James Fredrickson was a railroad man, a lifelong devotee of the Northern Pacific Railway and its operations in the Puget Sound area.
The Tacoma native was dedicated to preserving his career employer’s most prominent artifacts — including Tacoma’s Union Station, now a federal courthouse — and some of its most arcane, filling the basement, garage and a bedroom of his North End home with the railroad’s memorabilia.
Fredickson died April 15 at 89.
He was an accomplished photographer who wrote three books on the Northern Pacific — featuring his photos — that were published by Washington State University Press.
“His basement was one of the most famous basements in Tacoma,” said Ronald Magden, 89, a fellow historian and friend for more than 60 years. “Everything was stacked all the way to the stringers.
“If you asked him for something, it might take a year or two, but he would find it.”
Fredrickson’s collection contained countless Northern Pacific items — pins, locks, advertisements, timetables, personnel records, anything upon which one could affix its distinctive logo. It also included more than 12,000 of his photos, which dated to his teenage years, before he started working for the railroad.
The transcontinental railroad had its western terminus in Tacoma and had a major rail yard complex in South Tacoma.
Fredrickson started working for Northern Pacific in 1943, when he was attending Stadium High School. As a “call boy,” he pulled graveyard shifts at Union Station before class in the morning, giving orders to conductors, brakemen and engineers.
He quickly became a telegraph operator at the station while attending the University of Washington, working to tell other stations when trains were coming and — occasionally — learning of derailed trains and accidents.
In 1947, he went to the small station at McCarver Street and Ruston Way with a co-worker to meet the new girl from Idaho, a fellow telegrapher. Her name was Cereta Curtis, and she soon became his wife. They were married for nearly 70 years.
Fredrickson became a dispatcher for Northern Pacific — regarded as one of the region’s best, multiple friends said — before retiring in 1981 from the Burlington Northern Railroad, which had been formed from the Northern Pacific and other railroads in 1970.
Magden met Fredrickson through bicycling, and it turned out their wives were best friends growing up in the Idaho town of St. Maries.
They became much closer in retirement, with Magden delivering coffee at least one Sunday a month to Fredrickson’s house and helping with whatever research project he was working on.
“I never heard a cross word out of him in all those years,” Magden said. “He didn’t say anything if he didn’t like it. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t correct you, he didn’t try to change it — he just let it go.”
Magden was among the people who spent five years cataloging Fredrickson’s items. There was a standing date on Wednesday afternoons to go through the garage, basement and bedroom, and much of the collection ended up at the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive in Burien.
The basement was Fredrickson’s domain. Cereta hadn’t been down there — or in the garage — for at least a decade before they moved into assisted living.
“It was a packed space,” said Gary Tarbox, who runs the archive and is 6 feet 6. “I had to wear a hard hat because the ceiling wasn’t very high and the aisles were very narrow.”
Said Magden: “He never took many people down in the basement. He was afraid they might not come out of it. It was so full, it was unbelievable.”
Much like Noah and the ark preserving two of each animal, you could compare Jimmy as the Noah of the railroads in this area, preserving everything he could.
Gary Emmons, on friend James Fredrickson
Gary Emmons, whose father worked at the McCarver Street station, worked with Fredrickson in the 1960s and remained friends. He, too, has memories of the “infamous basement.”
“A lot of these things were artifacts that were of great importance to trains of the area that soon became replaced by technology,” Emmons said. “Much like Noah and the ark preserving two of each animal, you could compare Jimmy as the Noah of the railroads in this area, preserving everything he could.”
I know he burnt the candle at both ends. I don’t know how he did it.
James Fredrickson Jr., on his father
His oldest son, James Fredrickson Jr., whose former bedroom was turned into a small museum, remembers his father as his Scoutmaster, his Wilson High School swimming team photographer, a rabid Washington Huskies fan and the organizer of a bunch of fantastic family vacations by rail.
“He worked third shift — graveyard,” James Jr. said. “There’s a lot of times I’m sure he went without sleep. I know he burnt the candle at both ends. I don’t know how he did it.”
And all without swearing. The worst curse word James Jr. remembers his dad saying was, “Oh crumb.”
“He never learned how to swear, and his dad was a longshoreman,” James Jr. said. “I could never believe that.”
Fredrickson was a student of Tacoma’s history, keeping Herbert Hunt’s “Tacoma, Its History and Its Builders” on hand — and living in Hunt’s old house.
When the city and Burlington Northern wanted to tear down Union Station after the last passenger train left June 14, 1984, Fredrickson’s love of history and trains made him perfect for a leading role in the Save Our Station movement.
“He was vitally involved in it,” Magden said. “He was the resource person who knew everything about the station.”
He spread that knowledge in speeches throughout Tacoma, helping create community support to save the building and turn it into the federal courthouse.
It’s a shame to see all that knowledge gone. I don’t know anybody that can replace him and his knowledge of the Northern Pacific.
Ron Magden, Tacoma historian and longtime friend of James Fredrickson
Fredrickson, an only child, is survived by wife Cereta, sons James Jr. and Tim, daughter Kim, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. (Two more are due by mid-May.)
“It’s a shame to see all that knowledge gone,” Magden said. “I don’t know anybody that can replace him and his knowledge of the Northern Pacific.”