Like the song, “I’ve been working on the railroad…,” Kostandinos (Gus) Soterios (Sam) Melonas has been with the Railroad for over 40 years. As the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) Railroad’s spokesman since 1985, he is “on call” all the live-long day.
THE MELONAS FAMILY
Gus’s grandfather, Gust, was born in Lamia, Greece, in 1888 and came to the United States at the age of 18 in 1905. He was good with his hands and, like many Greeks and other immigrants, found work on the railroad. At the time Washington was the most trade-dependent state in the country and needed a route for the transportation of agricultural and forestry products. The conditions were tough and dangerous but the pay was good. Track workers were recruited from nearby states and even from Greece. Gust originally worked for a contract company in 1906 and 1907 when the route was completed with a golden spike at Fort Raines on the north bank of the Columbia River near the present site of the Bonneville Dam. He became a general foreman and had many Greeks working for him. Gust also helped build the Wishram rail yard (about 100 miles east of Vancouver, Washington) and the Oregon Trunk route along the Deshutes River. The famous railroad builder James Hill, also known as the “Empire Builder,” stayed with Gus at the camp residence in Wishram and loved the Greek cooking.
Originally built for the Spokane, Portland and Seattle (SP&S) Railroad, the foundation of the run is still in place from Vancouver on the west to Pasco, Washington, on the east. It still plays a key role as the most traveled rail route in Washington’s history carrying up to 45 trains a day. The SP&S was taken over by the Burlington Northern Railroad. Subsequently, in 1995, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe merged into the present-day BNSF.
Having heard about the area’s trees and water, much like the terrain of Lamia, Gust’s brother, Steve Melonas, came from Lamia a short time after Gust. After working on the railroad for a time, Gust and Steve opened a dairy on a ranch near Stevenson, Washington, and supplied feta cheese to locations in California and Canada. Steve later moved to Seattle where he raised his family (see TWO FOR THE CULTURE).
Gust also started a side railroad contract company, Gust Melonas Railroad Construction. This company built many of the side business tracks in downtown Portland, Oregon. The company also built business connection tracks between Longview and Olympia, Washington. These tracks connected with Great Northern, Northern Pacific and Union Pacific Railways.
When he was about 31 years old, one of the railroad workers told Gust about a 17-year-old cousin, Katherina, who lived in Massachusetts and worked in the textile industry. She was from Trizonia, a small island in the Corinthian Gulf of Greece. Gust said, “As long as she is not too heavy and can cook, send her out on the train.” She came and they were married until Gust passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease in the 1950s. While Gus (his grandson) did not know his papou (grandfather), he knew his “classic” grandmother all too well. She would tell her grandson “Greeks are the best.” She passed away in 1989 when Gus was in his 30s.
Gust and Katherina’s son, Sam, was born in Stevenson on July 27, 1921, and began working on the railroad for his father as a water boy. Sam was fortunate to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, on a basketball scholarship and even made money by working at a pool hall and refereeing games on the side. He served in World War II, part of the time in Burma. He returned to work on the SP&S where he progressed from track foreman and inspector to road master and assistant superintendent of roadway and maintenance during his 50-year career. Sam turned 95 while still managing the family’s property holdings and passed away on October 7, 2016.
Sam’s older brother, John, was also a railroader with a 40-year career. John became the assistant to the general manager of the SP&S and later vice president of the Burlington Northern Railroad in charge of safety. The old SP&S railroad car number 1124 has been preserved and named John G. Melonas.
When Rita Maria Laird stepped off the passenger train in Stevenson, Sam helped her with her baggage. She was from Joplin, Montana, on the railroad highline in the sweet grass hills. Sam knew she would become his wife. They were married in 1957. Her background was Scottish and Irish but she quickly became absorbed in her new Greek family. As a railroad officer, Sam was able to live in a railroad house in Wishram where the couple raised their three sons, Gus, Louis and Steve. Rita was a school teacher both in Wishram and later in Stevenson and “was also a great cook.” After 50 years of marriage, Rita passed away in 2008.
GUS WORKS ON THE RAILROAD
Kostandinos (Gus) and Ilias (Louis) Melonas are twins, born on April 10, 1958, in Spokane, Washington. They were born while Rita was visiting her mother in Spokane. They spent the first six years of their lives in the Wishram railroad house. Gus remembers visiting the hobos on the trains with his brother and receiving Twinkies from them. It was mostly Greek at home as papou (grandfather) Gust and yiayia (grandmother) Katherina did not read or write English and Sam handled most of their personal and financial matters.
When Sam was promoted, the family moved to Vancouver where Gus attended Lake Shore Elementary, Jason Lee Junior High and Columbia River High Schools. During the summers he worked on the railroad. He remembers foregoing a night out at the movies with his friends as he would begin work the next morning. He reported to the gloomy Camas, Washington, station and was told by the foreman, Bob Henry, “You’re going to love this place. You get exercise, a picnic lunch every day and we pay you for it.” Gus and Louis made it through the rough pick and shovel work required for track laying and maintenance and have been able to work up to very responsible positions. Twin brother Louis is head welding foreman at the Portland-Vancouver terminal in Vancouver.
Gus preferred to stay in the Vancouver/Portland area but, after eight years in track work, he accepted a position in operations in Seattle, Washington. Two years later he was promoted manager of public affairs for the Seattle region and then to the director position in Havre, Montana, where he was responsible for four states. Two memorable events in Montana were the derailing of 34 cars of grain in Glacier National Park, a wonderful surprise and easy source of food for grizzly bears! Another milestone was a call to host passengers in a business car including Johnny Cash, Wynona and Naomi Judd, Hershel Walker, Tom Selleck, Julius Irving and General Norman Schwarzkopf. He even hosted Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise and Ron Howard when they chose a Montana site for the movie “Far and Away.”
By 1992 Gus was based in Seattle, reporting to the BNSF corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. As regional director of the northern tier of BNSF he had responsibility for 14 states including Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska. His extensive traveling was reduced as his territory shrunk to the four states he presently manages. Now based in the Seattle office, he has completed 31 years as director of public affairs, primarily as the spokesman for BNSF. He is proud of the fact that each of the 80-plus trains that travel the BNSF lines take from 280 to 500 trucks off the highways. He also handles complaints about fumes and noise from residents adjacent to the rail lines. An enjoyable part of the job is his involvement with the BNSF Railway Foundation which provides assistance to community programs and the handles arrangements with Root Sports which airs the Seattle Mariners baseball games. With accountability to local and national media, his is a 24-hour job. He remains involved with the Melonas holdings along the Columbia River and may possibly return there to manage the properties when he retires.
Gus has fond memories of his yiayia Katherina as do his childhood friends who would visit the Melonas home. He remembers the women in the neighborhood gathering while yiayia, wearing her favorite apron, entertained by telling stories of the old country in her heavy accent. She welcomed many guests and there were frequent discussions with an Italian neighbor as to whose food was better. He values the moral influence of his Greek parents and grandparents. He also values the contacts with the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon, and the Macris, Stephanopoulos and Samarakis families in the area. Recently, in Anacortes, Washington, during a rally opposing rail transport of oil and coal, a highlight of Gus’s trip was eating at the Greek Village Restaurant there, an experience reminiscent of his yiayia’s cooking.
The Melonas family railroad story is featured in a display at the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation sponsored by the Hellenic-American Cultural Center and Museum (HACCM) of Oregon and Southwest Washington and Mount Hood Chapter A154 of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association).By John and Joann Nicon, January, 2017
2 Gust Melonas, early 1900s
3 Gust Melonas as General Foreman in Stevenson, 1910
4 Railroaders on a pushcar (Gust Melonas in white shirt, Constantine Famalous on his left and brother Steve Melonas at far right); others are unknown, 1918
5 SP&S Railway operations officials at Scribner, Washington – (John Melonas at far right), circa 1940s
6 and 7 Melonas Dairy Calendar, 1935
8 Sam Melonas in Burma, 1943
9 Sam Melonas business card, circa 1950s
10 Louis and Gus with basketball in Wishram, 1962
11 At Rita Melonas funeral (l-r) Louis, Gus, Sam and Steven Melonas, 2008
12 Gus Melonas hosting a group for Vancouver Winter Olympics, 2010
13 Gus Melonas, 2013
14 Entertaining passengers, 2015
15 Gus Melonas at Crones and Colitis flag football tournament, 2016
16 (l-r) Louis, Gus, Sam on Memorial Day, 2016
17 Oregon Railroad exhibit, 2016
Photos 1 and 17 by John Nicon; 13 by Ashley Ahearn; 14 from www.friendsofbnsf.com; all others from Melonas family collection SOURCES Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, June 2016