Monday, March 18, 2013

Boxcar Children



At some point during my 33+ years on the waterfront I took to calling my fellow workers by the honorific title of "brother," preceding their Christian name, making it seem as though I were a Baptist elder at a camp meeting. Today I had the pleasure of visiting some of my "brothers" at the USDA/GIPSA/FGIS Portland field office located in the lovely, historic Albers Mill which abuts the north side of the Broadway Bridge. They all seemed glad to see old fatso (or "Brother Barn" as they call me, with what I trust is affection). In fact Brother Cleve had some remarkable old photographs he was waiting to show me, images from the early days of grain inspection that he had been given recently by his mother. Brother Cleve has grain inspection in his blood. His father was a field office manager and inventor of the famous "Ellis scoop," a device still in use to this day as a method of testing the accuracy of automatic grain samplers.
I intend to put all of these images on this blog in future posts, but for starters I love this rare photograph of official sampling of grain that is being transported by boxcar. Last year I was asked to write an article for Streamliner, the Union Pacific Railroad Historical Society newsletter about the subject of transporting grain into export elevators in boxcars. If you are interested in this subject, or the subject of the Portland export grain elevators in general, back issues are still available (Volume 25, Issue 4 http://uphs.org/the-streamliner/back-issues/). 

Sampling grain in the old days

As you examine the photograph, imagine the difficulty of climbing into one of these things at 7 am on a frosty morning, hung over (of course), and gagging from the hay fever attack brought on by airborne chaff stirred up as you stepped inside the tight air space. Boxcars were difficult to open, usually requiring a crowbar and lots of sweat. Sometimes the millwrights had to get involved, although usually they would just hand us a ratchet device called a "come-along" and tell us to do it ourselves. The "come-along" seemed like 100 pounds of ice cold steel, and in my hands (at least) it seemed impossibly difficult to use. One way or another the door was opened and the boxcar sampled and inspected before it was brought into the "tipper."

rail tipper at Terminal 4

The first time I saw a tipper grind into action I thought I was being gripped by hallucinations. If you can imagine gigantic steel lobster claws suddenly, with a groan like the aliens giants in War of the Worlds, reach down and grab a boxcar by both ears—that is startling, believe me! Then the "tipper" gets to work and lives up to its name. With groaning, whining and shuddering, alarming enough to frighten even the imps of perdition, it picks up the entire boxcar and slowly tips it backwards and forward until most of the billions of little kernels contained therein have fallen through the steel mouth of the "rail pit" and sent to their destination somewhere in the bowels of the grain elevator. 

Those days are long gone. As the railroads stopped serving the smaller trunk lines they moved to larger and larger hopper cars. Into the mid 1980s fewer and fewer boxcars arrived at the export elevators. And I  must say, even though I look back at that period with a wee bit of nostalgia, no one was sad to see them go—except, the small inland country elevators that were driven out of business by the changing methods of the day.

NOTE: The first in my series of talks on the subject of Portland's lost waterfront will be Wednesday evening at 6:45 pm in the meeting room of the Saint Johns Library

Multnomah County, Saint Johns Library