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Nostalgia & History > Tribute to a tower man

Date: 09/30/04 14:48
Tribute to a tower man
Author: MacBeau

Not long ago, I learned through this discussion board that Frank Eckler, long time tower man at Colton had passed away. While searching out a negative, I chanced upon this shot of Frank working West Yard Tower. I post it now in memory of all the wonderful trains he let me line through his plant, and the even better yarns he spun in between them. One of my favorites occurred when Frank was with his uncle’s band. As Frank told it, he and his uncle were rooming on the road together and Frank awakened one morning in time to watch his uncle hit a flask of whisky before even rising out of bed. Unable to resist this new glimpse of the adult world, Frank asked him, “Uncle, how can you do that before breakfast?” His uncle blithely replied, “Nephew, that was breakfast.” The subject of Tokyo Rose came up one night, and between the westbound Super C and the eastbound Sunset Limited, I got a history lesson I’ll never forget. To those who knew him, thank you for passing along the sad news of his demise, but thank you too for affirming that he shared his humorous view of life with so many others.

Date: 09/30/04 21:15
Re: Tribute to a tower man
Author: santa-fe-steam

Sorry to learn of Frank's passing. He was a great guy to talk to really seemed to enjoy the job. His skill at keeping the traffic flowing was about as good as it gets. I remember one day a UP 3 unit turbine heading east being held at Colton for an unusually long time. UP and SF trains were having to be ran around the train, plus the unbelievable noise that had to be contended with being parked so close to the tower. Frank was calling everybody he could find to get the turbine moved as he couldn't hear on his phones when calls were coming in. The only time I can recall seeing him really stressed out.

Didn't Frank also do some pretty fair precision carving of steam locos out of wood? I remember a very nicely done Daylight being worked on one night in the tower, but can't remember if it was Frank or the other swing trick operator. I was amazed at the accuracy of what appeared to be a O scale GS-4, especially the quality of the drivers and frame, and all done without aid of any machinery.

Date: 10/01/04 18:01
Re: Tribute to a tower man
Author: MacBeau

I never saw Frank carving on a steam engine, but I watched him repair a lot of bisque doll heads over the years.

Date: 10/01/04 19:28
Mr. Frank Eckler
Author: Steamjocky

I had known Francis Eugene Eckler since he came to Colton Tower in 1965. I knew his wife, Betty, and their son, Greg.

Frank was a farm boy from Ravenna, Kentucky. He grew up on the family farm and, like MacBeau has said, he did play in a band with his uncle. Frank even taught me a few things about a guitar. It was amazing! I didn't think he could still play. Little did I know Frank had a beautiful blonde Gretch (I think) electric guitar he sometimes played at home. I would sometimes visit him at his home and we would talk and he'd always show me something new on his guitar.

When WWII broke out, Frank enlisted in the USMC and was in the 1st Marine Division and fought in all of the major battles in the Pacific. He told me about how the Japanese would sneak about at night and try to kill the Americans while they were in their foxholes. He told me how he got that scar on the inside of his left wrist from a Japanese bayonet while in combat. He also told me how he and some of his fellow Marines were shot at by Marine and Navy pilots while manning an aircraft battery on the beach of some Pacific island. Another case of mistaken idenity or friendly fire.

After WWII, Frank got a job at Cincinnati Union Terminal. He worked there until coming to California in 1946 where he met his wife Betty, who was the daughter of a Santa Fe engineer.

Frank worked all of the usual places on the Santa Fe as a telegrapher/towerman on the LA Division. He worked Mission Tower, Redondo Tower, and everything in between.

I met him when he came to Colton. He wasn't really qualified to operate Colton Tower according to the signal maintainer, Rube Boliver. I told Rube that if he'd "ok" Frank, I'd be there every day after school for a couple of weeks to help him out. Needless to say, Frank didn't have a problem catching on.

He showed me his collection of hand carved steam locomotives he had been making for the last 25 years or so. I don't remember when he started doing it but I do know that the first one he did was of an L&N 4-4-0. At least I believe that's what it was. That was a very long time ago and my memory banks aren't quite as good as they used to be. He did that one because he started his railroad career on the L&N. He ended up with about 12 steam engines all carved out of wood by hand. No supplies were purchased. He made these engines out of pieces of scrap wood he'd find in the dirt or on the ground somewhere. The only thing he bought for these engines was the paint. He had, among others, an SP Cab Forward, an AT&SF Pacific (or Hudson), and eventually, around 1976, he built a GS-4 with plans I got for him out of an issue of MODEL RAILROADER. That engine, including the tender, took him almost a year to build by hand. Remember, no supplies were purchased. A little piece of wood here, a little stray piece of wire here for an air line or a grab iron and before you knew it, there was a GS-4 added to his collection. All of his engines were in S scale. Why S scale? I have no idea. I just know they were.

If you were a railfan in the 1960's and you were around Colton, you just had to know Frank. That's where I met John Signor and his friend, Bo Golson in 1965.

It's really a shame that all of the railfan community in Southern California didn't get to know Frank the way I, and others, did. He was a wonderful man and I'm proud to have called him my friend. He and one other adult male, when I heard of their passing, made me cry like a baby. That was more traumatic to me than when my own father passed away. I think about him every October 9th. That was his birthday.

I apologize for this being so long but like I said, he was a great and patient man. Everybody should have known him.


Date: 10/01/04 21:03
Re: Mr. Frank Eckler
Author: santa-fe-steam


Thanks for the memories. You rattled my memory enough to recall being shown the cab-forward. The Daylight was easy to remember as I saw it quite a few times and when it was finished. It was the most skilled woodworking project I have ever seen. Frank even had the enclosed cab on the model, not cutting any corners in the detail. It's been almost 40 years since Frank began his work at Colton. Doesn't seem nearly that long. My first summer of work for the SP was in 65.

I also Met Bo at the tower, but never John. Saw Bo from time to time until about 1976 or so when he took a transfer to Dunsmuir. I remember just before he left SoCal he bought his mother a new car so she would have reliable transportation while he was gone.

When you are privileged enough to be able to visit and talk with such a great guy in a environment as interesting as Colton Tower it leaves an impression not easily forgotten.

When you are visiting with people like Frank the time also flies by too quickly. It would have been great to have sat down with Frank over several evenings and try to document all the interesting events he witnessed while working for the Santa Fe. He was a great storyteller and I'm sure would have enjoyed the conversation. I recall talks about the turbines, the GM Aerotrain, SP's Blue Streak, SF's and UP's SD24's when they were new, which Frank could easily tell was on a train half a mile away because of the new turbo whine they emitted.

Chard Walker has given us a great glimpse of life at Summit through his published books. Frank Eckler's stories would have been an easy equal for some very interesting reading and preserved some of the history of busy interlocking plants like Colton as well as Frank's legacy.

Date: 10/01/04 22:47
Re: Mr. Frank Eckler
Author: Steamjocky

And speaking of books......

Frank started to write a book about his family. He had started the story back in the 1600s or 1700s with a little Indian boy names Sonioto (Sawn-e-O-to) and, at the same time, he was telling how his family name of Eckler had come to North America from Germany. Somehow, the story of his family coming from Germany and the little Indian boy were going to come together. The book, which didn't have a title, started out with, "The hunt was very successful. Sonioto had done very well for a young man." Whenever I'd call Frank on the phone, I'd always say, "The hunt was very successful" when he picked up the phone. That would always make him laugh a little. I never did know what happened to his story. I do know that he had written about 40 pages or so. I found it quite interesting.


Date: 10/06/04 17:48
Re: Mr. Frank Eckler
Author: Wildebeest

I think I was the one who posted notice of his passing -- it was around 1997 that I was told he had died recently at about age 80, after being roughed up by some punks who were trying to rob him. This was reported to me by K. E. Anderson. I don't know any more details.

John (Steamjocky), you obviously knew Frank much better than I -- I heard about his carved engines, but I never saw any of them. Does anyone have any photos of them? I wonder what happened to them? I expect that by now, Betty has also passed away -- but does anyone here know his son, Greg?

I was part of a bunch of railfans from the La Mesa Model RR Club in San Diego who used to stop by Colton Tower to visit Frank after a day on Cajon, sometimes enjoying the company there of Summit operator Chard Walker. Sometime around 1965 or '66, one of our more gregarious members decided to brave the stairs on the tower to see if the operator would let us in. When he opened the door, Frank was sitting there with a phone on each ear, but he smiled and said "Com'on in!" I learned a lot of railroading "as it used to be" from Frank.

I visited him at Riverside Junction a couple of times after Colton was closed, but I didn't know he worked West Yard. I'd forgotten his plaid thermos until I saw the photo. I have a slide or two of Frank that I'll scan and post here when I can find 'em.

David Willoughby

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