Trains and Natives

There was a short interview on NPR this morning about a new book about Black women and trains. I didn’t catch much of it, but the book was written by a scholar, and she talked about the importance of trains as both a part of and a symbol of the country’s Westward movement. She had stories of African-Americans moving north and west with the Great Migration, and reminded that women were part of it all. They put up with racism, with various measures of sexism added on. Sometimes they masqueraded as men to get jobs on the railroads.

We have our own stories of Blacks and railroads here in Eastern Oregon and Wallowa County. Trains were part of the deal with early logging, and many of the Black Maxville loggers had traveled across country—from Arkansas and places in the deep South to Arizona logging operations before they came here. Once here, tracks snaked out to the timber—Jim Zacharias is keeping his eye on an old trestle bridge he says is still standing because of the trees that have grown up inside it. The Maxville Heritage exhibit, which has been up in the Josephy Center for the last month, has much about trains and tracks and their intermarriage with logging, and with the Black loggers of Wallowa County.

La Grande was once a bigger railroad town—there are still signs of it, with the station and switching tracks right at the edge of downtown. And I think that the small African-American community of La Grande owed to the railroad. I’ve heard that being a Pullman porter was about as good a job as a Black man could get in the early and middle twentieth century. And that Salt Lake City was a huge switching yard with its own Black community.

African-Americans were on the move—away from slavery and the South, towards industrial jobs, education, and mobility in the North and West. The train was their ally. For Native Americans, who wanted to stay where they were, unhindered, on their own lands, the train was a catastrophe. It brought more settlers and more industry. It intersected old hunting and camping grounds. It brought buffalo hunters—for sport, for industry, and specifically to disrupt Indian lives. Rail routes, I understand, linked the national parks before the highways came to do more of it, once again stealing and disrupting Indian lands.

I’d like to see the book about Natives and Trains. See the commotion and disruption as Leland Stanford and the country raced to the West, and then moved across it.

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Image at top: Library of Congress

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