My Forty Years Scribblin's
Interviews
Cowboy Versus Engineer

This interview was conducted in 1962 and published in Montana's Little Legends(1963). Marcellus McClain trades the life of a cowboy for that of a train engineer.


Railroading represents glamour to many a boy, and an interview with Marcellus McClain, retired Northern Pacific engineer, shows that he was well conditioned to that profession, being inured to hard knocks from the time of his mother's death when he was six. The McClain children were sent to relatives in Massachusetts for a time, but returned to Montana after their father rented a farm in the Bitterroot Valley when Marcellus was thirteen.

However, milking cows, feeding pigs, and walking three miles to the Carlton school proved too hum-drum so young Marcellus hired out to Sam McClay with aspirations to become a cowboy. The McClay outfit, near Lolo, boasted a chuckwagon, a foreman and a handful of cowboys and it was standard procedure for the hard-riding crew to make a spring drive of about twelve hundred head of cattle through Missoula to the Little Clearwater, near Ovando, which in 1903 and '04 was all open range.

"We headed them across the old Higgins Avenue bridge and turned down Front Street," he relates. The first night's camp was made at the approximate location of the Hughes Gardens. The second night's camp near Gold Creek and the third occurred at Clearwater where the cowboys enjoyed a night out at the saloon and even the cook got tanked! The fourth day brought them to their destination and the young cowboy was not excused from his turn as night-herd, his watch being from 2:00 to 5:00 a.m.

One or two men were left to keep tab on the cattle and in the fall the herd had to be rounded up and returned by the same route to the Charles Cowell and McClay ranches in the Bitterroot, the trip each time requiring from seven to ten days. Even then Missoula had its traffic problems.

"Once," says Mr. McClain, "a man with a horse and carriage tried to cross the bridge through the herd of bawling cattle. The herd and the horse stampeded; the rig was demolished, but the man clung to the railing and the cowboys were able to keep the cattle off him until he reached safety."

There followed a session in the hayfields up the Burnt Fork and in turn, a contract to clear brush land with a young man named Delaney as his partner, which they gave up after finding they could barely eke out a living.

"Delaney," says Mr. McClain, "will be remembered by old-timers of Lolo and Carlton for one special accomplishment. After the Lolo post office was robbed (a second time) a Federal investigation showed that Delaney was adept at opening Government locks. He was convicted and sent to jail, getting off with a six month sentence on account of his youth."

Having lost his partner to the law, young Marcellus boarded a freight train and rode as far as Trout Creek in search of a new occupation. Money and employment being scarce at the time, he found the warm sand-house at Trout Creek occupied by sleeping bums. This was before the "low line" was completed for freight traffic by way of St. Regis and all trains were routed over "Missoula Mountain," currently Evaro Hill, between Arlee and DeSmet. A night in the sand-house cured Marcellus of wanderlust and he faced homeward by return freight.

By the time his train stopped at Evaro to cut off a helper, he was also cured of that particular mode of travel and sought out the Johnson ranch with the intention of sharing some of the family's meals. The result of this visit was that Mr. Johnson looked him over and decided that he was teamster material (at fifteen) and hired him on to drive four and six horse teams with loads of lumber from a sawmill beyond O'Keefe canyon to a railroad siding on the Couer d'Alene branch at Grass Valley.

Oiled highways were far in the unseen future. The wagons bogged down in the heavy clay and the young teamster was sometimes faced with the task of unloading the big green planking; then when the clay dried sufficiently, return, reload, and finish delivery.

On his return trips from Grass Valley, the lad could watch the powerful engines crawl their unfaltering way up the steep railroad grade and he took note that THEY didn't get stuck in the mud, nor have to unload!

He made his way to Missoula and through an acquaintance who was a call-boy for the train crews, was introduced to the Northern Pacific and put to work in the cinder pit. After six months he was advanced to fireman, but he soon found that any glamour attached to a coal scoop was purely imaginary, for after firing a steam locomotive over Missoula Mountain he was barely able to get to his bed at the end of his run.

At twenty-one he became a full-fledged engineer, but after the low-line was completed and twenty-four helper crews were removed from the division his seniority took a setback and he bounced back and forth from the engineer's seat to the coal car now and then.

About the time young Marcellus became interested in railroading, a topic of general discussion was three holdup jobs inflicted on Eastbound passenger train number two, which occurred approximately thirty miles from Missoula and a mile east of Bearmouth. The train was known to transport large amounts of money and the robbers found it convenient to board the tender, or coal car, when the train stopped at a water tank. At the opportune moment, which coincided with a curve in the track, the robbers crawled over the coal car and forced the crew to stop the train. When the brakeman arrived to investigate he was commanded to detach the baggage car which was towed away, the safe was blown and the thieves made their get-away.

It was later found that the thieves had been hiding under the Nimrod bridge in a boat when the posse came out by special train. Several saddle horses were provided also, but the robbers crossed the mountains from Nimrod coming out near Lolo, in the Bitterroot.

One man, whose name, it developed, was Hammond, took a nice respectable job herding sheep on the J.P. McClain ranch while the excitement died down, but both were captured through Hammond's getting into a house of ill fame in Salmon, Idaho and flashing his loot. He was reported for the reward and "squealed" on his partner in crime.

The partner, named Christy, was found on a ranch in the Dakotas and after serving his time, was given a job firing for the Northern Pacific for a time, it was thought by the trainmen, in the hope that he would go back to the cache, for some of the money was never found.

One robbery was executed by a man of short stature, and the engineer being a big Irishman named Dan O'Niel, he evidently thought to throw the intruder off the train and get it moving without loss of his cargo, but the hijacker had guns strapped to his wrists for quick action and shot Dan O'Niel dead. The records show no capture.

In one instance a lone robber carrying a suitcase flagged the train and executed the holdup in good manner, but on seeing his potential wealth from the dynamited baggage car, forgot the train crew and was captured after a blow on the head with a trainman's torch.

"Early railroad men," says Mr. McClain, "were mostly a rough lot and knew no home except a room in a cheap hotel and the men they worked with."

Our young railroader's home was the Western Hotel which was also a saloon owned by two Scandinavians, Johnson and Olson. These were good men, as morals were judged at the time, offering counsel to the lad and warning him of places too dangerous for him to tread.

The young Marcellus was fond of dancing and preferred young ladies who had no contact with ribald life so he found a room with a family and felt himself very fortunate in meeting and marrying a fine girl, Mary Agnes Dore, and to them two sons and two daughters were born. Mrs. McClain passed away in 1937 and Mr. McClain is justly proud of having seen to it that all four of their children have college degrees.

Mr. McClain became interested in politics, was an advocate of the State Social Security setup in '38 and '40. He served two terms in the State Legislature and upon beginning his campaign was treated to the sarcastic inquiry as to whether he had gotten his theories down in the jungle with the hoboes! He continued his railroading career for fiftythree years and eight months, retiring in 1959, and still makes his home in Missoula.