Bessie Shaw, Agent at Wanatah
Looking back on my membership in the Monon Railroad Historical Society, I learn something new in every issue of The Hoosier Line. I attended the 1993 Annual Meeting in Lafayette where I gained new friendships and since have corresponded with a lot of Monon fans.
My personal interest in the Monon comes from my Grandmother, Bessie F. Shaw who was employed by the Monon in Lacrosse in 1913 as station agent and telegraph operator. My Grandfather, Harvey Shaw, taught her the fundamentals of telegraphy. When the station at Lacrosse was closed sometime around 1937, the Monon transferred Bessie to Wanatah where she served as station agent until she retired in 1953.
John Barriger, President of the Monon, said that a little bit of the Monon faded away with Bessie’s retirement. Mr. Barriger was right about that. As I often read the letters she left behind, I know that everyone who ever met her knew she was a loving and caring person. Bessie passed away in 1963 on New Year’s Eve.
Growing up with the Monon was and is the biggest part of my life. I knew, in 1947 on my first trip from Wanatah to Michigan City, riding in the cab and blowing the whistle, that I was the envy of every kid on the line. Art McBee, the brakeman on the weekly local run from Lafayette to Michigan City took me under his care and taught me everything that a kid wished they could learn about railroading. One year a box car was picked up at the siding in Westville, Indiana. Inside was a large box that had been broken. Lo and behold, hundreds of Baby Ruth candy bars lay there for me to stuff into my pockets with as many as they could hold.
In July of 1947 a black with gold striped locomotive pulling the local churned its way into Wanatah. It was an engine I had never seen before. No smoke coming out of a stack. No bell ringing, just the sound of a large diesel engine with the engineer sitting almost cab forward. Yes, it was the first diesel BL-2 on its maiden voyage to Michigan City. What a thrill I had that first day. Art McBee took me to Michigan City. I sat in the cab looking at the tracks ahead of me and could hardly believe my eyes at a sight I would never forget. Blowing the whistle I had never before heard. Coming back to Wanatah I rode in the caboose that was one of the last wooden configurations. When we arrived in Wanatah at 6:30 p.m. some of my summer friends greeted me with envy.
As I look back at all the times I spent on the Monon, the rides to Michigan City, riding to see a White Sox game in Chicago and Babe Ruth throwing out the first ball the year he died. And the return trip on the Pennsy. Seeing first-hand the accident at Monon, and going out with the section gangs. A lot of nights I would go out with Grandpa Shaw on the midnight shift to watch the Pennsy trains crossing the Monon at 4:00a.m., the northbound Monon freight passing through Lacrosse on its way to Michigan City.
Having a military career of over 20 years I missed a lot of things that took place, such as the merger with the L&N. I did read about it and later in life figured out that the Monon was given a slow death wish when this happened. With CSX now in the picture this is even more evident.
The east-west track running through Wanatah are now being use by Conrail and Amtrak and there are a few cement blocks and a concrete bridge over the Monon ditch. The old C&O tower and tracks are still standing at the Monon crossing. Lacrosse had at one time the Monon, Pennsylvania, C&O, Pere Marquette and at Kouts, the Erie and Wabash railroads. It should be noted that my Grandfather who was employed by the Pennsylvania worked the Pennsy Tower at the Monon crossing for 49 years without an accident or mishap which is pretty good for a man who had four railroads through his town.
Editor’s Note: Several paragraphs were removed from Mr. Smith’s original letter as written in The Hoosier Line.
By William “Bill” Sunny Smith, originally appearing in The Hoosier Line, Volume 17, Number 1
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