When J.E. Yarbrough of McComb became a train engineer, Illinois Central was still using steam engines. In a career spanning several decades, Yarbrough witnessed many changes as the nation’s transportation demands evolved. In this episode, taken from his 2006 interview, he reflects on those changes. He begins by discussing the switch from steam to diesel in the 1950s.
Before the development of two-way radios, railroads depended on synchronized watches to keep the trains running on time. Yarbrough explains the importance of keeping to a schedule. On average, there are 5,800 collisions between trains and road vehicles per year in the United States. Yarbrough recalls how people would risk their lives to avoid waiting for a train.
After working for decades as a freight train engineer, Yarbrough was promoted to passenger trains, running the famous Panama Limited between McComb and New Orleans. He remembers how a near collision with a log truck convinced him it was time to retire.
Johnny Balser’s grandfather moved to McComb in the 1880s and took a job with the railroad. In this episode, he discusses his family’s long history with the Illinois Central maintenance shop there and why there was never any doubt he would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
When Balser graduated high school, his father insisted he follow the family tradition and work for Illinois Central railroad. He explains how that experience, as a machinist apprentice, kept him out of a foxhole during WWII.
After the war, Balser returned to McComb and his job at the railroad maintenance shop. He reflects on how quickly the new diesel locomotives replaced the steam engines and how older workers resented the change.
Balser eventually decided to leave the railroad and become a photographer. He remembers Illinois Central became a steady customer after he opened his studio.
PHOTO: McComb Railroad Museum
Like many of their friends and family, McComb natives Glover May and his twin brother Eddie, went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad at the McComb maintenance facility, in 1942. Their father, Glenn May was the boiler foreman in the locomotive shop. Nicknamed “The Storm” by his workers, who would call out “All right, y’all straighten up, here comes the storm,” when he walked into the shop, their father was a strict, task-oriented, company man. In his 2006 interview for the McComb City Railroad Depot museum, Glover May recounts how he and his brother worked seven days a week for 32 cents per hour, with no days off. Even so, his father thought nothing of making his sons work all night to finish a job or to fill in for a sick employee for no extra pay. “He was tough, Glenn May was tough. He was a railroad man, sure was.”
In this episode, Glover May takes us through his 43-year career with IC. He recalls their first job, testing the water in the steam locomotives to see if the boiler needed cleaning. When the May boys were promoted to positions in the boiler shop, their father became their supervisor. May remembers how his dad would try to treat the men’s minor injuries to keep from filing an accident report.
After a train derails, specially-trained crews work until the wreckage is cleared and the tracks repaired. May discusses how he and his brother would cook for such a crew, in a rolling kitchen car. When a railroad maintenance crew is dispatched to the scene of an accident, they stay until the job is done. Glover and Eddie always made sure their crew had lots of good food at every meal. According to May, after the twins retired on August 1, 1985, the kitchen car was retired as well, the end of an era in the age of fast food.
PHOTO CREDIT: McComb City Railroad Depot Museum, http://mcrrmuseum.com/