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Uncle Dick

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Unlike many workers today, when for corporate up and comers three to five years is considered a long time to stay with one company, Richard Adams apparently did not exert any effort whatsoever looking for a better job.

Better known to his co-workers with the International and Great Northern Railroad as "Uncle Dick," Adams hired on with the company in 1871 when it was still just the Great Northern. Fifty-five years later -- yes, a half-century plus five -- he still worked for the same line.

By the spring of 1926, Adams had seen 79 birthdays come and go. And he was still on the IG&N payroll as a crossing gate tender in San Antonio. (This was before the automation of railroad crossing gates when safety, like just about everything else, was much more labor intensive.)

At the time, the IG&N was part of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In its April 1926 issue, that company's employee magazine published an article on Adams along with his photograph under a terse heading that read "55-Year Record." Adams does not look particularly happy in the photo, but maybe he was merely annoyed at the delay in getting back to work.

"Born in County Cork, Ireland," the article noted, "he came to this country as a child. Upon reaching manhood, he went to work in 1871 on what was then known as the Great Northern, which was being constructed north from Houston...with no definite destination in view, it is said, except to connect somewhere with the International Railroad that was then built as far west as Jewett, Texas."

Actually first known as the Houston and Great Northern, the company had been chartered by the state in October 1866. That line merged with the International Railroad in 1873 to become the I&GN. At the time, it had 252 miles of track in Texas. From then on, while Adams continued to toil away, the I&GN remained in a state of relative corporate chaos, surviving receiverships, mergers and several owners until it became part of the Missouri Pacific system in 1922.

The same year the International and Great Northern became one entity, Adams look part in another merger of sorts. In 1873, he was married to Harriet Wisbey of Willis. And 55 years later, their marital train remained on the tracks right along with his career. Clearly, Adams thought switching was something you did with train tracks, not jobs or marriages.

At its peak, the I&GN maintained more than 1,000 miles of track in the state and extended from Laredo to San Antonio, Austin and then on to Palestine. The line also served Houston, Fort Worth and points in between.

Adams' career, thanks to that long-ago in-house publication, is much easier to follow than the I&GN story. He literally started at the ground level doing grade work (which back then depended on pickax and shovel) and then became a track layer. Again, that was manual labor with spikes driven into railroad ties by blows from a sledge hammer.

In time moving into a supervisory role, he became a section foreman and next a yard foreman. Finally, he got promoted to road master.

Having already been with the company for 34 years, in 1905 he became a crossing guard in San Antonio. When the employee magazine ran its piece on him, he was assigned to the gates at Lake View Avenue in the Alamo City.

That job must have been tantamount to being put out to pasture. Before automation, someone with the railroad had to physically lower the protective gates to keep vehicles from crossing the tracks when a train approached. At busier intersections, railroads often had small guard shacks or even watch towers that would make it easier for a guard to see a train coming.

Doubtless boring compared with other work Adams had done for the I&GN, being a crossing guard was no less important a job for the railroad. A train accident meant damaged rolling stock, possible injury or death and often, litigation.

According to that long ago article on Adams, he wasn't even the longest-serving I&GN employee. That honor went to A.R. Howard, the company's treasurer. Howard had already been on the job as assistant paymaster when Adams started with the line in 1871.

How much longer Adams remained with the I&GN, when he died and where he is buried have not yet been determined. But his stick-to-it nature is not in question.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 10, 2017 column

San Antonio's Historic International and Great Northern Depot old photo
San Antonio's Historic I&GN/MoPac Depot
"This photo showing the depot shortly after it was built is hanging in one of the upstairs offices."

- Terry Jeanson, September, 2008

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