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Railroad Whistles and McClymonds High

By Fred Boland, Machinist 1928-1980
Bayshore Shops, Southern Pacific Railroad

In many ways your golden years are from 14 to 18. For me, it was spent, mostly, learning where every rail leads to, watching railroaders and learning the hand signals, whistle signals, methods of operation, and all other pertinent data. I learned never to be closer to a rail than twice the distance of that part of the tie that is outside the rail. This saved me a few times when I would stand in awe watching a switch engine calling for the old air plug test, and silently, suddenly a box car from the other way would come between me and the engine. Remember that rule, never forget it.

I still recall the warm, lazy spring afternoons at McClymonds High. Freshman year was behind me, and I had grooved in. With only 450 boys and 50 girls, there are not enough girls, and the hot shots have them, so we regular guys turned our attention to being better machinists, electricians, cabinet makers, printers, blacksmiths, and auto mechanics. Half the school had shop in the morning and studies in the afternoon, the other half vice versa.

If it were arithmetic you had to be alert, but in study periods particularly, and english class generally, the hum of the woodshop planer would make you drowsy. You could hear the squeal of the belts as the machine shop kids started or stopped their lathes, drill presses, or millers. The steel planer had a sound of it's own as it reversed itself on every stroke, sometimes a foot long, other days up to ten feet or better. The sound of steel being pounded on an anvil in the forges shop would drift in through the open window.

From beyond the school every twenty minutes would come a single blast of the whistle on every train coming from the Key System pier, warning anyone in the Key's underpass of the Southern Pacific, but really to announce it's arrival to the tower at 40th and Louise. The towerman always seemed to know where they went, for I do not recall any occasion when route signals had to be called. The blast started as a real high pitched scream and immediately fell to a real low note.On rare occasions a Sacramento Short Line car or train would show up. Their whistle is half forgotten, but it lay a little higher than the Key's wooden 500's. Sometime after I graduated they changed theirs to the musical note of the automobiles of the late 30's.

There were 41 switch engines numbered in the 1200s as well as a few in the 1100s and a couple ancient 1000s working in the area back then. Every one of the 1200s must have passed in the four years I was there. My hearing was so good in those years that I would know which of the 1290 to 1294 was working. Many of the others I could identify as well as many road engines. Even my dad would perk up when the 1292 was working in East Oakland. Incidentally the 1294 was scrapped last year after many years of being the children's toy at Fleishaker Zoo. The reason was given that in the salt air it had rusted so badly that it was getting dangerous. Humph! The real reason was that an occasional kid fell off, calling for a lawsuit. They had never fixed it up so that a kid could not fall off, like the 1227 in Washington Park, near old Neptune Beach, Alameda.

In later years I called switch engine 1281 "America the Beautiful". To appreciate this story, the road crossing whistle signals as they developed in the Book of Rules will have to be explained. Up to about 1928 the sound was two long and two short. They probably hit too many autos whose drivers claimed they knew the engine hadn't whistled. So, the rule was changed to hold the last note till the crossing was reached, thus making it two long, a short, and a long.

As the Depression came on SP management adopted the Union Pacific's plan of one long, two short, and a long till the crossing was reached. They figured they saved a little steam on that second note, and true to form, they started thinking of the hundreds of dollars they saved on hundreds of thousands of blasts done every day. By the time of the war years we and the UP were back to the two long, a short, and one lasting till the crossing.

Anyway, my teen years and the 1281 were around together. When it came to High St, the engineer would let go with each note held longer. I could roughly sing "America the Beautiful" in the two long, two short as he crossed 29th Ave, Fruitvale, 37th Ave and come to High St, where I used to wait to see it. It would arrive at High St generally a couple of minutes ahead of noon, once in a while a little behind, amid the cacophony of factories blowing the noon whistle. The war years killed them all. After the war, all the noon whistles at all the factories just never caught on again. At least, not like it was prewar.

The same was true in steam days, when I would sit on the hill in Crescent Heights, to the north of Redwood road and Skyline blvd, and watch the Western Pacific travel out the line. When the engineer whistled, it would reach me 13 seconds later. Today, when diesels are around each other, it is impossible to tell who spoke.