Driving The 9:50 Home
by George F. Smith

It was in the late sixties—I was Chief Engineer on the Tug John F. Stevens for the Dredging Division and we were having work done at the Industrial Division at Mt Hope. We worked late this night, so I had to catch the 9:50—the last train out of Colon, so I called my wife in Gamboa to let her know that I would be on the train getting into Gamboa at 10:40.  Then having plenty of time, I strolled over to the Mt Hope train station.  It was a beautiful tropical evening as only those  who had spent time in the Zone remember. The ocean breeze was gently blowing and as I passed  the Mt Hope Cemetery walking to the train station, I could see the train coming down the track from Colon pulling into the station at 9:53. As the engine slowly passed I heard someone yell “Hey, George."

I looked up into the engine and the engineer Herbie Rose motioned for me to come on up. When the train came to a stop, I walked down the track to the engine and he said to come on up. By then my heart was going like a trip hammer with excitement. I climbed on up into the cab and Herbie said, " Ride up here with me."  I was so excited I could hardly talk. When the conductor gave Herb the signal to leave for Gatun, Herbie said, " Go ahead drive her."  He showed me what to do and told me just take it easy. He then blew the whistle and I gently gave her the throttle and could feel the power as the engine moved ahead taking up the slack between the cars and we started to move out of the station. Gradually with Herb watching and guiding my every move, we picked up speed, tooting the whistle as we crossed Mindi Dock Road, then Keyes Road,  going by Ft. Davis, then on our way to Gatun crossing Jadwin Road, School House Road, then Light House Road and each time tooting the whistle.   I know that night it must have sounded extra loud.

As we pulled into Gatun Station with the Gatun Locks on our right then looking out towards Gatun Lake we pulled in right on time at 10:03 PM. When we got the signal to leave, we headed on out of the station passing the Gatun Yacht Club and Dock 45 on the right, then headed for Monte Lirio due in at 10:16; then on out towards Frijoles—this train only stopping on signal at Frijoles station at night.  

I cannot describe the thrill that I was having as our light cut thru the night passing thru the jungle on our left and the Panama Canal on the right, looking down  the canal reach with the buoys lighting the way for the ships and the night air coming in thru the cab of the engine.  As we passed a few ships we gave each a lonesome cry on the whistle. Then as we were coming up on Gamboa, due in at 10:40, we came into the Dredging Division Area— the main office on the right looking out on the canal, passing all the equipment in the storage area, then the town of Santa Cruz on our left crossing by the main guard gate into the Dredging Division, then the Gamboa Commissary and into the station. There on the platform was standing the Canal Zone policeman who always met the trains both ways. I was told that this was a custom from back in construction days when they never knew what to expect from the gallant men who built the canal.

As we eased into the station I could see my wife Gisela standing on the platform and as we passed by I hollered down to her and she looked up with a startled look at me that said, “What has he gone and done now ”? I then shook Herbie's hand and I knew by the smile on his face that he knew how happy and excited I was. As I climbed down from the engine, I wished that I had told my wife to drive on into Balboa so that I could have driven the train completely across the Isthmus of  Panama— by the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores  Locks, thru the Miraflores tunnel by Morgan Gardens, Corozal and then into Balboa Station. Looking back at my more than 76 years, I’ve been in all seven of the world's continents, been to so many different places and seen so many things, but I think the train ride rates right near the top in my life. And just think about it – I was getting paid for doing most of it.

May 28, 2001