Highlighting Lewis County: Railroad Telegrapher Recounts Life in Centralia

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Editor’s Note: This is the second installation of a two-part series. Read part one here: https://www.chronline.com/stories/highlighting-lewis-county-centralia-marine-veteran-shares-early-recollections,290440?

After returning from duty in Hawaii during the Korean War, Robert J. McInnis, of Centralia, traveled to Aberdeen to see his high school sweetheart.

He had started dating Barbara Williams when she was a junior at John M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen and worked part time in the office. Their first date was attending a Grays Harbor College Chokers football game in October 1949.

“I wrote to her all the time I was in Hawaii,” he said.

After separating from active service in early 1952, more than a year before the Korean War ended, he was told to report to the Marine office in downtown Seattle, where an officer asked if he was to serve in the Reserves or active duty.

“Neither one,” he said. “When I walk out this door, I’m a civilian. And I’m not coming back. You’ll have to come after me. Well, I never did hear anything more.”

He and Barbara married May 10, 1952, in Cosmopolis. She worked for the telephone company in Aberdeen when they first married. All the switchboard operators smoked, and the building downtown reeked of it. After having their first child, she stayed home.

“After we started our family, well, I didn’t want her to work,” McInnis said. “Because I hated it so much growing up.”

He worked for Boeing in Seattle making fiberglass ducts for a bomber, but within six months, realized that’s not what he wanted to do. Then he saw an ad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer seeking people willing to learn to telegraph and work for the railroad. The GI Bill paid for his year of schooling in downtown Seattle.

“While I was working for the railroad in 1956, I got a letter from the commandant of the Marine Corps in Washington, D.C., that says either request your discharge from the Marine Corps or, if you don’t respond, we’ll send it to you. My discharge is hanging up in the garage.”

His first railroad job was directing freight train traffic for the Northwestern Pacific in California’s redwood country. He lived in a 19-foot-long camp trailer with his wife and baby.

But in December 1955, the South Fork of the Eel River went on a rampage and left four feet of water inside the Scotia depot. The flood closed the railroad, and he took a 50 percent cut in pay as an extra section gang employee, working 12-hour days from daylight to dark for a month. Then he was laid off.

He and Barbara drove north in late January 1956, hauling the trailer north through snow and ice, and the next day, he stopped at the Union Depot in Tacoma to speak with the chief dispatcher.

“I’m an employee of the Southern Pacific,” he told him. “We’ve been laid off. I’ve got a wife and a baby that’s hungry, and I need a job.”

The dispatcher told him to undergo a physical at the Northern Pacific and, if he passed, he could take the wire test and rules exam. He passed, joined the Order of Railroad Telegraphers, and worked 38 years as a railroad telegraph operator directing train traffic.

McInnis rented a house in Cosmopolis for Barbara only a block from her parents’ home while he worked different jobs.

He started Feb. 1, 1956, as a relief operator at Bremerton, where he worked five days, and then spent three weeks each at Napavine, Castle Rock, and Pe Ell, where he helped clean out the living quarters above the depot. From Pe Ell, he was sent to the Yakima yard for the summer to relieve people on vacation. While filling in at Nisqually, he bid for the Centralia relief operator job in December 1956 and received it.

It was a hard job, and at one point, he was bumped by a fellow from Olympia with more seniority. But that man quit after only one night.

“Centralia is a busy job,” McInnis said. “Tough job. And you have to be well coordinated or you’re behind.”

His district ran from Ridgefield to the Canadian border and from Hoquiam and Raymond to Yakima.

“I picked Centralia to live because it was centrally located on my seniority district,” he said. “I rented a house out here on Harrison right across the street from Security State Bank.”

Then, on March 19, 1960, he and Barbara bought a home in the Edison District and moved in April 4. He spent the rest of his working years in Centralia and retired Jan. 31, 1994.

He belongs to a railroad organization called the National Association of Retired Veteran Railway Employees, or NARVRE, a political action group that formed in 1937 to keep tabs on railroad retirement annuities.

In 2018, a friend visiting a shop in Topeka, Kansas, came across a train order written by McInnis at 10:50 a.m. Feb. 18, 1975, at the Centralia depot and gave it to him. He framed it.

McInnis and his wife raised three daughters — Jo Ann Hamilton and Marie Christensen, both of Centralia, and Nancy Seins of Chehalis. Each of their daughters had two children, so he has six grandchildren as well as 10 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

He and Barbara volunteered at Fords Prairie Elementary, helping students learn to read, and both were active in the Democratic Party, receiving the Lewis County Democrat of the Year in 2000.

Barbara, his wife of 54 years, passed away Aug. 26, 2006, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was kind of at loose ends, just adjusting to life,” he said.

In March 2007, Security State Bank sent a brochure about a trip to Branson, Mo. He signed up.

“If you’re a country music fan, it’s a paradise,” he said. He and Barbara had driven a motor home to Branson and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville during a three-month road trip.

While on this trip to Branson, he met Mary Riner, a woman from Burien traveling with a friend from Silver Creek. Most people were paired off as couples, so he sat alone at a table, following his morning routine of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Mary approached him and said, “Hey, stuck up. Why don’t you join us?”

He did, and they married June 20, 2009. She died in April 2017, also after suffering from Alzheimer’s, he said.

During his retirement, McInnis has done woodworking. His son-in-law, Scott Hamilton, a professional logger, brought him interesting chunks of wood.

“I air-dried them and had them in the shop,” he said. “And one day I decided I wanted to get that stuff out of there.”

So he created wooden tables and ornate clocks. He even carved a Northern Pacific train engine, a Minidoka.

“As my uncle used to say, I do things like that to stay out of the tavern,” he said, referring to Bob Trafton.

McInnis’s father lived to be 95 and eight months, and his two younger sisters are still alive.

What’s the secret to his longevity?

“The good Lord doesn’t know what to do with me, so he leaves me down here,” he said.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.