The End of the Line

Life on the rails as seen from behind

shutterstock_154345229_TMy college friend Rebecca saw something earlier this year that was so unusual, she had to tell her daddy. And when she told me why, I decided I should sit down with him as well.

What she had caught sight of was a caboose, something that was once nearly ubiquitous and is now scarcer than legislative bipartisanship. And her daddy was the natural person to talk to about it, because Gene B. Lemley spent 46 years working on the railroad—the first 40 years for Missouri Pacific, then for Union Pacific after it bought MoPac in the early 1980s. Most of that time he spent at the big rail yard in North Little Rock, where one of his many jobs was to set up and run the caboose track, a dedicated station where the railroad brought its iconic cars to be repaired, refitted or just stocked up.

“They wanted it put in so they would be able to supply the oil and all the supplies needed on the caboose,” says 87-year-old Gene, who started with MoPac at age 16 and has “only been retired 25 years.” So he oversaw the construction of the facility, which included a 10,000-gallon storage tank for the diesel that fueled caboose stoves.

“The man said they’d fire me if it ever ran dry,” he says, then adds with a little smile, “It never did.”

MoPac probably couldn’t have custom-designed a man better suited to the job. When it came to the regulations, Gene was a stickler’s stickler who believed work wasn’t done until it was done right and by the book. Of course, that’s a recipe for head-butting in any place that’s as rough and tumble as a rail yard, chock full of ornery, strong-willed men used to getting their way. But Gene had direct orders from the superintendent—the yard’s big boss—on how things were supposed to be, and he never wavered.

“They told me not to release the cabooses until they was ready to go, and I did not,” he says, certitude still in his voice. “The superintendent called one day and asked how the cabooses were, and I said they had this and that and needed an electrician. So they told the general foreman we needed an electrician up there.”

The electrical foreman who got that request said it wasn’t going to fly. Once this was relayed to Gene, the master of the caboose track informed the superintendent. Pretty soon, the general foreman was making another call to the electrical foreman.

“He said, ‘When Gene Lemley calls down there and asks for something, you do it, because the next person who calls will be the superintendent.’”

Sticking to the rules wasn’t merely a point of pride for Gene. The cabooses were key to the safety of the entire train. While the engineer and the fireman worked in the locomotive, the caboose was home to the brakeman and conductor. They kept an eye on the gauges showing the pressure in the air brakes, and from either a top-mounted cupola or side-mounted bays, they could see the entire length of the train and keep watch for other problems, like cars hopping off the tracks. So it was important that cabooses be in tip-top shape, which meant men like Gene had to be something of a jack-of-all-trades.

“I took the windows out and put the Plexiglas in them and put them back in. I’d work on stoves. I’d work on the air [lines] of ’em,” Gene recalls. “Also, we would fix where the water lines would break, the oil line to the stove, and also the conductor’s valve in there where he could stop the train anytime he wanted to.”

Though he oversaw its creation and early operation, Gene actually didn’t spend too much of his career on the caboose track. He’d started with the railroad as a teen, and he took better positions as his seniority made him eligible. For instance, he later spent 10 years in the brake shop, and one of the most treasured mementos of his career came during that time.

“I have a MoPac ring,” he says. “I got it for free, but I wouldn’t sell it for a million dollars.”

The ring was a safety award, given to everyone in the brake shop on May 31, 1984, after they set a record for days without an on-the-job injury. It’s as bold a piece of jewelry as you’d see on a state championship football player’s hand: big, silvery, with a steam locomotive on one side and a diesel engine on the other, topped with a blue stone that has the MoPac logo beneath it.

Gene never returned to the caboose track during his career. In fact, the railroad entirely phased out cabooses starting in the mid-’80s. Technology reached a point where all of the monitoring done by two men riding in a caboose could be handled by a device on the end of the train, imaginatively called an End of Train device, or EOTD, said Patricia LaBounty, who heads up collections and outreach for the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As for the cabooses themselves?

“Sometimes when those [conductors] retired,” LaBounty says, “they’d buy a caboose and put it in their backyard.”

For the record, Gene didn’t bring a caboose with him when he retired to the North Little Rock home he and his wife have lived in almost as long as they’ve been married. And speaking of that ….

“This is the eighth day of March, so it’s 52 years, 2 months and 11 days,” Gene says without a moment’s hesitation.

Up there on the top of Scenic Hill, you could see the rail yard if it wasn’t for all the trees, though you can definitely hear the trains as they pass along the north-bound rail line that follows Arkansas Highway 365—and that’s just fine with Gene. He still likes trains, but he doesn’t really miss the job.

“No,” he says with a laugh, “because they’re paying me real good just to sit up here and rock.”

Eric Francis can hear that whistle blow from his home in North Little Rock.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *