I've Been Working on the Railroad

This month I'd like to say "congratulations" to Legacy Preserves' client Paul Marshall for publishing his memoir Maine Boy Goes to War: and the Story of Mizpah. His story takes the reader first to the woods of northern Maine where he grew up under the shadow of Katahdin. He lived a poor but idyllic childhood in a one-room tarpaper shack with his parents and six siblings. His world changed when he was called to serve as a combat medic during World War II. Two decades after the war Marshall was given a chance of a lifetime to turn the tide of destruction to hope. In 1964, with his wife and three children, Paul moved to a Pacific island lagoon called Truk, where he built and ran a school for future Micronesian leaders. On the island he saw how the same super powers of World War II had also dominated and oppressed the people of Micronesia, and he set out to find a way to encourage their autonomy and freedom through the power of love and family. 

"The Extra Gang"

Here is a story about Paul's railroad days in northern Maine.

In 1939 Paul Marshall’s family was left without income after a huge pine log rolled off a truck at the sawmill and broke his father’s legs. So at the age of 16, Paul signed up to work on the “extra gang” for the summer with the Canadian Pacific Railway, even though the legal age for work was 18.  Here is an excerpt: 

At the site, the boss looked us over quickly and immediately decided which assignment would best fit each of us. When he looked at me he saw a 5-foot, 5-inch boy who probably weighed no more that 140 pounds. He probably thought I wouldn’t be able to last very long slinging a 10-pound sledgehammer 10 hours a day. He assigned me to be a “tamper,” a job that involved moving a spade along the edge of the ties and pushing gravel under and around it. I really had hoped that I would be a “hammer man,” driving the spikes that held the rails in place, so I asked if I could do that instead. The boss simply laughed out loud, but then he looked at me for a minute and said, “You asked for it, you’re going to get it!” I wasn’t quite sure as to just what he meant by that, but I soon learned his meaning.

  Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress) between ca. 1900 and 1916

Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress) between ca. 1900 and 1916

 My first day on the hammer felt like it would be my last day on the job. We were not supplied with any gloves and my soft hands soon began to blister. We worked from six in the morning until six in the evening, with occasional breaks for a snack or a drink of water. The work was extremely hard, but the food was great. That summer we replaced 25 miles of track from Greenville to Jackman. We tore out all of the old railroad ties and rails and replaced them. 

 I would look at my hands and wonder, “Can I stay with it?” The blisters, plus the June temperatures in Maine, can very soon take the “big man” feeling right out of you, but I couldn’t quit! No one talked about how hard the work was. No one shirked on the job. A half hour at noontime was like a dream. Back to work.

 At five o’clock we’d get a signal from the boss. That’s it. Throw the pump wagons onto the track. Pump our way back home to our sleeping car.

 “Hey, there’s a stream.” Just time to jump in and get cleaned up. Of course none of us had any soap.

 “Supper!!!!” And you could eat as much as you wanted.

 Yes, I was tired. Yes, I was ready to quit. Yes, I ached all over. I looked at my hands and wondered if I could last one more day. Eventually, someone showed up with some sort of salve or ointment to use on our hands. It did ease up the blisters, which by this time had pretty well broken. Some kind of stuff they called toilet paper, a rough brownish stuff that could have been used to card down a horse, showed up, and we used it to wrap up our hands. It eased the pain somewhat and took care of the bleeding. I grabbed several big pieces and stuffed them away for tomorrow to wrap around my hands, although it felt like sandpaper.

 The happiest day with the extra gang was Saturday. We still worked on Saturday mornings, but mostly just repaired our tools and cleaned up the general area. At noon we lined up before the boss, who was seated at a makeshift table outside of the sleeper cars. This was payday! When your name was called you stepped up to that table to receive your pay, 12 silver dollars! I had never held so much money in my hands before. It seemed to weigh a ton in my pocket but I couldn’t keep my hands off it.  I must have held it in my hands all the way to Mattawamkeag when I went back home.

 Exactly at one o’clock we heard the welcoming whistle of the freight train that would transport us back to Mattawamkeag for a short visit home. We wore the only clothes we had come with. All 40 of us boarded the train, sitting or standing in any place we could find a safe place to ride. I always enjoyed riding in the engine and sitting on the coal bin. Though they kept shoveling coal into the firebox and my seat kept moving. I had to keep watch that cinders from the engine didn't catch on my clothes or hair. The scenery was beautiful and there was something about being that close to the engineer that I really liked.

 I think my greatest joy of all of those summers was after our three-hour ride; I hopped off the train and ran along the track lines for about a mile till I reached home. Those 12 silver dollars seemed awful heavy in my overall pocket but it didn’t slow me down. At home Dad would be sitting in his chair, his crutches by his side. I couldn’t wait to get ten of those 12 silver dollars out of my pocket and place them in his hand. I can still see the tears in his eyes as he just sat there and let them run.

Pages from Paul Marshall's book Maine Boy Goes to War: and the Story of Mizpah.

Legacy Preserves helped Paul to write and publish his memoir, providing coaching, structural and developmental editing, photo scanning, and manuscript preparation. Together we navigated the waters of book design, publication, printing, binding, and sales. His book is now available on Amazon. For more information on how Legacy Preserves can help you write your memoir or family history contact Meghan today. 

Paul will be giving a series of talks about his WWII and Micronesia experiences at libraries in the midcoast Maine area. 

October 9 at 7 pm at the Hope Public Library (WWII)

October 14 at 7 pm Camden Public Library (WWII)

October 22 at 6:30 pm Rockport Public Library (Micronesia)

November 19 at 6:30 pm  Rockport Public Library (WWII)