In Praise of Rail Road Towns

train

“TRAIN!”

–Gordy, in Stand By Me, 1996

Many of the Crazy Train’s excursions lead us through tiny dots on the map, born of the railroads during westward expansion. Millions of acres lay in wait, untouched by a new breed of American explorers in search of a place to call their own. During the nineteenth century, a herd of iron horses stampeeded westward, forever changing the Western landscape. Likewise, decades later, when the US Department of Transportation paved a spiderweb of asphalt, most of the old railroad towns were bypassed, condemning them to a future of ambiguity. mccloud rail 1930s It was on one of these road trips that I made a connection I’d never made before. Usually, when we arrive in a town, I google its history, and we learn about any little interesting tidbits the town had—or still has—to offer. I usually read a little about how the town was founded, its subsequent growth, and its ultimate decline. Or, in some cases, what continues to keep it thriving.

mccloud train hauling logs It was in one of these obscure little ghost towns that I made an offhanded remark to the tone of, “gee. All these towns are named after railroad presidents and train muckety-mucks rather than the town founders.” My words were still hanging in the air above my head in a bubble as The Hub turned and looked at me in that, “you didn’t seriously just say that, did you?” expression he gets that is at times humorous, and at other times annoying as hell. “Oops. Yeah, Right. It’s a FANTASTIC idea to name those towns after railroad presidents!” I exclaimed, with a guilty giggle.

nera swobe californiaI laughed because, in a way, the Crazy Train has VERY close link to one such town. And what is this link, you may be wondering? In the northern California county of Siskiyou, there’s a tiny dot on the map called Swobe. Depending on which map you use, Swobe, California may, or may not, actually have roads. But, one thing it does not have is a population. Or buildings. Or a sign. Or a zip code. Or a train depot. Or ANYTHING. Swobe is pretty much just a dot on the map.

swobemap So just where did the name for this tiny dot originate? Just who was this “Swobe” person, and why is there a dot bearing his name? My great-grandfather, Dwight Milton Swobe, was born in 1878 in Nebraska, the son of Civil War veteran Col. Thomas Swobe and his wife, Alzina. Col Swobe worked his way up the ranks in the Union Army, ultimately retiring as Quartermaster. It was upon his retirement that he became a partner in Shears, Markel & Swobe of the Millard Hotel, Omaha’s premier hotel at the time, and one of Nebraska’s political centers. His company also provided dining cars for many railroads. swobe dudes It seems that Dwight Swobe got the railroad bug from his dad, because all accounts I’ve read have him working for railroads as soon as he graduated from college. The railroads brought Dwight incrementally west, became a widely respected short line railroad man, and ultimately became president of the McCloud River Railroad in 1921. He saw the Railroad through the devastation of the 1930s, making use of the line for lumber transport. The company was beloved by its employees and became known by them as Mother McCloud for continuing to offer its employees credit in company stores throughout the Depression, and then forgiving their debt afterwards. Dwight raised a family in Berkeley, and, sadly, passed away at the age of 65 in 1943. Mccloud train After his death, McCloud River Railroad honored him by naming a “town” after him. It’s actually just a mile of tracks between markers 12 and 13 along a picturesque span of the Railroad, but the real honor was in the gesture. swobe original mainline 2 Swobe former site 1 Although we rarely depend on the railroads for transportation these days, The Mc Cloud River Railroad, now the McCloud Railway operates as a passenger excursion train, and an 80 mile portion of the former line is being converted into a multi-use trail for hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and other non-motorized sports. train track For a glimpse of my great-grandfather’s railroad, check out the scenery in the classic movie Stand By Me. The infamous bridge the boys run across to escape the oncoming train is the McCloud River Railroad’s Lake Britton Bridge in Burney Falls Memorial State Park.stand04 ***Special THANKS to the people of the McCloud River Railroad and the McCloud Railroad for posting these pictures that I borrowed from you on your webpage. Learn and see more history at mcclourriverrailroad.com, greatshastarailtrail.org/history/railroad-history-summary/, trainweb.org/mccloudrails, ancestry.com, and to my mom, my aunt, and my awesome 2nd cousin Gordon for your assistance in the ongoing Swobe family research!***

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A Short Story about Wichita Falls’ First Skyscraper: Everything’s Bigger in Texas…. Welllllllll….. Almost.

In researching Rt66, I came across a little stop that wasn’t on the Mother Road, but had a funny story nonetheless. I read it and had a chuckle, and then went on my way, thinking it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. This is usually the kind of thing we’ll drive WAY out of our way to see, but by the time we were headed in that direction, I’d forgotten all about it.

So as we wandered the deserted streets of Wichita Falls on Thanksgiving Day hoping to luck into an open mom and pop restaurant, I was only thinking about turkey. But when I saw a familiar silhouette peeking out over a dumpster near the train depot, I squealed like a little girl and navigated the hubs towards it, briefly forgetting about food.

Mark: “What is that?”
Me: “It’s a SKYSCRAPER!”
Mark: “What? No it’s not.”
Me: “Yes it is! It’s the world’s littlest skyscraper!”

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Here’s the skinny:

Once upon a time, Wichita Falls was a bonafide boom town with something like 20,000 hopefuls streaming in to seek their fortune in oil. This sudden tsunami of people, jobs, industry, and money happened a little too quickly for the small town, so infrastructure was lagging. Oil companies and brokerage houses had hastily pitched tents for temporary office space and brokers were frantically doing business deals worth thousands of dollars on street corners. This frenzy created the ideal setting for one of the most fascinating con jobs in American history.

In 1906, Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company director August Newby built a one story office building near the train depot. The Newby Building, as it was called, was never at full occupancy until the discovery of black gold nearby. Then, the modest office building swelled with seven tenants.

Enter JD McMahon, a fast-talking East Coast businessman, engineer, and oilman. McMahon was one of the Newby Building tenants, and he had an idea. He drew up plans for a high rise unlike anything Wichita Falls had ever seen. The late-neoclassical style “skyscraper” annex to the Newby Building would overlook the oil fields, and help usher the sleepy town on the plains into the future. He quickly set about selling $200,000 (that’s about $3 million to us) in stock to eager investors looking to get rich quickly. The investors, many of whom were city officials, blindly handed over their money, their eyes too clouded with dollar signs to pay much attention to the details.

Once McMahon had the cash, his crew began to build. By the time the investors realized what had hit them, it was too late. The “skyscraper” was nearly complete. In a stroke of evil genius, McMahon had clearly drawn his high-rise plans in inches rather than feet, rendering the perceived 40-story skyscraper to a mere 40 feet tall– not much larger than an elevator shaft.

The angry investors dragged McMahon into court, demanding that the film flam man be punished and their money returned. But the judge ruled against them, teaching them an expensive lesson: read the fine print. Other than building the annex on property that he didn’t own, without the owner’s permission, McMahan had done nothing illegal. He had built the building EXACTLY according to the blueprints– the blueprints NONE of the investors had bothered to look at. So good ‘ol JD headed off into the annals of history with his millions, never to be heard from again.

Embarrassed by their gullibility (ie: the proposed building site was only 10′ x 16.75’) or that the double tick marks next to all the measurements on the blueprints (rather than the single tick marks) indicated inches, the investors had no choice but to accept defeat. The contracted elevator company even backed out, either out of pity for the investors or because an elevator wouldn’t actually fit in the building. Until an internal staircase could be added, an external ladder had to be used to access the upper floors. Since office space was still in high demand, oil companies squeezed desks into the 118 square feet (per floor).

When the Depression hit and the boom ended, the silly little skyscraper at the corner of Seventh and LaSalle was boarded up and forgotten. In 1986, the City of Wichita Falls deeded the building to the Wichita County Heritage Society, and they attempted to preserve it. But, shortly thereafter, the little skyscraper was abandoned again. There were plans to have it demolished, but the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter was hired to stabilize the dilapidated structure. The partners fell in love with it and partnered with Martin Groves Electric to buy it. They spent a bunch of money restoring it. They admit it probably wasn’t the smartest financial investment, but they found the little skyscraper’s true value was in its unique place in local history.

Plus, it’s a great conversation piece and draws a steady stream of curious tourists… like the Crazy Train! I told the kids the story, and, wide eyed, my daughter asked how so many people could be so gullible. I told her that this building is a great lesson: always read the fine print before signing anything or investing your money.

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