by Ross Rowland

I was raised in a small New Jersey town called Cranford, which is on the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CRRofNJ) about 17 miles west of Jersey City. It was a great place to be a youngster who loved trains and especially steam locomotives. The CRRofNJ maintained a yard, turntable and roundhouse in Crawford where they serviced the Camelbacks and Pacifics that pulled the commuter trains into Jersey City, where most riders boarded a ferry for lower Manhattan.

My father worked for the CRRofNJ, and in 1945 he was promoted to Assistant Industrial Agent and moved from Albany, NY, back to the company headquarters in lower Manhattan. He and mom bought a home in Cranford, and I quickly learned that I could get to the roundhouse on a 10 minute bike ride. From age 5 (1945) to age 14, I spent every possible moment learning all I could from the old heads about steam. By age 11 or so they had taught me enough that on bad weather days they’d send me out to get engine X, bring her onto the table and move her into stall number Y. It often meant getting up the air sufficient to make the independent brake work, which sometimes meant raising steam high enough (about 150 psi) to get the air pumps to work, etc. I was in seventh heaven as I was running steam, if only in the yard.

In early December 1954 my father and I got into a significant dispute regarding my girlfriend (later wife), and that night I packed a duffel bag and snuck out of the house at 2 a.m. determined to go to California and a better life. Dad was an officer in the New Jersey National Guard and had obtained used Army uniforms for my brother Bob and I to wear when we volunteered at the local animal shelter. I wore my surplus Army uniform, which included a proper cap, as I knew it would help me get rides as I hitchhiked across the country.

Seven days/nights later I arrived in sunny California, having outrun the APB my father had the New Jersey State Police issue the day after I left.

I lived in the Watts neighborhood and learned a lot about life and staying alive. I worked two jobs, daylight as a dishwasher in a local diner and part time nights in a local slaughterhouse. I slept in a walk-up boarding house and carried all my possessions to work every day, as anything left in the boardinghouse room would be stolen.

Along the way I was offered a job as a “pool boy” at an executive retreat in the desert outside Los Angeles that catered to the leading men of the movie world. The place had two beautiful swimming pools, 10 tennis courts, and a nice clubhouse. The two pools were surrounded by luxurious one-bedroom cottages. We had on staff 15 gorgeous models whose job was to cater to our high-end guests’ every whim.

One of our regulars was John Wayne, who took a liking to me and always left me a $50 tip at the end of his two- to three-day stay.

Fifty dollars was my week’s pay for keeping the poolside bars stocked and the cottages always supplied with fresh towels, ice, etc. About six months into my job there, Mr. Wayne offered me a job on his groundskeeping staff, and I accepted it with pleasure. I quickly became one of his favored drivers and ran many messages for him in addition to working on his maintenance crew. I have lots of great stories of driving him around in California, but those need to wait for my book.

In late 1956 Mr. Wayne convinced me to call my mother and tell her I was all right, which I did. That conversation let me to go back home in early 1957, reconcile with my dad, and get my GED high school diploma and land a job on the commodity futures floor in New York City.

When I left Mr. Wayne, we pledged to each other to stay in touch, which we did.

Fast forward to 1969. I had told Mr. Wayne that I was planning a special train called the Golden Spike Centennial Limited, which would be a steam-powered train running from New York City to Salt Lake City to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the linking of American by rail known as Golden Spike Day. He said he’d like to help me promote it by having the world premier of his latest movie, True Grit, (for which he earned his only Oscar) the night we arrived in Salt Lake City, and said he’d get the Governor to host a banquet for the train and his movie that night (May 9, 1969) in Salt Lake City. He also offered to ride on the Golden Spike Centennial Limited with us into Salt Lake City, which he did.

The movie premier and banquet were great fun, as was meeting many of his co-stars.

He and I spent a good portion of the ride into Salt Lake City on the open-air car enjoying the scenery and the amazing crowds. At every grade crossing there were groups gathered to cheer us on, and he was very moved by it. He said to me “you know, in seven years we’ll be celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday, and we should do a train like this to help take the celebration to the people.” I responded by saying, “if you’ll get the Hollywood crowd on board and help me fundraise, I’ll do the heavy lifting and get it organized.” He said he would, and we shook hands there doing 80 mph to affirm the deal.
We both kept our word. He rounded up many of the then elite Hollywood stars (i.e., Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc.) to become early donors to the AFT Foundation and made numerous phone calls for me. Sadly, his declining health severely limited his physical participation, but he was certainly there in spirit.

He gave me over time a Stetson he wore while shooting True Grit and a 30/30 Golden Spike Commemorative Rifle he was given by Winchester, gifts I treasure as priceless mementos of our friendship.

Now you know the John Wayne connection to the AFT. A healthy, rewarding and steam filled 2022 to all!!!

[This article was originally published January 1, 2022, in and slightly modified by Arlen Sheldrake with approval from Ross for publication in the Pacific Northwest Chapter, NRHS Trainmaster newsletter, Friends of 4449 web site and Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation publications. Todd Schannuth provided the Don Wood photo; Wikipedia the True Grit poster and CRRofNJ logo.]