Category Archives: Chris Daigle

ASTROMAN LIVES: THE FORGOTTEN STORY OF 10 DAYS AND NIGHTS ON THE ASTRODOME ROOF

By Chris Daigle

It was a baseball story that sounded too weird to be true. It supposedly happened 40 years ago, yet the evidence was scant that in my 61-year old mind, I thought it happened in about 1972 or so. The tale was about a 25-year-old guy living in a tent for 10 days on top of one of the most famous sports venues in the world: The Astrodome.

That’s all much as I remembered. After all, I was 23 years old at the time, just out of college, and the Astrodome was where everything went on. Like Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium, everything was “At the Dome.”  Yet I kept coming back to one question: How was this man allowed to do this?

The story went something like this:

In October of  1980, as the city of Houston reveled in the Astros’ first post-season berth in franchise history, a radio station general manager at FM 100.3 KILT named Dickie Rosenfield came up with a promotional idea. As the hometown team chased a pennant and walked that yellow brick road to the World Series, the station would send an employee to live on top of the Astrodome – the heart and soul of Houston.

The man would eat, sleep, and pass the days on a roof platform and inside a circular steel gondola that hung from the ceiling. He would not come down until the Astros won the pennant. Somebody at the station, most likely Rosenfield, thought up the name “Astroman.”

The promotion was modeled after the flagpole sitter stunts of an earlier era, when somebody would climb atop a pole or raised platform and sit there as a test of endurance meeting a taste of publicity. Sometimes the sitter would not come down for weeks.

Nonetheless, this Astrodome stunt seemed different. Somebody lived atop the “Eighth Wonder of the World” during the classic five-game NLCS series against the Philadelphia Phillies! Somebody relied on a rope system for food! He had a landline phone for radio interviews! Really??

“It was a different time,” says Denver Griffith, the man at the center of our story. Griffith was 25 years-old then, a native Texan with a high school diploma and a sales job at KILT radio. He handled the accounts of  Houston’s music venues and rock clubs, using the gig to score concert tickets and establish relationships with promoters. To those that knew him, Griffith had a nose for a good time.

That is partly why he was chosen for the Astrodome assignment. He was young, single and a little bit adventurous. “Back then, in the 70’s, life around the radio station was  pretty wild,” he says. “It was pretty much anything goes.”

For decades, Griffith has carried the memories of those 10 days atop the Astrodome. A lot of time has gone by, and almost nobody else recalls the stunt. Contemporary news accounts from back then are spotty. Archived video is hard to find. You can find traces of Griffith’s sit-in on internet message boards and there’s a brief synopsis on Wikipedia with no citation.

Zoom ahead to 2017 when the Astros not only made it to the World Series for the second time in franchise history, but won the whole thing this time. The town of Houston was engulfed in baseball fever. KTRK Channel 13 (ABC in Houston) tracked down Griffith and ran a short piece. The story was just two minutes long and mentioned the usual details: 1980, NLCS and a man atop the Astrodome.

But was it true? I tracked down Mike Acosta, who is an historian-authenticator for the Astros (which is an extremely cool job to have as your team is about to see World Series number two), who pointed me to the KTRK story, and with the name Denver Griffith firmly established, Facebook led me right to him. Yes, he is real, and he answered.

Before we go any further in this story, we must establish two things. If you did not grow up in Houston in the 1960’s or 1980’s, you cannot understand what the Astrodome meant to our city. Not just as a sporting venue, but as a symbol.

Once billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” the building was finished in 1964, eight months ahead of schedule, and opened in April, 1965 on the birthday of Roy Hofheinz, the genius behind the idea. It was the first stadium with a roof and the first stadium with air conditioning. Tickets were $3.50 for mezzanine seats and parking was one dollar. Just being there was a big deal.

Housing the Houston Astros and the NFL’s Oilers since 1968, the stadium was pioneering in more ways than one. At age 7, my memories of smelling fresh paint, along with hot dogs and popcorn, seem like yesterday. The place was known around the world. Anywhere in Europe, if you mentioned Texas, you’d be asked about the Astrodome. 

The second point to be made is that the Astrodome was Houston’s “Coliseum.” The Astros were its original “gladiators.” From 1962 to 1978, the team had little success, with three winning seasons total. I remember them being called the “Lastros” for their dismal record. So, when the team finally got to the NLCS, we took notice.

Denver Griffith couldn’t wait to talk. “Astroman lives!” he told me. Griffith was a Houstonian and a little adventurous, just like his father, who owned many of the drive-in movie theatres around town. One sales job led to another, and he eventually landed a sales job at KILT, the rock radio station at the time. Rosenfield convinced the higher ups at the Astros to allow someone on top of the Dome for the entire series. “I had a knack for these crazy promos, and I wasn’t married, so it was on,” Griffith said.

astroman photo

Photo courtesy of Chris Daigle

Nearly four decades later, Griffith has only one photo from his adventure. He is standing on a wooden platform on the Astrodome roof, a tent set up behind him and a pennant attached to a pole. He is wearing jeans, a cap and a white t-shirt with four words: I Love You, Houston.

He remembers the setup vividly. One night in September of 1980, the radio station held a party at an Astros game. “I was hoping to come out in an Astros uniform, but the owner of the station [at the time], Gordon Mc Clendon, put me in a Scottish kilt, because, after all, the station was KILT  and he had a Scottish background, and that was it,” Griffith explains. He went up the long catwalk and the final door was like a spring-loaded submarine hatch.

On the roof, Griffith had an eight-man tent and access to a landline phone. He did interviews with the station DJ’s  just about every hour. He spent the first night in a sleeping bag inside because of heavy rains outside. The other nights he spent outside, as the weather, the altitude and the views were that pleasant.

The other logistics were less appealing. Griffith was given a makeshift Port-A-Potty. “My food came in bags and left in bags,” he said. He never showered, instead using a powder to wash his hair.

The process of getting meals was tedious. At first, the Astrodome supplied a long rope, left over from a construction project, and a basket. But Griffith had to manually lower the basket from 18 stories up and haul the food back up, which was a taxing chore to do every day. “Talk about a workout, it was just crazy,” he said. “So I finally thought, ‘Forget this! I’ll just meet people at the end of the catwalk. They’ll hand up boxes of food, and I’ll just walk back up to the top,’” he said.

By the fourth or fifth day, Griffith was shouting out to restaurants on air and getting free meals delivered to his Astrodome lair. The assignment came with other perks, too. He could watch Astros games for free from 200 feet above the field, watching Cruz track fly balls. His memories are flooded with other weird instances.

“One day, my mom arrived at the Astrodome with food, and interrupted a practice run by Oilers coach Bum Phillips,” he said.

In the hours before he took his perch, a veteran Astros pitcher had one request: Could he pee on Tom Seaver’s head?

At night, when the games were over, Griffith would move from the roof to the gondola. For a moment, he would take in the silence and serenity of an empty Dome. “You’d come down inside and it was total darkness,” he said. “You couldn’t see a damn thing, and I sure knew I was 18 stories up.”

It was an incredible story, and it was incredibly weird. I asked whether this could be done today? “Probably not. There’s too much liability today. I told the Astros that if they wanted to do it again, I’d be there,” Griffith said. 

A few years ago, “Astroman” pieced together a retroactive log of the stunt. First, he needed to remember the day it started. He found weather records of the day it stormed. He started on that day and counted forward. The Astros did not lose game 5 of the NLCS until 18 days later. Details were fuzzy, but he didn’t remember THAT many days on the Astrodome roof. 

There were some newspaper articles, such as the Austin American Statesman, which printed, “Astros fall to Atlanta: As part of a ‘back the Astros’ night, sponsored by a local radio station, Denver Griffith, an employee of the station, climbed to a gondola inside the roof  and vowed he would not come down until the Astros won the pennant. From the looks of things, Griffith may be up there a while.”

The story mentioned fans braving heavy rains to attend the game. Two days later, a Dayton Daily News reporter Hal Mc Coy mentioned Griffith again: “With another howling throng stuffed into the Astrodome, including local radio personality Denver Griffith peering through the roof from his temporary girder residence, the Cincinnati Reds  quickly jumped on Houston’s Joe Niekro Saturday night.”

Griffith’s final day on the roof was September 30, 1980. The Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 3 to 2. They finished 89-73, 1 and ½ games behind the Reds. It was, at the time, the best season in franchise history. But the city would have to wait one more year for playoff baseball and until 2005 for a shot at the World Series.

On his final day on the roof, the boss asked Griffith if he wanted to make his departure an event. Astroman said no. “I just wanted to come down. It was over,” he said. Almost 40 years later, Harris County has tentative plans to renovate the Astrodome and it has been declared a Texas Historical landmark. There were political fights and public votes. The city didn’t want to leave its history behind.

The Astros, meanwhile, went back to the World Series. They gave it a good shot, but lost game 7 against the Nationals. There’s always next season. The games weren’t in the Astrodome, but we take what we can get. Denver Griffith is in Austin now, in the communications business. His tenure as Astroman is kind of funny and kind of weird, but it’s another exhibit of why we love this building. Kids growing up now will never know quirky things like this today. I’m still stunned it happened, which is a tribute to my 61 year-old memory.

“Houston was booming then,” Griffith said. “It was still coming up, still finding its way, and it was a looser atmosphere. Of course, it was also the 1970’s.” Thanks for the memories, Denver Griffith.

THE ASTRODOME: WHATEVER BECAME OF ME?

By Chris Daigle, Contributing Editor and Houston Historian

Uof Hwins Bluebonnett Bowl

University of Houston celebrates winning the 1969 Bluebonnet Bowl against the Auburn Tigers in the Astrodome

There are very few distractions when you work from home, so you tend to notice things close to your heart. For me, one of them, along with the ice cream man in the afternoon and washing off sand at a Galveston beach, has to be the Astrodome. That’s all you have to say to a stranger who grew up in Houston. The Astrodome. Just stand back, because memories are going to come out like a fire hose. Way in the back of my mind, I always wanted there to be something to represent how we collectively felt, and still feel, about this place, and I’ve recently stumbled upon it.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis recently recorded and made a video for their song, “Astrodome.” They get it – they really understand what the Astrodome meant to us. Together with Texas songwriter/singer Jack Ingram, they take us on a journey of deep introspection, and get right to the bullseye of Astrodome culture.

Texas Monthly calls this newest song from Robison and Willis’s album Beautiful Lie “touching.” In my opinion, that comment is on par with calling the ocean “damp.” Robison and Willis travel back to the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and wipe the dust off fading memories.

Fortunately, my memories aren’t fading. Every minute of my time in the Astrodome was spent mentally remembering every detail of the spectacle in front of me: The smell of the smoke from the destruction derby or watching Evel Kneivel about to jump several cars on his motorcycle and wondering if he was going to make it. Oh no, my friends…nothing’s faded. I don’t remember what I wore last Tuesday, but I remember everything about the Dome.

Robison and Willis draw on familiar Texas music legends in their mixture of memories and harmonies. “There’s something familiar in here,” was my thought. Sure enough, Robison cites Roger Miller and Jerry Jeff Walker as huge influences on his style. The styles of Emmylou Harris and Waylon Jennings come along for good measure.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis really did it this time. They were just fine with songs like the slow waltzing ballad, “Beautiful Lie,” the crushingly sublime “Lost my Best” and the album closing, “Heartache to Houston.” But they really put the pedal to the metal with “Astrodome,” going right to the center of all our nostalgia and reminding us there was a place like none other, and a time like none other. We may be older and we may not live in Houston anymore, but we were there to see Elvis in a Jeep waving at us or to see George Strait supersize his career at the Rodeo on a moment’s notice. The Dome is a shrine to Texas “Can Do” spirit, which is a part of us, like a nostalgic tattoo never to be removed.

I was lucky. I did sit in the Astrodome and wonder whatever became of that version of me so many times. I became one with the dream that this building represents; a tireless effort by one man to make something unforgettable, and to create a legacy for a city. The stadium next door [NRG Stadium] never quite achieved that. It just made us sit on plastic seats and pay a fortune for food.

Robison and Willis have brought us all together in the field boxes again, and we remember.

Thanks to them from the state of Texas.

‘.

Special Assignment: Stroke

By Chris Daigle

As a journalist, I’ve been in some unusual situations. I’ve flown with the Blue Angels in a C-130 going straight up, an adventure which earned me the flight name, “Chili Man,” having survived a bowl of chili right before the flight without incident. I’ve traveled at 200 miles an hour on a race track and have been upside down in stunt planes. The greatest story ever assigned to me came without warning, and not over the phone or email.

I’ve had a stroke.

chris in therapy

Chris in Therapy

I didn’t think much of it at first, as I pulled into a now-defunct clinic, thinking I could just get a shot or something to make this go away. As the ambulance took me to the hospital, I was gripped by one thought: this is bad.

I learned about hospitals, doctors and medicines very quickly, and hospital life became a new way of living for me. Thinking about the next examination was the overriding guide for my day. Little did I know that a vast network of friends and family mobilized on my behalf behind the scenes. My employer and his staff came to the hospital. Others worked to help me establish state and federal benefits.

I constantly thought, “What is this all about?” in those first few days, wondering why my left side wouldn’t work. From the beginning, I had to realize that this was really me going through this, and it wouldn’t just go away, like other calamities in my life. My nickname at work is,” M.O.D.,” or Master of Disaster because I’ve had so many close calls over the years.

Apparently, because of the way I was eating, the term, “Master of Donuts” fit also. I was eating all the wrong things, and it caught up with me. Too much Taco Bell; too much Mountain Dew. The stress didn’t help either. I’m like a fire truck for five different departments that need stuff right now. And that’s in addition to planning my evenings, weekends, and finances. It’s a lot, as I’m sure most of you know. Take this piece of advice: When the doctor tells you to bring down your hypertension and blood pressure, do it.

Then I found myself asking, “Why me?” Everybody told me that this is just something that happens in your head. It’s not punishment for anything, and the sooner you get treatment, the better you will be. My response has been that my left side is still there, and if it’s not damaged or missing, it will come back. Indeed, my mentor Catherine Roberts, told me that it took 11 weeks for her faculties to return after the stroke she had.

That’s not to say that other thoughts don’t creep in, even though I try my best to be positive. Now I can’t work, so what about my finances? How am I going to get around once I get home? I spent several weeks in the hospital, and three months in a rehab facility. It was definitely an education. The first cold hard reality was that there are people around me in far worse condition than myself. That made me feel better, with a sense of, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Seeing functioning people moving around me made me jealous until I figured out they were once in worse shape than me, and have gotten better, so now they are a model for my recovery.

One bright ray of light in this whole adventure has been the tremendous support of my girlfriend, Denise. She’s really sick herself with blood problems and so forth, but put her problems aside to care about me. Early on, I said, ”This is terrible!” She came back with a response I’ll always remember. She said, “Terrible is temporary.” That should be written on the walls in this place.

This is such a different lifestyle than before. Once I could go downstairs, take the trash out, do the laundry and a hundred other things with two hands. Now I have to know what to do with one hand. I can’t do my former job, and things like laundry and personal care will now be a challenge.

Living in a wheelchair every day makes you humble. It certainly makes you appreciate what you used to have. This is my first time going through this, so it’s a different world; however, less and less I’m thinking that this is some kind of a dream that I’ll wake up from.

Several lessons came from all this. If the doctor tells you to cut back and be more healthy, do it. Don’t wait for something to happen that will force you to follow this advice. I figured it would never happen to me, but it did.

Don’t take anything for granted. Things don’t have to work out well all the time. Something good may be around the corner. You are not immune to anything and do what it takes to avoid trouble. I didn’t, and it got me here.

I can’t be mad at what happened; it was my fault. What am I going to do? Sue the back of my brain? It’s like a hurricane – you can’t get back at nature.

This will be a cliffhanger, but it showed me the importance of life. You get one mind, one body, and one life. Use it well.

***

Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.

Rescue Pets and a Glamorous Crowd: A Princess and the Twins Speak Up for Homeless Pups

By Chris Daigle

Two very special animals, and those who worked to save them, came together on September 7 for the 14th Annual Fierce and Fabulous Soiree at the new Post Oak Hotel in Houston’s Galleria area.

Hosted by Houston Petset, an umbrella organization that provides grants to other animal non-profits in the greater Houston area, it was two rescue dogs from K-9 Angels Rescue that garnered most of the attention at the glam-filled event.

Kourtey Kadrich with Esperanza

Kourtney Kadrich with K-9 Angels Rescue poses with Esperanza, a black and white pit bull hoping for a forever home (Photo: Chris Daigle)

The goal of Houston Petset is to help those who are “in the trenches” on a daily basis, rescuing, spaying, neutering, fostering, adopting and protecting Houston’s animals. Houston Petset believes that the animal homelessness problem in our community has a solution.

There to greet the 400 party goers was Kourtney Kadrich and Esperanza, a young black and white pit bull, adoptable through K-9 Angels in Houston. “She was found on the streets, and K-9 Angels took over her care,’ said Kadrich. “We rescue about 1,000 a year. She was brought back to health, and she needs a forever home. She loves to cuddle and loves to be the center of attention.”

Sherry Sara with K-9 Angels Rescue in the Heights came with a cute fluffball named Einstein, who is about one year old, and available for adoption. Einstein adored all the attention and became friends with every guest in the room.

The program was emceed by KHOU Channel 11 Morning Show host Deborah Duncan. Faces in the crowd included Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and wife Gwen, former Astro Jeff Bagwell and wife Rachel, Sue and Lester Smith, Courtney Hopson, Neal Hamill of Carnan Properties, Joanne King Herring, Courtney and Bill Toomey, Frances Moody, Vivian Wise, and KPRC weathercaster Frank Billingsley.

Idential twins Tama Lindquist and Tena Lindquist Faust

Identical twins Tama Lindquist and Tena Lindquist Faust discuss the mission and accomplishments of Houston Petset (Photo: Chris Daigle)

The high energy gala chairs this year were identical twins Tama Lindquist, and Tena Lindquist Faust. Co-Chairing this year was Princess Tatiana Sierra, whose father, Prince Piotr Galitzine, is from Russian aristocracy, and her mother, Princess Maria-Anna Habsburg, is the Belgian-born granddaughter of Emperor Karl and Empress Zita, the Austrian royal family deposed at the end of World War I.

Few are more dedicated to the welfare of animals that Susan and Dan Boggio, the event’s honorees. Susan is the current Board Chair for UNICEF-USA, and with Dan, were honored for their dedication to alleviate the homelessness and suffering of our community’s animals. They foster many animals at once, and Susan personally goes out on the streets to rescue animals she has seen or heard are in danger. They financially support animal welfare organizations as well. In accepting the award, Susan repeated her heartfelt motto, “There’s nothing more important in the world one can ever do than improve the quality of life and relieve the suffering of others, whether human or animal.”

Tama Lindquist, Tena Lindquist Faust, Susan and Dan Boggio, Princess Tatiana Sierra

The gala’s honorees, Susan and Dan Boggio (center) are congratulated by (L-R): Tena Lindquist Faust, Tama Lindquist, and Princess Tatiana Sierra (Photo: Chris Daigle)

The evening capped off with a live auction, where auctioneer Jeff Smith raised big bucks for the pups, with bids on a winter catamaran trip, a New York City Broadway Experience, a Palmetto Bluff, SC four-night getaway and a Pawve dogtag necklace curated by Itouch Diamonds Jewelers, to raise a total of $500,000 to help even more animals in danger.

Esperanza and Einstein gave the event 8 paws up!

***

Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.

THE ASTRODOME SCOREBOARD: MEMORIES OF A MARVEL

By Chris Daigle

If you were born before 1988, it’s fair to say you spent part of your life in the Astrodome if you lived in Houston. It was like our collective living room that could hold 60,000 people at one time, sometimes even more than that. It was our memory factory.

Every sport, except perhaps curling or bobsled racing, was played at the “Dome.” Watching from high above, far removed from the action in its outfield perch above the action, whether it was football, baseball, tennis, boxing, basketball, auto racing or jumping over cars with a motorcycle, was the scoreboard.

This was not just any scoreboard. That never suited Roy Hofheinz as he planned the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was to be as grand as the building itself!

The “Home Run Spectacular,” as it was named, lasted 24 seasons in the Astrodome, and like its home, was never duplicated. It was the crowning jewel in a fantasy land; it has been witness to over 1,500 baseball victories; it has made us laugh and probably made some cry, but it always has been part of the lure of what makes the place so entertaining.

An event just wasn’t complete without the pictures and the lights that came on for an Oilers touchdown or an Astros home run. It was the one thing that could make an audience, from peanut vendors to players, stop and stare. It was as big as Texas, befitting a city, a stadium and an organization set on innovation and the future.

On September 5 1988, 40,000 lights shone for the last time at an Astros vs. Reds game to a sellout crowd. Gone, but not forgotten, the 474-foot scoreboard was silenced to make room for 10,000 more seats and boxes for a future that never came.

Okay, okay, no sniveling now. Logic tells us that there is no point in getting all sentimental over a scoreboard. It was nothing but half a mile of wiring, fuses, circuits, bulbs and transistors. Never mind that at 474 feet, it was longer that the football field it presided over. It was just a machine. Of course, millions of us did have a relationship with the Great wall of Houston during the 23-and-a-half years it entertained us.

When the Astrodome opened in April, 1965, the scoreboard was the wildest wonder of them all in the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” It carried the art form of scoring a game to the next level, when we didn’t know there could be another level.

Bill Veeck had introduced the concept of adding fireworks with the ball scores in Chicago, 10 years before. But the Astrodome gave us that much, and more: Electronic cheerleading, cartoons, and a Wild West show. When we referred to the scoreboard, we really meant the Home Run Spectacular. Whenever a member of the home team parked a ball into the seats, bulls snorted, six shooters went off, a cowboy whirled a lariat, stars danced across the cosmos and the Texas flag was raised in tribute.

To compensate for those stretches when the Astros suffered a power shortage, they touched off the board after every home victory. It was the surest way to keep the fans in their seats until the end of the game.

Opposing pitchers hated the animated scoreboard with a passion, as though the antics shown were a personal commentary on their skills. One year, the New York Mets struck back: After a Mets home run, teammates all jumped out of the dugout, each waving a sparkler. Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher engaged in a kind of “Tom and Jerry” cartoon with Bill Giles, the original keeper of the switches for the scoreboard. Giles programmed the computer that fed information to the scoreboard. He said, “Every time Leo went to the mound to change pitchers, I’d put a comment on the board about it. Once, Leo got furious and called me every name in the book, then ripped out the dugout phone.”

Later, in one of those ironies so dear to sports, Leo became the manager of the Houston Astros, and suddenly the scoreboard was great.

Another critic of the scoreboard, and its alter ego, was Dick Young, the gray eminence of the New York tabloids, traveling with the Mets in a 24-inning game at the Dome. The game lasted till well past midnight, violating the curfew of many in the crowd. Unfortunately, it was Boy Scout night at the Astrodome. Bill Giles said, “I put on the board the line, ‘Sex Will Never Replace Night Baseball.’”

Giles defended himself for that, saying, “Well, it was around 2 in the morning. But Dick Young wrote that I ought to be barred from baseball, that it was a disgrace, putting up that message in front of those Boy Scouts.”

Bill Giles with scoreboard

Bill Giles, Director of Public Relations for the Houston Astros, sits at the control board of the Astrodome scoreboard in 1969, tapping out messages that delighted fans and angered opposing teams.

Other adventures with the scoreboard involved upsetting umpires who charged that the Astros were using the scoreboard to intimidate umpires after the message, “Kibler did it again” was shown. This was in reference to umpire John Kibler, who had just ejected a Houston player for the second game in a row. When an aging Willie Mays hit his 550th career home run, the message was, “This is your captain speaking, we are passing through some turbulence, fasten your seat belts.” In a 1967 game, when Giants pitcher Ray Sadecki threw to first base nine straight times, the message was, “This is ridiculous!”

And now, in the name of progress, it’s been 30 years since the bull roared and the ball flew, and the stars sparkled, and we all applauded. History was replaced with 10,000 seats to appease Oilers owner Bud Adams, who took the Oilers to Tennessee anyway and named them the Titans. The seats are still there; only we are not. For now, scoreboard watching will be a little less fun for the Boy Scout in each of us.

***

Chris Daigle is a Houston historian, photojournalist and a regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To read more of his articles, click HERE.

One of Houston’s historic locomotives waits for permanent home

By Chris Daigle

Before Houston had freeways or overpasses or traffic jams, it had railroads. It had so many railroads in fact, that Houston was for many years known as, “The city where 17 railroads meet the sea.” One reminder of that phrase remains today. Southern Pacific 982, a locomotive donated to the City of Houston, was a fixture in Hermann Park for almost 50 years, reminding us of our past, until progress changed its future.

In 1957, changes were being made to America’s trains. Newer, more efficient diesel locomotives were replacing the steam driven, smoke producing, heavier machines that required their own tender to carry coal and water just to run them. These locomotives were essentially a rolling boiler with wheels, a style that had been in use since railroading began in the mid 1800’s.

Southern Pacific 982 was such a machine. It was built in Philadelphia at the Baldwin Train Works, and by 1920, she was running with Southern Pacific to carry freight on the Texas And New Orleans Railroad, making regular stops between Lufkin, East Texas and throughout Louisiana.

The locomotives of the early 20th century were built to survive 40 years of daily use. World War II brought about the greatest use of railroads in America, having to carry war materials and personnel across America, pulling 100 cars at 50 miles per hour. Because there were fewer automobiles in use at that time, nearly anything that was sent anywhere went by rail.

Locomotives that had long been resigned to “dead tracks,” where they could be stripped of their parts, were instead rebuilt and sent back into service. New locomotives could not be purchased because of the war effort. Southern Pacific 982 was fitted with steam lines to heat passenger cars. Because of these different circumstances, trains were now rolling coast to coast instead of on just local routes, as they were designed for originally.

Locomotive 982 saw continuous service until December 28, 1956. Its last movement was documented in a memo: “H.M. Goodson, chief clerk to P.B. Rice phoned at 11:00 AM January 7, 1957, advising engine 982 departed Lafayette, Louisiana at 8 A.M. Handling train 2/243 should reach Houston some time this afternoon.”

Newspaper accounts from the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post indicate that in the following months, several locomotives, including 982, were on their way to being scrapped. The steam locomotives were being replaced by the greatly more efficient diesel power plants. No more billowing smoke; no more coal, oil or water to carry with them. The Houston Chronicle reported that Mr. Ed Teague, the caretaker of the locomotive for many years, said that he saw the 982 in a scrap line and convinced the man in charge to place “Old 982” at the end of the line. Its career had ended after traveling over 3.5 million miles! Peter Whitney, a train buff, appealed to the City of Houston to save one of the old engines as a icon of Houston history, but was met with a “no funds” response.

The idea of saving SP 982 was presented to the Houston Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees. This sounded like their kind of project, since they had undertaken things like this before. An estimate of the cost of moving the locomotive was prepared in January, 1957, in the amount of $2,540. Negotiations with Southern Pacific were positive, but talks with the City of Houston proved more difficult. Mayor Oscar Holcombe was against placing the locomotive in any park because it posed a liability problem. The councilmen were generally in favor of the idea, but they couldn’t decide where to put it. Memorial Park and Hermann Park were debated as sites by City Council, and in the press. Eventually, Hermann Park was chosen since it would provide a more secure location. The necessary motions were passed by City Council while Mayor Holcombe was out of town.

Hermann Park locomotive 1957#7In May 1957, it was decided to move the engine and tender into Hermann Park down Fannin Street from the crossing at Blodgett, where the Southwest Freeway (Highway 59) crosses today. Called, “Operation Choo Choo,” sections of track were laid down and the engine was pushed along until the next section of track was in place. The Houston Chronicle reported that it was a hot week in May to move a heavy engine, and the tracks kept sinking into the hot asphalt. It took the efforts of two tractors to keep the engine from falling over. This went on for a week until Southern Pacific 982 finally arrived at Hermann Park.

Hermann Park locomotive 1957#6On June 2, 1957, the old locomotive was dedicated to the City of Houston. The engine was presented by B.S. Sines, Vice President of Southern Pacific Lines, and was accepted by Mayor Pro Tem Louie Welch. The Houston Chronicle reported that seven former engineers came to see her in her new home.

J.R. Glass said, “She used to go 100 miles on a tank of water. I’d get up at 2 A.M. go to the roundhouse, fire her up, and head for New Orleans.” The oldest retired engineer present was W.K. Larkin, 82, who thought Old 982 was once the most modern power plant on the railroad.

Fast forward to the summer of 2005. It was time for Hermann Park to go through some changes. The Hermann Park Conservancy, with the City of Houston, would transform the area near the lake into the Hermann Park Cultural Plaza, with a café, a covered plaza, and public art pieces. The miniature train that had carried kids around Hermann Park since the mid 1950’s would also be upgraded. That meant that SP 982 would have to move. The Houston Jaycees once again stepped up and hired Barnhart Crane and Rigging, a company with 36 years experience moving heavy equipment.

trainliftIn August, 2005, the engine was attached to a giant hydraulic gantry assembled over it to lift a combined weight of 199 tons between the engine and the tender. Slowly, SP 982 was lifted up six feet, and a long 120 wheel trailer rolled in under it. Two days later, the tender and the engine rolled out of Hermann Park on separate trailers.

It’s tricky maneuvering nearly 200 tons of train through Houston streets.

“There’s a lot of different ways we will use tonight to get downtown,” said Richard Davenport of Barnhart. “If it’s a four mile trip the straightest way, we may go 14 or more miles to get it there.”

After crossing a route through the night on 20 different streets in east Houston, on a clear Saturday morning the engine and tender arrive at their new home on Avenida De Las Americas at Capitol, right between Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center.

“Operation Choo Choo II” had arrived. Again, Barnhart had assembled its 800-ton hydraulic gantry over new tracks, and train buffs from the Texas Railroad Preservation Association helped guide the engine and tender down into their new home.

Operation Choo Choo II was a true community effort. Over 100 financial donors and individuals combined to make the preservation a success. The History Channel taped the move of SP 982 for their “Mega Movers” series. Now baseball fans had something new (Minute Maid Park), and something old! Southern Pacific 982 had made a complete circle in 48 years, from Union Station in the 1920’s to Hermann Park, and back near Minute Maid Park, which is where Union Station used to sit.

CoveredNow the once proud Southern Pacific 982 sits all alone, wrapped in white plastic to preserve her new coat of paint, missing her coal tender, which was sold off to the Heber Valley railroad in Utah. Here she waits, along with two turn-of-the-century houses that were original to that area’s “Quality Hill” neighborhood.

In 2015, plans halted for old 982 and the plaza she occupies.

“We’re working with the Houston Jaycees to deed it back to them, and negotiate a permanent home for the locomotive,” said Carolyn Campbell, communications director with Houston First Corporation, which manages the entertainment and convention venues downtown. “One of the old houses has been adopted by Annunciation Church next door. As to the old Cohn house, some options for that and the locomotive are still being worked out.”

Along with the Astrodome, the history of Houston’s historic icons is waiting for progress. It’s sort of a slow replay of “Back To the Future” for Houstonians.

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Chris Daigle is a contributing editor to The Grapevine Source. He is a Houston historian, specializing in Astrodome history. To contact Chris, email blue69@att.net.