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'The Dark Side Of The Railroad': A Locomotive Engineer's Fraught Legacy With The Rails

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Barnie Botone reflects on his 34-year career on the railroad in a StoryCorps interview in Bismarck, N.D., last month.
Camila Kerwin, StoryCorps

Barnie Botone reflects on his 34-year career on the railroad in a StoryCorps interview in Bismarck, N.D., last month.

In 1973, Barnie Botone got a job in Albuquerque, N.M., working on the railroad. He was 22 years old.

Now, 67, Botone remembers when he told his grandmother that he'd be working as an engineer for the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway. He had been excited to share the news, but her reaction, he explains in a StoryCorps conversation, was not what he expected.

"She cried with a moan, because the irony — it was too much to bear," Botone says.

That's because almost a century before Botone landed the railroad job, one of his ancestors had had a very different experience with trains. His ancestor Guipago, which translates to Lone Wolf from Kiowa, had been a leader of the tribe; during the Red River War, he was among dozens of Native Americans who were forcibly relocated by train to a U.S. Army prison camp in Florida.

"That's when I told her that I would be the very best I possibly could be," he says.

As a Native American, Botone would face racism from day one on the job. "My first paid trip, I walked into the shanty," he says. "There's a roomful of white guys, and everybody's looking at me. And I had long braids. And this guy says to me, 'Take a drink, Indian.' And he puts his jug right in my face. And I thought, 'Man, this ain't right.' "

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"I knew it was going to be hard and I knew I'd be different, but I knew I could compete with any of 'em."

And he did. "I would work 8 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I could handle long trains, short trains, fat trains, big trains — it didn't matter."

Botone found freedom in his work. "This is where I seen elk, bears, coyotes," he says. "And when the snow comes, it's just beautiful. There's nobody looking over your shoulder. There's nobody there to be your boss."

But, he says, "There was the dark side of the railroad."

One especially horrific memory stays with Botone. In April of 1978, he remembers working with a coworker named Donald Wichmann. "We called him Wickie," Botone says. "He was tying a brake on. He didn't know there was a car down further in the track. And it ran in and cut off his legs."

As Wichmann lay unconscious, Botone acted quickly, he says.

"Right away, I got under the car with him. And when I put the tourniquet on him, he woke up. And he was suffering. He said to me, 'Do you think I'm gonna die?' And I said, 'No. You're not gonna die.' Well, I coached him pretty good because he made it."

Wichmann lost his legs that day. As for Botone, the stress of witnessing the accident resulted in hair loss. "The very next day, I grab my hair ... and it just came out in my hands in a bundle."

The accident was the toughest experience for Botone during his 34 years on the railroad. "It was the most horrendous thing that ever happened to me," he says. "But I went back to work because, you know, I grew up with a tough bunch.

"Whenever we got bucked off a horse, you'd have to get back on. That's the people I come from," he says. "And that's not something that is insignificant, especially in these days."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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