Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Remembrance: Legacy of John P. Harrison & The Frisco Railroad

                Copyright 2009, The Hopelessly Hooked Genealogist (B. Harrison)


In honor of Father's Day just passed, I have decided to contribute an article on my paternal grandfather, John P. Harrison, 1865- 1942 . My grandfather died long before I was born. However, I have come to know the essence of the man through reading his journal, and from oral memories related to me by my father and my aunt.

John Pettis "Pinkney" Harrison was born 4 March 1865, in DeSoto, Missouri. His parents were John Milton Harrison (Union Civil War Veteran) and Mary Jane Coppedge, of Maries County, Missouri. John was born during the final years of the Civil War, shortly before the Confederate resistance ceased and the war ended.

In about 1894, John married Susannah "Susan" Allen of Phelps County, Missouri. He was about 29 years of age, and she was 19, when they wed. They became the parents of nine children, one of whom died in early childhood. At the time of their marriage, Grover Cleveland was President of the United States; Thomas Edison had just demonstrated the first moving-picture camera; and Hawaii had just become recognized as a republic.

John was a proud, hard-working family man. He came from Missouri farm stock, and had been instilled with a strong work ethic by his own parents. John grew up on a farm, but later earned his living with the "Frisco" railroad in Missouri, (officially known as the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad Company). This railroad originally bore the name of the Atlantic & Pacific before the Civil War. John began his life-long railroad career with the "Frisco" in 1892, at the age of about 25, and approximately two years prior to his marriage to Susan. At about the time of his marriage, the railroads were embroiled in a nationwide strike and labor dispute overseen by the powerful American Railway Union. It is not known whether John was at that time among the 150,000 members of this union, but this strike surely affected his early career. John later became a member of the Brotherhood Of Linemen & Engineers union. In the year 1921, John's wage statement from the railroad indicates that he earned a total income of $2133.44 for that year. His children recalled that throughout John's career and union membership, there were many railroad labor disputes resulting in strikes and layoffs affecting John and his family. John worked hard and provided adequately for his wife and many children throughout his railroad career, though frugality was the norm. There were times of financial harship, especially during the Depression years.

John P. Harrison left behind a simple journal, entitled "Ledger", in which he briefly recorded the momentous events of his lifetime, as well as his employment record and history with the "Frisco". In this journal, John also recorded family records, recipes, and his favorite home remedies for medicinal purposes and houshehold repair. One of John's favorite poulstices was "A good Linement For Man Or Beast: To a pint of kerosene, add five-cents worth of camphor gum and let stand overnight. Add one half pint of sweet oil, shake well and it is ready for use. For burns, stiff neck and sore throat it has no equal. Fine for raw sores on man or beast".

Regarding his railroad career, John wrote in his journal simply: "Seniority on RR: Began as Fireman at Newburg, MO on Frisco from Aug 1, 1892 to Feb 4, 1895. - As Fireman at DeSoto, MO on Iron Mountain from Dec 15, 1895 to Feb 4th, 1900. Permoted (sp) and Engineer from Feb 4th, 1900 to about Jan 1903- the date I have not got. Then hired as Engineer at Cape Giradeau (MO) Oct 2nd, 1903. Resigned Oct 1, 1906. Rehired same place March 13th, 1907. Was taken out of service by same officials at Chaffee (MO) on Nov 23rd, 1923. Reinstated on Dec 16th (1923) with all seniority rights. Then taken out again same charges by officials at Springfield (MO) and reinstated with all seniority rights on 23rd January, 1924. Cut of Engineers about 1933, date I haven't got. Placed on crossing watchman job in St. Louis (MO) on June 27th, 1933, and retired at age 70 on pencion (sp) May 31st, 1935. " There had apparently been some kind of a labor-related dispute in which John was involved, during which time his credibility as an engineer had been questioned. Perhaps this had to do with a railway accident of some sort? We do not know. However, the issue was later resolved in John's favor, and his position and seniority were restored.

What is unspoken in John's brief account of his railroad career above, is that John and Susan Harrison raised their family during the years of the Great Depression. Their youngest children, one of which was my father Marvin Milton Harrison, had vivid memories of the hardships exprienced by John and Susan Harrison and their family during those Depression era years. John was apparently lucky enough to remain employed with the railroad and working steadily to provide for his family during most (but not all)of the Depression. Still, times were tough for everyone. My father, Marvin, recalls many meals consisting of "just beans and biscuits, and glad to get it". John was "taken out of service" for a period of time during the Depression, however we do not know if this was due to a union labor dispute, or due to financial cutbacks and layoffs experienced by the railroad. This did result in financial hardship for the family, at a time when John was in his sixties and nearing retirement, and John's wife was in seriously ill-health.

As yet, I have been unable to obtain copies the railroad company's records as this railroad is now defunct, and their records from that period of time were not preserved. However, we do have the records preserved by John himself. In his journal/ ledger, John recorded a receipt for financial assistance he received from his union brothers at the B. of L. E. during the Depression-era, on August 2nd, 1930. About 40 of John's union brotherhood had donated funds with the following message: "On account of sickness in his family for the past year, and having been out of service since June 20 (1930), and being in need of financial assistance, We the undersigned members of the B. of L.E. wish to contribute the amounts opposite our names to the relief of our Brother, John P. Harrison". John's wife Susan died 3 years later from a long-term illness.

John spent the majority of his railroad career as a Lineman and Engineer. Shortly before his wife's death, John was transferred with the railroad to St. Louis, MO for a position as a crossing watchman in 1933. There he ramined until his retirement two years later in 1935, at age 70. John was extremely proud of his life-long career with the railroad. He saved his retirement pension notice and tucked it into his journal/ ledger. John's last hand-written entry in his journal reads: "Thanks a lot. I am well pleased. Glod Bless the Frisco."

John also left instructions in his ledger for family to follow at his passing. John wrote: "This is my request to whom it may concern: at past the age of 70, at my death please don't bury me at DeSoto. I don't care to be buried there.- just anyplace else that is most convenient to you. And, please bury me in just a blue suit of over-clothes like I wore to make a living for my family. Don't let the funeral cost over $100, as that is enough to bury me when times is so hard as ever. (signed)- John P. Harrison, 2901 Caroline St., St. Louis, MO. John, ever frugal, later added a post-script as follows: "P.S.- I prefer to be cremated. That will cost $50. Don't care what is done with the ashes". John's family honored his final wishes. His ashes were interred at a cemetery in St. Louis, MO.

At the time of John's passing, Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the U.S., and the nation was embroiled in WWII. I have no personal memories of the grandfather that I never met, but feel fortunate that my aunt preserved his ledger/diary so that future generations would get to know some glimpse of the character of their ancestor. It enables me to comprehend the emotional scars that the Great Depression left on the people who lived through it, including my own father; who like his father John P. Harrison was a frugal man to the end.