PASCO -- Frank Pontarolo has stories to tell.
Born in Pasco 89 years ago, he left only to serve in the Army during World War II.
Then he returned home and worked as a railroader for Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railways. Before his retirement 32 years ago, he saw locomotives transform from steam to diesel power.
Pontarolo's story is one of several the Franklin County Historical Society hopes to capture after reviving its oral histories program.
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Sherel Webb, historical society administrator, said the program is a way to preserve Tri-City history beyond written records.
The oral history program was reborn in January 2009, Webb said. Franklin County gave the society $5,000, which along with the donated time of Susan Faulkner made restarting the program possible.
And in June, the county designated another $10,000 for the historical society.
The last oral histories program was in the 1970s and was led by Walter Oberst, who started the historical society. Faulkner stumbled across old cassette tapes of 1970s interviews in the society's archives about five years ago and began transcribing and digitally preserving the interviews to make sure they aren't lost. One of two boxes of tapes is left.
Oral histories record the history of the person as well as of their family and community, Faulkner said.
Pontarolo said the program allows him to share his experience with railroads. His career began when he started working for Northern Pacific Railway after he graduated from Pasco High in 1939.
He said he was a journeyman machinist when he was drafted into World War II. He returned to his job more than two years later after serving in the Philippines and Japan. He retired in 1978 as a foreman.
Pontarolo likes telling people about how the railroads used to be -- for instance, the pointy buckets placed in water barrels along the tracks in case of fires. The pointy end came into being because farmers would steal any flat-bottomed buckets left with the barrels, he said.
Pontarolo's paycheck for his first day of work on June 15, 1939, was for $2.65, with 15 cents taken out in hospital bill dues. He earned 35 cents an hour.
When the steam engine trains ran into tunnels, the engineer and fireman in the locomotive pulled their caps and jackets over their face and used an air tube to breathe, Pontarolo said. The brakeman would get into the water tank for the steam engine so he could breathe also as the tunnel filled with smoke.
Pontarolo said he watched as the railroad industry become faster and more efficient as he repaired and supervised the repair of the trains.
Webb said collecting oral histories like Pontarolo's preserves the experiences and stories for future generations.
The interviews are transcribed, and then the person interviewed reviews them to make any corrections, Webb said. The exact transcription and a cleaned-up version will be saved, as well as the audio and video recordings of the interview.
Webb also hopes to turn the interviews into articles for the society's quarterly newsletter.
The focus now is simply on collecting the history and making it accessible to the public will have to come later, Webb said. Faulkner has completed five interviews, and Webb said they are looking for volunteers to also help interview longtime county residents.
The society hopes to interview those who have unique experiences or information to share about Franklin County life before it's too late.
For example, Katie Barton, who died in May at age 92, was on the society's list of people to interview, Webb said. Barton was the first recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award in 1990 and the first black woman to serve on the Pasco City Council.
"We are in a race against time," Webb said.
The society will hold a volunteer training workshop for the oral histories program from 4 to 6 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Franklin County Historical Museum in the Walter Oberst room, 305 N. Fourth Ave., in Pasco. For more information, call 547-3714.