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Minidoka: place of enchantment

Memories of boyhood rides in Idaho with an uncle who was a Union Pacific conductor
UPtrain339
UP train 339, the mixed from Twin Falls, Idaho, nears its destination of Wells, Nev., in fall 1943. Is Uncle Jim the conductor today?
W. B. Wolverton
There’s not much there anymore, and few people know that Minidoka, Idaho, was once a busy railroad point. It was also my youthful idea of heaven.

That’s where my Union Pacific Railroad conductor uncle, Jim Ryan, and his wife Lola lived. There were maybe 50 houses and other buildings in the town, plus a grade school. There was a large brick depot with a baggage and freight area, an operator’s office, and a waiting room complete with newsstand.

A huge coal chute stood over the tracks along with a water tank’s spout. These served the steam locomotives powering the many passenger and freight trains that passed through each day. The exception was the diesel-powered City of Portland streamliner.

We lived in Pocatello then, and my parents would occasionally let me take the train the 60 miles or so west to visit Jim and Lola in Minidoka. While there, I could stand at the depot and see nothing but sagebrush and desert and sky in every direction.

For a long time Jim was conductor on the motor car. Also called the “Galloping Goose,” this self-propelled unit featured an engineer’s cab in front, an engine room, baggage and express area, and a passenger section at the rear. It ran between Minidoka and Buhl, Idaho, 74 miles west at the end of a branch. While working on this run, Uncle Jim wore the official UP dark suit with brass buttons and the stiff cap with the word CONDUCTOR spelled out. Ann Schenk of the Minidoka County Museum in Rupert recalls that the town’s teenagers would ride the Galloping Goose to Rupert each weekday for high school and ride it back home in the afternoon.

This was during World War II, 1943–44, when troop trains often would come through, always stopping for fuel and water. I was 14 or 15 and, perhaps influenced by Mickey Rooney’s hawking goods on trains in the movie Young Tom Edison, I decided to do my part.

I made a deal with the lady who ran the Barkalow Bros. newsstand in the depot. She would leave a basket filled with candy, gum, cigarettes, and magazines with the operator for me to pick up at night.

After receiving permission to board from the troop train’s conductor, I would walk the aisles of the Pullman cars, softly calling, “Candy, gum, smokes.” Before long a voice would say, “You got any Camels?” or “You got anything to read?”

A hand would reach from behind the curtain, with money, to be replaced by the requested goods, plus change.

I would later return the nearly empty basket and the cash to the operator and head for Jim’s house, feeling I had done something to help the war effort.

Jim later bid on, and won, the run between Twin Falls, Idaho, and Wells, Nev. At 246 miles round trip, it was said to be the longest on the Union Pacific.

We left Minidoka in the late afternoon and rode to Twin Falls, where we had dinner at a café near the depot.

“You’d better eat big,” Jim would tell me, “’cause it might be a couple of days before we get another meal.” 

The train was a mixed, composed of a steam locomotive, several freight cars, and a combination baggage-coach on the rear. The combine was not exactly modern, having kerosene lamps for light and a small coal stove for heat.

We ran south from Twin Falls, paralleling U.S. 93. We passed Amsterdam and Hollister, Idaho. At Idavada, on the Nevada border, Jim told me to watch for the neon sign of a new gambling joint built in the middle of the desert. That was the beginning of the bustling community of Jackpot, which today draws millions of Idaho dollars to its games each year.

Only once did we have passengers. A group of younger women and an overdressed hag with a lot of jewelry got on at Twin Falls. They got cold during the night and demanded blankets, which we did not have. The group rode all the way to Wells. It was years later that I figured out that they were on a brothel exchange program.

At Wells, we switched cars onto the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific interchange tracks before hitting the hay in the wee hours of the morning.

Our hotel was near the SP and WP tracks. Once I heard a strange sound and got up to look out the window. I saw a sight that has stayed with me more than 60 years: a giant SP 4-8-8-2 cab-forward rushing past with a troop train. Then there was another . . . and another. I didn’t get much sleep that exciting night.

The return trips to Twin Falls and Minidoka were great fun too, and were usually in the daytime. I even got to ride on the engine once.

Union Pacific built the Twin Falls–Wells branch in the 1920s to serve promising mines in the area and northern Nevada’s livestock industry. But the mines played out, and trucks replaced the train as the main carriers of cattle. UP tore up most of the line in the 1970s, but portions of the grade can be seen from the highway today.

With the advent of the diesel locomotive, there was no longer a need for trains to stop at Minidoka. The coal chute was taken down and so were the water tanks. And finally the lovely old depot was razed.

The town’s houses are now occupied by workers on the surrounding farms, and the kids are bused to school in Rupert. Almost all the land I saw as desert 60 years ago is now under cultivation.

It’s a different world now, but the Minidoka I loved then will be alive as long as I’m around.

First published in Summer 2011 Classic Trains magazine.

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