Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: A Tacoma railroad man’s dying wish means one last ride

Gordon Russ was a railroad man all his life — and beyond.

Russ died last year at 94 in Tacoma General Hospital, where he was born in 1919. A train engineer at heart until the end, he left his four children with one last request.

“Dad wanted his ashes thrown into the tinderbox of a working locomotive,” his son William said.

One year and three days after Russ’ death, that last wish will be fulfilled Saturday, on the final run of the day aboard the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad out of Elbe.

It will be his last ride. His first came as a small boy.

“His father, Pearly Guild Russ, was an engineer on the Tacoma and Eastern starting in 1905, and that line became part of the Milwaukee Road system by the time Dad joined it in 1937,” said William Russ, who lives in Maryland.

“Dad told me he’d ride with his father, and that from the age of 5, he knew he wanted to be an engineer.”

For months, William sought a way for his father’s final wish to come true, only to be ignored or denied by company after company. Then he called Meilee Anderson, director of sales and marketing with the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad.

“He explained his dad was a former Milwaukee line engineer, and we have some former Milwaukee cars on our line,” Anderson said. “How can you turn down the chance to grant someone’s last wish?”

The Russ family — all four of his children, their spouses, and cousins — will ride in a private car. When the run ends, William will carry the ashes of his father to the locomotive.

“If you have an oil-burning engine, there’s a residue left on the bricks and they throw sand in there to clean it,” William said. “My father knew all about this, and believed his ashes would have the same effect as the sand. This is what he planned for.”

William’s younger brother, Ron, wasn’t surprised by his father’s wishes.

“My grandfather is buried in Sumner, within sight of the tracks there,” said Ron, who lives in Kansas City and works as a railroad company executive. “My mom loved the mountains, and had her ashes scattered over the Olympic Peninsula.

“Dad was a railroad man, always.”

The youngest of six children, Gordon Russ attended Jason Lee Junior High School in Tacoma, then graduated from Stadium High School in 1937. He enrolled in the College of Puget Sound, but didn’t stay long.

C.M. St. P. & P. Railroad Company offered him a job, and in June 1937, he took it.

“He started out as a fireman, then became an engineer,” William said. “His father didn’t retire until 1947.”

During World War II, Gordon Russ enlisted in the Coast Guard, serving in the Pacific Theater. When he came home, it was back to the railroad.

“Everything about him was the railroad. It meant everything to him, and there was not much more to him than that,” William said. “I say that with love.”

If anything competed with his romance with the rails, it was Mary Dore Connolly. Married on May 16, 1953, at the Epworth LeSourd Methodist Church, the couple moved into a Jefferson Park-area home and lived there for the next 48 years.

Gordon and Mary Russ had four children — Ronald, Susan, William and Janet — then nine grandchildren

“I remember taking a bus to the old coach yard, and Dad was often there waiting to go and he’d let me ride with him up the Tacoma hill,” William said. “It started at Freighthouse Square and ran as far as Hillsdale. The grade was so steep, trains were broken down into bits because a full train couldn’t handle the grade.

“I’d ride with him, and a few times he even had me sit at the controls, though he probably shouldn’t have. Those are the most cherished memories I have of Dad.”

The railroad man retired in 1984, worked again in 1987-88, and then devoted himself to family and community. Mary Russ died in 2004, 9 1/2 years before her husband.

“He was an engineer on steam engines much of his career,” William said. “I was looking for someone who would honor his last wishes, and Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad was a good fit.”

Ron Russ believes the final train run will be what his father asked for.

“Dad’s going to be where he wanted to be,” Ron said.