Steam engine

The steam engine was a common sight in the early part of the 20th century. In 1933, one mixed train carrying passengers and freight ran per day, going west in the morning and east in the evening.

The following story is made from a collection of memories from Hutchinson resident Paula Thompson, which she has allowed me to create and have published.

Hutchinson, circa 1930s:

It was almost noon, and “Old 933” was chugging her way down the tracks toward the Great Northern Railroad Depot in Hutchinson, where local children were waiting patiently for its arrival. Their excitement was easily visible by anyone passing by.

The kids had reason to be excited. It was the 1930s, and the nation was feeling the full effects of the Great Depression. All over McLeod County, families struggled to make ends meet, some going so far as to uproot themselves and look for a better life elsewhere. It meant that something as simple as a train could offer an unpretentious break in the wretchedness of the Great Depression, or at a minimum, put a sparkle in a wanting child’s eyes while he or she waited patiently for a distant glimpse of smoke billowing from Old 933’s stack.

The kids had another reason to be excited on this day. It was Thursday, and that meant the train would have to be loaded with cattle, sheep and hogs meant for the stockyards in St. Paul — a lengthy task that kept the train in town longer than the typical hour it took to load and unload. With that in mind, the children gathered on that day would get a few extra hours to acquaint themselves with the locomotive.

The sound of the steam engine in the distance brought the children to their feet and cast their attention down the tracks. With bells ringing, a whistle blowing, and a gentle “chug-chug-chug,” the train made its way to the depot.

One of the children gathered, now a Hutchinson woman named Paula Thompson, vividly recalled the aroma of the engine’s black smoke, and how a daily observation meant she could tell where each car’s destination would be: Boxcars went to the grain elevators and lumberyards, tank cars went to Home Gas and Standard Bulk, double-doored boxcars went to Thompson Yards with a load of new automobiles, and cattle cars went to the local stockyards.

Upon arrival, 933’s crew took a moment to have lunch. When finished, the crew set to switching the direction of the engine on the turntable, a task that the kids were anxious to volunteer for. The crew, with the help of the children, would use long wood timbers as handles and spin the turntable around, pointing it eastward for the return trip to Minneapolis.

In the meantime, while livestock was being loaded into the cattle cars, the engineer let the kids explore the train. He showed them how to make it “chug,” how to ring the bell, and how to blow the whistle. The fireman would show them how to open the doors on the firebox and even let the kids shovel in coal.

Included in the scene were the transients, the hobos who were an added accessory to nearly any train traveling the rails in those days — usually three or so at a time. They would travel along the tracks, jumping on trains when they could, finding meals from good Samaritan housewives, and sleeping under the trestle crossing at the Crow River.

At about 4:30 p.m. on that Thursday afternoon, the train was ready to depart. Loaded with goods heading east, Old 933 would begin hissing steam and chugging black smoke as it began to crawl forward on the tracks. Slowly it built speed until it was finally off — leaving Hutchinson in a display as memorable as its entrance — only to return once again to a crowd of children eager to explore her and send her off on another errand.

As Paula Thompson said, “How could we say it in any other words but: ‘Those were the good old days!’”

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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