Springfield, its railroad and the people who keep the story alive

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Springfield’s passenger depot, presumably soon after its construction in 1926. 

Lonely and forlorn, yet full of history and promise, the train whistle has accompanied an untold number of people and goods to Springfield since the first locomotive rolled through in 1873.

Max Jahn, one of the driving forces behind Springfield’s Railroad Historical Museum, is pictured in May 2015.

One of those people was Max Jahn. The year was 1951 when he moved from St. Louis to the Ozarks with the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, affectionately known as the Frisco. “A job came open in the diesel shop over here on Kansas Avenue yard for a clerk secretary to the master mechanic,” says Max, who was asked if he’d like the position. “I didn’t know what the wife would think about this, moving her and the kids, because she was from St. Louis. So we talked it over and she said, ‘Well, yeah, we need a change.’ So that’s when we moved to Springfield and I took that job.”

Max actually began his career with the railroad three years earlier. He was hired as a call boy – a job that today is simply referred to as a caller. “Now you’ve got girls doing it, so they can’t call it the other,” he says with a chuckle.

As a call boy, it was Max’s responsibility to get the crew – generally consisting of a conductor, engineer, fireman and brakeman – to the station. “’Call ‘em’ means you call ‘em to work,” he says. But these calls weren’t done on the phone. “You had a mile radius that you had to walk. Some of them had phones but they still made you walk after them.”

Postcard perusing: the Frisco in Springfield 

It was during the early days of that job when one of Max’s strongest railroad memories occurred. “I was breaking in, which was learning your job,” says Max, who notes that such experience wasn’t paid back then. “You had to break in on your own time.”

His shifts were from midnight to 8 a.m., and one particular morning he went out to call a five-man crew who soon left on a train. “About 2 or 3 a.m. we got a call there at the yard that that train had gone in the river,” he recalls. The bridge had washed out, catapulting the train off the track. Max rode out to the site of the accident with a foreman who asked if he’d like to go with him to check out the situation.

The trip wasn’t a fun one. All three men up front – the engineer, fireman and the head brakeman – were killed in the accident. “With an engine like that, you didn’t survive those back then,” says Max. “Diesels, they survive some of those. But not with a steam engine. You got scalded to death, usually, because that fire and everything. I always felt, in the back of my mind, how happy everybody was before that and all of a sudden…

“It kind of hurts you.”