Once Upon a (Life)time
Ridin' the Rails
Ridin' the Rails - Part 1

Mildred and her growing family follow her rail worker husband.

My experiences with the railroad started early in life. My first-grade teacher, her mother and her sister, were taking me to my first Western Montana Fair. They lived next door and had made arrangements the evening before to stop by for me on their way to catch "the morning train" a half-mile walk to the Evaro depot.
Wouldn't you know that when they knocked on our door at 5:30 a.m. at my grandparents, where I was staying during my first year of school, that we had all overslept. We were still in bed!

"There's still time," my teacher said. "Get her dressed and she can catch up. We'll have breakfast in Missoula." Grandma Mary ran a cold washcloth round and round my face and slipped my anus into my dress and coat. I slipped my feet into my shoes and ran out the door. I ran, I stumbled, and ran some more. I had a terrific pain in my side and I almost gave up in tears when I heard the train grind to a stop. But daylight was filtering down and I could see my teacher and her family beckoning me. When finally breached the monstrous engine, steam was spurting from its nostrils. The engineer was giving the groaning drivers a quarter turn and yelling along with the frantic conductor for the potential passengers to "Get on board!" No one moved, except the little grey-haired lady who was shaking a small stick at the poor engineer.

"You just hold on a minute," she ordered. "She's almost here!"

The conductor practically threw me on the train with the others close behind. They sat me on the red plush cushion, tied my shoes and braided my pigtails. I don't remember much about the day, except that toward evening I went to sleep whenever and wherever we sat down. The half mile home from the "midnight train" seemed much, much longer than it was when we left eighteen hours earlier.

No one told me that a dozen years hence I would be stacking up a goodly supply of experience in catching trains; that I would be traveling on a railroad pass on all the Northern second-class trains, including the Couer d' Alene, the Polson, and the Butte "stubs" not to mention the gasoline (or was it diesel?) driven "Galloping Goose."

My husband, Alfred Morkert, was working the railroad "extra board" which meant that he was called to fill in when a regular section foreman was ill or on vacation. Our home base was at Arlee. The children and I went along whenever possible, shipping along a skeleton housekeeping outfit, camping in old railroad boxcar houses or other such shelters. These usually contained a cookstove of sorts, a table and a chair or two and a bedstead or springs—complete with bugs! At times we were obliged to live in these places with the legs of the beds standing in cans with kerosene in the bottom so we could escape the bugs at night. In spite of the facilities, or lack of them, most of these places brought memories to treasure Or to marvel at.

At Iron Mountain (now Superior) a fat old buff Orpington rooster found us and would leave his flock in the afternoon, walk sedately down the railroad track at least half a block, step carefully down the steep little bank to our shanty to play with our eighteen-month-old daughter. She would trot around with him keeping just out of reach, making chuckling noises to herself. When his visit was over, usually half an hour or more, he would waddle back up the path and take his regal self home only to repeat the performance the next afternoon.

At Saltese we had record huckleberry picking. I have never since seen such huckleberries. Determined to bring some home when our stay was over I bought jars and canned a dozen pints. I packed my prize in the compartments that the jars came in and set the box carefully in the middle of a trunk surrounded by sheets, baby clothes, dish towels, you name it. And yes, three of those jars broke and the purple juice soaked through everything and I soaked it out. We washed on the old reliable washboard in those long-gone days and I didn't ever pack canned huckleberries around the country again.

Now we had two babies and we were often on the move with only a few hours notice. This was one of those times. We were moving from St. Regis to Quinn's Springs, a mere landmark between St. Regis and Paradise. We had a "berth" on a passenger car coupled to a local freight and log main. Our entourage was scheduled to depart St. Regis at 2 p.m. so bag, baggage and babies we arrived at the St. Regis depot a few minutes early. Luckily (had packed food and all the baby requirements. The train got going four hours later at 6 p.m. Our four-month-old baby had a cough and a cold in her small chest. I was treating her in the old reliable way that I had grown up with and I felt that I had the trouble pretty well hand. I no idea what sort of place Quinn's Springs was going to be. As it turned out the "springs" was across the Clark Fork River from where I was going. I couldn't even see the place.

On the track at last! Our friendly train men would park us on a siding, and waving railroad lanterns would warn us, "We'll be gone a while," then engine and crew would go chugging up some canyon and come back trailing several car loads of logs to add to our nighttime parade. With each of these delays the night wore on. At 2 a.m. and twenty miles from our starting point they unloaded us and left us there. I gathered the sleepy babies inside my coat and turned my back to a gathering March snowstorm while their father went to see about getting us inside. I was apprehensive. The big old section house stood stark out there in the middle of nowhere. I found myself praying, "Oh Lord, please...there's got to be somebody in that house!" And there was. The two laborers were quartered upstairs and soon had us inside. We made fares and warmed up the place and got to bed a short while later-about the time most working people were getting up. The two little ones were disgruntled but okay. What had bothered me most was that the tiny one might catch more cold and have a setback. You see, not knowing any better, I had moved that sweet smelling little kid in the dead of night in a March storm with a wet and greasy onion poultice on her chest.

Three weeks later we were on our way to Lookout Pass on the Montana/Idaho line. The trip was uneventful and, I felt, was sort of an adventure since we'd been informed that there was eight feet of snow piled up there. The men had to shovel through that to get our belongings up the steep bank to the house. We were there about six weeks on that stand during which it snowed and rained and rained and snowed. When the elevation sign hung waving in the wind in eleven feet of snow it warmed up and three bridges went out in snow slides in one night. There were no through trains in Wallace for three weeks while a bridge crew from Missoula replaced or repaired the bridges. The railroad men soon learned that there were small children up there and the signal maintainer, the roadmaster and anyone else who came up carried milk from St. Regis for the babies. Mail and supplies came up by an engine from Maltese, thirteen miles down the hill.

It was getting harder and harder to find strong packing boxes so we gathered some lumber and built a container about three feet square all around; big enough to hold the proverbial "forty years gatherings." I could set a number-two wash tub in the bottom, a dire necessity, then start filling the whole box. By the time we were ready to nail the top on, it took two men to lift the thing but we got a lot of mileage out of it.

I always regretted having to leave part of our food when we had to move on short notice. Plastic bags and bottles were as yet unheard of and I tried not to pack things that would break or spill. This time I had a nearly full can of molasses and knew that I wouldn't have to worry about breakage. I hammered the lid on tight and made a place for it in the whatnot boxes For lack of canvas our bedroll was tied up in an army blanket and all the baggage was checked on our railroad pass. The weather now was hot. We were going home from someplace. When we "detrained" at Arlee it appeared that someone with an ample-sized foot had played hopscotch all over the place. I soon saw why. A sour-faced station agent had planted one shoe sole in a sweet little puddle of molasses and left an interesting pattern of tracks all about the dusty station platform.

Philosophically speaking, he had made "glowing" marks in the world! The sun was glinting off that black molasses wherever he'd left a footprint. But apparently that wasn't his philosophy and mine deserted me too when we took the lid off that box and I looked inside. I never knew a quart of molasses would go so far. The baggage man must have rolled that box over and over to get molasses into just about everything inside the box. Moreover, he had set the roll of bedding on top and the sticky stuff had seeped through the army blanket and into a heavy quilt. Try washing molasses out of one of those homemade comforters with nothing but hand power and plain elbow grease!