He was sitting on a bench outside the recently restored railroad Depot in Hearne when I walked up with my camera in-hand. I nodded hello and he returned the gesture.
The Depot was nice. From the fresh paint and well manicured landscaping, to the attention given to authenticity, I was impressed.
I circled the historic yellow and brown building then took shots of the crossed sections of track out front signifying Hearne’s history as a cross-road for the railroad as lines traveled from north to south and east to west across Texas.
It was when I went to shoot an old railroad handcar mounted on a section of track alongside the Depot that he first spoke to me. “Want me to take your picture?” he asked in a slow drawl. “Climb up there and I’ll take your picture if you want.”
He was a gray mustached older gentleman, dressed in jeans and boots, with wide blue suspenders that almost glowed against a faded red shirt. On his red trucker cap was an embroidered patch sporting an old-style steam locomotive and the words “Progress Through Safety, Southern Pacific”.
I told him that I appreciated the offer, but would really like to take his photo on the handcar if he didn’t mind. He agreed and stepped high onto the car with the ease of a much younger man.
I got my shots and as he stepped back down to the track bed below he introduced himself as Bobby Jack Middleton, my guide for day if I wanted to take a look inside the Depot. As we walked Mr. Middleton explained that he was born and raised just a few miles north of Hearne in Calvert. He told me about leaving the small town long ago and working the rails for almost 40 years as a track maintenance man from one end of Texas to another.
As we talked Mr. Middleton showed me rooms of display cases filled with items such old oil lamps used by conductors and engineers many years ago. There were railroad signs on the walls, old freight carts loaded with authentic steamer trucks and well worn suitcases, and memorabilia from a time when the Western Union telegraph was as common as text messaging is today. The restored Western Union office inside the Depot is a near exact replica of how it once was according to my guide. And he should know . . . he remembered when this office was fully operational.
After my tour we continued to talk about his adventures on the rails and how, though it had been a tough life, it had been a good one.
Bobby Jack Middleton is a retired railroad man who found his way home to a small town in Texas. And, sitting quietly on his bench outside the old Depot in Hearne, he is the sort of character that makes traveling Texas so special.
Michael Baxter is the Texas Travelin’ Man
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