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Growing Up On The Railway In The 1920's

Growing Up On The Railway In The 1920's
The Story of Marjorie Hughes
By Jo Anne Grammond


To Marjorie Hughes, there's nothing unusual about waking up every morning in a different city.

Not a thing different about being schooled by her mother - who could barely read and write English - because the family never stayed in one place more than a month. And it certainly didn't seem odd to call a passenger car home.

Living on the railway was the only life Marjorie had ever known - she was even born on a train, on January 17, 1923 somewhere between Denver and Salt Lake City.


Her father, Unser Koch, worked on the railroad as a conductor almost his entire life. Marjorie's mother, Marie, had emigrated with her family from Italy in 1915 and met Unser just weeks after her arrival in Chicago. The two fell in love instantly and were married within a day.

Growing up as the youngest of four, life on the railroad was an endless adventure for Marjorie. Most mornings, the family was up and working by sunrise. Unser was already guiding the train to its next destination and Marie and the children were doing their part to help get breakfast ready for the other passengers and workers on the train.

Marjorie vividly remembers the laughter that was shared between herself, her mother and her siblings in those early mornings. "I couldn't even tell you what we talked about," she recalled. "But I remember my mother's dark hair pulled back with her cheeks rosy from laughter. Us kids, right by her side enjoying her stories about life in Italy and her own childhood. It was such a fine time."

Before helping serve breakfast in the meal car, the Koch children were allowed to sneak into the engine - one by one - to greet Unser.

"Those were the other most precious moments of the day. I always felt so proud and special walking up to him, hugging his leg. I remember thinking he had to be the smartest man to keep that massive train running. I was always so proud of him."

After breakfast, it was "learning time" for the children. Using books they picked up in towns along the railway, they practiced reading and writing, with Marie stopping by to check on their progress.

"Sometimes, she would sit with us. Since she couldn't read or write English well herself, we'd end up helping each other out. It was school for all of us."

The day continued, interrupted only by lunch, which the Koch family again helped with.

During the day, whenever the train pulled into a depot, the family would typically get out for a stretch. If the stop was long enough, they would go into town to buy food and the occasionally goodie such as a toy or candy.

"I can still hear the slowing sounds of the train and smell the steam as the engine slowed. It was then our hearts started racing because we knew we'd likely be able to run out and play for a bit, hopefully get a treat. It was special to see so many different places and things from inside the train as we traveled, but even more exciting to get out and explore - sometimes places we had never been before."

Unser's train was not on a common path. Sometimes the family took the direct route from Chicago to California. Other times, Texas to Oregon or just rumbling through California

This was the time Marjorie most often got to interact with passengers on the train. "We were always taught to not bother the paying passengers, but sometimes they just looked so interesting, I'd be just dying to talk with them. To hear about them."

Marjorie recalls a stop in Salt Lake City where a young gentleman in Army uniform sat waiting to board.

"I was nine at the time and just so curious. I walked right up and asked him if he was in the military and going to war. He laughed and asked me my age. Then told me about the exciting places he had been abroad and how he was going to training. I will never forget the wide-eyed expressions he had while he spoke. We were both young, but he was going off to do the most grown-up thing I could dream of. But he was excited and so proud."

Evenings on the railway were spent cleaning and relaxing. Unser was typically free after sundown and would join the family, listening to a radio if it was available.

"Within our little car, we lived a very normal life. The only difference was that our home was on wheels and also carried hundreds if not thousands of strangers a year."

The most special gift living on the railway brought to Marjorie was the opportunity to see the country as it grew and developed. Her parents always reminded the children how fortunate they were to experience new places and people.

"By the time I was five, I had made up my mind I was never leaving the railway. Even if I got married. My husband would just have to join us!"

As the years continued, the children grew. One by one, they made the decision to leave the railway life. Marjorie's eldest brother went to work in the mines in California. One sister met a banker on the train and married him when she was 17.

Soon, it was just Marjorie, one more sister and her parents. "We kept the same routine. But as we got older, there were new longer routes; different stops and we took on more responsibility in hosting passengers. It was our family business."

In 1938, Unser made the decision the leave the railway. His eyesight was starting to go, and he was tiring much quicker than before. Marjorie was 15 at the time.

"It was devastating. I couldn't decide if I was mad at my daddy our just sad for him. I couldn't imagine living in one place all the time. It terrified me."

The family settled in Chicago, where some of Marie's own brothers and sisters still lived. Marjorie began attending a real school and experiencing life in a different way.

"I still had wanderlust, and knew that as soon as I was 18, I would travel and live in a million different places."

Marjorie got her wish. In 1941, just a month before her 18th birthday, Marjorie met 23-year-old Arthur Hughes, a warm, outgoing salesman for a tool company. Arthur's job took him throughout the country and to Europe, aboard boats and trains and in automobiles. He spent a year courting Marjorie before asking for her hand in marriage.

"By the time he proposed, I was ready to burst. I loved his travel stories so much as was ready to go with him!"

Marjorie married Arthur in 1942. The couple continued to travel together even after Arthur's retirement until Arthur's death in 1989.

"Arthur was the kind of man that always fascinated me on the trains - polished and sophisticated but with a warm laugh. He smiled a lot and always seemed so easy and calm. His hands were never dirty but he worked hard. In those days, it was rare to find a man of his caliber who just wanted me to be his friend and companion. I didn't have to cook and clean, although I did. I wasn't expected to be a mother and wasn't supposed to be kept. When my parents died in the same year - 1975 - Arthur took care of me. He was the kindest, gentlest person I've ever known."

Today, at 80, Marjorie no longer travels. She lives outside of Denver in a retirement home where she shares her walls are decorated with photos of herself and Arthur in Egypt, Japan, Germany and Australia.

"My life has been so rich, so full. I could fill a book with stories from the places I've been and the people I've met. And it all came from my daddy's working on the railway. That's where the travel bug bit me and it hasn't left me since."


By: Jo Anne Grammond a freelance writer from Arizona.
Copyright © U.S. Legacies 1996-2021

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