I talked with Leonard Tillman Walker about his decades of working for the Rock Island Railroad for several hours on December 10, 1988 at his home in North Little Rock, Arkansas. It was eight years after the Rock Island had been shut down, though he had been fortunate enough to retire two years before that happened. Like many of the railroad’s employees, he was known to most simply by his first initials.
When I reached out to L.T. Walker, it was my first time doing any research on the Rock Island as I was preparing a high school research paper on the railroad. Joe P. Rook, who was the dad of a friend of mine and had also worked for the Rock Island, suggested I record an interview with Walker, saying he loved to talk about trains and his experiences. I expected we’d talk for maybe a half-hour, but ended up sitting across from him at his kitchen table for about three hours as he shared vivid details about his experiences starting in the 1940s, changes he witnessed in the industry, and the many train accidents he’d been involved in. He had an incredible recollection.
The photo above shows L.T. on the back of a caboose comes from the September 1968 issue of The Rocket, Rock Island’s employee magazine. The article was on the importance of track maintenance crews watching trains as they pass for any problems that could cause an accident. L.T. was quoted saying, “Those maintenance gangs let me sit up in my cupola with a little more ease. When you pass one of those, you have a lot of eyes watch you roll by.” He explained that lumber was one of the most common forms of freight they would handle and was also one of the most likely to shift, which could cause a derailment.
In the 1980s L.T. helped found the Rock Island Club-Arkansas Division to bring together former employees who, as I write this update in 2016, continue to meet every other month and for an annual picnic. He was passionate about the history of the railroad and maintaining the friendships he had with his former colleagues. In 1998, he was happy to see the building that had been the Rock Island’s North Little Rock depot, which sat abandoned and decaying for decades, was finally restored by the city. On May 12 that year he spoke at the rededication ceremony, wearing his old passenger uniform.
L.T. Walker died June 18, 1999 at the age of 82, according to an obituary in the North Little Rock Times. But his incredible stories and details of working for the Rock Island live on in these recordings. I pulled 12 segments from the interview, which you can listen to below. Since originally uploading the files in 2002, I reposted them in December 2016 at a higher quality and with built in audio players. I’ve also added one additional segment on problems the Rock Island used to have with its river bridges in Arkansas.
AUDIO: STARTING WITH THE ROCK ISLAND. L.T. Walker talks about how he came to work for the Rock Island in August 1942 and the student trips he made around the state to get certified. He also discusses many of the people he worked with.
AUDIO: CHANGES. Having started during the final years of steam locomotives, Walker discusses the conversion to diesel engines, as well as other equipment changes he witnessed over the years.
AUDIO: FIRST ACCIDENT. In January 1943, Walker was part of a crew that had to jump from a train carrying gavel near Malvern, Arkansas when the train lost its air breaks. The train’s steam engine ended up turning over.
AUDIO: SECOND ACCIDENT. This wreck occurred because another train crew had improperly left a caboose on the main line, which Walker’s train then ran into at Jones Mill, near Malvern, Arkansas.
AUDIO: THIRD ACCIDENT. This one occured west of Little Rock when a steam engine collided with a large boulder that had fallen from nearby bluffs. Walker would be injured that time when he jumped from the train.
AUDIO: FOURTH ACCIDENT. This was a head-on collision that occurred outside of Hot Springs when one train lost its air breaks and wasn’t able to stop for another. Walker had to jump from a trestle just before the impact.
AUDIO: FIFTH ACCIDENT. This time it was a broken rail that caused Walker’s train to derail on a branch line near Stuttgart, Arkansas. Here he explains how block signals work and could have prevented this accident.
AUDIO: HITTING CARS. One of his biggest frustrations, Walker said, was running into cars and trucks that would drive around down railroad crossing gates and be struck by the train. Here he talks about many of these accidents.
AUDIO: HITTING PEDESTRIANS. This too was a frequent occurrence for Walker, often with homeless people being killed. Sometimes they were asleep on the tracks or were too inebriated too realize the danger they were in.
AUDIO: RIVER BRIDGES: Bridges with lift spans could be problematic causing red block signals which would require a crew member to get out on walk on the Arkansas or White River bridges during sometimes dangerous conditions.
AUDIO: SAFETY. Walker served for many years on the safety committee for the railroad, looking out for the well being of employees. Here he discusses accidents that took the lives of Rock Island employees.
AUDIO: BANKRUPTCY. Despite the economic troubles Rock Island went through in its later years, Walker said he never expected that a few years after he retired the railroad would shut down for good.
I have rough photocopies below of a few photos that L.T. loaned me, with two of those below. I wish I knew who had these today because I would love to have nice scans of those to include here. But I tried to clean up the photocopies as best I could. Both photos have a date stamped on them of June 1969. In the photo in front of the engine, L.T. Walker is the second person from the right. In the shot in front of the caboose, he is in the middle. I don’t know who the other crew members are. If anyone knows, please email me through the email icon below.