Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A rail landmark for the Melonas men

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A BNSF grain train passes the new siding at Melonas, Wash.

BNSF has honored three generations of railroaders with a new siding in Washington State.

A new place name has been added to BNSF Railway’s system map following the December 2017 completion of Melonas Siding in the Columbia River Gorge of southwestern Washington State. The 9,800-foot-long siding required 46,000 cubic yards of fill, two bridges, new PTC installations, and of course, rails, ties, ballast, etc., for a total cost of $11.6 million.

That’s money well-spent on a route that carries the lion’s share of BNSF traffic to and from the Pacific Northwest, and a name much-deserved for the three generations of railroad men who have served BNSF and its predecessors. BNSF President and CEO Carl Ice tells Railway Age, “Investing in our infrastructure is one of the most important things we do. With Melonas Siding, we honor the many contributions of the Melonas family.”

In 1906, at the age of 18, Kostandinos “Gust” Melonas emigrated from his native Greece, eventually hiring on with a track gang that helped build one of the most difficult segments of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. James J. Hill, the legendary “empire builder” of the Great Northern Railway (which supported development of the SP&S as an alternate route linking GN with southern parts of the West Coast) was said to have visited the Melonas construction camp on two occasions, commenting favorably about the Greek food he was served there. Gust Melonas was present alongside various railway and government dignitaries when the last spike in the Pasco, Wash., to Portland, Ore., segment of the SP&S was driven at Sheridan’s Point on March 11, 1908, just a few hundred yards from the west switch of today’s Melonas siding.

Gust Melonas was also assigned as Track Foreman for construction of the SP&S yard at Wishram, Wash., and portions of the Oregon Trunk Railway southward into Oregon along the Deschutes River. He broadened his talents to include Melonas Track Construction Company, which built industry spur tracks and connections in Portland, Longview, and Olympia, as well as Melonas Brothers Dairy alongside the Columbia River in Stevenson, Wash. Four types of Greek cheese from that dairy were marketed as far away as Canada and Los Angeles.

In 1937, a second Melonas hired on with the SP&S, 16-year old Sam. His 50-year career followed literally in his father’s footsteps, maintaining and upgrading much of the same track that Gust had built. After the SP&S was merged with the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific in 1970 to form Burlington Northern, Sam ascended to assistant superintendent of roadway maintenance for BN’s Seattle Region before retiring in 1986. During that same period, Sam’s brother, John Melonas, had become BN’s vice president in charge of safety.

A third generation of Melonas railroaders was born and raised in SP&S-issued house No.12 in Wishram. Gus Melonas recalls how he and his brother Louis would often walk to the Wishram park when they were kids, and hoboes camped there would offer the young lads Twinkies. Both men followed their paternal path into railroading. Gus says, “I began my career in 1976 on BN’s Camas Section, Louis in 1977 on the Astoria Section, Track Department.”

Today, Louis Melonas is a welding foreman for BNSF’s Portland-Vancouver terminal, based out of Vancouver, Wash. Gus Melonas, meanwhile, ventured into a different aspect of the business. “I spent time as track laborer, track inspector and trainmaster,” Gus says, “before taking a manager of public relations position in 1987.” Gus progressed to director of public affairs-Montana Division in 1988, then to regional director of public affairs-Northern Tier in 1992. Gus is now BNSF’s Seattle-based director of public affairs covering Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. He has become a familiar name to editors, reporters, civic leaders and even rank-and-file railroaders throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In summing up what the new Melonas siding means to him, Gus gives a loving nod to his father and grandfather, both of whom literally laid and maintained tracks for the next generations to follow. Gus says, “I remember that a neighbor in Wishram idolized Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr. My idol was the track inspector on his motor car!”

 Gust Melonas 3rd from left in 1908 near Stevenson WA

Kostandinos "Gust" Melonas (third from left) aboard an SP&S track car with his section crew in the Columbia River Gorge near Stevenson, Wash., in 1908. Courtesy Gus Melonas.

BNSF grain pass new site of Melonas WA

A BNSF grain train passes the new siding at Melonas, Wash. Leah Smith, for BNSF.

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Bruce E. Kelly, Contributing Editor

Railway Age Contributing Editor, Bruce Kelly, has produced photography and writing for rail publications since 1982. He was associate editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine 1988-1996. Since 1997, he has worked in the digital prepress department of a commercial printing company in northern Idaho.

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