Tuesday, Jan 15 2013 12:01 AM

Tehachapi telegrapher remembered

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John R. Matthews stands on the loading dock at the Tehachapi Depot where he worked for 22 years. Photo Courtesy of Pat Matthews

Jan. 16 marks the 50th year since John Robert (J.R.) Matthews passed away. His grandson, Pat Matthews reminisced about his family's connection to the Southern Pacific Railroad in Tehachapi. That was an era of Kodachrome color photos, when telephone numbers in Tehachapi used a combination of letters and numbers like TAYLOR-21234 and before people used ZIP codes or seat belts.

Around 1944, the family moved to Tehachapi, where J.R. worked as a telegrapher for the Southern Pacific Railroad San Joaquin Division for nearly 22 years. He lived at 101 E. "I" St., two blocks north and within earshot of rail traffic of the Southern Pacific depot at the corner of Main Street and Green Street. His social circle in Tehachapi included the First Baptist Church and Masonic Lodge 313. In his professional life, J.R. Matthews was a member of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers, along with one of his known associates, Frank A. Nejedly, who worked at the Woodford Depot.

Looking at Internet pictures of the restored depot, his grandson Pat Matthews said he can imagine J.R. slinging his signature Fedora on the desk near the telegraph, his generation's version of text messaging.

"I remember J.R. used to wear khaki pants, khaki shirts and brown hats," he said. "This looked so right for Tehachapi and the high desert."

Before moving to Tehachapi, J.R., born in 1893, worked for his father, Emmett Eugene Matthews, and succeeded him as tax assessor for Cullman County, Ala., in 1929. It is unclear why J.R. packed up his family in the middle of the night and left Cullman in 1931. From stories that Della, J.R.'s wife told Pat Matthews and his brothers and interviews with relatives in Alabama, as well as subsequent research of materials that J.R. brought with him across the country, it appears that J.R. had to flee for safety.

"Although he personally paid for paying the difference for property taxes that he under assessed after the 1929 stock market crash, political rivals burned his house," his grandson said.

J.R.'s family temporarily joined thousands of fruit-picking Dust Bowl migrants in Colorado for a year before settling as itinerant grape farmers in Newhall, for the remainder of the Great Depression, then moved to Tehachapi.

Pat Matthews remembers his dad dropping him off at Union Station, with a suitcase and 10-speed bicycle, as he headed for Tehachapi by rail to spend the summer of 1961 at granddad's.

"From L.A. to Newhall, Saugus, Palmdale, Lancaster, Mojave and Tehachapi. Good bye, Whittier, Hello, Tehachapi," he said. "The train conductor was cool, the opposite of today's Amtrak experience. No more real passenger trains ride these rails, but the MetroLink commuter takes the same route from Union Station to Lancaster. No clickity-clack on the railroad track, either, thanks to better welding methods," he added.

Pat's sister, Kaycee, lives in Ranch Cucamonga. She remembers taking the train to Tehachapi and enduring motion sickness.

"One thing I never forgot," she said, "the train whistle and the sound of the train on the tracks: clack, clack, clack. J.R. met us at the depot and walked us to the house. I do remember their green parrot, Barney, perched in the enclosed porch area where we had to bathe in a washtub. I was terrified of that bird after he bit Cousin Annie."

J.R. owned cabin rental properties on the south side of East "I" Street that Pat's mother says were built with lumber salvaged from the Manzanar internment camp.

"Going to Bakersfield was a very big deal," Pat said. "In reality, the only thing 'big' in Bakersfield was the Sears store.

His grandfather's work sometimes added interest to the visit.

"One time, I clearly recall, Grandpa got a call at the house and hollered 'wreck on The Loop.' We piled into the Ford wagon and zoomed to Keene. The wreck was awful, railcars scattered everywhere. We never got close enough to understand the magnitude of the wreck, but I learned much later that the locomotives got buried in the hill."

Visits also included a walk up to the depot to say "hi" to grandpa and maybe get a pear or peach at the produce warehouse across the way.

"I remember crossing the tracks when a train was coming," Pat said. "I got locked in on the locomotive light and was unable to identify which track the train was on, I didn't stop running till I was way past the tracks."

At night on "I" Street, the temperature would drop and the high desert wind would moan through gaps in the wooden window frames of the two-bedroom, gray asphalt shingle-sided corner home, Pat said.

"When I heard the locomotive horn blowing, I would rush to the front door, drop to my knees, and watch the train and flashing signals through the open flap of grandma's brass mail slot."

Pat has some memories of Tehachapi at his Colorado home.

"Some of my grandfather's railroad relics from his days at the Tehachapi subdivision that I inherited decorate my boys' room," he said. These include a telegraph receiver, an Adlake padlock, and two Adlake lanterns, several copies of Southern Pacific magazine, and an April 1961 timetable.

"Recently I bought an original Southern Pacific diner car ceramic mug on eBay that I use for my morning coffee and pause for a moment to think about what life must have been like for J.R. and Della," he said. "Perhaps today's compact discs, PCs, and LCD televisions will seem just as antiquated to my future grandchildren." Photo Courtesy of Pat Matthews

John R. Matthews stands on the loading dock at the Tehachapi Depot where he worked for 22 years.

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