Update 3-8-2009: In Search of Geraldine McGee

The steel bloodstream tells no lies

From the "Looking to the 21st Century" special section in the 10-28-98 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune

No matter the pedigree of your city, one piece of urban DNA is the same everywhere. Your town may have a heart of gold, but its circulatory system is cold steel.

Unlike the intangibles, you can check the health of your municipal bloodstream anytime. No matter which side you live on, just go down to the railroad tracks.

Railroad tracks? Doesn't that have something to do with hardcore drug addiction or something?

No one thinks of railroads as railroads anymore. They're a nuisance on their best day. Noisy anachronisms, obsolete obstructions to the proper pleasures of personal automotive autonomy.

But if you would understand your community, test its railroad ties.

No city on earth provides a better laboratory than Sparks, Nevada.

She is not yet a century old, but references to her as "The Rail City" have dwindled to a precious few.

Not too many years ago, the local casino overlords even advertised her charms as "East Reno" and have never known forgiveness. Politicians who talk governmental consolidation with the wicked witch of the west risk tar and feathers.

Nothing typifies America's coming of age better than her spiked circulatory system. Big nails through wood hold the octopus together, a metaphor of the vampire the steel bloodstream can become if her symbionts are not constantly vigilant.

AN ACCIDENT OF BIRTH. If not for the flood of 1868, the soggy and low-lying township of Glendale, four miles to the southeast of the center of modern Sparks, would have rendered Reno unnecessary.

FLOPPY FLYER- AR 20, photographed in 1967. A closer look reveals the numbers on the engine as mirror-images, the result of the photo's being "flopped," or printed backwards. (Photo courtesy of Bill McGee.)
Central Pacific Railroad planners opted for higher ground and Myron Lake's river crossing eventually became hub of the valley.

Southern Pacific subsequently spawned Sparks, saving the area from one day becoming eastern Reno.

When SP took over the Central Pacific route, the company wanted a shortcut and moved operations from Wadsworth to the swamp land which had scared CP away 30 years before. Track was laid along basically the same line surveyed before the flood.

Sparks was born in 1903 when SP held a lottery for its Wadsworth employees giving them homesites north of the new railbed. The only stipulation was that the lots could never be used for business purposes. Somehow, the Nugget casino and Victorian Square evolved anyway.

The story of Sparks can be viewed as the story of the American century. She grew like a mushroom after a gullywashing cloudburst. Perhaps her past holds clues to our future, but you have to learn the code of the rails.

The tracks will tell a story of yesterday, today and tomorrow for those willing to lay down an ear and listen to the rhythm of the dull, distant rumble.

Bill McGee did so his whole life. His father taught him to learn from the trains.
LOOKING BACK IN TIME — Bill McGee of Sparks, the Rail City, in full trainman's trappings. The retired member of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Local 158 is today an author and railroad historian. (Photo courtesy of Bill McGee)
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. Now 81, McGee came to Sparks at Christmastime, 1934. He and his wife, Geraldine, raised three children and enjoy 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. In his retirement from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Bill McGee started a new career writing about what he knew the best - railroads.

The iron octopus changed his life in 1922, when he was all of five years old.

His father, William E. McGee I, was then a young railroad worker for the Great Northern in the state of Washington.

"During World War I, the U.S. Railroad Administration had operated the interstate railroads and negotiated wages and working conditions on behalf of employees of various lines," wrote Nevada historians Phillip I. Earl and Guy Louis Rocha in 1986.

After the armistice, "railroad officials claimed that wages had risen too high during the war, although a 20 percent raise granted by the Railroad Labor Board in July, 1920, barely brought wages abreast of the cost of living," Earl and Rocha noted.

"When Warren G. Harding assumed the presidency in 1921, he substantially altered the composition of the Labor Board by appointing men more favorable to management. In April, 1921, a month after Harding came into office, the Labor Board abrogated wartime agreements...(and) followed up in July with a 12 percent wage reduction," wrote Earl and Rocha.

The great strike of 1922 came one year later.

HITTING HOME. "Many railroad families had put money aside, and Sparks landlords offered to defer rent payments if necessary," Earl and Rocha related from the pages of the Sparks Tribune.

"Physicians and merchants also offered extension of credit, and political leaders supported the unionists," they wrote.

The strike impacted every corner of Nevada, even the whistlestop on the parched plane to south called Las Vegas.

Up in Washington, the McGee family went through hard times with harder times to come. Railroad officials announced that workers who did not return would lose their jobs. Very few went back.

In Sparks, Southern Pacific tried to do the work of 700 with just 31 people.

Back then, it was common practice for companies to seek judicial injunctions as a way to break worker solidarity. The railroads did so and forced an early end to the strike by late September.

BLACKBALLED. "My dad lost his job and seniority," Bill McGee remembers. Worse, he was blackballed from future work.

"Even in that day, federal law forbade blackballing a worker," McGee remembers.

"Working men, then as now, were entitled to a letter of referral to present to other prospective employers," McGee says.

"The referral card had a picture of a wrecking crane on the letterhead. The trick was that the strikers card had the crane picture with a bent boom and the non-strikers crane had a straight boom. That way, the railroads wouldn't hire the men with the crooked neck crane," McGee wrote in a memoir.

"They were caught in that move and (workers) had their records cleared by government order. After that, my father and the other union men were able to hire out again," McGee states.

Some Nevadans were able to return to their jobs at the cut back rates of pay which had caused the strike in the first place. The fortunate ones lost no pension rights or seniority.

Others returned at reduced wages with seniority and pensions lost.

"Railroad operations were back to normal by Christmas, 1922," Earl and Rocha wrote.

"The Railroad Strike of 1922 demonstrated the uselessness of the Railroad Labor Board in settling labor-management disputes; the failure of union leaders to achieve their aims led to a crisis of confidence for them; and the decline in Nevada railroad union membership paralleled that of unions in the state's mining industry," the historians commented.

AFTER THE GREAT STRIKE — William E. McGee I, standing inside the Union Pacific depot at Winona, Wash., in 1926. (Photo courtesy of Bill McGee.)
REFORM AND RENEWAL. "Congress adopted the Railway Labor Act in 1926. It created effective mediation and arbitration machinery...the Norris LaGuardia Act of 1932 restricted the power of federal courts to issue injunctions against unions engaged in peaceful 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, which outlawed unfair labor practices and interposed significant obstructions to the organization of company (controlled) unions," Rocha and Earl note.

"Organized labor in Nevada benefited from this legislation. Craft unions...made a comeback in the southern part of the state, and construction of Hoover Dam early in the 1930's and growth at Las Vegas accelerated labor's recovery...locals in Reno were also revitalized, but unions never regained the power and political influence they enjoyed in Nevada prior to World War I and the Railroad Strike of 1922," Earl and Rocha concluded.

INSTANT REPLAY. In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike caused a replay of 1922. As with Warren Harding, the election of Ronald Reagan ushered in an era of unfettered, heyday capitalism. The rich got much richer at the expense of everyone else.

PATCO had endorsed Reagan, feeling it could get a better deal from him than Jimmy Carter. Reagan fired all 13,000 of them within three months of his coming into office, sending a signal to employers nationwide that it was open season on pesky unions.

As Harding appointed company-friendly people to the Railroad Labor Board, Reagan did the same with the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. By the middle of the Reagan years, union and civil rights leaders were calling for abolition of the perverted forms of these once-hallowed bodies.

The anti-government and anti-tax speeches of Ronald Reagan were basically rewrites of the diatribes of Harding's treasury secretary, Andrew W. Mellon, who felt the rich should not pay taxes. His descendant, Richard Mellon Scaife, is the principal funding source for Kenneth Starr and the extreme right's campaign to remove President Clinton.

RIDING INTO THE SUNSET — Bill McGee in the Sparks, Nev., Southern Pacific railyard at the time of his retirement in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Bill McGee)

RAILROAD JOB. If you would understand your community, test its railroad ties. The recently merged Southern Pacific and Union Pacific are implementing a plan to triple the number of trains through Sparks and Reno, running them at double their usual speeds. They will increasingly carry nuclear and other hazardous wastes through the hearts of both downtowns.

As a safety measure against the certain day when a toxic or nuclear spill is delivered by rail to the casino district, the Reno Gazette-Journal has become a huge booster of placing the  downtown Reno railroad tracks in a 2.1 mile trench.

BUILDING A GREAT DEPRESSION. Political and civic leaders want to impose a sales tax hike to cover the huge cost. The lion's share will come from individual taxpayers, another increase in Nevada's patchwork of hidden, regressive levies which hurt the poor the worst.

In 1997, the Nevada Legislature gave local governments the power to raise the tax without a public vote. Officials have been unwilling to place an advisory question on the ballot, where it would surely lose.

As a matter of editorial and publishing policy, the Reno newspaper has refused to inform its readers that two Union Pacific executives sit on the board of directors of Gannett, its parent corporation. One of those directors is Reagan-era secretary of transportation Drew Lewis, architect of the lucrative and disruptive Southern Pacific-Union Pacific merger. Reno Gazette-Journal publisher Sue Clark-Johnson sits on the board of Harrah's, which owns a major hotel-casino bordering the tracks. (See the Barbwires of 9-14-97 and 1-4-98.)

TRENCH WARFARE. Voters are angry at the railroad's refusal to pay a fair share for the safety improvements. Continuing a tradition more than a century old, the company has offered cheap band-aids such as additional pedestrian bridges.

If the badly needed school bonds fail next Tuesday, the railroad will have played a pivotal role in damaging support for education at a time when improvement is critically needed.

UP 1242 photographed in Encampment, Wyoming, 11 July 1946, four days before the birth of the writer of this modest attempt at historical perspective. (Photo courtesy of Bill McGee.)
If gambling continues to proliferate in other states, Nevada needs to diversify its economy. Good rail availability is a major attraction for new industry, but good schools are moreso.

Our principal industry pays the lowest gambling taxes in the U.S. and is likely to remain that way. As Sparks was once a railroad company town, Nevada is now a gambling company town.

Like the railroads which hurt Bill McGee's family, casinos today blackball disfavored employees in the normal course of business. It's still illegal, but it happens all the time.

It took the ascension of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression to win comprehensive rights for American workers. Today, U.S. labor laws rate as the weakest among western industrialized nations. The country's standard of living has eroded along with people's paychecks.

DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN. The parallels between the 1920s and 1980s are almost complete, save for the catastrophic economic disruption which, for two centuries, has always followed decades of capitalistic excess. Perhaps the recent collapse of Asian economies underscores the lesson we have apparently forgotten from the Great Railroad Strike of 1922.

He who does not remember history is condemned to repeat it, as we did, beginning in 1981.

If you would understand your community, test its railroad ties. The steel bloodstream tells no lies.

Andrew Barbano is a Nevada newcomer, having lived in the Silver State just three decades. He is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News. His first contribution to the Sparks Tribune came in 1973. He has written an opinion column for the paper since it became a daily in 1988.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune's annual "Looking to the 21st Century" edition on October 28, 1998.

For more information on the 1922 strike, see "The National Railroad Strike of 1922 and the Decline of Organized Labor in Nevada" by Phillip I. Earl and Guy Louis Rocha in the April, 1986, edition of the "Journal of the West."

Phillip I. Earl may be reached at the Nevada Historical Society, 1650 N. Virginia St., Reno NV 89503; (702) 688-1190. You may contact Guy Louis Rocha at the Nevada State Library and Archives, 100 N. Stewart St., Carson City NV 89701-4285; (702) 687-5160.

To read more about the similarities between the Reagan and Harding administrations, read "America: Who Really Pays the Taxes" by the Philadelphia Inquirer's two-time Pulitzer Prize winners Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele; Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1994.

The best fact-based railroad novel ever written is the Frank Norris muckraker-era classic, "The Octopus," published just a few years before William E. McGee II was born.

Special thanks to the Sparks Heritage Museum and its pioneering volunteers, the ageless Carl Shelly; Orsie and Lois Graves; 850 Victorian Ave., Sparks NV 89431; (702) 355-1144. For a very readable history of the Rail City, go to the museum and read "Reno-Sparks Nevada - a mini-history" by Phyllis Zauner and Lou Zauner, Zanel Publications, 1978.

To the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees/AFL-CIO in Sacramento, Calif., and Denver, Colo.: thanks for moving faster than a speeding locomotive.

Thanks for the help to John McArthur, Railroad Signalmen #179, Fallon, Nev.

As always, to one and all...

Be well. Raise hell.

Copyright © 1998, 2009 Andrew Barbano


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Copyright © 1982-2009 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 40-year Nevadan, editor of and, former chair of the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee and serves as second vice-president, political action chair and webmaster of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his opinions are strictly his own. E-mail

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