Though he looks like an early twentieth century Station Agent, Ken Walden never worked for the railroad.
His well groomed gray beard and wire-rimmed glasses are a reminiscent of a time when the City of Tomball, Texas was a rural community of farmers, prosperous businessmen and employees of the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad.
The dark suit with a pin-striped vest, and gold pocket watch are just what I would have expected to see at the station more than 100-years ago as he stepped forward to meet steam locomotives at the platform with loads of freight and passengers.
No, Ken Walden never worked for the railroad, but this life long train enthusiast still knows more about riding the rails than most . . . after all, Ken is the fact-filled historian of the Tomball Depot and museum.
An illustrator by trade, Ken spends every Sunday afternoon in the restored Tomball Depot by the tracks that run from Galveston northward as they have more than a century. He told me that as a volunteer he regularly shares stories with locals and tourists who wander by for a look or maybe to shoot a photo or two by the old caboose nearby.
He tells the tales of how the Depot was the first building constructed in the tiny railroad town of Peck, Texas, and how on December 2, 1907 Peck was renamed Tomball after Thomas Henry Ball, the man responsible for bringing prosperity to town by way of the railroad in the late 1800s.
Ken’s original hand-drawn illustrations of the old depot, a grandfather walking hand-in-hand with his young grandson along the tracks and other railroad-themed art hang throughout the building.
It was while looking at this art that Ken introduced me to a frequent visitor to the station. His name was Frank, but he’s known as Doug or “Thug” depending on what part of the country he was in. “Frank here is an honest to goodness hobo,” he told me. “He and his wife stop by to say hello when they are passing through.”
Frank smiled and nodded in my direction. His salt and pepper gray bearded face showed the many years of riding the rails. His hands were rough and scarred from fights and grabbing for moving box cars as they rolled down the line. His soiled t-shirt was an obvious souvenir from the road promoting a Gulf Oil gas station in Reno, Nevada . . . “Home of the $4.99 Oil Change!”.
For an hour I listened as Frank told Ken and me tales from the rails. I heard about the hobo camps, life-long friendships and ruthless gangs. The rail yard “Bulls”, or police, that helped the riders and those who would beat them down just for fun. Frank told us about climbing on a train in Magnolia almost 20-years ago and waking up somewhere in New Mexico the next day, then jumping another to wind up in California a day later.
It was a lifestyle that most of us would never image for ourselves, though an occasional thought of leaving it all behind has certainly crossed my mind over the years.
I asked Frank why and he simply said, “I got tired of working all day and giving my money to the government.” Then after a short pause he added, “I can go anywhere that I want for free, and Ive got nobody to stop me.” With that he said goodbye and left the depot for destinations unknown. Ken told me that Frank would be back . . . he always came back when the wanderlust was out of his system.
We continued the depot tour. From the long wooden benches in one of the two original waiting rooms, to the authentic tin ceiling and paint colors both inside and out, the Tomball Depot is as close as can be to those first days more than a century ago.
Typical period railroad décor is displayed on the two tone green walls of the depot among faded and rusted memorabilia from the golden age of rail travel. On exhibit are two gowns worn by Mrs. Thomas Ball to the Presidential inauguration of William McKinley in 1897, along with old handwritten Western Union messages, train orders and other documents found in the depot’s attic during restoration.
The old Tomball Depot is a treasure as is its caretaker. Ken Walden is passionate about the responsibility that he has accepted. But, the real adventure this day was meeting an honest to goodness hobo named Frank, or Doug, or Thug, who shared his stories of traveling the rails.
Tomball, Texas is 25-miles northwest of downtown Houston at FM 2920 and Highway 249. For more information, please visit http://www.ci.tomball.tx.us/, or call 281-351-5484.
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Michael Baxter is the Texas Travelin’ Man at TourTexas.com