yard and the sun was sinking behind the hills between here and Plummer Junction as we made a brief stop. Two couples on the observation platform with me were full of questions about the town and its attractive depot. I could tell they were new to the area as they pronounced the name as "Saint Maw-REES" rather than "Saint Marys," as it has been called ever since it was named in the time of Father DeSmet, who first started a mission near here in the nineteenth century.

It was fun to tell them about the early town that was built at the edge of a wide promenade/dock that reached out over the river, with both the dock and some of the buildings supported by cedar poles. Just upriver from the depot, a number of houseboats were anchored to shore years ago, packed so tightly that one could walk from one to another as though on a wooden sidewalk. In the early times most of these floating establishments housed saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. Later they were sometimes used as residences and boarding houses.


Stan Johnson is a retired academic psychologist, University Dean, and has authored over a dozen books including three on the Milwaukee Railroad: The Milwaukee Road In Idaho: A Guide to Sites and Locations first edition plus a revised and expanded second edition, The Milwaukee Road Olympian: A Ride to Remember (published by the Museum of North Idaho) and The Milwaukee Road Revisited (University of Idaho Press). He has been, among other things, an elevator operator, a maker of corsages in a hotel florist shoppe, and a newspaper reporter. But most of all he is a man who knows, loves and likes to write about railroads, especially the Milwaukee Road.

This is understandable since he was born and raised in a Milwaukee Railroad family. His long-time stepfather (since he was 3) was a Conductor on the Milwaukee and served that railroad for 53 years. During the author's youth up through his young adulthood he traveled on trains extensively having made, among others, an estimated "three or four dozen" cross-country trips from the west coast to Chicago on the Milwaukee's Olympian or Columbian. His traveler's belt is notched from rides on other railroad's trains as well--the Santa Fe Chief, the Zephyr, the Ak-Sar-Ben, the North Coast Limited, the Crescent, the Montrealer, the Ann Rutledge, and "even Amtrak," he says with what could be either a smile or a smirk.

He is knowledgeable about the technical details of railroading and familiar with many of the insider's bits of interesting knowledge about what railroading is really like--especially on The Milwaukee Road. His books have been cited for technical accuracy and a wealth of warm understanding about the people who worked and rode on the trains of yesteryear. Because of this, his files are a storehouse of donated personal tales and anecdotes gleaned from conversations with old "hoggers", baggagemen, conductors, brakemen, station agents and even an ex hobo or two. Many of these find their way into his writing and a comment he frequently hears is, "I read your book with interest and enjoyed it very much. Then I read it again and enjoyed it even more, and then I read it again."

The Milwaukee Road's Olympian: A Ride to Remember, is a tour de force of personal memories and details about one of America's greatest luxury trains from pre-WW2 days. As a teenager, Johnson was permitted by his parents to make a solo trip from Kansas City to Chicago and then, aboard the Olympian, on to Tacoma. This latest book relates the story of that trip in great detail--seen through the eyes of a 13 year old boy who loved trains and railroaders, and written sixty years later by a 70 year old man who has lost none of that love.

A reader of The Milwaukee Road Revisited wrote, "This book was full of love for those who rode and ran the railroads. I can't imagine his Olympian book will be any the less so." It isn't.


Bill Virgin, December 18, 2001, Seattle, Wash., Post-Intelligencer newspaper.
A newspaper writer recently comparing Amtrak's passenger service of today with the accommodations on sleeper trains in the heyday of rail travel inadvertently raised this question: How many people are still around with firsthand experience of train travel in that era?

Not many, and the number is getting fewer by the day, one more reason Stan Johnson's "The Milwaukee Road Olympian: A Ride To Remember" is such a valuable work.

The Milwaukee Road was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, a railroad which died in 1980 but whose physical legacy can still be seen in places like Snoqualmie Pass. The Olympian was The Milwaukee Road's signature passenger train.

The ride to remember was one Johnson took as a 13-year-old in 1941.

The reasons to remember it are many. For one, Johnson's trip was a terrific adventure for a 13-year-old because he got to make the journey from Chicago to Tacoma on his own.

As the stepson of Milwaukee Road conductor Frank Fiebelkorn, Johnson had access and insights not available to many of his fellow passengers on the same trip.

And although he had no way of knowing it at the time, Johnson's trip came in something of a twilight time for American rail travel. A year later the passenger rail system, as with most of American life, was disrupted by World War II. After the war, the private automobile and the airliner commenced their steady erosion of passenger rail travel.

Johnson, who grew up in Spokane and lives in Bremerton, went on to a career as an academic psychologist and university dean (his stepfather didn't encourage him to follow him in railroading, calling it "too hard a life") but he never lost his fascination with railroads generally and the Milwaukee Road in particular.

"I have been told that if it were not for the certainty of knowing that I would never view a train again, I would probably enjoy the sight of a train bearing down on me in my stalled car on a crossing," Johnson writes in the introduction. "That is, of course, an exaggeration. It would have to be a Milwaukee train, and preferably the Olympian, for me to enjoy it fully."

This latest book was suggested by readers of his previous works. Johnson used snapshots, timetables and menus, the retracing of the original mainline he and his wife have done and his own memories of the trip to compile the narrative. Then he double-checked it with veterans of the railroad to make sure "my memory didn't play too many tricks on me."

"The Milwaukee Road Olympian" is certainly a wealth of railroad lore, but Johnson wanted it to be more. "There's a dearth in the railroad literature (of books) that deals with the people," so Johnson tells of the railroad employees as well as the passengers --what it was like for a family to plan and then take a long-distance train trip.

Johnson's book is also part travelogue, with detailed descriptions and histories of the towns and spectacular scenery along the route. A sample of the attention to detail can be found in an old timer's account of the Almighty's attempts to deal with the rough and wicked rail-line construction town of Grand Forks, Idaho:

"He burned it down three times, the second time when He figured he hadn't tried hard enough the first time. When the second fire fizzled out and the town rebuilt He was so mad He pretty near ruined the entire states of Idaho and Montana. I think God figured that if the big thunderbolt of 1910 didn't do the job it just wasn't worth risking His reputation to try again."

Johnson suggests that readers need not plough through his book like a train making up time: "Don't read it like an encyclopedia, read it like a photo album."

A photo album is very much what "Steam to Diesel: Jim Fredrickson's Railroading Journal" is. A follow-up to his "Railroad Shutterbug," published earlier this year, "Steam to Diesel" is another sampling of Fredrickson's collection of more than 30,000 negatives shot before and during a long career with Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern.

...will grow ever more valuable as the years advance and those who lived those times are gone. Johnson remembers what someone told him in encouraging him to set down his memories on paper:

"It's just a story now, but 30 years from now this will be the only history we have."

David T. Sprau, retired railroad employee and union officer with 38 years service, author, and editorial consultant for video documentaries
"Sixty years after a 13-year-old with an eye for detail made a trip west over the Milwaukee Railroad, his adventure has been reduced to book form. For those who remember those wonderful days, Stan's book allows a brief return to the genteel art of rail travel in a bygone era. Old, familiar names, events and places steal in and out as Johnson's time machine propels us along. Ghosts of conductors, porters, and trackmen flit through the pages, as well as through the edges of the mind, as this phantom Olympian makes one final trip. . . . Johnson's penchant for geographical and historical accuracy in other data, such as maps, photo captions, historical facts, and anecdotal stories as the Olympian wends its way west, makes the narrative rich and replete in such information, and fills gaps hitherto caused by a dearth of such material in guidebook form. For serious railroad aficionados, the book is a must-read: a documentary unlocked from the mind of one who saw firsthand what he writes about, and an insight no proponent of Milwaukee Railroad history should be without."

Michael Sol, a railroad historian and attorney who grew up on the Milwaukee Road.
Railroading, at one time in America, was every boy's dream escape to faraway places and to freedom. For generations, a boy's first train trip alone was a big step to manhood. Stan Johnson's book recaptures the full thrill and meaning of that bygone era in his fond remembrance of his first trip alone across the continent, on the Milwaukee Road's famous Olympian passenger train. His memories are vivid and recollection crisp, his historical asides enlightening, and his experience so well written that you will find yourself enjoying every poignant moment of the journey."

John V. Wood, author of Railroads Through the Coeur d'Alenes, author, and another who rode the Milwaukee (1951, Spokane to Chicago on the Hiawatha).

"Pack your bags and prepare for A Ride to Remember! The year is 1941 and young Stanley Johnson is making his first solo train trip and this on the famous Milwaukee Olympian. This is not just a story of the classic era of passenger train travel, but one including the Milwaukee Railroad's unusual combination of steam power combined with long stretches of main-line electrics. Nor is this merely a fine travelogue of sights, sounds, and smells along the right-of-way, but a tale combining this travel with fascinating history and the story of the behind-the-scenes operation of a railroad that is now gone forever.


Setout 1: "Perse"
Chapter 1: Before You Hear "All Aboard"
Setout 2: "There's No Place Like Home"
Chapter 2: Off on the Right Foot: Chicago's Union Station
Setout 3: "Tiptoeing Across the Diamonds"
Chapter 3: The Land of Hiawatha
Setout 4: "Coffee by the Book"
Chapter 4: Where the Grass Whispers Secrets
Setout 5: "Holidays"
Chapter 5: Hoofbeats, Drumbeats, and Prairie Ghosts
Setout 6: "Trails, Rails, and Roads"
Chapter 6: Electrified and Smooth as Glass
Setout 7: "Neither Here nor There"
Chapter 7: Challenging the Rockies
Setout 8: "Nicknames"
Chapter 8 Train Races, Bearmouths, and Hell Gates
Setout 9 "Tea Time on the Olympian"
Chapter 9 Trestles, Tunnels, and Trolley Wires
Setout 10: "Souvenirs"
Chapter 10: Steaming Through the Gap
Setout 11: "Medal of Honor"

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