A Baggage Car with Lace Curtains
Kay Fisher1979 176 pages
Here is one of those books that appeal differently to males and females. Kay Fisher was a newlywed in 1940. Her husband had found a job on the railroad during the depression. Being separated during the week was difficult so Kay moved in to the “outfit car” her husband and his helper lived in. As assignments changed Kay and her husband, Bill, had to move around Donner Summit. It was very hard to begin with – see below – but after a year Kay was well experienced and accepting of life on the railroad. She even initiates a new wife into the life. The book might be subtitled, A winter on Donner Summit in an “Outfit” car.
On the way to Kay’s change in outlook every mundane details of life on the railroad is reported via conversations and observations decades after the fact. Readers of the female persuasion may sympathize with the problems of the new life into which Kay was thrown and enjoy reading about what that entailed. Many male readers may have different expectations. An insert in the book says, “If you are a rail buff, this is the inside of railroading in steam days over famous Donner summit route”. It’s not. You’ll get a lot about life along the railroad but not much about trains.
That said, there are some good descriptions of the various locations the “outfit” was parked.
Kay, Bill and Bill’s helper lived in car 713 and kept their tools in attached boxcar 787. When Kay first met 713 it was somewhere above Cisco. It was an old baggage car with some windows, a door, and a stovepipe. It was “faded, dirty, chipped mud-red color…. Ungainly, ragged, tilted, [and] lonely baggage car, with railroad ties for roses.” It wasn’t a honeymoon cottage. There was a kitchen, a big room, and a bedroom. There was only a thin partition that did not reach the ceiling between the living room where the helper slept and the bedroom of Kay and Bill. That was an embarrassing problem for newlywed Kay. It was bad but there were lace curtains on the bedroom windows that Bill had bought at the dime store. Outside was the “dream house” (outhouse).
The condition of the living quarters was just the first negative. The noise of passing trains took some getting used to, “The roar shook the very marrow of my bones as the headlight crept abreast of us with the cab seemingly an arm’s length away… A column of black smoke blotted out the stars. The hulking shape of the tender following the stomping beat of its leader. …. Wheels screaming against the curve. The pounding of the engine…” Then as the helper engine approached, “The frightening crescendo had started over again, roaring through the room without mercy.”
After the introduction to the “outfit” one thinks there must have been some great incentive to move to Cisco and Kay tells about the backstory, getting married, job prospects in the Depression, and some family histories.
With Kay firmly settled in to railroad life the book turns to daily life for a woman on the railroad and some of that gets tedious. From time to time the “outfit” had to move as Bill’s assignments changed. Each time required closing up the “outfit” and getting it ready to move. One move details a ripped sleeve, a kinked back, carrying Bucky the geranium, a special coffee pot, tripping twice, picking up an upside down tea kettle, and getting ash blown in her face.
When not dealing with daily life issues there are interesting descriptions such as that of driving along the highway to Truckee and of Truckee. Here Kay admires the magnificence of Donner Summit just like her predecessors and successors. “The highway curved beautifully on its way through the craggy hills. Ahead, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada rose like a great stone barricade across the top of the world… I passed some ski lodges… I saw a long row of railroad houses… connected together by wooden tunnels… This must be Norden and the famous snowsheds. What a forbidding place.” “At 7,000 feet I was met by a spectacular view, a panorama of mountains, Donner Lake far below, and the highway twisting downward like a rope thrown against the cliffs.” “Truckee was a smudge in all this beauty.” Truckee had a main street where the railroad took up one whole side. Streets were dusty and crowded. There were two grocery stores and a movie theater.
There are other descriptions too: a reminiscence of a drunk acquaintance, blue flags, carrying her canary in the cold, taking off boots, being caught between needing the restroom and cold weather and so turning on the radio full blast so the helper would not hear Kay use her “red can” instead of the “dream house.” There’s a good description of walking through the snowsheds, the steady downpour from the roof was worse than rain. “…reaching the end of the sheds was like finding the world again.” There are also vignettes like running out of coal, walking through the snow, not being able to wash clothes, unexpected reassignments, high prices at the store and everything there “but what you went down there for…” One particularly memorable for Kay was visiting the “dream house” in a storm and having the roof blow off. Bill’s helper came to the rescue holding down the roof.
Troy was a railway stop between Kingvale and Cisco, just west of what is now the Donner Trail School. The “outfit” was based there for a short period and Kay said Troy was “A forgotten hole in a forgotten section of creation.” There her geranium died. Then the canary died.
Norden sounds miserable. It was also “Like Siberia” and there the “outfit” was parked in the snowsheds so it was always dark. Bill would come home from work while at Norden, tired and dirty. For Kay “it had been like a day in jail, with lights burning all day because the snowsheds were like a wet dark tunnel. I couldn’t go outside for fear of the trains that clattered past only a few feet away. Some stopped for long periods while helpers [locomotives that were added to trains to help them get up hill] were being uncoupled. Then the snowsheds would be completely blocked off and I couldn’t even see daylight sifting through the cracks of the timbers. I could get only a few weak programs on the radio. With all this I was fit to be tied in about three days. By the end of a week I was definitely getting stir-crazy.”
Room temperature “varied from a hundred degrees near the stove to thirty above in the bedrooms.”
That brings up a question never answered in the book. Loneliness was clearly a problem and one wonders how the housewife left at “home” in the “outfit” managed that while the husband was off with other people all day. Kay visited the few other women and had her radio programs. There were chores too but one can’t imagine there was a total cure.
Another question unanswered is Kay’s change. The quarters, the loneliness, the weather, disappointments, etc. were all problems Kay identified. At the end they’ve moved into a house at Emigrant Gap. The daffodils and manzanitas blossomed and the “fir trees had bright green growth at the tips of the limbs” and suddenly her whole attitude changed.
December 7, 1941 was during Kay’s first year with the railroad and there is interesting detail about the arrival of the war and the railroad. Trains were searched at Truckee and Colfax to protect the trains going over the summit. The National Guard was called out to patrol railroad facilities. Railroad workers guarded bridges and tunnels “against fifth columnists.”
One interesting aside was the reason this book got onto our list for reviewing. In 2018 Jessica Morse is running for Congress. One of her advertisements talks about her grandmother working the telegraph on Donner Summit with a pistol strapped to her waist. I met Jessica Morse one evening and she mentioned that grandma was in A Baggage Car with Lace Curtains. The names have been changed according to Kay Fisher, the author, but there on page 137 begins a description of Kay meeting “Mrs. Merrithew” who had been wonderful company. “The motherly operator” told Kay a lot about the workings of the railroad. “Her chattering instruments carried a constant stream of orders to trains, instructions to various officials, reports of troubles, etc.” There follows a list of her duties. Mrs. Merrithew also told Kay about a lot of the history which Kay does not relate. Kay does explain that Mrs. Merrithew started carrying a pistol after her husband was killed by a snake. It gave her a “comfortable feeling.”
The book has weaknesses but if you want to read about a wife’s first year on the railroad and what was mostly not such a good experience, then pick up this short book.