Rusty Rails and Gandy Dancers
Ryan, my five year old grandson, is a passionate student of trains, so the destination of our first road trip together is a no brainer: Iron Horse Inn Bed & Breakfast in Cle Elum, WA.
The Iron Horse Inn is more than a B&B; it is a living museum devoted to railroad memorabilia and features four retrofitted cabooses that are about the coolest accommodations a five-year old – okay, and Grandpa, too - can imagine!
On the way, a major surprise awaits - The Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, WA.
On the beautiful grounds are all sorts of hands-on railroad things to do, and there’s not a single Do Not Touch sign anywhere.
Our favorite activity is exploring the dozens of derelict engines, tenders and cars for up close looks into a bit of railroad history. Rusty steam boilers, tracks, and couplings are all too inviting to touch, and Ryan relishes his dirty hands as though they are dusted with gold.
The museum is about 90 miles from Ryan’s home in Olympia, essentially to the Northeast via US 101, I-5, and WA Route 18. Cle Elum is another 60 miles, mostly on I-90 East.
Iron Horse Inn is tucked in the foothills of the Cascades and was constructed in the early 1900s by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad as accommodations for railroad workers. The restored inn is owned and lovingly cared for by Mary and Doug Pittis and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The main house offers seven rooms, each named for a crewman who actually stayed here. We, however, are bound for the Milwaukee Caboose, dedicated to Milwaukee Railroad conductor Mel Faudree. Accommodations are relaxed and comfortable – Queen bed, pine paneling, a bathroom with shower, a dining area for our pizza supper, and best of all – Ryan can sleep “up top” in the cupola, with windows on all four sides - in all, a bit of railroad heaven.
Mary, our Innkeeper, delights in showing Ryan train artifacts in the main house after breakfast. With great patience she explains the workings of lanterns, switches, and telegraph keys in a way a five year old understands. Fascination follows.
Back at the Milwaukee Caboose, Mary continues to enthrall, by explaining who gandy dancers were, and their role in railroading. These early railroad workers maintained railroad tracks in the years before the heavy work was done by machines. The term is thought to have come from a combination of “gandy”, a five foot long rod, made by the Gandy Manufacturing Company, and the dancing movements of the workers using it as a lever to keep the tracks in alignment. Grandpa was enlightened, too, by learning that Frankie Laine recorded “The Gandy Dancers’ Ball” in the early 1950s, and sang it with a chorus of actual gandy dancers in the 1955 comedy film Bring Your Smile Along.
Our return to Olympia is through the majestic Cascade Mountains (Cle Elum’s city motto is “Heart of the Cascades”), with a side trip through the tiny town of Roslyn, the primary filming location of the 1990-1995 TV series “Northern Exposure”. In three hours we have descended from nearly 2000 feet to about 100 feet above sea level at Olympia. Ryan, enriched with railroad lore and with his first road trip with Grandpa under his belt, has slept most of the way!
Last edited by Mark Sedenquist; 06-29-2010 at 04:58 PM.
It should be pointed out that the term "Gandy Dancers" is not one preferred by current professional train repair teams. It's slightly derogatory and if you referred to a current track professional as being a Gandy Dancer -- you might get punched in the nose....
My apologies to anyone who might be offended by the Gandy Dancer term. My research showed the term to be slang, not derogatory. I checked with Mary Pittis, Innkeeper at The Iron Horse Inn and this how she replied:
Originally Posted by Mark Sedenquist
Hi Ray: I had a couple of RR buddies take a look at the article and comment afterwards. Here is the general concensus:
"The true term for a trackworker was Sectionman - an individual or crew responsible for the maintenance of a particular section of track. Gandy Dancer is slang for a track laborer. Some may be offended by the term - but job nicknames were (are) common ... like "hogger" or "hoghead" for locomotive engineer.
Folklore says the term Gandy Dancer arose from workers who worked with tools made by the G and D Tool Company - shortened to Gandy."
Personally, I think the present-day sectionman might take offense to Gandy Dancer just because it sounds kind of feminine these days.
However, maybe not so in days past -- and therefore historically correct.
I've done a bit field checking too...
I spoke to a crew working on a section of the famous Tehachapi loop in California one day and they were the ones that told me that referring to any one of them as "Gandy Dancers" would be foolhardy at best...
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