Boomer Jack – The Northwestern Pacific’s (NWP) Railroad Dog

Thanks to a kind gentleman named Duane Buckmaster I received a link to the HSU (Humboldt State University) digital library. I typed in the search term “railroad” and 775 entries turned up. Over the course of a couple of weeks I ploughed through all 775. Around number 750 this picture came up on the screen.

Burial site in Willits of Boomer Jack the Railroad dog

Burial site in Willits of Boomer Jack the Railroad dog

My interest was immediately aroused. I did a quick search and this book came up ……..

Legend of Boomer Jack

Legend of Boomer Jack

I thought I had struck gold till I read a description of the book’s contents:

“Somewhere Down the Line: The Legend of Boomer Jack is based on the true story of a dog who rode the lumber trains of Northern California in the early 1900s.

Boomer Jack is a lovable railroad dog who has ridden the rails since he was a pup. Although he belongs to the mayor’s wife, who wants him to be a house dog, Boomer can’t resist the call of a train whistle. Boomer has many friends around the town of Willits, including a kind-hearted station master and a locomotive engineer and his trusty fireman, but no one could love him more than a ten-year-old girl named Sara Parsons. Saddened by the recent death of her father in a tragic train accident, Sara looks to Boomer to ease her loneliness. But she soon discovers that it’s impossible to keep a railroad dog away from the trains for long.

Though Boomer is content to spend his days chasing adventure on the rails, trouble arises for the town when Mayor Belmont, who is also president of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, decides to route his trains around Willits to another town. Meanwhile, Boomer has problems of his own when he is wrongly accused of chasing livestock and Fisk, a boozing dog catcher, sets out to capture him.

After a narrow escape from Fisk, Boomer joins engineer Paddy and fireman Jonsey on a high-speed locomotive ride to San Francisco. The trainmen and their canine companion visit the city and return home with a second dog, Lucky, who becomes Boomer’s new love. Once back in town, troubles escalate for both Boomer and the town of Willits when an angry Fisk tries to take his revenge. In the end, it’s up to Sara to save the day, and learn a most important lesson from Boomer: True happiness is not to possess, but simply to love.”

Clearly the book was based on the real Boomer Jack. Our Willits guru is club member Mike Aplet so I scribbled an e-mail to him asking what he knew about Boomer Jack. Mike, for once, was stumped. Mike sent out a request to friends and he struck gold. Mark Rawitsch sent Mike a link to the North Coast Journal of May 31st 2007. Here is an abbreviated version:

“IT ALL STARTED WITH A DOG.

Lincoln Kilian says he originally unearthed the story of Boomer Jack sorting through clippings in his job as an HSU librarian, a job he’d had since 1966. In 1977, he was transferred to the Humboldt Room, which houses the library’s special historical collections. Part of his assignment in the Humboldt Room at the library was to maintain the pamphlet files. In those files he found an undated story from a defunct local paper about a stray dog that rode railroad trains. He showed it to his then-boss, Erich Schimps, who at the time thought it would make a nice children’s book.

Kilian was intrigued. He was drawn into a search for the true story of this mysterious dog, tracking down one of the old-timers quoted in the story, Reggie St. Louis, who was ailing but still alive, in his late 70s. St. Louis also gave Kilian the names of several other locals who might know more about the legendary hobo dog, who was called Boomer Jack, or Hobo Jack, or Bummer Jack.

Kilian’s obsession with the story was cemented when a train conductor’s widow produced a photo of Boomer Jack’s funeral, a picture where none of the men were identified. It then became in Kilian’s own words, “an intense personal mission” to discover the true story. For months he tracked down old railroad workers throughout Northern California, many in their 80s and 90s, eliciting memories of the peripatetic hound and his travels.

The more he learned, the more he had the feeling that he had uncovered what he called “an all-but-forgotten folk hero.”

Eventually he made his way down to Willits, which was the central stop on Boomer Jack’s run. Thanks to the tip from a local newspaper staff, he found a former Northwest Pacific Railroad man named Bob Brown who remembered Boomer Jack. Brown drove Kilian to the rail yard and pointed out the locale of Jack’s resting place, a landscape which precisely matched the line of hills in the funeral photo. After completing this last part of the puzzle, Kilian finished his book, and the Mendocino County Museum published A Dog’s Life: the Story of Boomer Jack in 1998.

Boomer Jack with friend

Boomer Jack with friend

 

Boomer Jack was independent black bob-tailed dog of uncertain ancestry and no fixed address who appeared in the 1910s, adapting the Northwestern Pacific railroad as his home line. He rode the rails between Trinidad and the San Francisco Bay, and at one point rode cross-country and back. Over the span of 14 years, he was seen everywhere from Blue Lake to Marin. He rode the Eureka streetcars, and he mooched for food on the streets of Arcata. In fact, it was said that he knew the routes of the streetcars in Eureka, and could locate particular railroad men’s houses despite the fact they were located far from the train station.

Boomer Jack

Boomer Jack

What set Boomer Jack apart was his sense of independence and freedom, characteristics that the men of the Northwestern Pacific who fed and cared for him admired. Jack, unlike other railroad dogs of legend, belonged to no one man. He would ride the rails to a particular town, stay for a day or two and be on his way, never overstaying his welcome. He would even, on occasion, ride passenger trains. He ranged far and wide, even staying in a San Francisco hotel after being smuggled in by one of his railroad buddies. Eventually he was discovered and kicked out, but returned to the establishment later to lift his leg and leave his mark.

At one point Jack vanished, his whereabouts unknown. Some thought he had disappeared forever. Then the Northwestern Pacific home office received a telegram from some trainmen located in South Carolina, asking about a dog with a NWP badge on his collar. Boomer Jack had somehow made a cross-country train journey. Relieved that their mascot was still among the living, they wired instructions for his safe return to the West Coast. He was watched over by linemen along the way, and was returned safely back to his home line.

His tenacious instinct for travel continued even after he suffered a severe leg injury from a train fall. His accident elicited sympathy from up and down the line, and a fund was established to pay his medical bills. So much was raised that a bank account was opened up in his name in Eureka. His lame leg slowed him quite a bit, and as he aged he often needed help getting up into a cab. In 1926 in front of the Willits station, Jack was found lying peacefully on the ground by Bob Brown and his fellow workers. A small redwood coffin was fashioned, and he was buried in the switchyard. Boomer Jack was gone.”

Mike Aplet thinks he knows where Boomer is buried – not too far from the Willits High School where his wife Laura works.

Club pres, Chuck Whitlock, is of the opinion that Greg Schindler, The Train Singer, has recorded a song entitled, “Boomer Jack” but his website doesn’t list it. It seems sad thet Boomer hasn’t got a song immortalising him. Perhaps we can incorporate the story of Boomer Jack into our layout.