By J. K. Gurner
Good engineers are born.
That was Bruce Gurner’s comments on his uncle, engineer Willis Geriner. Willis and B. G. Gurner, Bruce’s father, were brothers. When B. G. came to Water Valley in 1912 to get a job, they asked him what his name was and he told them B. G. Gurner. They spelled it like it sounded – G-U-R-N-E-R. He didn’t care how they spelled his name as long as he got paid. In that day, as long as you showed up at the pay car and gave them your name, you got paid. No deductions.
In a letter to Bruce in 1957, Willis’s old friend, Jim Barnes, had this to say about Willis: “Good railroad engineers are born, not made. Everybody that ever worked for the railroad knows that, and my old friend, Willis Geriner, was born an engineer. Few as good and none better.”
A statement like that would have surprised Willis’ father and the neighbors on the headwater of Hobuck Creek in Madison County. They knew Willis only as one of the boys who went into Canton to work on the railroad. He was hired as a switchman and learned the job quickly. And, he was tough. In fact he was so tough he worked barefoot on the cinder covered ground all summer. They could not get him into a pair of shoes until the ground froze.
Willis wasn’t satisfied with his job as switchman in the yard at Canton. So, he packed his few clothes, came to Water Valley and got a job firing on the extra board. This was in 1903, and in 1906 he was promoted to engineer. He ran freight until 1913. Business dropped off and he was cut back to firing. But, by 1920 he was a regular engineer running freights.
Willis maintained a good working record with the master mechanic and the train master. In the late 1930s, he was able to bid on one of the Memphis to Canton passenger runs. It was then that Willis began to make his place in railroad history.
People who wrote about trains and engines and engineers glorified the throttle pullers. But, the men who operated those giant steam eating machines knew that it wasn’t the throttle, but the brake that separated the men from the boys. While Willis was getting the feel of that big pacific 1100 or the mountain 2400, he ran too fast and missed a few spots (markers beside the track that showed the engineer where to stop a train). If you missed the spot at a depot you had to move the train backward or forward so the passengers could board. That was the sort of thing that conductors didn’t like to deal with.
Willis soon got the feel of those big engines and became the best. Hubert Weaver, who fired for him during the 1930s and 1940s, said he could “play a 2400 like a woman playing a violin.”
According to Weaver, Willis got to where he could come into Grenada on train #25, make one application of brakes, shut off the steam and be on the ground headed for the restaurant when the engine came to a stop.
Rayford Boxx fired for Willis in the late 1940s and early 1950s and he told the same story. Boxx said Willis would fly into Durant like a storm and you would swear he was going to spot the Confederate monument in the cemetery way south of the depot. “That 2400 would light like a bird at the penstock ready to take on water,” said Boxx.
These men learned from the best, and became the best engineers that ever opened the throttle or applied the brakes on those big steam engines.