The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book review:
Dennis Boyer, Snow on the Rails:
Tales of Heartland Railroading

Mar 29, 2004

Snow on the Rails is a book of short stories written by a former railroad carman on the Milwaukee Road. The author, Dennis Boyer, has brought to life different jobs on the railroads for people who've never worked the railroads.

The title story, "Snow on the Rails," is about a worker's last day on the job. In the middle of a snowy night, he hears a sound like slow feet creeping in the snow. "A huge blackness loomed over me and I dropped to the icy railbed. With a thunderous crash over my head, heavy metal parts fell on my back. I was lying in the snow between the rails, panting and shaking." Eight detached cars that had been left up the track had silently rolled his way, through the open switch on snow covered rails.

There's a story about a man who works up in a tower completely alone where two rail lines cross, another story about women workers in a repair shop and how the men treat them. Many aspects of rail life that might surprise us: the crews that cut down trees to make ties, a railroad hotel in a small North Dakota town, a railroad security guard investigating a murder on rail property coming out of the rivalry between the United Auto Workers and the Farm Equipment Union at the start of the Cold War.

The stories span the history of the railroads. There is a story set in the Great Strike of 1877 when railroad workers in major cities of the country battled the police and National Guard. "North Platte Christmas" is about a canteen worker at a rail stop in Nebraska during World War II serving injured soldiers coming through during the war. The latest stories deal with the new developments of short lines small railroads designed to undermine workers' conditions, and mergers of the big railroad companies.

All together this book is an engaging picture of railroad workers' lives.