Four-and-a-half decades of working for the railroads started with a job carrying the suitcases of strangers. It was the 1940s, and Rodger...

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Four-and-a-half decades of working for the railroads started with a job carrying the suitcases of strangers.

It was the 1940s, and Rodger Campbell was a 16-year-old at Auburn Junior High when he scored a job lugging the travel gear of locals on their way to faraway places. He was paid $6 a day.

By the 1950s, Campbell was making a healthy living working for Northern Pacific Railway as a yard clerk. His job: to ensure that trains rolled out of town with the correct cargo.

“Working for the railroad back then meant great job security,” said Campbell, who now receives retirement benefits from BNSF Railway, formerly Northern Pacific Railway.

Campbell, 77, lived and worked during Auburn’s railroad heyday, and he also saw its slow demise in the 1970s and ’80s. He was there when the city’s role as a commercial railroad hub came to an end.

Campbell’s is one of the personal stories the White River Valley Museum in Auburn plans to record. The recordings, done over the past 15 years, will become part of an audio tour of the museum’s exhibits, which span more than a century of valley history.

“We all make history every day,” said Tara McCauley, curator of education at the museum. “Individualized personal accounts of history are what make this museum special.”

The project is being paid for by a grant from 4Culture, the King County arts commission, and is to be completed by the end of this year.

Days with the railroad

Campbell seemed a natural choice for the museum’s audio project. The train buff and retired BNSF Railway worker is known for being the last employee at Auburn Yard, and he shares his stories at the museum where he volunteers.

“It’s an era that should have never died,” Campbell said.

Until the 1960s, Auburn was home to a major switching yard that redirected trains from East Coast to West Coast destinations.

Back then, it was hard to find somebody who didn’t work for the railroad, Campbell said.

“You couldn’t ask to work with a better group of men,” Campbell said. “We were the backbone of the city.”

Along with the local farms, the railroad was integral in crafting Auburn’s legacy as a blue-collar town with strong unions ties.

Campbell says he remembers those days well.

When he started at the Auburn Yard in 1946, steam-powered trains were still used to haul Sears washers and dryers, lettuce and everything in between. The fire-powered engines required large crews of workers who maintained and repaired the freight and passenger trains that came through town.

It was a tough job. Many men were injured or killed at work.

But Campbell says there was a sense of camaraderie and loyalty on the rail yard.

He remembers how, early in the job, he and his crew would keep an eye out for trains carrying whiskey from Canada. When the steam powered-trains came to a jerky stop, a barrel of sealed booze would sometimes break free.

“Guys would run out there with boots, even old coffee cans, to catch a drink,” Campbell said.

End of the line

The introduction of diesel-powered trains in the 1950s signaled the first clue that things were bound to change in Auburn, Campbell said.

By then, everyone in the city had a car and steam-powered engines were a thing of the past. The new technology required fewer men to maintain the engines and, for the first time, Campbell saw railroad companies lay off large groups of workers.

Through the 1970s and early ’80s, train operations in Auburn scaled back even more. In 1986, Campbell was the last employee left at the rail yard when BNSF Railway closed the last of its Auburn operations and turned part of the rail yard into a storage area. Campbell was told to pack up his belongings and head to a job in Tacoma. He retired in 1992 as chief clerk.

“It was a sad affair,” Campbell said. “They did away with everything. I just turned the lights off, closed the door and showed up in Tacoma on Monday.”

In the decades since, BNSF Railway has worked to make amends with the city.

The company has donated money to the White River Valley Museum and has worked on community projects in Auburn, including a recent project to plant bushes along a portion of the old rail yard, BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said last May.

Although two decades have passed, some say the sense of abandonment lingers in Auburn.

Sharing his life story

Telling stories about the good old days is nearly a full-time job for Campbell.

These days, Campbell shares his stories with visitors to the White River Valley Museum, where he volunteers as a docent.

He guides visitors through the museum and answers their questions. On a recent afternoon, it was clear the Campbell enjoys the section of the museum dedicated to Auburn’s railroad history.

“Let me know if you have questions,” he said to visitors. “I’ll try to answer anything.”

During his lifetime, Campbell saw the number of workers at the rail yard go from about 1,000 at its peak in the 1950s to just him in 1986.

Even so, Campbell says, he’d do it all over again.

“I’ve lived a good life,” he said. “I loved the railroad.”

Karen Johnson: 253-234-8605 or karenjohnson@seattletimes.com