Experiences with Police

Most events described here involve face-to-face encounters with police in the course of hopping freights or rail-fanning. In some cases there was no encounter, just the effort to avoid one.

Burlington, Washington; 1/26/68: City cop gave me a ride to railroad depot. [Ride: Burlington to Everett on Great Northern]

Friends had just dropped me off at the northernmost freeway exit in Burlington so I could catch a freight to Seattle. It was late evening. From the freeway exit I started walking south to the freight yard, which was just beyond the train station. When I heard the horn of my train at a grade crossing in the distance, I hustled down the road at a semi-run.

A city cop on patrol saw me and asked if I needed help. After telling him I was headed for the Great Northern station "to meet somebody," he told me he'd take me there, so I hopped in. With my pack on my lap, he made a bee-line for the depot, about a mile away. (Backpack + depot = Did he know what I was up to?) I thanked him for his generosity as he dropped me off. After he disappeared into the night I walked south along the tracks to the freight yard. Shortly thereafter the train pulled in and I hopped aboard, probably on an empty boxcar, which in those days were plentiful. I got as far as Everett, where I got switched off due to my misinterpretation of switching movements: this was only my third ride on a freight train. From Everett I rode to Seattle on a Greyhound bus.

Seattle, Washington; 2/28/68: Bull evicted me from yard. [Ride: Seattle to Bellingham on Great Northern]

This was the return leg of a round trip between Bellingham and Seattle. Earlier in the day I had come to Seattle by freight train to see the movie "Personna." It was showing at the Magnolia Theater, which was about a mile from Balmer Yard in Magnolia Village. In 2004 that former theater was a bank. After seeing the early evening showing, I walked back to Balmer Yard for my ride back to Bellingham. While I was at the north end of the yard, getting information on northbound trains, a yard bull stopped me. He checked my identification, gave me the standard warning about the dangers of freight trains and freight yards (machinery and weirdoes), and told me to leave the yard. I complied. But a short while later I sneaked back into the yard and got a ride to Bellingham in a gondola.

Everett, Washington; 4/12/68: City cop removed me and friend from train. [Ride: Bellingham to Everett on Great Northern]

Wendy D., a fellow college student, rode with me in an empty boxcar in mid-afternoon. From Bellingham to Everett we spent a lot of time standing in the boxcar doorway, enjoying the view. When the train stopped for switching in Bayside Yard in Everett, a city cop suddenly appeared next to our car, called to us to get off of the train, and checked our ID. He said he was responding to a phone call from a woman who had reported "12-year-olds on a freight train." He was amused that we were older than 12, but his sense of duty prevailed: he would not let us back on the train. Instead, he drove us to the Greyhound bus station, where we caught a bus to Seattle.

Everett, Washington; 5/10/68: Bull let us continue our ride. [Ride: Bellingham to Seattle on Great Northern]

John D. and a guy whose name eludes me rode with me in a gondola. During the ride down from Bellingham we had a lot of fun watching the scenery. After pulling into Everett's Bayside Yard, the train halted. While we stood in the gondola, chatting, a yard bull appeared from behind the next string of cars, had us dismount, and checked our ID. Because we "weren't underage," he didn't care that we were riding: he told us we could get back on the train. We couldn't believe our good fortune! We got back in the gondola and continued riding to Seattle.

Seattle, Washington; 8/24/68: Avoided bull by hiding on loading dock. [Ride: Seattle to Renton on the Milwaukee Road]

This was the start of my first cross-country trip on freights. It was early evening and I was in the Milwaukee Road yard, located behind what was then the big Sears store on First Avenue South (in 2004 that building housed the headquarters of Starbucks). I was looking for a ride to Black River Junction, near Renton, where I would catch an eastbound train for Chicago. A switchman confirmed that the train I wanted was going to be made up in a while. He added that it would leave at about 2100 from track so-and-so. As icing on the cake he warned me that the bull was about and that it would be wise to lie low until I saw a particular train movement.

I took his advice by hiding on the loading platform on the north side of the Sears warehouse. There I sat until that "train movement" (whatever it was) occurred, signaling that my train would soon leave. Then I snuck into the yard, only to discover that the only car to ride was an empty auto rack. This was no place to wait for the train to leave because in those days they had no sides, making a rider very visible. I found an empty boxcar on a neighboring track and waited there. When the engine hooked up to my train and started to pull, I got aboard the auto rack, climbed to its middle level, and rode out of the yard without incident.

Chicago, Illinois; 8/28/68: Bull ignored me. [Ride: between rides that moved me through Chicago]

First cross-country trip. This experience took place in Western Avenue Yard, an interchange point three miles west of downtown Chicago. For a long time I had been sitting on a bench outside the entrance to the small office building in the yard. I was waiting for a transfer run to take me to the Penn Central yard on the south side of town, where I planned to hop a Penn Central train to Pittsburgh. It was obvious what I was up to.

As I sat there, a man in a sports coat, slacks, white shirt, and tie appeared and stood near me on the sidewalk for about 20 minutes, talking to other employees as they came and went. He changed his posture several times to maintain his comfort. At one point he put his hand on his hip, causing his coat to move back a bit, exposing handcuffs and a holstered gun. Gulp: he was a railroad cop! But that's all that happened. He continued chatting with people and eventually went somewhere. I got my connecting train without difficulty. I've always wondered if that bull showed me his gear on purpose just to shock me.

Portland, Oregon; 6/13/69: Bull evicted me and friend from yard. [Ride: Portland to Eugene on Southern Pacific]

John B. and I were in SP's Brooklyn Yard, on our way to the Bay Area. We had come in from Seattle on a Northern Pacific freight train and had to wait a while for the train to be switched for further travel south. We spent that time lying low in tall grass next to a warehouse loading dock on the east side of the yard. A bull found us, checked our ID, gave us the standard warning about the illegality of freight-hopping and the dangers associated therewith, and told us to leave the yard. We left the yard as commanded, with thoughts of returning when the coast was clear. As we left the tracks behind us and headed for the street, we observed his movement away from us. After walking clockwise around the warehouse, we entered the vacant lot next door. When we saw our train moving, we fought our way through berry bushes (ouch!) back to the tracks. The bull was nowhere to be seen, so we ran after our train and caught it on the fly.

Eugene, Oregon; 6/13/69: Bull evicted me and friend from yard. [Ride: Eugene to Roseville on Southern Pacific]

John B. and I were on our way to the Bay Area, having come in from Portland, where we had outfoxed a bull. While we were hanging around the departure yard, waiting for a train to California, a little kid from the nearby neighborhood started hanging around with us. In our youthful innocence we didn't realize that this could be a problem. At least one brakeman we talked to noticed the kid. He or someone else probably called the bull to report "something fishy."

To our surprise, a bull showed up. He asked us what we were doing in the yard (and with the kid). I think he told the kid to go home. Then he checked our ID, asked us if we had been apprehended before (we admitted our Portland encounter), told us of the dangers of freight-hopping, and escorted us out of the yard to his car. We got in the back seat as ordered. He drove us out of the yard, all the while threatening to take us to jail. His bark was worse than his bite: he dropped us off at a busy street intersection and told us to hitchhike. We said we would (Liar, liar, pants on fire!), watched him drive away, then walked back to the yard via minor side streets and some grassy fields. We made a solemn pledge to shoo away any child that might encounter us. After asking again about trains, we waited for a ride. Later that evening we caught a Los-Angeles-bound train that we dismounted on the fly in Roseville.

Auburn, Washington; 6/21/69: Bull didn't want to see us again. [Ride: Eugene to Auburn on Southern Pacific and Northern Pacific]

John B. and I were on our way back to Seattle from the Bay Area. Our boxcar had lots of big sheets of packing paper. North of Portland, Oregon, we had rolled up in them for warmth and gone to sleep. Noise and vibration woke us up and we discovered that we had been switched off in a freight yard, but didn't know where. It was about 2200. Off we went to determine our location and find another ride. In a while we saw two yard workers standing under a pole lamp, checking paperwork. When I asked them where we were and if we could get a ride to Seattle, one of them told us we were in Auburn and pulled out a badge: railroad cop.

Then followed the standard lecture about the dangers freight hopping. He recommended that we not ride our train to Seattle because the police there were going to go over the train with a fine-toothed comb. The reason: somewhere south of Auburn a person had fired bullets at the train and the damage had to be assessed. He added that he didn't want to see us again: if he did see us, he'd have to arrest us. Then he said where he was going ("this way") and where the train to Seattle was ("that way"), and walked off. We had no desire to temp fate in Seattle, so we decided to call it quits. Three encounters with police on one trip was enough. We left the yard and called John's father in Bellevue to pick us up - a shameful but wise way to end our adventure.

South of Deer Lodge, Montana; 8/11/69: Police thought we were escaped convicts. [Ride: Renton to St. Paul on the Milwaukee Road]

I was traveling across the country with Tim R. and Steve W. While we put miles under our belts, construction workers in Bethel, New York were frantically assembling structures for the original Woodstock music festival. We were aware of the concert, which had been advertised in local underground newspapers ("Northwest Passage" in Bellingham and "Helix" in Seattle), but I remember having no interest in attending that event. Maybe Tim or Steve planned to go, but I've forgotten (this was written in 2004).

It was warm and sunny when our train stopped in Deer Lodge for switching. We found out from the conductor that our car would be switched off, so we got our gear and hit the ground. The conductor - bless his heart - told us of an empty boxcar up ahead. Once inside the boxcar we relaxed. The train took off. But in a few minutes it stopped again, causing us to think that classic freight-hopping thought: "Why in the hell have we stopped?" Our wondering was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the railbed gravel: hobos looking for a ride?

Several men appeared at the door of our boxcar and looked at us with interest. Their clothing made it obvious that they were not hobos, but a combination of railroad employees and local law enforcement. They checked our ID and asked us a few questions. They were very nice about it: we didn't even have to get out of the boxcar. One of them said that they were following up on a phone call from a concerned citizen who had reported seeing "the escaped convicts" get on our train in Deer Lodge. (Some of the residents of the prison in Deer Lodge had recently departed the premises without permission.) Our questioners realized that we weren't the convicts, said good-bye, and left. We were dumbfounded. The train moved on, carrying three college students who couldn't believe what had happened to them.

In looking back on this episode, I imagine that they knew immediately that we weren't the convicts, but they had to go through the motions of checking anyway.

Buffalo, New York; 9/14/69: Avoided bull by hiding in bushes. [Buffalo to Enola on Penn Central]

It was a warm sunny morning at the start of the second leg of a trip from Rochester to Baltimore. The previous night I had frozen my ass off while my Buffalo-bound train sat outside the yard for four cold hours. A long walk in the middle of the night had brought me to the yard, which then was devoid of action. I sacked out on a bench for a few hours. In the early morning sun I was awakened by the sounds of yard activity. While making inquiries about southbound trains, a crew member or yard employee warned me about the bull and suggested that I hide in the bushes. Taking his advice seriously, I did just that - for a couple of hours, as I recall. Later, when a train blocked my view of the yard, I crawled through the brush to reach a better vantage point. The engineer in the cab saw me on my hands and knees and told me to not bother with being secretive because the bull had left. What a relief. I easily got my ride that afternoon, which took me as far as Enola, Pennsylvania, which is north of Harrisburg.

Lincoln, Nebraska; 10/6/70: Ignored bull's command to dismount moving train. [Ride: Cicero (Chicago) to Denver on Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy]

This was a trip from Chicago to Seattle to be inducted into the Army. I was sitting under a semi-trailer on a piggyback car (trailer on a flatcar or TOFC). As my westbound train entered the yard in Lincoln, I spotted a bull about 50 feet away, inspecting the cars as they rolled past. He yelled at me to get off the train. I shouted back that it was going too fast for me to do so. Shame on me for lying to that nice man: I know I could have dismounted safely. He did nothing except look at me for the few moments that I was in his view, and I rode into the yard, hoping he wouldn't call someone else to go find me. The train halted on the main line with the engines at the far end of the yard. This was probably just a crew change. Still nervous about the bull, I hid in tall weeds nearby. I fully expected someone to walk around the end of the train, which was not far off, and approach the car I had been riding. All that fear for nothing: no one showed up. When the train pulled out for Denver, I hopped back on and said good-bye to Lincoln.

Klamath Falls, Oregon; 10/8/70: Bull evicted me from yard. [Ride: Klamath Falls to Eugene on Southern Pacific]

During a layover in the yard in Klamath Falls a bull apprehended me. He subjected me to the standard interrogation/warning and told me to leave the property. I pretended to do so, but when he was gone I returned without being seen. As the train started to move out I hopped into another empty boxcar, which I rode to Eugene.

Chicago, Illinois; 6/21/76: Avoided the patrolling bull as I entered the yard. [Ride: Chicago to Kansas City on Santa Fe]

This was my first of three police encounters during a trip from Hoboken, New Jersey to Portland, Oregon. I had come into Chicago on a Norfolk and Western freight and had traveled by city bus from the N&W yard to Santa Fe's Corwith Yard. I wanted a ride to Los Angeles. It was about midnight when I got to Corwith. After determining that there was only one easy place to access the yard (because of lots of chain-link fencing), I observed that area for a while to assess the risk of entering. A vehicle would come or go every once in a while. Some vehicles were railroad police cars. I figured that by timing my entrance properly I could avoid being caught. Just after a bull turned off the street onto the yard access road, I made my move: I walked in behind him (at a safe distance, of course). I was following a paved road that ran between commercial/industrial buildings on the left and the yard on the right. Bushes in front of a small office building shielded me briefly when another vehicle appeared.

When I was opposite some freight cars, I crossed the road and climbed over two or three strings of cars. This shielded from the road and the bulls that drove down it. Now I could look for someone to tell me about westbound trains without worrying about being visible to someone in a police car. The first two persons I talked to could only point me to someone more knowledgeable. The third person told me where to find a westbound train and to watch out for bulls, who might be in the yard.

To reach my train I had to cross a zillion cuts, which exhausted me. Every time I crossed one I looked both ways for signs of people with lanterns or flashlights. No lights were ever close enough to be worrisome. Finally I reached my train. After all that effort I was disappointed to find that it had no empty boxcars. The best thing to ride was a grainer with a porch. I settled down in a grainer's cubbyhole and rode out of the yard just after dawn, undetected.

Pueblo, Colorado; 6/22/76: Bull questioned and released me. [Ride: Kansas City to Pueblo on Missouri Pacific]

In Kansas City I had dismounted the Santa Fe train I had boarded in Chicago because it wore me out: with double track all the way, it hardly stopped at all - awful! Then I caught a Missouri Pacific train bound for Pueblo. At the end of a hellishly boring ride from Kansas City, my train pulled into the MP yard in Pueblo late at night. I was on a flatcar loaded with farm machinery.

Just as I was about to dismount the flatcar, a fairly young guy (late 20s?) appeared. His clothing was somewhere on the scale between "yard casual and dirty" and "office formal and clean," what I'd expect a bull to be wearing. But he looked so young! Sure enough, he pointed his flashlight at me and began the familiar drill: Who are you?; What are you doing on a freight train?; Don't you know you could get killed riding freights?"; etc. He didn't ask me to hop to the ground, but talked to me as I squatted on the flat car. I can still picture him standing there, reading driver's license with the light of his flashlight. His tone was matter-of-fact but casual, nothing to get excited about. When he was done, he returned my ID, bid me farewell, and continued his work. I hopped to the ground and walked out of the yard. After buying more food and washing up a little, I caught a westbound that took me to Salt Lake City via Royal Gorge.

Portland, Oregon; 6/26/76: Watched police arrest thieves. [Ride: Klamath Falls to Portland on Southern Pacific]

On the ride from Klamath Falls I had observed guys climb all over auto racks ahead of me. It was weird. In those days the racks had no sides or top, so it was easy to get close to the cars and trucks carried thereon. I wondered if they were vandalizing the automobiles. When train arrived in Brooklyn Yard, two or three police cars showed up in a small parking lot next to the train. The police apprehended the two jerks, who I believe were stealing parts from the automobiles, though I can't recall seeing any "goods." From the bed of a pick-up truck on an auto rack I watched the thieves being handcuffed and driven away.

I had been riding an auto rack too, one that was untouched by the thieves, and I got nervous thinking about the chance of being discovered, even though I didn't look like a thief and had no stolen parts with me. Then, up at the head end of the train, I saw the movement of hand-held lights, either flashlights or lanterns, one on each side of the train. The lights moved around erratically: two people were inspecting the train, one car at a time. Time to get out of there! After determining that I could dismount my car without creating a silhouette for the inspectors, I climbed to the ground and quickly left the yard. I rode a bus to Seattle.

Renton, Washington; 1978: Bull evicted me from yard. [Ride: none]

I took my wife to Black River Yard near Renton so I could show her the place where I had hopped a couple of Milwaukee Road freights to the Midwest. We got there in late evening as the Seattle section of the Thunderhawk train was delivered to the yard (it would be combined with the Tacoma section into one train bound for Chicago). While I walked next to the tracks east of the Monster Road grade crossing, a Milwaukee Road bull told me to leave the area. This wasn't such a good introduction to freight trains for my wife. We returned home after watching from a safe distance.

Seattle, Washington (Argo Yard); 2001: Bull evicted me from yard. [Ride: none]

This was a railfan experience at Union Pacific's Argo Yard in Seattle. I parked at the end of the gravel access road near the east end of the yard. I had gone past the signs that identified the area as the private property of the railroad. After watching the yard action for a while and taking a few pictures, a railroad cop drove up, checked my ID, and told me I had to leave the property because of security concerns (the bombing of the World Trade Center buildings was less than a month old). A second unmarked cop car drove up while this was going on and the driver stood by to offer whatever support was needed, but never said anything.

The first guy was very nice about it all. He told me that he was born the day after I was, making me about 24 hours older than he: cool coincidence. He also offered to give me a tour of the yard if I got permission from the company. I thanked him and left.