At 103, A Railroad Man Returns To The Yard

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SPARKS, NV - When Ralph Waggoner was born, the man in the White House was William Howard Taft. Henry Ford's Model T had just made its debut and the Wright Brothers were barely started.

The nation's commerce and passenger travel moved on rails.

He was born into a railroading family, moving to Sparks in 1915, when the raw, new town east of Reno was just beginning to build and become an important rail hub.

Wednesday is his 103rd birthday and what better way to celebrate it than return to the yard where for him it all started?

As it turns out, back then he could hardly wait.

"I started when I was 14," he told a startled Union Pacific man accompanying him.


"Fourteen years old. I told them I was 18."

Yep, he lied about his age and went to work as a laborer in the shop when he was just 14.

For the next half century or so, his work, his life revolved around trains.
In four years he was riding them, as a fireman.

"I loved watching him get packed up and ready to go in the morning," remembers his granddaughter, Lynn Lawson. "It was so much of his life and our lives growing up in Sparks."

By the 40's he was an engineer working the Southern Pacific line east from Sparks to Carlin and back.

Somewhere in there, he saw the transition from steam to diesel.

"He talks about it a lot," says Lawson. "He says when they went to diesel, it was like driving an automobile. It made it so nice."

The years have taken a toll on his memory, but Wednesday, standing in front of a yard engine, all those years were coming back.

"I could just see this little twinkle start in his eyes," says Karry Crites, the chaplain from Vista Care Hospice who accompanied him, "and then he started opening up about some of his shenanigans." (Beginning with that admission about lying about his age.)

It was a brief visit, but an important one for him and the group of today's rail workers who hosted him.

For Waggoner, it was a reconnection with a long career.

"I think it was important for him," said Lawson.

For the rest of us a lesson in history's perspective.

As we contemplate electric cars and space travel, it's worth remembering for much of our recent history, it was men like Ralph Waggoner who kept our nation moving.

Happy Birthday Ralph and thanks.