Tommy Johnson: Spring Training

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2016 21:57
Career railroader Tommy Johnson now welcomes passengers at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

Career railroader Tommy Johnson now welcomes passengers at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park

His passengers have no idea, but their conductor is married to a hobo.

What’s more, that hobo outearns the conductor, a guy with decades of railroading experience on the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Amtrak.

“I’m running the whole damn train for nothing, and she’s getting paid to be a hobo trying to swindle kids out of their tickets,” says conductor Tommy Johnson, mock outrage mounting.

But the 82-year-old Johnson won’t file a job action against his bindlestiff bride. In fact, after the Polar Express’s final run ends at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, the two return to their Sonora home and laugh about how much fun the whole thing was.

A 14-year Railtown veteran, Johnson is a volunteer conductor on the Express, and Susi, an actress for most of her life, was hired to play the hobo throughout the popular holiday train’s 27-trip run.

The conductor and the hobo, it turns out, have been married for 53 years and have lived in the Mother Lode since 2004. They met on a junior college stage in 1961 and retired to Tuolumne County because of its vibrant community theater scene.

The Johnsons at Railtown

The Johnsons at Railtown

“Being a volunteer at a railroad museum was the last thing on my mind,” admits Johnson, who spent more than 30 years earning a living on trains. “The first time I came by the park, one of the guys said, ‘Maybe you’d like to volunteer.’

I said, ‘Maybe not.’ ”

But after a few hours talking railroads with the volunteers on a 2002 visit, he changed his mind.

“It just seemed like they were having a lot of fun, so I joined up,” Tommy says.

“Before we moved from Southern California I’d come up on weekends to be a car host on the excursions. All I had to do was talk.”

As anyone who knows him can attest, Johnson’s a good talker. And when it comes to railroads, he knows what he’s talking about.

Many of the Jamestown park’s nearly 200 volunteers had careers in other fields before indulging their enthusiasm for trains in retirement. For Johnson, with more than 1.5 million rail miles of experience as a switchman, fireman and engineer, the work is just the latest chapter of a life on the high iron.

“Tommy’s our only crew member with prior rail experience,” says former Railtown superintendent Kim Baker.

“He’s been around since the end of the steam era.”

One of his Jamestown jobs is teaching other volunteers hand and lantern signals that have been used in rail yards since long before the advent of radio communications.  A YouTube video about Johnson (“lost art of railroad hand signals”), already viewed by thousands, shows how it’s done.

His dad was a banker, but young Tommy knew early on that he wanted no part of the financial life. Raised in Inglewood, he was instead fascinated by the nearby Santa Fe tracks. The belching, hissing steam locomotives, the gleaming new diesels and the romance of freights and streamliners heading for faraway destinations captured his imagination.

First job: Tommy (front), on Santa Fe diesel switch engine, Jan. 1952

First job: Tommy (front), on Santa Fe diesel switch engine, Jan. 1952

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad at the time was one of the nation’s leading passenger and freight lines. Covering 12 states and more than 12,000 miles of track, it extended from Chicago west to California and south to Texas.

“I took a job as a switchman for the Santa Fe right after I graduated from Inglewood High,” says Johnson. “Mom hated it. She just knew I’d end up with no legs.”

Although switching cars and assembling trains in a yard was indeed dangerous work, he and his legs thrived. He later became a fireman, firing steam locomotives and occasionally taking their throttles.

Johnson took breaks from the railroad life, but kept returning. He retired for good in 1996 as an Amtrak engineer, running the passenger line’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and back.

“Susi always knew when I’d be home,” Tommy says. “She taught at a high school in Chatsworth, right next to the tracks.”

Johnson’s second passion, the stage, brought him and his future wife together more than a half-century ago. His parents were theater enthusiasts who took Tommy to shows. “I began designing and building stages early and kept at it,” he says.

He never forgot this avocation as he moved to the Southern Pacific, back to the Santa Fe and, via the draft, into the U.S. Army in 1953. “They first wanted me to work on ammo trains in Korea, but the war was winding down and they sent me to Hawaii, where I was projectionist and librarian at the post theater.”

Discharged in ’55, Johnson resumed his old job with the Santa Fe and was promoted to locomotive engineer in 1960. A year later he took a second job as lighting designer for the drama department at El Camino Junior College near Inglewood.

“Susi was a student there and played the countess in The Madwoman of Chaillot – the first production I designed the lighting for,” he remembers.

Early chapter of a half-century love story

Early chapter of a half-century love story

By this time, she was already an outstanding actress who would eventually perform in several TV dramas. At El Camino, the new lighting designer quickly drew her attention. After a short-lived first marriage, Johnson held down two good jobs and drove a red ’58 Ford convertible with a T-Bird engine. “It wasn’t hard for me to get dates,” he admits.

“Tommy was cute and he was funny,” agrees Susi, then a freshman coming up on her 21st birthday.

“I promised to take her out for her first legal drink on the big day,” recalls Johnson, who made good at “the most romantic place I could think of”– a fancy hilltop resort in the Hollywood Hills. “It was lovely,” agrees Susi.

But he made a near-fatal mistake when Susi’s next show premiered. “I brought another girl,” he admits, sheepish to this day. “Neither Susi nor anyone else in the cast would talk to me afterwards.” But a day later, Johnson continues, “She asked if I wanted to go out for coffee. We did, I apologized and she forgave me.”

They married in December 1962.

“I told her not to be nervous, that marriage was going to be wonderful,” says Tommy.

“It is wonderful,” agrees Susi.

“And getting better all the time,” her husband adds.

In 1970, Johnson quit the railroad to take a job managing the stage shows at Harrah’s Casino in Tahoe. Susi joined him, working in the theater’s costume department. For more than six years they helped produce shows by some of the era’s biggest stars, including Frank Sinatra, Raquel Welch, Joan Rivers, Sonny and Cher, Mitzi Gaynor, Sammy Davis Jr., Edie Gorme and Carol Burnett.

But the bright lights still weren’t enough for Johnson.

“On the side I was doing a story for a railroad magazine and I took a photo of an engineer on the Tehachapi Loop,” Johnson remembers. “I said to myself, ‘Who’s this guy running my train?’

“I was like a sailor wanting to go back to sea. I think railroading has the same kind of pull.”

So in 1977, ready to return to L.A. again, Tommy made a nuisance of himself with Santa Fe’s Southern California superintendent. “Give Johnson a job,” was the boss’s edict.

“I want him out of my office.”

He was hired as a switchman at Santa Fe’s yard in Barstow, and after a required year on the job, again became a locomotive fireman in Los Angeles. The Johnsons moved with second-grade daughter Melissa to the San Fernando Valley. Susi taught at Aggeler High, a 100-student alternative high school where she worked for 18 years.

Johnson primarily worked as a fireman on the Southwest Chief’s L.A.-Barstow leg, but often ran the engine and coveted the cab’s top job. In 1979 Santa Fe sent him to its two-month engineer training school – dubbed Choo Choo U – where he again became an engineer. His reward was immediate certification to run any passenger train on the Santa Fe.

More than five years later, when Amtrak bought new engines and began hiring its own crews, Johnson applied. Over the years that followed, he was at the throttle of the Chief (L.A.-Chicago), the Desert Wind (L.A.-Salt Lake City), the San Diegan (L.A.-San Diego) and the Coast Starlight (L.A.-Seattle).

“There’s something about the freedom you have out there,” says Johnson. “I loved running an engine and getting everyone to their destination safely.”

But as any engineer knows, there is a downside to the job: often-fatal collisions. While in engine cabs, Johnson’s trains hit trucks, cars, pedestrians and suicide victims who looked him in the eye just seconds before they died. “Over the years, I was probably in collisions that killed about 15 people,” he says.

The number may sound high, but in 2014 alone, 269 people died in vehicle collisions with trains, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Another 526 pedestrian deaths and 213 suicides were reported. That’s more than 1,000 fatalities.

“It’s tough to deal with,” Johnson says.

A crash throws the engineer into action mode.

“You have to safely stop the train, radio in to warn any other approaching trains, relay location and emergency response needs to dispatchers, all while concentrating on your real priorities – the lives of the hundreds of passengers on your own train.”

Then there is the aftermath.

“You ask yourself, ‘Did I do everything I could to prevent it? Did I hit the brakes, did I sound the whistle?’ Then you have to switch it off, like you would a TV. You can’t get emotionally involved – you can’t let it haunt you.”

Johnson came closest to disaster near the L.A. airport: He rounded a curve aboard a slow freight only to see an aviation fuel truck stuck on the tracks ahead.

“I hit the emergency stop, jumped out of the cab on the fly and ran for cover,” Johnson remembers. “Luckily my engine stopped 10 feet from the truck.”

By late 1996, Johnson was 63 and a veteran of more than three decades on the rails. In the 1950s, he guided Southern Pacific steam locomotives over the Tehachapis. In the decades that followed, he saw the venerable steamers disappear and computers replace station agents. Cabooses vanished, piggyback cars hauling semi-truck trailers largely replaced boxcars, and scores of railroads merged and gave up passenger service to Amtrak.

Final trip, September 1996

Final trip, September 1996

On Sept. 30, 1996, ready to retire, he made his final run, guiding his train out of L.A.’s Union Station one last time.

Susi kept working, but with their daughter grown, she and Tommy found more time for their lifelong passion – community theater.  She acted and sang, and he designed and built sets at various Los Angeles area venues.

When Susi retired in 2002, the Johnsons began to look for a quieter, more relaxed place to retire. Because it had four community theaters at the time, Sonora won their hearts, and they moved up in 2004. Susi dove right in, winning a role in Sierra Repertory Theatre’s production of Grease.

“When she was cast, we hadn’t even furnished our house yet,” says Tommy. “We were sleeping on mattresses and eating out of coolers.”

Susi went to act in numerous local productions, including Stage 3’s Grapes of Wrath, Hamlet, and August: Osage County, as well as SRT’s  Harvey,  Romeo and Juliet and, most recently, The Music Man. Tommy stayed busy designing and building sets – including a three-story layout for Osage.

But he was never far from Railtown – first as a car host, then as one of 10 conductors working the park’s excursion trains during the April-through-October season. And, in the past two years, as a scenic artist.

Scenic artist? “Painting the North Pole,” grins Johnson, who has re-created Santa’s workshop at Rock Spur, a pullout about 3.5 miles west of Railtown. It is the Polar Express’s destination more than two dozen times each holiday season to the delight of more than 6,000 passengers, mostly families with young children.

True to the classic story and movie, it includes hot chocolate, Christmas cookies, Santa Claus, and sleigh bells that ring only for true believers. With 250 pajama-clad children and parents per outing, four conductors and a crew of 50 – including Santa and his elves – the Polar Express is a major production.

“It’s a cross between a train and a stage,” says Johnson, who is lead conductor during the Express’s sometimes tricky 400-foot descent to Rock Spur. As such, he’s in charge of the train, running it like a captain runs a ship.

Tommy-JohnsonFN00110Johnson keeps track of the train’s speeds, its turnaround point and even Santa’s entrance. “And last year we were never more than a minute behind schedule,” he says.

Even more rewarding are the reactions of the passengers  – the children and their families. “They’re so happy and so involved with what we’ve put together, and they stop and let us know,” he says. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

Today Johnson, who puts in more than 300 volunteer hours a year at the park, is getting ready for his 15th season.

“What we do at Railtown is portray a special way of life that really doesn’t exist anymore,” Johnson says.

“That I was actually part of that railroad life for so long is what makes it fun being there.”

Especially when that hobo is hitching a ride on one of his trains.

Fitting backdrop for a career railroad man

Fitting backdrop for a career railroad man

Ride the Rails at Railtown 1897

The shrill whistles of steam locomotives sounded on April 2, signaling the start of another excursion season at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown.

There visitors can take a trip into the past, on a vintage locomotive that steams out of the Railtown Depot for the six-mile roundtrip to Rock Spur and back.

At journey’s end, they can enjoy a tour of the historic roundhouse, inspect the park’s fleet of locomotives and railcars, and shop for rail memorabilia at the park’s gift shop.

The 1897 in Railtown’s name marks the year the Sierra Railway, which began construction in Oakdale, reached Jamestown. It was later extended to Sonora, Standard, Angels Camp and Tuolumne.

Passenger service ended on March 12, 1939, but freight trains to Oakdale still ply the line today. The state park was established in 1982.

Known as the “movie railroad,” the Sierra has hosted actors and directors since 1919, providing the colorful backdrop for hundreds of films and TV shows.

Railtown is open 9:30am-4:30pm daily through October. Trains run on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission to the park is $5 for adults, $3 for ages 6-17, and free for children 5 and under.

Excursion train tickets, which include park admission, cost $15 for adults, $10 for ages 6-17, and free for 5 and under.

Railtown hosts many special events. Learn more at railtown1897.org or call (209) 984-3953.

From November through March (excluding some holidays), the park is open 10am-3pm, but no excursions run. Exceptions include Veterans Day trains, free to vets on Nov. 11, and the Polar Express, a special holiday train which operates on several weekends before Christmas. Reserve early by calling (209) 984-3407.

Want to do more than just visit? You can join Tommy Johnson and hundreds of other Railtown 1897 volunteers who bring the park’s rich history to life. Call (209) 984-4408.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2016 21:57
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