The Clever Railroad Engineer

Posted by on Nov 25, 2010 | No Comments

Long before the days of cell phones a clever railroad engineer in my hometown of Auburn, Washington, devised a method to signal his wife that he was almost home. When his train had passed the old  Neely Mansion heading west on the Northern Pacific line he blasted two toots on the engine horn. His home was located a few blocks north of the line, on land currently occupied by the Maple Lane Estates apartments on R Street SE.

His wife would run out to the sun room where she’d wave her biggest tea towel to show that she’d heard him. Ten minutes later she’d pack up three little grandchildren, all sisters, and head down to the Northern Pacific round house in their Dodge coupe to pick him up. The round house was located about two blocks to the west of where Denney’s now stands on Auburn Way South.

Because there was no back seat in the coupe the three little girls stood behind the front seat on the way back to the house. Standing in the back of the coupe was also the same way that they got to the Point Defiance zoo or around on any of their other various excursions. The youngest granddaughter would get tired and try to crouch in the cramped space to rest her little legs.

Nowadays they’d be arrested for child endangerment. But to put it in perspective, seat belts weren’t even an option on Dodges at that time.

Frank Cavanaugh - Moved to Auburn about 1915

Two of those three little girls are now in their 70’s, the other has passed on. The youngest granddaughter in this story has been telling me this story for most of my life, because she wanted to pass on the history of her family, which is my family, because she’s my mother.  

The Auburn Round House in Auburn was torn down in 1987. This past year the last child of that railroad engineer, Frank Cavanaugh, passed away at the age of 91. With her goes some of the stories only known by that generation.

When your family gathers over the holidays I hope you’ll share the tales that make up the history of your family. If you wait, you might lose those stories forever.


  1. Momma Mindy
    November 25, 2010

    I wish my grandparents had talked more, we don’t have any stories from them at all. We have purposed to ask our parents many things and share our personal stories with our kids. Thanks for giving me a great example of why I need to continue this habit!

    • Dennis
      November 25, 2010

      Mindy, Laurie’s dad was a naval officer and a great story teller. But when he passed away in 2001 we lost a lot of those tales. Wish we had written them down or even recorded them.

  2. Connie Mace
    November 29, 2010

    Wonderful how family stories connect us with those who have walked before. When the stories are not so great…filled with pain, hurt, then we can draw a line in the sand. With GOD’s Grace, determine to be the first in the line to leave stories of wonder and remembrance of GOD’s work.

  3. Julie Devine
    November 30, 2010

    I had never seen that picture before of my gggrandpa! I will have to tell this story to my three little kids they will be flabbergasted at the recklessness of no seat belts 😀

    • Dennis
      December 1, 2010

      Julie…A new version of this story is on the Uniquely Auburn website at It has some updates from your great Aunt Patty and Uncle John who identified the train he was driving. The other picture of a train on the Uniquely Auburn pages is also from your GGGrandpa. I’ll send you a copy of both.

      • Julie Devine
        December 1, 2010