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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Railroad Boomers

by Lou CurtissMarch 2016

I promised more tales from Harry McClintock’s articles from the old 1930’s Railroad magazine this time around and what’s coming up. Mac was an old time IWW man who played on the streets of Seattle bucking with Joe Hill, T Bone Slim, and others. He led a career that ranged from involvement with the Boxer Rebellion in China through his Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) days, on into making records for the Victor company, radio, and even bit parts in western movies during the 1930s. His final recordings were for the Folkways company in the 1950s. Now here’s more of the Boomer Stories Mac wrote in the 1930s.

“I recall a strapping Irish Woman named Mother Burke. She used to run a saloon and boarding house in Peoria, Illinois, which was a haven for all the boomers who headed into that burg. The Toledo, Peoria, & Western (known as the “Tip”) and the Peoria and Pekin Union were generally good for a job in the fall when corn husking started and all the distilleries were running full blast, since Peoria was the biggest distillery town in the country before Prohibition.

Mother Burke used to gather up and launder all the shirts, underwear, socks, and overalls that were discarded by her departing guests–and there were plenty, as the true boomer traveled light and most of them scorned even the small handbag, which was known as an O.R.C. Hence, the good old soul always had a change of clothes for the new arrivals. There was no charge for the clothes and each border was entitled to three free drinks per day, one before each meal.

It remained for Park Arnold and Dave Peavy to earn their own little niche in the Hall of Fame one hot, drowsy afternoon, when everybody around the place was either at work or asleep, by peddling Mother Burke’s kitchen range to a junkman.

The railroad watch of a real boomer had usually been in the three-ball joints so often that it ticked in Yiddish and started waving both hands if you talked to it. Of course, boomer rails were not the only ones. I once broke on a local freight on the Cleveland Division of the Nickel Plate when every member of the crew was carrying a pawn ticket in his watch pocket. We ran the train for two weeks with only the help from a kind Providence and a six-bit alarm clock. Fortunately the division was level and had only a few curves, for we “smoked” an awful lot of our meets.

Speaking of watches: Windy Windgate was breaking out of Grand Junction, Colorado and was the proud owner of a fine 23-jewel ticker that spent most of its time in the cash drawer of a Greek restaurant across the street from the depot. Windy thought he was a poker player, whose unfounded hallucination kept him carrying an Ingersoll about two thirds of the time. The sad part of the story was that the Greek got most of Windy’s dough, for they played in the back room of the same cigar store, and every time they sat in a game together the Hellene would win and Windy would lose.

Finally, Windy quit, worked his ten-day notice, and got a pass to Salt Lake City, where he would pick up his service letter and draw what ever pay he had coming. To while away the hours before train time he sat in the same old poker game and, as his jinx, the Greek was otherwise engaged. Windy finally got lucky and took the boys for about 200 bucks. Before the news had a chance to spread, he sauntered into the Greek’s and redeemed his watch for good.

“Well, I’ll be saying goodbye Nick,” he remarked casually, “and you can say goodbye to the ticker. I’m catching Number Five for the Lake.”

“Windy I’m sorry you’re going,” said Nick

“Yeah, you ought to be. You’ll probably have to get the rent money from some other sucker.”
In those days Chicago was a boomer’s paradise, where 47 companies employed switchmen and engine men. This included all the trunk lines running into the city as well as the two Belt Lines, the huge steel plants in South Chicago, the Standard Oil Refinery in Whiting, the Pullman car shops, the U.S. Steel plant at Gary, the International Harvester Company, and a lot more I can not even remember. There was a flock of “one-town boomers” who held Chicago down year after year without ever getting farther west than the “Q” yards in Hawthorne or farther east than the famous Gibson “hump” or the steel mills at Gary.

I used to know a character named “Sugarfoot” Burns in Chicago, who hung out at “Pony” Moore’s saloon in Custom House Square. He had been a forger of railroad tickets and passes for the old ring of ticket scalpers that were probably the original racketeers of the Windy City. When the ring was broken up he drew a term in Joliet and, upon released, turned to the less lucrative, but far safer occupation of manufacturing bogus service letters and lodge receipts. It was in the latter capacity that we boomers met him.

For five bucks Sugarfoot would give you the up-to-date “secret work” of any railroad brotherhood together with a traveling card and receipts for three month’s dues. Service letters from various railroads cost a dollar a throw and were good enough to hire out on, although the man who went to work on one was a cinch to be fired for “unsatisfactory personal record” in 30 days or less.

But what of it? Most boomers figured that 30 days was long enough to stay in one place anyhow. And you could ride as far on Sugarfoot’s phoney Brotherhood receipts as if they had been issued by P.H. Morrisey himself.

And that’s more about Harry McClintock, cowboy singer, revolutionary, radio personality, who was involved in the 1911 skirmish in Baja, California and a revolution in Portuguese East Africa, saw the coronation of King Edward in London in 1902, spent a winter in Nome, Alaska, worked as a ranch foreman in Nevada, wrote and collected folk and traditional songs (was one of the first to record traditional cowboy songs), and did a whole lot of other stuff worth writing about. Down the road I’ll be doing more about Haywire Mac (or, on record, also Radio Mac, Harry McClintock, or in a few cases just “Mac”). Check my Facebook page in early March for a few examples of his recordings, and may I remain…

Lou Curtiss

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