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Montana gandy dancers

April 2, 2015

At one point in the summer of 1969 I returned to Missoula, Montana, from Seattle on a freight train to unexpectedly find a real job with a Northern Pacific Railroad steel gang. In those days, before railroads were able to grind worn rails with a special machine the size of a diesel train engine, worn rails had to be removed and replaced by a group of men under the supervision of a very tough boss. Our boss’s name was Jim Wiedehoe. My brother called him “the Weeda.” Other laborers worked on “tie gangs,” but not us.
We steel gang folks called ourselves Gandy dancers, a traditional name. There were 2 kinds of workers on our crew. Spoiled white liberal arts major college students like John Herman, my brother and 5 or 6 friends, and me; and grimy old railroad guys, whom we adored and treated with much deference. Us laborers operated hand tools. The old guys operated power tools and drove the machines.
Here’s where the traditional “Gandy dancer” came from, we were told. Our hand tools, like spike malls, heel claws, wrenches and a 3- or 4-foot bar with numerous notches. (This last looked like a big glass cutter or can opener that could engage the side of a rail numerous ways to lever it over, rolling it.) We were told that the tools had been originally made by the Gandy Tool Company of Chicago.
When I got offered the job my friend John Herman had just returned to Missoula from Seattle with wages he earned on a crabbing boat while it was in port. Our other friends, like Larry Felton and Skip Reising, had shipped out to Alaska for the season.
John spent all of his money to rent an apartment near the University of Montana and bought a 1920s-era rusty panel truck that barely ran.
Getting a job on the railroad was almost too good to be true! After filling out the necessary N.P. paperwork, he and I set out on a Thursday afternoon to catch up with the railroad section crew about 80 miles up the river, in the Little Blackfoot Valley, at Avon. The panel truck quit running numerous times.
We got to Avon about 10 hours later, broke. I found my brother Tom and his friends who also had no money for us. He showed us an outfit car, that looked like a freight car, only it had windows and a floor for workers like us to live in. It had a couple of beds without mattresses, just springs. Luckily John and I had sleeping bags. We had no food. There was a store in Avon, but it was closed after about 6. Tom gave us some breakfast cereal, but he had no milk. Did I mention that we had no money?
John Herman and I were pretty hungry by Friday evening, when one of Tom’s friends gave us a ride back to Missoula. When John got his panel truck back to Missoula a week later he parked it in a residential neighborhood, removed the license plates, and we

John Herman and Skip Reising play guitar on a porch in Seattle in 1969.  Bill Yenne photographed them when they had time off from working on the crabbing boat.

John Herman and Skip Reising play guitar on a porch in Seattle in 1969. Bill Yenne photographed them when they had time off from working on the crabbing boat.

walked away.

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