In the Lands of the Gadsden Purchase

‘Railroad Magazine’ for December 1945 features a non-fiction piece entitled ‘A Rambling Op’, by Harold L. Johnstone. The ‘Op’ refers to the job of a telegraph operator for the railroads, and the author was my maternal grandmother’s father, born in Illinois in 1883 to a family of railroad employees, died in 1963 in Alameda County, California. He wrote many articles for various magazines over the years, though it is only some of his ‘Railroad Magazine’ articles that I have been able to locate so far. This one details, with some rather swashbuckling flourishes, especially his early years, beginning with his first job for the Santa Fé Railroad and carrying him through all kinds of adventures, mostly in the American Southwest, from 1898 and into the 1920’s. All in all, he spent time with the Santa Fé, the Chicago and Alton, the Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific before retiring at the end of the 1940’s. He held many jobs, but what got him his first was his ability to operate a telegraph, a skill taught to him by his mother, said in the family to have been the first female telegrapher in the United States, and something she in turn had learned from her second husband, who had served as station agent for the Santa Fé Railroad at Edelstein, Illinois. 

It is his time in the desert areas of the West which occupied the greater part of his career, and which seems to have impressed him most. These assignments took him to remote stations in the Coachella and Imperial valleys of California, border towns like Bowie and Yuma in Arizona, and finally to Lordsburg, where he served as station master, and Deming, where the Silver Spike was driven in 1881 to mark the meeting of the Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé lines. It was my grandmother’s enthusiastic accounts of growing up in these places, and especially her obvious love for the Lordsburg, Deming and Mesilla areas of extreme southern New Mexico Territory (for these were the years before Statehood), which first brought the region to my attention and made it seem a romantic place to be visited someday, if ever I had the chance. I did have the chance, as it turned out, and spent much time in various parts of New Mexico as a young man.

My grandmother was nine years old when Pancho Villa made his infamous cross border raid upon Columbus, New Mexico, not far from where she lived. Her father played his small part in getting U.S. troops across the frontier after General Pershing arrived to lead the attack. Later Harold Johnstone served in the Army during the First World War, then went to work for the Western Pacific in 1922. I met him only once, in the year preceding his death, when I was taken to pay a dutiful visit to what seemed to me a decidedly fierce but fascinatingly enthusiastic old man, living with his second wife and surrounded by  his collection of exotic musical instruments and railroad memorabilia. He lies buried in the military cemetery south of San Francisco, which has always seemed to me so far from the desert scenes which formed the backdrop for so much of his long life. And I’m sure I’ll think of him whenever I revisit New Mexico. It was his adventures there which first made me long to see it. 

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