30 Years Over Donner
Bill Fisher 1990 198 pages
Bill Fisher, the author, is the husband of Kay Fisher who wrote A Baggage Car with Lace Curtains, the book review in the December, ’18 Heirloom. Kay’s book is about her life as the wife of a train man but without much about railroads and with a lot about her experiences. 30 Years…. is a collection of very short stories about the railroad, the Fishers’ life, and some miscellanies, but not much about Donner or Donner Summit. Bill was mostly at Emigrant Gap and points west during his 30 years. “Donner” helps sell the book though.
The stories are all very short (half a page to a page and a half) and relate experiences mostly about fixing signals and wiring connections. Those who take their rail buff(ing) seriously, those who like trainspotting and those who like to catalog locomotives, may like this book. There is a paragraph about the weight of rails, for example, and how different sizes were designated. That kind of thing should make a real rail buff very happy I’d imagine. There’s detail about track cars, batteries, signal light glass covers, and the duties of “maintainers” which was what Bill was for a lot of his career. There is a lot of detail about how some things that break get put back together. There is little explanation of what those pieces of equipment do, however, and that is one point of weakness for non-rail buffs. Just how does signaling work? The book is also heavy with names of railroad personnel and what people did so the author’s goal in the introduction, to put together the book about the people and their personal experiences working on the railroad is met - partly. In 30 Years… we find out what Bill did while his wife was busy with the baggage car. Actually, the baggage car experiences were in the early part of Bill’s career and 30 Years… carries into the modern day and up until Bill’s retirement.
There are lots of pictures in the book. That is a strength.
The stories of problems on the line are interesting to begin with but the litany gets tiresome since they follow the same format: Bill is home in the evening or on the weekend and something breaks so he has to go out and fix it. That repetitive format does not provide much incentive to keep turning the pages.
There are all kinds of emergencies: derailments, broken rails, washouts, rear enders, avalanches, rocks, downed trees, inexperienced crew, accidents, broken tracks, broken wires, all ending with “trouble cleared” reports and rest after exhausting days.
There are interesting parts not about fixing things though. World War II was a challenge for the railroad. Traffic increased with as many as fifty trains in a twenty-four hour period and there were not enough workers. There were also military guards along the railroad. Madame Chiang Kai Sheck went by one day. There are Bill’s descriptions of his feelings on the end of WWII which is an interesting perspective for those born later. There is some humor too such as a runaway car full of wine that derailed and leaked, allowing the track repair crew to become inebriated.
Some stories just fill space. “Never a Dull Moment” is about a dull moment – mushrooms emerging from the dirt. “Kay Tells This One” is about a drunken neighbor falling in the creek with no memory the next day. There are also telescope stories because Bill got interested in those and repairing a model engine. Some stories are about the Fisher family’s life: delivering Christmas trees, Kay’s business activities, the school at Emigrant Gap, family vacation and visiting relatives, buying a wire recorder, buying a new television, buying houses, fishing, and buying a second car.
The book could be greatly improved by cutting down on the number of stories (there are 71) and giving the stories some kind of plot lines rather than simple renditions of fixing things. For example, one longer emergency which did not get much attention in the book was the stranding of the Streamliner, the City of San Francisco, in 1952 near Emigrant Gap. That’s treated as a simple repair but there was drama there in real life. There could have been descriptions of life on the line during World War II. Vivid descriptions to draw the reader in rather than simple recitations of fixing things would also improve the book.
One particularly good story is the description of the railroad town of Emigrant Gap. In a just a page and a half we learn about how the locals used the railroad, how a fellow tried to rob the hotel but was treated to a meal and then given a job, how gambling continued despite sheriff’s visits, and what Nyack Lodge was like before the freeway arrived. That kind of thing is compelling and all of the other stories could have benefited from that kind of personal experience.
Despite the title, there is almost nothing about Donner or Donner Summit but there is one piece of a story that mentioned Donner Summit and the Norden Store. A work crew, headed by Bill, came to stay at the Norden Store owned by Herb and Lena Fredricks. The Norden Store had dorm space for twenty and Herb and Lena were “charming people and glad to have us. I knew we’d get good eats here!” That was the end of that. What did Herb and Lena do that made them “charming?” Were there really “good eats” there? What was life like at the summit, Norden and Soda Springs compared to Emigrant Gap?