On April 6, 1962, the last employee to leave the McCarver train station shut the door on a building that had stood for 45 years in Old Town Tacoma. The time was 9 a.m.
The station, built in 1917, was gone two hours later.
Northern Pacific Railway bulldozed it and opened a high tech version at South 15th and Dock Streets the same day.
The low-tech station the railway demolished used telegraph to accomplish its task: delivering orders to trains.
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“Now it’s all done electronically through computerized dispatching systems controlled from a central point,” said former telegraph operator Ed Berntsen.
Then, as now, train engineers were given instructions on which track to use, sidings to wait on and information about other trains.
“My roots are right here at McCarver Street,” fellow telegraph operator Gary Emmons said last week as the pair walked the street down to Ruston Way.
Both 16-year-old Emmons and 20-year-old Berntsen were there the day the station was demolished.
McCarver station briefly loaded passengers when it opened in 1917, as did another station at Titlow Beach.
“That lasted, maybe a year or two, and then faded away,” Emmons said.
Staffed 24 hours a day, the station provided written orders for trains moving south to Portland. No train could pass the station without receiving them.
Emmons worked unofficially and unpaid at the station from the age of 11. His rogue status was overlooked because Emmons’ father Bud also worked at the station and supervised him. His grandfather Allen had worked the same job at the station in the 1920s.
“I loved railroading,” Emmons said. “By the time I was 14 or 15 I kind of ran the station.”
AROUND AND UNDER TACOMA
The McCarver station was opened three years after the first passenger trains began traveling on the Point Defiance route in 1914. The route was used both by Northern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads and in 1943 by Great Northern Railway.
Though trains had reached Tacoma in 1873, the climb from the waterfront and into the Nalley Valley on the Prairie Line was steep. Sound Transit uses the same route today for its Sounder trains. The locomotives automatically distribute sand on the rails to increase traction on the grade, one of the steepest in the passenger system.
When the waterfront route opened in 1914, it eliminated the climb by using the Nelson Bennett Tunnel under Ruston, the shorter Ruston tunnel underneath the smelter stack and the Tin Tunnel, which was between Stadium and Old Town.
In 1917, the Tin Tunnel was eliminated and a second track was added. A station at Stadium was closed, and the McCarver station was opened.
The McCarver station was an important stop gap in the railroad’s safety system. A head-on collision, especially in a tunnel deep under Ruston, would be a disaster.
Orders were transmitted from a dispatcher in Tacoma’s Union Station. The telegraph operators at McCarver would transcribe the orders and attach them to a gizmo railroaders called a “hoop.” .
The hoops, looking much like yard rakes missing their tines, were placed on a pole called a hoop rack.
The passing engineer and conductor would each grab a set of orders by aiming their arms through the V-shape of the hoops. A string with the orders tied to it would slip out and loop aroundtheir arms.
And it was done while moving at 40 miles an hour.
“That’s where the term ‘hooping up orders’ came from,” Berntsen said.
The system was used by railroads all over North America for over a century. In some cases, the telegraph operator would have to hold the hoop himself as the train passed by.
“It might tell him to take a different track, a speed restriction, a broken rail ahead.” Emmons said. “This was important stuff.”
And if an order was missed?
“If they dropped those orders, they had to stop and back the train up to McCarver Street,” Emmons said. “They couldn’t proceed without it.”
Two-way radios were not used by railroads then because of their unreliability. The hoop system was so indispensable to the railroad system, it was used into the 1980s.
While Emmons and Berntsen worked at the station, an average of 40 passenger and freight trains a day would travel the route.
Emmons, now 70 and a University Place resident, started hanging around McCarver station in 1957 when he was 11. His father taught him Morse code, how to telegraph and how to copy the train orders.
“By the time I was fourteen, I could perform all the duties without much supervision although he was always there to keep an eye on things,” Emmons said.
Just as he turned 16 and could be hired by the railroad, the station closed. But Emmons worked as a telegraph operator for Northern Pacific into his college years.
Gig Harbor resident Berntsen, 74, still works with the railroad industry today as a consultant. Emmons never really pursued a career in trains. But aunts, uncles and other relatives were all involved in the business.
After a brief stint as a photographer and writer with The News Tribune, Emmons joined the U.S. Air Force, where he spent most of his career, retiring as colonel.
A NEW ROUTE
For the past 103 years, train passengers have seen families picnicking along Ruston Way, golfers at Chambers Bay and the picture perfect views of Puget Sound.
Those 24 miles of track are the only expansive waterfront section of Amtrak’s Pacific coast route between Seattle and Pismo Beach, California.
Later this year those water views will be replaced with ones of Interstate 5, car dealerships on South Tacoma Way, and Tacoma Golf & Country Club.
The Point Defiance Bypass project will send passenger trains from a new Amtrak station now under construction at Freighthouse Square. Trains will roll south along the route Sound Transit currently uses for its Sounder commuter rail service to Lakewood. From there, Amtrak Cascades and the Coast Starlight will continue south, paralleling I-5.
Just south of Mounts Road, the tracks cross I-5 and rejoin the previous route in less than a mile on the edge of Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
Freight trains will continue to use the Point Defiance route, but it will mark the end of passenger service on the line.
“It’s sad, but it’s a necessity,” Emmons said.