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EDITOR'S NOTE: While most of my focus is on the Rock Island in Arkansas, I thought this would still be of interest to many. Howe, Oklahoma is about 40 miles west of the Arkansas boarder and was part of the Rock Island's main line from Memphis, TN to Tucumcari, NM, which cut through the heart of Arkansas. After stumbling on to my web site, Raymond Van Hook shared his recollections with me, which I offered to include here.

 

MEMORIES OF THE ROCK ISLAND RAILROAD AND LIVING IN HOWE, OKLAHOMA

BY RAYMOND VAN HOOK

As far back as I can remember I've always had an interest in trains. Being raised in a small town with two railroads in the years after World War II meant that I was a witness to the transformation from steam to diesel power. I was never out of sight or sound of a train as it passed through town. It is with those things in mind that I am writing about a few of my thoughts and memories of a time that has long since passed.

In 1944 when I was three-years-old my parents moved to Howe, Oklahoma, located in the eastern part of the state. Back then it was a town of about 300 people. Like most small towns, there were not many jobs or opportunities available. Shortly after graduating from Howe High School in 1960, I moved to Southern California where, after being in the Navy four years, I lived until a few years ago when I moved back to this part of the country. Today I live in Fort Smith, Arkansas just 40 miles east of Howe. Although the old family house in Howe is long gone, the property it stood on is still in the family name.

Back then Howe had two major railroads running through it. The Rock Island ran east and west and the Kansas City Southern ran north and south. Their tracks crossed on the east side of Howe, with a shared depot located at the crossing.

Today it still saddens me just as it did in 1980 when the Rock Island shut down. I considered it a national disgrace that a court ordered it liquidated as the Rock Island had been in business since before the Civil War and played a major part in holding this country together during that time. Even now when I drive on US Highway 59 and look to the east, I always notice that the old Howe depot is no longer there.

 

My childhood memories and a picture I found on the internet of engine #1504 dated 1983 inspired me to write this article. 1504 was the last engine to go east of Howe to pick up any remaining rail cars in Arkansas and bring them west prior to the tracks east of Howe being taken up. Although the Rock Island tracks no longer cross the Kansas City Southern at Howe or continue to the east, there still remains the old Rock Island tracks from Howe that extend 76 miles west to McAlester, Oklahoma. That's operated by the Arkansas Oklahoma Railroad and still occasionally carries a coal train from the west that transfers to the KCS.

Click To See Large Image On RailPictures.Net

 

Photo by Paul Strand, December 8, 1983, used with permission, www.railpictures.net
     

Back in the fifties the Howe depot, while small by some standards, was one of those grand railroad depots. When looking at the 1983 picture, it stood where the white tin building now stands. Like most depots, it had large hand carts with big red iron wheels which the station agent would pull alongside the mail car to load and unload mail and baggage. In the picture above, the old Rock Island crossed the KCS just behind where engine is standing.

 

Click To Enlarge

 
The wooden depot had a turret tower and as I recall was painted yellow with green trim and large overhanging eves. Big wooden benches lined the outside walls with platforms along both tracks. As the postcard to the left shows, the northeast front corner of the depot, which faced the intersection of the two railroads, had a very tall semaphore signal that raised above the station turret. It was on this corner on the ground floor where station manager's office was located. That's where they sold tickets and where the telegraph was kept. Anywhere on the platforms or in the depot you could always hear the clicking sound of the telegraph.

 

In the fifties, the depot was one of only five places in Howe that had a telephone. The other four were the school, a doctor, a neighbor who was the railroad telegrapher and the Central Office that patched calls through to the other four. It was almost like the Andy Griffith Show, where they would pick up the phone and ask Sara to patch their calls through.

As I recall, the inside of the depot was basically a big empty shell with a waiting room featuring several rows of large wooden benches down the center of the building like those outside. Back in the west end of the depot was the freight area. I don't recall ever seeing much there. Sometimes my father would order baby chicks out of Kansas City and they'd arrive on the KCS passenger train heading south. I'd have to go up the depot with him to help bring the chicks home. In the heat of the summertime the inside of the depot always seemed to be cool. It had a lot of large doors and windows that were always left open. Heating in the winter was supplied by a large coal burning pot belly stove located in the south end of the depot. In all the times I was in the Howe depot, I can't recall ever seeing a passenger waiting for the train. I also don't remember ever knowing anyone in Howe who ever rode a passenger train to or from the station.

I often saw the station master standing alongside moving passing trains with a big Y hook in his hand, waiting to pass written orders to the conductor, who would reach out and grabbed it as the caboose rolled by. Then there was the mail contract, with the depot workers to meet the morning and afternoon mail trains, picking up sacks of mail. I can remember seeing this one fellow who had been awarded the contract but didn't have transportation so he carried the mail to and from the post office and depot in a wheel barrel.

I had heard that there were dramatic times during World War II when flag draped coffins of fallen soldiers were off loaded at Howe. This had to have been a common occurrence nationwide.

Just beyond the depot to the east was the Rock Island's Morris Creek bridge. The creek ran parallel with the KCS tracks. It included the local swimming hole called Seven Foot where us young boys would go swimming butt-naked after chasing the water moccasin snakes out. The swimming hole was protected from public view by lying below a bluff. I can recall one time when I was not yet a teenager that we were swimming in Seven Foot when one boy in his late teens got out the swimming hole, climbed the bluff, walked across an open pasture and stood alongside a stopped passenger train naked, looking at the passengers. After a few minutes, he turned, ran back across the pasture and dove head-first off the bluff into the swimming hole. I understand that sometime after we left police showed up looking for him.

Then there were many times after we were done swimming that we would stop at the Howe depot for a drink of water. It came out of one of those five-gallon bottles turned upside down in some type of fixture. Drinking cups were flat "V" shaped envelopes that you had to squeeze to open. I remember we would get a cup, open it, have a drink and throw the empty cup in the trash. We would then pull another cup from the dispenser and repeat the same thing over and over until the station agent would finally run us off for wasting paper cups. I can recall seeing the station master with the five-gallon water bottle in hand walk out the front of the station, cross the KCS tracks to the east and go down the embankment to Morris Creek. That's where he would refill the bottle, walk back up to the station and place it back in the dispenser. That was 500-feet downstream from where us boys would swim.

In the early fifties when the Rock Island still ran steam, there was a fright train that ran west almost every afternoon just as the Howe school let out. The school (which is still there) was located about one-mile west of where the depot stood. The school faced south towards the Rock Island tracks with only a road and small field separating them. The fright train would be sitting just east of the RI-KCS crossing, building up steam to challenge the mile-plus grade ahead of it to the west. Finally it would begin moving forward, smoke pumping out of it's smokestack and make the loudest noise we had ever heard. It was not unusual for the freight to fail to make the grade and have to back and try again. This sometimes happened two or three times before it succeeded and was finally able to continue on to the west.

In the afternoon when the Howe school let out, 75 kids would be in a race to beat the train. We would run south across the school yard, jump over the fence, then across the road, through the field and finally across the Rock Island tracks, all with an eye to the left, watching for the train. I can recall more than once seeing kids just narrowly avoid being run over by the train. Then there were times the train was stopped when school let out and everyone crawled under the train to get to the other side.

What I never saw was a teacher telling kids not to run in front of the train or crawl under it. None of the old men who sat on benches in front of the stores just a block away ever seemed to have the slightest concern. A story was told that in the forties one teenager did in fact get his legs cut off while crawling under a train. Things like that wouldn't be allowed today.

Each morning when I walked across the tracks on my way to school I would see the section hand crew getting the speeder out of its shack for the daily work. It seemed to me that no matter if the weather was rain, snow, cold or hot, they always went to work. One thing that would impress was that the section hand crews were experts at firefighting. A large part of their job was to burn grass along the right of way. They would control the fire with only two things: a bucket of water and a burlap sack. They'd wet the end of the burlap bag in the water and snap it like a towel, causing it to spray a stream of water out about 10 feet, extinguishing the fire. It was amazing how they could handle a fire with only a bucket of water and burlap sack.

 

The years after World War II were hard for railroads with fewer and fewer people taking trains, opting instead to drive or fly. The Rock Island scaled back its passenger trains by running what was called a doodlebug or dinky. It was a diesel-powered single unit that could seat about 50 people, with compartments for baggage and mail. If it was needed, two units could be coupled together. To the right is a meeting of two of the cars near Little Rock. Called the Choctaw Express, it made daily runs between Amarillo, Texas and Memphis, Tennessee. The westbound unit in the photo would eventually pass through Howe.

 
Click To Enlarge

 

Photo by Edward J. Wojtas, date unkown

 

Once the Choctaw Express almost derailed in Howe. The engineer said it hit something causing it to sway from side to side, believing it was coming off the tracks. What happened was two little kids, a brother and sister who lived just across the tracks from school, had gone home for lunch. On their way back they found some spikes and tie plates and decided to put them on the tracks, which almost caused the Choctaw Express to derail. I remember authorities came to school and talked to the kids who I think were about seven years old. At that age not much could be done.

The Rock Island had a stock yard at Howe, located on a siding on the south side of the tracks, just west of where engine 1504 is sitting in the picture above, just beyond old Highway 59. I can't recall ever seeing cattle being loaded or unloaded there. The railroad eventually had the stock yard torn down and a neighbor who worked for the Rock Island was given the ties and timbers to use on his property.

On the south side of the Howe depot a couple hundred feet away was a two story brick hotel. It had a beer joint downstairs and a few rooms upstairs. Old timers would tell the tale of a businessman back in the thirties getting off the Rock Island passenger train to stay in the hotel and seeing a murder victim's body laying on the station platform. That was enough to cause him to get back on the train and leave town. I also heard about another murder when a man was decapitated and left lying on the tracks to appear as if he had been run over by the train. The victim was discovered before the train came through however, but the murder was never solved. It was said in those days that Howe was the roughest, meanest town on the Rock Island between Little Rock and Oklahoma City.

Just in front of the Howe depot to the east, across the KCS tracks, on the south side of the Rock Island bridge that spans Morris Creek, was a place called Hobo Bottoms. It was a large area that resembled acres of jungle, full of tall grass, head-high sunflower plants and black walnut trees where a lot of hobos lived. As kids we would gather black walnuts there to take home and put in homemade fudge. After removing the husks, we'd have to use a hammer to break open the walnut to get at the center. Afterward there would be so much stain embedded on our hands from the husk that you couldn't wash it off. It would be there until it wore off, but was worth it because the fudge was good.

One year before a railroad detective put a stop to it, my older brother and some of his friends would go through empty open boxcars and sweep out the leftover wheat, which they would bring home. We would feed that to the chickens and also planted a garden with it. We were the only people in Howe that I ever knew of who had grown wheat. When the wheat came up, the chickens would eat the wheat off the stocks, which were left standing and hollow. We kids would cut them down and use them as straws to drink milk through.

Back in the first quarter of the last century, Howe was a mining town with a population of about three-thousand. When I grew up there were 300 people left. Today it's about 700. As a kid there was the remnant of an old Rock Island spur on the western outskirts of Howe where the rails and ties had been taken up. It ran for a mile or so south, past the coke ovens and then further on to the coal mines. My brother and I had walked the length of that old spur many a time looking for old railroad spikes and tie plates to sell for junk iron for a penny a pound. I often wondered what it must have been like with all the activity in the coke ovens and coal mines with Rock Island steam engines hauling coal cars back and forth all day. Then at some point prior to World War II the coal mines closed, the coke ovens shut down and the rails and ties on the spur were removed, with the town of Howe then going into a decline.

Since the Kansas City Southern also ran through Howe, I feel I also should say a few things about it. To the south of the depot on the KCS was "the cut" where the tracks went through a small hill. In the summertime us kids would pick blackberries in there to eat. But we always had to have an ear tuned for the sound of an oncoming train and be close to a place where we could easily climb out as there wasn't much room for us and a train. Today that section of the KCS is double-tracked from north of Howe to just south of Heavener and "the cut" has been widened and groomed to accommodate the two tracks. I don't think blackberries grow in there anymore and it sure doesn't look as threatening as it did when I was ten-years-old. Judging from recent train photos I think train spotters are using that elevation on top of "the cut" to photograph KCS trains.

When I was between the ages 10 and 12, on Saturday mornings I'd walk south on old Highway 59 which ran parallel with the KCS tracks looking for pop and beer bottles. I would take those to the beer joint in Howe and collect the deposits so that I'd have money to see the Saturday movie in Heavener. With the money, I'd walk back to Highway 59 and try to thumb a ride to Heavener, which was five miles south of Howe. I'd see the matinee, which was usually one of those "B" class westerns. I can still recall walking along Highway 59 and seeing the freight and passenger trains going by, with those coming south having just come out of "the cut" and those going north heading into it, all pulled by steam engines.

I wasn't always able to get a ride and often had to walk. When I would get to Heavener I would always look to the east and see the ice plant where box cars were being iced for perishable goods. Then when I reached the center of Heavener I would walk east between the KCS Depot and the house where porters from the passenger trains would stay during their layovers. Then as I crossed the KCS tracks heading for the movie theater two blocks away, I would look to the north and see the KCS maintenance shop which I believe included a roundhouse with a turntable. It was very large and looked very dirty because of all the smoke that the steam power generated.

A couple of years later I was still thumbing to Heavener on Saturdays to see movies, but by then I was doing it with five-gallon milk cans full of cream in my hands. The cream would be sold to a grocery store. The cream was then taken to the KCS depot where it was put in the baggage car of a southbound passenger train and shipped to a cannery for processing. When the movies were over I'd stop by the grocery store, pick up my empty milk can, walk back out to Highway 59 and thumb the five miles back to Howe.

One time when I was in Heavener and walking past the KCS depot I saw a black porter on the platform dressed in his black uniform with someone who I assumed was his 13 or 14-year-old son dressed the same way. I had seen black porters there before, who I believe were the first black people I had ever seen. I remember thinking that day, what in the world could that black kid be doing dressed in such a suit. Looking back, things like that are hard to imagine today.

Not too many years ago I saw a documentary about black porters that said fathers sometimes would take their sons to work, training them to become porters. At that moment I had a flashback to that day at the KCS depot in Heavener and the black father and son standing together in their porters uniforms.

The end of my regular trips to Heavener came when the cost of seeing movies there jumped from a dime to 50 cents. I couldn't afford that type of high finance.

Once, just south of Poteau and about nine miles north of Howe on the KCS, I saw a derailment of 15 or 20 box cars. At the time I was maybe 16-years-old and with this being long before television coverage, I had never seen such a thing. It was unreal the way they all the box car were crushed like cardboard boxes. Today people see so many disasters on TV that a derailment wouldn't hold much interest.

I'm not sure when it happened, but on one of my vacations back to Howe from California in the mid-sixties while driving on Highway 59 and crossing the Rock Island tracks I looked to the east as I often did. It was with great disappointment that I saw that the old Howe depot was gone, replaced with a small white corrugated metal building. Who would have thought that 15-years later the Rock Island Railroad itself would also be gone.

I can hardly imagine that anyone living in Howe today knows anything about the old depot, the Seven Foot swimming hole, the spur, coke ovens, mines or the blackberries in the cut. In Heavener the movie theater has been closed for years. The KCS depot and maintenance shop there have been replaced with much a smaller facility, while the KCS porters house is gone along with the porters and passenger trains.

I hope those who have read this enjoyed my account and for those who may have lived in the area, I hope it brought back some fond memories of a long gone era.

Written in 2008, edited by Michael Hibblen. You can email Raymond Van Hook at vanhookraymond@aol.com.

 

 

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