This is the fourth of a series of posts on the history of Union Station that we are running this month. The station celebrates its 75th anniversary on May 3.
He’s an Amtrak conductor based at Union Station and has been since 1974. But among his fondest memories is his time as a porter on the trains between L.A. and Chicago.
“I still have my old card that says I’m a member of the Brotherhood of Railroad Sleeping Car Porters – the historic Black union,” he recalled. “If you were a Pullman sleeping car porter you were a man worthy of respect.”
As a porter, Irv Hirsch was in charge of one car. Each cubicle was a seating room during the day. It was converted by the porters to sleeping berths at night. A porter in those days was bellman, maid, upstairs waiter and concierge to the travelers in his car, in Hirsch’s case, on the Amtrak Southwest Chief’s 43-hour trip between Los Angeles and Chicago. The African American porters were men of distinction, Hirsch said, who would have thrived in any career. They were proud of their positions and he was proud to be among the few white porters at the time.
It was a different era in many ways … some good; some not so.
“Union Station in the ‘70s wasn’t derelict,” he said. “It was just sort of old. It was quiet. It had seen better days. It was a reflection of the fact that there was very little train traffic.”
Union Station had been built for long-distance travel. In the days before Metrolink began operating in 1992, there was no commuter rail in Los Angeles. Which meant that as long-distance travel diminished, Union Station became a backwater.
“So it was pretty quiet, except in the morning. By mid-day, you’d have maybe three people walking around,” Hirsch says. “As trains were added – to San Diego and Santa Barbara — it began to change. When they put the [Metro] Red line through, that changed things quite a bit. Now there are lots of people moving around in all different directions – like it ought to be.”
What Hirsch has most enjoyed about working for the railroad is the people he has met. Some were celebrities (Martin Scorsese, Bob Newhart, Christopher Lloyd, Paul Windfield, Jack Palance) but most were just regular people who just happen to like trains. But, then, what’s not to like?
“A lot of times people are looking for an interesting way to get somewhere. It’s an experience of actually traveling. You don’t really have that on an airplane. You’re here; then you’re there. There’s no joy to flying. It’s just a chore.”
Hirsch was in one major accident in all his years on the rails. It was a derailment in Colorado.
“We came around a curve and these guys had a pick-up truck and they were stealing railroad ties. They tried to drive over the track but they high-centered on the track. We came around the corner at 70 to 90 miles per hour. The baggage car turned over. The first coach car snapped around next to the next car. My car came off the track.
“What’s really funny is that nobody ever knew about it. No cell phones. No tweets. No newspaper. No nothing. It was Nov. 19, 1977, and that was the day Anwar Sedat went to Jerusalem. [Sedat was the first Arab leader to visit Israel.] We got to Chicago. Nobody met us. We checked in to our hotel, slept for a few hours and went to report. The guy told me, ‘We wanted you to come in early.’ But it was okay. I wasn’t hurt and I was so happy I wasn’t hurt.’
“Working for the railroad has been for me like an E Ticket. These guys paid me to ride the train and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
“Does anyone know what an e Ticket is anymore?”