Tale of Two Passions

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William Thibodeaux

Following the bombings of Pearl Harbor, the railroads began losing men to the draft at an alarming rate. Harold K. Vollrath or “K” as he preferred, had been labeled 4-F with the Selective Service System and subsequently was not allowed to serve due to a serious back injury. However, K was hired on with Southern Pacific (SP) railroad in Lafayette, La. sometime in early 1942 and was placed on extra board. Shortly thereafter he was sent to Morgan City as first trick telegraph operator. Over the next several years, K had many opportunities to hold regular daylight operator jobs but chose to stay on extra board.
Despite having grown up in New York and Pennsylvania, K had known several local railroaders from an early age. K’s maternal grandfather had been president and part-owner of Sterling Sugars of Franklin, Louisiana. During visits, K and his parents stayed with grandfather Kemper in his big house on sugar mill property. On one visit K noticed a steam engine pulling into the rail yard near the sugar mill. It was a T & NO Mogul, the engine off the regular afternoon passenger train from Milton, Louisiana, south of Lafayette. The train crew was tying up for the night.
When the engine crew saw the president of the sugar company and his grandson, they hoisted the youngster up into the locomotive cab for a tour. The engineer sat the boy on his seat and let him blow the whistle and ring the bell. The fireman opened the firebox door and let K have a look at the red-hot fire and feel the intense heat. That’s all it took, the boy was hooked—destined to be a railroad man! When back in New York and Pennsylvania, K often traveled with his father on business day trips to manufacturing plants, often by rail. K was soon able to distinguish between steam and electric power and, boy, did he love those steam locomotives!
Southern Pacific’s Lafayette Division Time Table #82 dated December 17, 1935, listed Sterling at one end of the Milton Subdivision. On the other end of the subdivision was the up and coming community of Milton. Back then the town boasted of having a railroad depot with a large loading dock, section house and tool shed for track maintenance crews, a water tower for steam trains, and a wye track for turning railcars and locomotives. According to 95-year-old Lynwood Vincent, the largest employers in Milton at that time besides the railroad were, the lumberyard owned by Asa Picard, a cotton gin owned by Dr. Young from Youngsville, who also owned an enormous four-storied syrup mill that produced Young’s Cane Syrup. All of the above named industries were serviced by SP railroad. Across the river from the Milton Depot in Vermilion Parish was the Hunter Canal—the largest irrigation canal company in the world. Trains also arrived at Milton from F and A Junction, which originated at Elks, near today’s Frank’s Casting Crew, which according to Time Table #82 was 7.4 miles from Milton. But I digress; now back to K’s adventures.
In December of 1935, K returned to Franklin, Louisiana, when it was nearing the end of grinding season. Sterling’s locomotive, a Baldwin 0-6-0 was fired up and K rode in the engine cab all day, every day for a week, absorbing everything. Under close supervision of engineer Souly Fisher and fireman Charlie Breaud, he ran the locomotive over the T&NO interchange at Franklin, hauling 19 railcars out and 12 back in. Another time when the engineer laid off, the fireman ran the engine while his 13-year old fireman kept the fires burning hot.
K’s other passion was photography, especially after his mother, the former Delaware Kemper of Franklin, Louisiana, purchased a Kodak 127 Autographic camera. K and his father became regular visitors at NYC’s North White Plains roundhouse where he took his first engine pictures. K began submitting his locomotive photos to the International Engine Picture Club in hopes of getting them published. He later switched to a Kodak 616 folding camera.
After completing high school in June of 1941, K returned to Franklin, Louisiana, and worked for his grandfather. By this time, Trains magazine had been launched and K began contributing. One of his engine photos was a Reading 2-8-0 and it appeared on the cover of Trains in December of 1941. K’s name appeared alongside his photo, which is believed to be the only time a photo credit has ever appeared on a Trains magazine cover.
K spent a lot of time around the Franklin depot taking photos of trains. He became friends with its operator, Wallace Stevens, who gave him lineups of what trains were expected. Wallace became interested in K’s hobby. Wallace wanted to learn how to take pictures, develop film, and make prints. K struck a deal with Wallace. He would teach him photography and in return, Wallace would teach him the telegraph key. By the end of 1941, K had completed his telegraphy “course” with Wallace Stevens, and Southern Pacific had job openings.
K began working as an extra board telegraph operator. His goal, which soon became an obsession, was to learn and work every depot operator’s job on the main and branch lines. Over time with his knowledge of having worked all the operator jobs, he soon became known as the go to guy whenever problems arose around the railroad. Later K decided that he needed something more challenging. He thought about becoming a train dispatcher, so at times he listened in on the dispatcher’s phone to learn as much as possible.
In late 1944 K was given a chance to learn the two dispatcher’s desks at division headquarters in Lafayette, La. Within a matter of months he could handle both desks, Lafayette to New Orleans and Lafayette to Echo, Texas, which is just west of the Sabine River. When dispatching on the L&W (Lafayette West) K had seven stations, all of which were handled by female operators due to the men had been called away to fight the war. At Echo, a girl named Faye King held the operator’s job. By the end of 1945, K was taking the train to Echo once a week on his rest day to visit her, and soon they were married.
World War II ended in mid-August 1945 and with it came the returning war veterans reclaiming their employment. At about the same time there was a lull in rail traffic, business fell off and layoffs followed. K and Faye both found themselves unemployed. It must have been a frightening time. K followed seasonal vegetable rushes, vacation relief work, and a “lifetime” job that lasted only six months. All of these different jobs required a lot of relocation. During the postwar era K saw the systematic phase-out of steam locomotives, but K’s love of railroading and picture taking did not subside when diesels started to appear.
K and Faye eventually settled down somewhat after a while. They had two children, a girl and a boy. During the late 1970s, K and Faye drifted apart and by 1980 they were divorced. Later, K became friends with a woman, Charlotte Groom, through his local church, and they were married. He jokes, “It’s not often that a man takes a Groom for his bride!” They lived in Kansas City and enjoyed life with their dog, Nala. Over the years K worked as dispatcher and later as director of labor relations for the Kansas City Southern Railroad. He also continued with the engine photos and became one of the leading locomotive photographers. K retired on January 31, 1988, at the age of 65 after 40 years of dedicated service.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with K who is now 92 years of age. He is still independent, continues to drive his automobile, and lives alone in an assisted living facility in Missouri. K’s wife, Charlotte succumbed to Alzheimer’s sometime back. He is no longer active in photography; however he and his grandson share his gigantic collection of nearly 50,000 black-and-white photo negatives. K is proud to say that he has never shot nor traded color slides. He felt that too much detail was lost in color photos compared to black-and-white film. He often reminisces about that bygone era when steam was king. K particularly misses that unmistakable sound of an old steam locomotive, especially in the wee hours. “It was such a mournful sound and at a time when life itself was much slower,” said Harold K. Vollrath.


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