Don Warsavage - Person to Person

Chet Lund – The Minot to Portal Toll Line

The following was originally published in the 2015, Issue-2, of the Retiree Guardian, newsletter of the CenturyLink Retirees. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

Chet Lund – The Minot to Portal Toll Line

It was mid-summer in the late 1950’s. Chet Lund, lineman for Northwestern Bell, and four of his mates, plus their foreman were trudging down the railroad tracks eight miles north of Minot, North Dakota. They were sweating with their efforts, carrying hand-lines, slack blocks, two-pound hammers, hand drills, safety belts and straps; not to mention lag screws, nails, coils of wire, brackets and insulators.

“The Minot to Portal” toll line ran for nearly a hundred miles alongside the tracks. Poles carried two cross arms of copper wire and the long-distance conversations between cities. Along with other crews, they were re-transposing four wires on the top cross arm. Transposing required the four wires to be passed over each other at specific intervals to improve transmission. Every pole had to be climbed. The job would take weeks. There was a work ethic involved. Each lineman took his turn climbing, no matter the condition of the pole. A clean pole with no cracks, not too tall and perfectly vertical or a ninety-footer leaning sharply with long splits and splinters — either way, it was “your” pole. You climbed it, did your work and came down.

Things were going well, no mishaps, smooth work on top. Chet, Bob, Vic, Ben and their boss, Richard were professionals. The next view though, brought them to a halt. Three straight poles with re-lections, glimmering out of a soft, muddy, swamp-like mire, as if they had grown from the swampy water. Two of the poles were at each edge, but the center one was smack in the middle of the unexpected slough. It was Ben’s pole. They considered it for a while, especially Ben who’d determined it was maybe hip deep at the base.

This required discussion. Suggestions and counter-proposals were made. A plan emerged. Odd scraps of lumber and some railroad ties were scattered along the edge of the tracks, probably left there by the Great Northern Railroad. The men clustered on their knees and took action, pounding nails, fitting some odd boards and rejecting others.

This crew of linemen manufactured a raft. They lugged, dragged and shoved it to the edge of the water.

Two lay-up sticks were fastened together making a ten-foot pole for Ben to propel the raft. His shoulders were loaded down with equipment. The pouches on his belt were filled with tools. His pole-climbing gaffs were strapped on his boots. Hand lines were attached to the raft. Pushing himself forward through the swampy water on a hot summer day, it was Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, aka Ben.

Chet, a veteran rafter from his youth, assured Ben that the raft would not sink, although heavy with creosote-treated ties, along with Ben’s weighty self. As he sluggishly approached the pole to be climbed, the water rose-up to Ben’s ankles. Ben, not a veteran rafter, decided it was sinking, so he leaped at the pole hoping to jab his climbers into the wood, then climb the pole. He missed. Spontaneous comments erupted from all the men. As Chet recalls they were stronger versions of, “Aw shucks.” But Ben’s splash revealed another relevant fact: the muddy mire was much more than hip deep.

As his mates watched from shore, Ben hauled himself from the swamp and climbed into position at the top of the pole. With the water from Ben’s soaked clothing dripping down the wires below, and running in rivulets down the pole, he successfully completed this unforgettable four-wire transposition.

Back then, railroads tied the country together with passenger trains that earned their famous names: The Great Northern’s: “The Dakota,” The Illinois Central’s: “City of New Orleans,” The CB&/Q’s: “California Zephyr.”

And the Bell System hard-wired cities together with their famously-named toll lines: “The Denver-Salt Lake”, “The Salt Lake-San Francisco”, as well as “The Minot to Portal.”

Chet’s tale is just one of so many stories about what it took to build and maintain the best telephone system in the world in its day.

For Ben, he didn’t bother with the raft on the way back. He slogged heavily through water all the way out — and the men continued their work. At the end of the day Ben showered, and one of the men suggested, “It was about time he cleaned up his act.”