• Art Nomura

Chapter 11, segment 1 of 2, The Railroad, Part 1

The post-WWI working environment in the Pacific Northwest had worsened significantly by the time Mizuko and her family returned from Japan on November 4, 1920.

Unable to afford accommodations in Seattle’s Japantown, they settled on a rented room eight blocks east of the Japanese enclave on the 1200 block of East Jackson Street.

With her thirteen year-old stepdaughter Chiyoko competently caring for baby Yoshiko, Mizuko found work as a teamster, driving teams of horses to clear dynamited stumps from land on the expanding edges of Seattle.

Because of the post WWI depression, the local rail yards reduced their staffing to skeleton crews and Kazuichi could not get steady employment. He searched for odd jobs in Japantown but mostly hung out in the local bars and gambling dens.

Beyond lamenting their mutual unemployment, the bar habitués did occasionally share information on job opportunities. In early December Kazuichi heard of the promise of steady railroad work in Deer Lodge, Montana.

The federal government had commandeered the nation’s railroads during the U.S. involvement in WWI starting in 1917. It maintained control for three years until 1920 when railroad operations were returned to their respective private owners. One of the problems of government control was that federal overseers did the bare minimum of maintenance work on the railways while they were in charge. Consequently, a tremendous backlog of repair and renovation had become the rail operators’ biggest challenges as each railway returned to peacetime operation.

Since the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a reliable labor force to do the hard labor of maintaining the railway in remote areas had become more and more difficult for employers to find. Japanese immigrant laborers, with a reputation for putting in an honest day of hard work, were among those actively recruited by the Milwaukee Road railway in the remote mountainous areas of Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

“Housing is included,” Kazuichi added, one evening after Mizuko had returned home from grueling teamster duties.

“What kind of housing?” Mizuko asked tiredly.

“There’s a village of houses the railroad owns,” he continued. “We can have our pick.”

“Doesn’t that seem too good to be true?”

“It’s guaranteed,” replied her husband, his voice rising.

Mizuko, recognizing that Kazuichi had already made up his mind about the move, dropped the matter and resigned herself to yet another relocation.

In December of 1920 Kazuichi, Mizuko, Chiyoko and baby Yoshiko, with their meager belongings in hand, moved to Montana. Deer Lodge, population 3,780 (per 1920 census), a was a high valley town in western part of the state. After an arduous two-day journey by train, they arrived at their remote, cold destination.

Their assigned ‘house’ for the winter turned out to be a strange semi-subterranean dwelling. Three-fourths of the house was below ground level, with only the upper fourth and rounded roof visible.

The idea behind its design was to save on building material, while taking advantage of the relatively warmer temperature below the ground. The temperature in the house did remain constant during the winter, but its damp, dark, and smokey interior was far from ideal.

Kazuichi had taken ill right before the journey to Montana. He arrived in Deer Lodge with a fever and in no shape to work. The biting cold of the early Montana winter cut through the family’s warmest clothing like it wasn’t there. After living at or near sea level for years, the thin air at the town’s 4,500-foot altitude sapped everyone’s energy and made Kazuichi dizzy.

Mizuko had long ago reconciled herself to the fact that her husband was a sporadic worker at best. She realized that his meager earnings, even when healthy, were not usually adequate to support his family.

Faced with the reality of no income at all while her husband was ill, Mizuko made the decision to get a job for herself. Donning her husband’s work clothes, shoes, and hat, she went to the office of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St.Paul, and Pacific Railway the following morning.

As a group of potential hires gathered outside the office, no one recognized that Mizuko was a woman. Since she was as tall or taller than most of the Japanese men and had a naturally low voice and an earthy way of speaking, everyone assumed that she was another male job seeker.

The workforce in Deer Lodge was overwhelmingly made up of Japanese bachelors. The idea that a woman would apply for the demanding work of railway laborer was inconceivable. This assumption assured that Mizuko’s deception would succeed.

After a brief meeting with the hiring agent Mizuko left the office as a railroad employee.

Those new hires that had previous railroad experience were assigned to the mobile rail gangs, while Mizuko and a few others new to the railroad were relegated to lower paying jobs in the Deer Lodge rail yard. Ironically, she was assigned to the sand house, doing the same type of work that Kazuichi had done for two years in Othello, Washington before the family’s last trip to Japan.

The output of the sand house was especially important in the mountainous west, where snow and ice covered the tracks for much of the year and level track was the exception rather than the norm. Without the added traction the sand provided on the smooth steel rails, trains could not traverse the freezing, mountainous terrain.

Her co-worker at the sand house was a taciturn, old Italian man named Carlo who demonstrated what Mizuko was expected to do with a few laconic gestures. For ten hours a day, Mizuko shoveled and carried sand in and around the sand house. It was tedious, hard labor, especially shoveling the damp sand into the big drying oven. Locomotives preparing to depart pulled up to the sand house to take on their loads of dry sand. A pressurized hose pumped the sand into a tower above the locomotive’s sandbox, but mechanical failure often meant loading the tanks manually with heavy buckets hand-carried up a twenty foot ladder. The sand house job meant working in temperatures ranging from the blazing heat of the sand furnace to the freezing cold outside.

On average she made 14 cents an hour or $1.40 per ten hour day, six days a week. If the volume of trains increased and overtime was required, there was no extra pay.

end of Chapter 11, segment 1 of 2, 'The Railroad, Part 1'

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