In the 1940s the Milwaukee Road provided an important means of transportation in Central Washington. Gasoline rationing meant that much travel took place by train.Whether they were traveling out of military duty or seeking work on farms or at the burgeoning Manhattan Project south of Saddle Mountain, travelers might at some point be stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train.
I grew up near the red brick substation of Taunton, a minor stop on the line. It’s hard to imagine why strangers from Virginia or Ohio might find themselves waiting for a train at Taunton. Perhaps their train had to pull onto the siding to get out of the way of another, more important train. Nonetheless, in my intimate knowledge of the Taunton substation, I knew of several occasions when stranded travelers left evidence of their visit in the form of scrawled pencil lines on the red brick.
Travelers’ graffiti that remains of the walls of Taunton’s substation is usually found on bricks that would be in shaded areas in the heat of an afternoon. With no air conditioning, it would quickly become unbearably hot inside a train waiting on the siding at Taunton in the summertime. Outside it would have been little better, but the shade of the huge brick substation might provide a little relief. Perhaps that is why loitering passengers made their way to the eastern walls of the building, where the afternoon sun couldn’t reach. There are two areas where old graffiti is found at Taunton. One is on the east wall of the main building, and another is on the east wall of the office. In both cases, more recent graffiti (spray painted gang tags) has damaged or effaced what earlier artists left behind.
The Taunton substation sits on private property along the Milwaukee corridor. I have witnessed the decline of the little railroad town over the years. As a boy I recall Dick Keeney’s truck rushing up the gravel road towards the substation each day. He would sit in the office and help control the rail traffic in the area. Tall black locust trees shaded three wood framed houses on the west side of the substation. Children of families who lived there would ride our bus to and from school every day. The wood-framed school my father attended used to sit north of the tracks on a level embankment. It was gone years before I could even walk, carted off to Othello, where today it is rented out as a duplex. Taunton’s houses are all gone. I remember the night the middle one burned to the ground, scorching the siding of its neighbors, and killing the nearest locust trees.
Now all the houses have disappeared, but their foundations remain, heaped up with trash and wreckage. Mr. Keeney’s office has been stripped and destroyed and the interior of the substation, once used as a shop by the present owners, is cluttered with mechanical debris, bird droppings and gangland tags.
A greedy thief who tried to salvage copper wires from the interior of the station once ended up in the hospital with severe electrical burns on his arms and hands. He had attempted to steal copper wires that still carried a stiff electrical charge. When the Milwaukee Road ran trains, they were electric trains. Taunton was one of many substations built to house step-up generators that would boost the power supply along the line. It was wired into the electrical grid, and the building, at the time of the attempted theft, was still hot.
Some railroad passengers who left their marks at Taunton in the 1940s recorded their own home towns. One was from Ohio and another boasted that he came from Bristol, Virginia.
When I first discovered the signature bricks at Taunton in the 1970s, there was no gangland graffiti. I know I photographed one or two of the bricks, and when I rediscover the photographs, I’ll post them to this blog. Today, however, what I recall as the best specimen has been defaced by a smear of white spray paint, and it may never again be seen. Beside the signature on the brick below was a beautiful caricature of a 1940s woman, now buried beneath the paint.
One other piece of period artwork still survives, this one a gawky, pencil-necked bald man (perhaps mocking an officious officer or railroad worker?). The artist signed his name as Glenn. There is nothing else to indicate the date of his drawing or his home town.
This World War II graffiti is easy to miss, and you have to use your imagination to appreciate why it even exists. But I would guess that similar graffiti might be found on other railroad facilities across the country, wherever trains waited on a siding in a hot afternoon beside inviting shade.