Coal Train

The steam locomotive puffs its smoke into the chill air in this undated photo. Notice the variety of freight brought to the warehouses situated alongside the tracks in Hibbing: coal, animal feed, seeds and, to the California Wine House, would come grapes for people making their own libations.

It’s always a joy to find stories written by people about everyday events. That’s not to say that stories about big, once-in-a-lifetime events such as landing on the moon or winning an election aren’t terrific too, but there is something about ordinary people’s lives that inspires.

Maybe it is the reminder we all need that everyone has of a life’s worth of stories that are interesting to hear.

The following story gives us a glimpse into everyday life in the 1930s. Times were very difficult. I remember hearing stories from adults when I was growing up about when they were children and teenagers. They would walk along the railroad tracks to pick up coal that fell from the steam engines. They brought those pieces of coal home to help heat very cold houses. But sometimes, things didn’t go quite as planned.

The following story was written by Amelia Javorina. Originally published in the 1973 Brooklyn Reunion Special Publication in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, it was reprinted in 1980 for that year’s Brooklyn Reunion Special Publication.

Amelia had many interests and one of them was Hibbing history. She was a longtime member of the Hibbing Historical Society and volunteered in the museum. She passed away in 2017.

~ Mary Palcich Keyes

I grew up in a small town east of Hibbing during the Depression. We knew nothing of Hondas, hot rods and the like. Since no one had money for entertainment, we played games — cricket, run-sheep-run, hide-and-seek, follow-the-leader and others. But the most important game in my life was the game of self-preservation. It was self-preservation as our parents had not money for fuel. So in order to keep warm in the winter, I became a female coal picker. To pick a beautiful sack of coal was my pleasure. My friends and I accepted this pursuit with pride, and mighty was the one who could pick the most coal. We talked about our full sacks as a stockholder talks about his stocks, and I became as good at picking coal as an artist is at painting.

To accomplish this gainful task, one has to have the proper costume. There was no problem about what to wear today, as today you wore the same thing you wore yesterday — an old pair of faded overalls handed down from an older brother. Everyone knew me by my green and white striped sweater that completed my outfit. One nice feature about the one-suit wardrobe — there never was any problem about crowded closets. Of course, who had closets? A simple nail on the wall was sufficient.

We pursued our duty in groups. There was the Coons Dock Gang, the Dump Gang and the Railroad Track Gang. We had different types of conveyances for different types of terrain, and for the dump job we pushed wheelbarrows. I liked the dump job the least, as in order to accomplish our task, we had to depend on a third party who was the fireman on the train engine that ran along the tracks on the dump. We could not always depend on the mood of the fireman, and perhaps the day it rained and we were the most miserable was the day he decided not to toss us any coal. However, when the fireman was in an expansive mood, we would be thrown our most precious gift, the great big chunks of warmth, warmth that would soothe us during long, cold winter nights.

My buddy on the dump trips was often Alex. He has since made his fortune in another fashion. Alex is an interpreter with the American Embassy, and I often wonder, when he sees a glow in a fireplace while he sits with his fashionable friends enjoying a cocktail, if he ever recalls the lovely glow his coal picked along the tracks gave him in his childhood.

Then there was the Coons Dock Gang. One of the members was my friend Helen, who is since deceased. God rest her soul. She may now be blissfully tossing coal with the angels. One day Helen and I almost reached our demise. We had just opened a chute at the Coons Dock when the crafty watchman, Mr. McKnight, came upon the scene in a huff of authority and an, “A-ha! I’ve got you now!” Did we ever run. I know how “The Fugitive” must feel. We were two fugitives at that moment. When we hid ourselves we whispered to each other, planning our strategy should we be caught. We planned our aliases, and Helen ever after would be Helen Bottoms and I was to become Annie Rivers. Never would we disgrace our family names by revealing our true identity. Loyal to the end!

Helen and I fortunately outsmarted our pursuer. Several yards away from the dock was a beautiful, beautiful potato patch. Nothing looked more glorious than that potato patch at this moment. We skittered belly-fashion between the rows of potatoes, and lost was Mr. McKnight’s quarry. He would have had a long wait until Fall before he could have discovered us between the rows of potatoes where we had hidden. So we had successfully eluded our hunter on this round, but there were more to come.

Now, we come to the third gang, my very dear Railroad Gang. Lee and Alfonse were two brothers and belonged to a very precious, tender part of my life. I write about them with a great feeling of nostalgia. My relationship with these two boys was as strong as the bond between brothers and sisters and as sweet as fresh young love. Both boys have passed away. Alfonse went to his reward during World War II and Lee passed away from Leukemia.

The Railroad Gang was the legitimate front of our coal picking operations. For this job we used our homemade wagon which was made extra-large to accommodate larger quantities of coal. Our parents had given us strict instructions to just pick coal along the tracks as it fell off the trains. We went along with this as long as we were serving our apprenticeship, but as we progressed, this was beneath our status as seasoned coal pickers. How could we embellish our stories to other gangs by only producing a pail of coal here and there?

Well, it finally happened! One beautiful sunny day as we picked coal along the tracks, we came upon a terrific temptation. Along these tracks was a giant mass of coal stores behind barbed wire on the Public Utilities property. This was the most beautiful sight we had ever seen. This was something we had to touch. Gone was fear or any notion of wrongdoing. All we knew was that we had to have this coal. My memory fails me at this point. Perhaps the moment was too great and I lapsed into a temporary amnesia. What I do not remember is how we managed to climb over this barricade, but manage we did and came out with the biggest treasure of our careers. Wouldn’t we ever be elevated in the eyes of the gang when we produced this treasure!

However, short-lived was our success. We had just managed to start home when after us came the Gestapo. Lee, being the oldest of us three, and a gentleman, grabbed me by the hand and pulled me across the golf course. I kept yelling at him in a womanly fashion, “Save me! Save me!” This was not a Mr. McKnight situation. This had the ring of real anger in it. We managed to get across the golf course, and I breathlessly said, “At last, we’re saved.” But saved we were not, because what was on hand to greet us was the squad car.

It made no matter to the officer that I was a girl. I received the same treatment as any other convict and was told brusquely to, “Get in the back of the car.” Our first reaction was one of giddy nervousness and we managed to force out a few silly giggles. This was an unexpected experience. What would happen next?

Well, the next minutes were a nightmare. We were driven to the police station where the officer promptly proceeded to take our records. I managed to maintain my calm throughout the first routine questioning — name, age and so forth. I knew this was not the time to try an “Annie Rivers,” so I proceeded to give him the correct answers. However, my spirits were completely crumpled when the officer confronted me with the last question in the world I wanted to hear at this moment: “WHAT IS YOUR FATHER’S NAME?” In a burst of loyalty, I nobly clutched my clenched fist to my chest and pleaded, “You can do what you want to with me, but leave my father out of this!”

Needless to say, our records were completed and we were whisked home to our much dismayed parents.

The days I have written about have long since gone, but they have left their mark. I cannot see a piece of coal lying around without a yearning to pick it up. The one thought that will always remain: What is prettier than a diamond? A big, black, shiny piece of coal!


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