Jeff Jardine: After 90 years on the railroad, alas, no more Corgiats aboard

jjardine@modbee.comDecember 21, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
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    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

On the first day of November, Bruce Corgiat tried to log on to the Union Pacific Railroad’s employee web page just as he’d done most other mornings.

“They’d already blocked me,” he said.

Wow, that was quick. On Halloween, Bruce officially retired from the railroad, as did his father and three brothers before him. But his was different from the others, and getting blocked from the website represented the exclamation point.

It marked the first time in 90 years no member of the Corgiat family worked on the railroad – OK, sing along – “all the live-long day,” and many nights as well.

“It was never a job. It was never a profession,” said Paul Corgiat, 73 and oldest of the four brothers. “It was a way of life.”

Their father, B.L. Corgiat, signed on with Southern Pacific as a carpenter apprentice in 1923 and became an engineer two years later, retiring in 1969.

“We all worked on the railroad because of our dad,” Paul Corgiat said. “I was getting into trouble. When he got me the job on the railroad, it turned my life around. I didn’t want to let him down. We got a lot of respect from our peers because of our father. In turn, I helped my brothers’ careers because I was a good employee.”

Paul began his career with Southern Pacific in 1960 and finished with Union Pacific in 2002 (the railroads merged in 1996). Brother Jim, 70, came aboard in 1962 and clocked out in 2004.

“Same as with him,” Jim said, joking. “I didn’t want everybody to know how slow and dumb I was.”

Tom, 66, joined SP in 1965 and retired in 2008. Bruce, 62, never intended to ride the rails, but he did and ended up working a wider range of routes than any of them. Only brother Leonard opted for another line of work, becoming a machinist and running his own business.

B.L. saw his hours reduced during the Great Depression, but business picked up during World War II.

“It was a golden age,” Paul said. “The railroad didn’t change much for 50 years. Then, in the 1960s, it started to change.”

Trains that once had five-man crews are now run by two, they said. No more cabooses. Trains can be operated by remote control at slow speeds. Shifts once lasted a minute shy of 16 hours.

“You’d work 15 hours, 59 minutes,” Tom Corgiat said. “You’d have eight hours, one minute off and then go back to work.”

They kept logs tracking time and miles because that’s how they were paid.

“Miles are money,” he said.

Unless they were engineers, who are paid differently.

“The more (rail) cars, the more pay,” Jim Corgiat said. “Engineers were paid by miles times weight.”

The railroad even had its own sense of direction, with everything running east or west – even if the rails ran north-south – because Southern Pacific’s headquarters were at No. 1 Market Street in San Francisco. Anything much farther west was water.

“East to Roseville, west to Oakland,” Tom said.

The railroad, they said, even ignored daylight saving time because it was impractical to get everyone to spring forward and fall back each year. The bigger issue was making sure their watches kept accurate time, and they were required to show proof the watches had been serviced and ran precisely.

And because trips were money, they needed to be available whenever the phone rang.

“I was always expecting a call,” Jim Corgiat said. “I kept my pants on a hook with everything (wallet, keys, watch) in them ready to go.”

In the days before cell phones and caller ID, other family members had to keep their personal phone conversations brief so Dad didn’t miss the calls that paid the bills. Mostly, though, they worked long, irregular hours. The family simply had to adjust to Dad’s schedule.

“My kids used to come in and watch me sleep,” Bruce said. “Then they’d wake me up, I’d get the call and off I’d go.”

“Christmas Day was about the only day you could count on not working,” Tom Corgiat said.

Many of the trips began in Roseville and ended in Bakersfield. Because of the time rules, Jim Corgiat said when the crew members hit their quitting time, the train would have to stop. The railroad would send a Suburban out with the relief crew, and off it would go again.

His brothers were brakemen and conductors, but all of the brothers spoke lantern language – the method of communication between the engineer and the rest of the crew as they assembled the trains. Jim made the switch to the engineer’s seat after back surgery in 1965 limited him physically.

He emphasized the danger of working around the trains, because even rail cars that are barely moving can do serious damage.

“I had a serious accident at the FMC plant,” Jim said. “I made a bad decision to try to stop a moving car from hitting another. It crushed my foot between the cars and I almost lost it. The car was going only 2 miles an hour.”

All the Corgiats endured minor injuries that could have been major, and all knew of others who weren’t so lucky. All the brothers retired healthy.

And when Bruce clocked out for the final time on Halloween, his family’s 90-year railroad run finally reached the end of the line.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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