Editor’s Note: In an award-winning essay, Robert S. Mikkelsen paints a colorful portrait of life in his hometown, a key refueling railroad stop for locomotives traveling between Ogden, Utah, and Evanston, Wyoming. Born in 1925 and raised as an end-of-the-track townie in Echo, Utah, Mikkelsen highlights the intricate connection that he and his peers felt to the robust engines that defined their whole lives and the town’s very existence. He reflects on the smells, sights, and sounds radiating from machines that to him appeared to be alive. He revisits childhood memories of playing outdoor games on soot-packed platforms, getting in trouble with track torpedoes instead of fireworks, building forts out of railroad ties, and passing the time “celebrity watching” at the station. Overall, Mikkelsen’s account provides an interesting insider look at how the Union Pacific steam engine station defined Echo’s cultural, social, and economic experience for nearly a century.
The text of the essay, originally published in the fall 1994 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly, is reproduced below, accompanied by photographs from the Utah State Historical Society.
“Growing Up Railroad: Remembering Echo City,” by Robert S. Mikkelsen
Having grown up with the sounds of a close-passing freight, I felt my usual tug of nostalgia as I listened to one go barreling by that had me stopped at a Union Pacific railroad crossing. The ground-shaking rumble, the whine of iron wheels on rails, the creaks, rattles, and metallic squeals were all indelibly familiar. But some basic sound that used to be there, one just below the threshold of memory, was missing. For several days I could not recapture it. Then, while I was driving along a highway that parallels a stretch of Union Pacific tracks, I saw, rather than heard, what it had been.
Rails in today’s Union Pacific tracks are laid in quarter-mile lengths, leaving only eight joints in a whole mile of track. When trains made the sound I was trying to remember, they were laid in thirty-nine-foot lengths, the joint between two rails on one side of the track occurring at the exact center of the rail on the opposite side. You would hear the two wheels on one side of a four-wheel set click-click over a joint; then, nineteen and a half feet later, hear the two on the other side click-click over one. At a slow speed the sound was click-click click-click click-click click-click. Faster it became a constant clicketyclickclicketyclick—the underscoring rhythm that Union Pacific trains made when I was a boy.
Recalling that vintage American sound brought back a host of other memories from my boyhood in Utah’s oldest railroad town, Echo City. All that remains of the town now are a scattering of artifacts—the schoolhouse, the church, two cafes, and a few houses. The town itself, with all its noise and grime and vitality, has been gone for forty years. It vanished completely when the great age of railroad steam ended. But none of us who were kids in the old town will ever forget it or wish we had grown up somewhere else.
Echo City began no differently than dozens of other end-of-track towns that sprang up along the Union Pacific line in 1868-69. I have a blurry photograph of the first Echo City: a dozen tents with board fronts, all lined up on a muddy street alongside the tracks. But unlike most of those “hell-on-wheels” camps, Echo City became a permanent railroad town.
What made it thrive was the grade between Ogden and Evanston, Wyoming. Gaining 2,500 feet in only seventy miles, it is one of the steepest on the line. Eastbound locomotives hauling loads would use two-thirds of their coal and water getting up the first forty miles to Echo City. To refuel them for the next thirty miles to Evanston (which were even steeper), a coal tower and a water tower were built at Echo City. The rest of the town grew around them.
By 1880 Echo City had a huge steam-driving pump to fill the water tower from the Weber River, a depot, a switch yard, a turntable for locomotives, two sheds for section gangs and signal maintainers, houses for railroad workers, a hotel, a school, and a church. The structure that completed the town was a giant water softener tank that kept the hard Weber River water from leaving scale in boilers. It was finished in 1926, the year I was born. I expanded the town’s population to 153.
My earliest and most enduring memories of Echo City are of the grand old steam locomotives that were always somewhere in our town yards. Joe E. Collias, author of The Last of Steam, believes that they were the most human of all man’s creations. I doubt that any of us in Echo City regarded them as human, but it would have been hard not to feel they had life. When I was five I saw one in the Ogden roundhouse waiting to be repaired. Its fire had been pulled and its boiler drained. It looked dead. I wanted to get away from it.
Their massiveness, their billowing smoke, their clouds of steam, their headlights tunneling through the dark, the blurred motion of their wheels and side rods, even their sheen of oil and coal dust have been captured in countless photographs. I do not have to depend on memory to picture how they looked.
But only memory brings back their smells and sounds and feel. Hot metal and oil were their essence, often overpowered by a dense coal gas that made you hold your breath until it cleared, leaving a thick aftertaste. If you were standing close enough, a steam blow-off could drench your clothes and burn your nose and throat. And they routinely showered you with hot, sulfury cinders. (A few always got down your neck before you could pinch your collar tight. A hot one in your eye would stick to the eyeball. The only thing that would lift it off was the charred end of a sharpened matchstick.)
I can still hear the clanking of their rods, the heavy grind of their drivers, the beat of steam exhaust pistoning up their stacks. Even an engine waiting on a sidetrack was busy with sounds. (We rarely called them locomotives; for us they were simply engines.) There would be little rolling surges in its boiler, the clunk of air compressor pistons working, and the constant hiss of steam escaping from somewhere. A deep glow was always in the firebox, a breath of smoke exhaling up the stack. When an engineer invited you up into the cab you could feel an occasional shiver through the steel plates under your feet. Alive. There was no other way to think of them.
By the time we were old enough for school we kids in Echo City felt gratitude as well as affection for the old steam engines, for we knew by then that they were what had created jobs for our fathers, brothers, and uncles. Engineers, firemen, pumpers, coal tower operators, telegraphers, signal maintainers and section hands—none of them would be needed without engines and trains. And we would not have our town.
I was in the first grade when I heard a mean woman on Our Gal Sunday (an old radio soap opera) say that Sunday had been born on the wrong side of the tracks. In Echo City both sides of the track were okay to be born on, so I could not figure out what she meant. I finally decided it was just one of those things adults sometimes said that kids were not supposed to understand. By the time I knew what the expression really meant, I also knew that people who went by appearances would think our whole town was on the wrong side of the tracks. Our most socially enterprising building was a crumbling, two-story brick hotel with peeling wood trim. All the railroad buildings were a dingy Union Pacific yellow, and the looming coal and water towers were a dull, smoky black. A haze of coal smoke usually hung over the town, and cinders got into everything, even the roots of our lawns. And to the despair of Echo City’s wives and mothers, their husbands and children usually looked a little sooty.
The only thing in our town that bothered us kids were our houses. Made out of clapboards and either painted with “U.P. yellow” or covered with tarpaper, they were not as nice as the houses in neighboring towns. But as we were often told, they were roofs over our heads. And we were constantly assured that houses were not as important as steady jobs. That’s what our town had. A lot of towns with better houses did not.
The paychecks our fathers brought home every two weeks were barely big enough to feed and clothe us—something else we heard a lot—but they were “regular.” That seemed to make up for their size. Our parents had a saying that could have been our town motto: “Uncle Peter [our slang for Union Pacific] keeps us, but he keeps us poor.” But if our parents sometimes felt that the railroad kept them poor, we boys never did. It kept us rich in things to do.
The cinders that permeated the town gave us a double sport playing field—basketball and marbles—that our friends in neighboring towns envied. About half the size of a regulation basketball court, it was located at the west end of town just beyond the depot’s freight platform. Its cinders (an accumulation of sixty years) were over a foot deep, packed hard and smooth by the iron wheels of baggage carts.
You could dribble a basketball on our cinders almost as well as you could on a gym floor. The only thing bad about them was that they got imbedded in your knees and elbows when you took a hard fall on them. Having them tweezered out hurt, but that was nothing compared to the swabbing with turpentine that followed. Our mothers had gallons of it, compliments of the Bridge and Building Gang. It was the disinfectant they trusted.
Those cinders also made the greatest surface that marbles have ever been played on. Marbles were seasonal, played every spring just after the snow had melted. That was when cinders were the softest and most resilient. Your taw would roll absolutely true on them, and you could control its momentum perfectly. On spring cinders we could hit another player’s taw with regularity six feet away and knock marbles out of a ring twelve feet in diameter. With up to a dozen of us playing, a single marble game might go on for several days before it could be finished. I remember winning a three-day game that had built up a pot of 163 marbles.
Since the mainline eastbound track was one of the boundaries of our playing field, both basketball and marbles were constantly interrupted by trains. All play had to be suspended while they were moving. That was a rule that had been pounded into us, along with two others: make sure you have plenty of time before you cross a track on which a train is moving or stopped. They were unwritten rules that were never challenged. And nobody in Echo Canyon was ever injured by a train.
We were constantly warned that one of our favorite railroad toys—the track torpedo—was dangerous. But that just added to the fun we had with it. Track torpedoes were percussion caps that clipped onto the ball of a rail. They were always set in twos, three joints apart, on the engineer’s side of the track. When they went off they signaled him that a dangerous track condition or a stalled train was close ahead.
Made to explode under the impact of a locomotive pilot wheel, they were difficult to detonate off the track. They had to be placed on an unyielding surface and struck with something that could deliver a sledgehammer blow. And when they exploded you wanted to be well back from their flash and flying bits, for they packed nearly as much power as a dynamite cap.
We invented a way to explode them that never got us hurt and made a great game. We called it “bomber.” Our main source for torpedoes were trainmen’s flagging kits, left unwatched where we could get at them. We never dared take more than one or two torpedoes at a time. So we had to save them up. Four or five were enough for a game. We always played bomber high in the sandstone cliffs on the west side of Echo Canyon, about a mile from town. (We needed to be that far away. The sound of a torpedo really carried, and adult ears in Echo City knew it when they heard it.) Our “range” was a smooth, wide ledge at the base of a hundred-foot cliff. We placed our torpedoes on the ledge about six feet apart, climbed to the top of the cliff where we could look down and see them, and made our bombs. These were rounded quartzite rocks weighing between ten and twenty pounds with crackerjack whistles taped to them. Even when a bomb missed, it sounded great whistling down to the ledge. When it hit a torpedo, there was a big orange flash and a magnificent boom that reverberated among the cliffs. (Echo Canyon was named for the clarity of echoes given back by these cliffs.) Bomber. A secret game that only Echo City boys knew how to play.
And we may have been the only boys who used railroad ties for building blocks. A communal tie pile at the east end of town kept us supplied with them. We built an elaborate fort out of them that we used for slingshot warfare in the summer (our ammunition was crab apples, cherries, plums, and small clusters of red currants, elderberries, or haws) and snowballing in the winter. We also built a very private railroad tie clubhouse as far up Echo Canyon as we could drag the ties. (A used railroad tie weighed between 80 and 100 pounds.)
And on the Weber River, where it bent in closest to town, we made our Mississippi River rafts. These were twenty- to thirty- tie rafts, big enough for a shelter and a dirt fire pit. When we had got all the fun we wanted out of collecting our cargo—we trapped furs on the upper Missouri and made whiskey in our secret Tennessee stills—we took it down the Big Muddy, clear to New Orleans (a landing about three miles below town). Our abandoned rafts became fence posts after they reached Henefer, a small farming town a couple of miles farther down the river.
Every town has a rite of passage through which little boys can become big boys. Ours was, I think, unique. It required you to scale a vertical iron ladder to the top of the water tower and sit there, a hundred feet above the town, for a timed ten minutes. The rite had to be performed at night, very quietly, under a vow of secrecy. Climbing that cold iron ladder in the dark with sweaty hands was only slightly more dangerous than having your parents find out you had done it.
Some of the men in Echo City played a game more secret and forbidden than any of ours. We boys could not participate in it or even watch, but we knew what it was and enjoyed vicariously its brash daring. It demanded a very special set of circumstances that rarely occurred.
First, there had to be a wooden, wine tank car in the middle of a long eastbound freight. Second, the freight’s helper engine had to be at the rear of the train. Third, the train had to pull into town after midnight but at least an hour before dawn. There was an Ogden dispatcher who would send word when a train meeting all these requirements was coming. Then, if it was a dark night, the game was on.
It began when the freight’s head engine left the coal tower and pulled slowly around Pulpit Rock Curve. It would stop when the helper engine whistled, signaling that it had reached the coal tower. By then most of the train would be in Echo Canyon, well away from town. And waiting for the tank car to stop would be Echo City’s crack wine gang, armed with braces, half-inch bits, pre-shaped hardwood plugs, hammers, shovels, and gallon lard cans.
As soon as a lard can brigade was formed and ready, two or three holes were drilled through the oak staves in the bottom half of the tank. The stream of “California red” that shot from each hole would fill a gallon can in seconds. After all the cans had been filled, plugs were hammered into the holes. Swelled with wine they wouldn’t leak, even under tremendous pressure. When the train got underway again, making enough noise to muffle the sound of shoveling, the spillage was covered with dirt from the roadbed. (But never all of it. For several days the site would look and smell as if a huge vinegary animal had been slaughtered there.) After the caboose was safely by, a toast was always drunk to Uncle Peter’s bounty. As the most sordid secret our town ever had, the wine gang may have attested more to our innocence than our depravity.
The sport that boys, girls, moms, dads, and even grandparents participated in was ice skating. We skated from the time the ice froze solid enough to hold us until it slushed up in the spring. The Echo Reservoir, a mile or so east of town, was our favorite ice, and when we were out on it we looked like a Currier and Ives print, all of us with stocking caps and long scarves, one arm behind our backs, cruising gracefully on those wonderful old clamp-on skates with curved up blades. And we could take pride in being good skaters.
In addition to the usual pleasures of skating, there was a special one for us—time away from the railroad. It felt good to be totally caught up in an activity that had nothing to do with railroading, to have no more of it in our lives than an occasional steam whistle a long mile away. It was like time apart from someone you live with and love, but need to get away from once in awhile.
But my most vivid skating memory is not of being on the Echo Reservoir, blissfully away from the railroad, but of getting back to town and our pumphouse. The pumphouse was a long, narrow building with a concrete floor and railroad tie walls. A locomotive boiler and firebox sat in one end, and bolted to the floor in the other was a huge steam pump that sucked water from the Weber River and pumped it up into the water tower. A work bench with several vices mounted on it ran along one wall, and tools of every kind were shelved handily above it. A hose coupled to a live steam pipe was our all-purpose cleaner; we used it for everything from the grease on our engine blocks to the creosote in the knees of our overalls. And curtained off in one corner was the town’s only hot shower. (Scalding hot. You always turned on the cold Weber River water first.) There was also a valve you could turn to shoot steam out of the shower head. It relieved congestion in a lot of Echo City chests. Workshop, bathhouse, vaporizer, and steam cleaner, our pumphouse was indispensable.
On Saturdays we skated from early afternoon until well after dark, long enough to burn up all our heat cells, and then we faced a mile walk through the snow, usually into a wind blowing up Weber Canyon. By the time we got to the pumphouse we were in the first stage of hypothermia. Crowding inside (there might be as many as twenty of us) we circled the boiler, getting as close to it as its heat would allow. I will always be able to see the light from the firebox dancing on the ceiling, smell the beads of creosote that had sweated out of the walls, and hear an occasional rumble in the boiler loud enough to drown out our voices.
Once I wrote an essay about our pumphouse for my seventh-grade teacher. I said that sometimes it took care of us like a big womb, a simile she said was “very inappropriate.” But she had never been with us on a freezing Saturday night when we huddled against the boiler and drew in its humid warmth. I still think our pumphouse was the closest thing to a womb a town ever had.
Another popular pastime in Echo City was celebrity watching. The luxurious Union Pacific passenger trains that carried America’s rich and famous back and forth across the country not only passed through our town but, if eastbound, stopped in it long enough to coal and water.
Once in awhile a famous face would be spotted on a daytime train, but most sightings were made on summer evenings after dark, when we gathered on the depot lawn where we could relax on the cool grass and give passengers a thorough scrutiny. About twenty car lengths back from the coal tower, the depot lawn was perfectly positioned to place us alongside the dining car and lounge car when they came to a stop. They were always the last two cars in the train, both brightly lighted.
We would skim the windows of the dining car and then concentrate on the lounge car. A lighted lounge car was always a good show. Just at dark it would be full of passengers—smoking, drinking, conversing, flirting, primping, modeling their clothes, and trying not to stare at each other too obviously. They watched themselves more intently and covertly than we did. (We never felt like waifs looking through a bakery window. We weren’t that sure we wanted to be like the people we saw. If we had their money, would we act as silly and showy as they did?)
Most of the celebrities we saw were movie stars, and Echo City girls were the first to pick them out. They were avid readers of magazines like Silver Screen and Photoplay, and they recognized instantly any actor or actress whose picture they had seen. Our parents were better at identifying the occasional politician, and we boys knew our sports heroes. An up-to-date list of sightings was posted in the depot.
I personally saw Silvia Sidney, Claudette Colbert, and Jack Dempsey. The sighting that caused the most excitement in town was Eleanor Roosevelt. She was still being talked about a week after she had been seen on Challenger #10’s diner, eating what looked like a salad.
It was an eastbound passenger train that brought me my first love, about noon on July 25, 1939, two days before my thirteenth birthday. I was standing outside the window of the depot agent’s office, checking to see if my new bicycle had arrived, when I saw her get off. No conductor or porter was there to help her down. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was tall, at least 5’5,” with marcelled blonde hair and blue eyes. She wore a blue dress with a pleated skirt and matching pumps that had heels so sharp they sank into the cinders. She had a perky hat with a veil and a genuine alligator purse. She had been crying but looked mostly mad by the time she got to the depot. I followed her into the depot waiting room. She went straight to the ticket window and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. The name she gave was Ginger Jones. When the depot agent asked where her baggage was, she said, “On that train,” and waved in the direction of the eastbound passenger, which by then was on its way out of town. “I’ll get it taken off at Evanston and have it put on your train,” the depot agent told her. “If you can,” she said, like it didn’t matter much, and went and sat down.
Being in the waiting room with her was making me a little dizzy, so I went out on the depot lawn. I knew why she had gotten off the train the way she did. Somebody on that train had been going to do something bad to her, or make her do something bad. She got off to save her virtue. That had to be it. I would watch over her until her train came.
At one o’clock she walked up to the Echo Hotel, where she ate a toasted cheese sandwich, drank a cup of coffee, and bought two magazines—True Confessions and Spicy Detective. She read them in the waiting room, sighing a little at something in True Confessions. From outside—I was leaning casually against the wall next to a window—all I could see of her was her back. It was really pretty. At two-thirty she asked the depot agent something and got an answer that seemed to shock her a little. When she came out and turned south, I knew what he had said. He had told her the depot did not have an inside toilet. I thought she would like the outside one. It was the nicest one in town, a big, roomy four holer, two in the women’s side and two in the men’s. The women’s side had a strong inside latch, and it got scrubbed clean once a week. But when she saw it she said, “Good gawwwd.”
I wished she hadn’t sworn, but it didn’t change the way I felt about her. When she went back into the waiting room, she gave her hands an elegant little wash in the drinking fountain, the only running water in the depot, and went back to her reading. The depot agent stopped the second section of westbound #9 for her at four-thirty. I got as close as I could to the waiting room door when she left the depot. I wanted a last smell of her perfume. But I got much more than that. When she passed me, she reached out and touched my shoulder. “Goodbye, Kid,” she said, “you can go home now.” My new bicycle seemed unimportant when it came the next day.
That isn’t all of the story. Two months later I saw her in a chorus line in a big Hollywood musical. I went back to see it three times to make sure it was Ginger. For several years I sat through every musical that came out of Hollywood but never saw her again. Or forgot her.
My boyhood officially ended three months after Pearl Harbor. That was when the Union Pacific, hard pressed to keep its tracks maintained under the huge increase in traffic created by the war effort, decided to let high school boys who could pass a railroad physical work weekends and summers on section gangs. Ten-hour days, forty-three cents an hour. Money like that and a chance to be “workin’ on the railroad,” were irresistible. Section #430 (the 430th section gang west of Omaha) hired me to work weekends in March of 1942. For me playtime in Echo City was over. From then until I graduated from North Summit High School, I spent my weekends and summer vacations working on the five miles of track west of Echo City.
On June 3, 1944, a small group gathered by the depot to see me off to Navy boot camp on westbound #21. I knew I would miss my family and friends, but I did not expect to miss Echo City. I thought the Navy would make me too sophisticated to miss a cindery little railroad town, but I was dead wrong. I missed everything in it, from the grindstone in the pumphouse that I sharpened my jack knife on to our lighted Christmas star that hung on the coal tower. I would choke up when I remembered how a puff of engine smoke would turn the Star-of-Bethlehem into a shapeless blur.
It was during South Pacific sessions of “what I miss most about my home town” that I realized how deeply the railroad had become part of me. Sailors who missed the ordinary American things, like the smell of burning leaves in the fall or Saturday night dances, could not understand how badly I wanted to see rails in the summer sun, so bright they hurt your eyes, or hear a spike being driven by somebody who could handle a maul.
When I returned to Echo City in 1946 it was the same town I had left. Everything I had missed so much was still there. But I knew it would not be for very long. New technology had taken away our town’s future. More and more diesel engines, which did not need to refuel in Echo City on their way from Ogden to the Wyoming plains, were hauling both passengers and freight. The age of railroad steam was coming to a close. In the spring of 1960 Echo City coaled and watered its last Union Pacific locomotive.
I was there, standing on the depot lawn with my mother and dad, watching it go through town. When it whistled away from the coal tower, bound for Cheyenne and the cutting torch, we knew our wonderful old town was going with it. There was nothing we were able to say to each other as it disappeared around Pulpit Rock Curve. But a lot to remember.
At the time of this essay’s publication, Dr. Mikkelsen was an emeritus professor of English, Weber State University. This article won first prize in the 1994 Utah Arts Council’s Original Writing Competition, personal essay category.