Notes by L. A. Toothaker

Sometime perhaps in the 40’s or 50’s my grandfather wrote a brief treatise on his railroad-related experiences, calling it “Notes by L. A. Toothaker,” which I came across and have typed as a Word document.  He was born and lived in Rangeley, Maine and later moved to Phillips, and elsewhere on the East Coast before moving to California; about the first half of the text is about the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes, which of course was part of life around there, though he never worked for that road.  (At least three others of my ancestors did, however, including his great-grandfather “Squire Abner” Toothaker, first president of the Sandy River.)  The remainder referred to his time on the PE and I have made that into a separate document, attached herewith.

L. A. Toothaker Collection
Thomas Pollock Collection


The following is excerpted from an account with the above title, written at an unknown date by Lynwood Abner Toothaker, 1888-1961, and transcribed by his grandson, Thomas Pollock Jr.  Notes in [bracketed italics] are added by the typist.

Toothaker worked for the Pacific Electric Railway from 1911 until he retired in 1946.   He was called “L. A.” on the job, though he went by “Lynn” in the family.


… I put in some time on a suburban electric line in the East and then went back home [to Maine] for a few months, coming to California in the fall of 1911.  I worked for the Pacific Electric on their Southern Division as motorman until July 1912, then spent a couple of years in line construction, helping build the line from San Dimas Jct. to Pomona.  In 1914 I transferred to freight service, working as a trolley man, brakeman and conductor for five years.  In December I started working in the shops at Torrance, but had to quit 3 months later after spraining my wrist rather badly.

While braking and holding trolley I had qualified as a freight motorman, so when I could no longer swing a sledge (I was in the blacksmith shop) I hit the Assistant Superintendent of the Northern Division, who had been trainmaster on the South when I worked there as a motorman, for a job as a motorman.

Mr. B. took me on although he tried first to get me to start as a freight conductor.  For the first few years I worked the extra list, most of the time from preference, working as a motorman passenger and freight, brakeman and freight conductor.  For the first year I worked mostly on system jobs as I was qualified on Southern and Western as well as the Northern Division which was my home district.

I held a conductor’s job on work trains for Maintenance of Way and also for several months on the weed burner which afterward was abandoned for a “weed killer” using acid, instead of flame, to try to keep ahead of the weeds.

On the North the principal freight runs were rock jobs, hauling from several crushers the rock, sand and gravel used for building the great mileage of the new paved roads, and for buildings in fast growing Los Angeles County.  Three jobs worked hauling cement, and fruit on the San Bernardino and Crestmore lines.  The Northern Division has much worse grades than the South, and most of the trains were limited to around 10 loads west-bound, by Wilmer Hill on the San Bernardino line west of El Monte, and Baldwin Hill on the Glendora line west of Arcadia.

As business dropped off after 1930, some of the older heads among the motormen, who had been quite contented to sit on their daylight jobs in passenger, began to envy us younger men who, although we worked nights usually, draw a bit more on pay days, and one by one began to take over the freight work which they had been passing up, and so I had to go back to passenger work at a much lower rate.

This may seem peculiar to steam road men, but we were required to put in quite a bit of time in passenger service before being allowed to break in on freight, especially so in the case of motormen.  [Editor’s note:  remember that on interurban lines such as the PE, “passenger” service meant one or (usually) two men in a single car, while “freight” involved a five man crew spread through a locomotive (freight motor), caboose and a number of cars needing switching enroute, as with any railroad; and, handling the air brakes on a heavy freight train was much more complex than on a streetcar.  On most railroads, passenger service is the prestige job.]

The pay was not very high, to put it mildly; I started at 25¢ an hour and only had to work a year before a one cent per hour raise was given.  Of course we were paid nothing for breaking in, and it took me 15 days to qualify on all the Southern Division lines, local, double and single track.

Now-a-days it is quite different in many ways.  It was years before the men were paid for instructing students or for waiting time.  We might and often did show up at 5:20 a.m. and stick around until after noon “shinning” and then catch a night job from, say, 2:00 p.m. to midnight or later.  You got what the run paid.

Quite often in railroading, as in other trades I suppose, a man may get promoted to a job a little beyond his abilities, at least at first.  Sometimes the result may be disastrous but at other times he is either lucky enough to stay out of trouble until he learns his business, or maybe he is a good egg and the crew carries him along until he catches on.  In either case, things occur that may be embarrassing, mildly funny, or downright hilarious.  Years ago I heard about one such incident, the funny kind, that became an epic.

This character, whom I will call “Jim” because that was not his name, was promoted to conductor on freight quite a little while before he was up to it, but one of the crew helped him out in one way, and I suspect others did too.

One night he had in place of his regular brakeman, a passenger trainman who knew nothing whatever about freight work, and said so.  The “con” said not to worry about that, he would tell him what to do if necessary.  Later on they had a G box car to put in on a spur heading off the main line, and in spite of his green helper, the “brains” [conductor] elected to drop it in instead of running around it and then shoving in to spot it.

“Jim” told the brakie what the score was, but it didn’t mean anything to him.  “I don’t know a thing about making a drop or even what it means,” he said.  “Don’t worry, buddy,” says the con, “just unlock that switch, and when I yell, you throw it!”  “O.K.,” says the beginner, “I can do that.”  When they started to make the “flying switch” Jim expected the motorman to watch him for a signal when he wanted to pull the pin, but the hogger [engineer, or in this case, motorman] thought he knew when to shut off, and didn’t look back.  The little fellow kept giving signals with his lantern, trying to pull the pin without the slack, gave more signals, but no response.   Finally in desperation, forgetting what he had told the new guy, and mad at the motorman for not watching him, Jim yelled at the top of his voice.  The motorman heard him all right, and looked back, but the brakeman heard him too, and according to orders, threw the switch – right under the second car ahead of where the conductor was hanging on the sill step.  The commotion was prodigious, the mess took quite a while to clear up, the brakie learned that there are times when it is disastrous to do exactly what you are told, and eventually the conductor got sick and tired of hearing the gang yell at most any time, “When I holler, throw the switch!”


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  • Bob Davis

    One of my rare home movies from the 1960’s shows a PE/SP crew doing a “drop” in Baldwin Park, about where the Metrolink station is now. They decided they didn’t need the caboose, so they did a “flying switch” to spot it on the engine track without having to go up to Baldwin Park Yard to do a runaround. This crew had worked together for some time, and nobody was “asleep at the switch.”

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