From a Madison farm to railroad police chief: episodes in the life of Forrest Jarrett
by Rob Neufeld
Forrest Jarrett of Rector Corner, Madison County, jumped down into the turret of an artillery tank at Camp Irwin in the Mojave Desert. The loader in his crew hadn’t been able to shove 90mm rounds into the gun’s chamber hard enough to make the breechblock close.
Jarrett and his training crew had only so much time to fire three rounds before their exercise was over.
It was 1952. Though recently married, and just graduated from Berea College, a political rival of his family had made sure Jarrett had gotten drafted, Jarrett noted in an interview.
“So I jumped in there and rammed that round home,” Jarrett relates. “The trigger is a button on the floor of the tank. The gunner is supposed to say thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three, and then fire. He’s sitting there with his foot on the trigger. As soon as that round went home, the gun went off, and recoiled back into my side.”
Jarrett spent a month in a full-body cast. A disc in his back had been broken in such a way, it threatened to sever the spinal column. Jarrett was discharged from the army in May, 1953.
“That wound up the farming,” Jarrett comments. “So here I am married with a year-and-a-half-old son, crippled up, and looking for a job.”
Jarrett’s father’s good friend, Jesse James Bailey— Southern Railway division chief in Asheville, and former Madison and Buncombe County sheriff—told Jarrett’s father, “Have that boy come by and see me.”
Jarrett was slotted to get a job as a relief watchman in the Asheville yards, but was sent to Chalmete Slip in New Orleans, which eventually led to a 37-year, storied career as the chief policeman for Southern Railway and Norfolk Southern in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Tales of moving coal, grain, automobiles, and dried coconut; protecting railroad property from vandals, thieves, striking mine workers, and angry truckers; investigating train wrecks; winning over local police and Washington bureaucrats; and sharing the lifestyles of diverse cultures could fill a book, one chapter of which might be titled, “War against the Vandals.”
In the ‘60s, the railroad had built 85-foot automobile racks, which enabled it to attract shipping contracts from car manufacturers.
Truckers upset by their loss of business, Jarrett recounts, would get up on top of overpasses and pour acid on the shiny, new automobiles. Ford Motor Company told the railroad, fix that problem or we’ll go with trucks.
Jarrett also had to combat rampant theft and vandalism along the Ohio to New York route.
“We’re going to bunch these automobiles,” he explained. “We’re going to put them in one train, and we’re going to put officers on that train and in big Ford Cruisers following alongside.”
Jarrett recalls, “I took an old caboose and bullet-proofed the cupola—the big portion up on top, where it’s glassed in—and put a trap door in it.
“We bunched the cars in Bellevue, Ohio, and put officers in the caboose with a video camera. The first six months we made about 300 arrests.”
The critical passage was 16 miles through Cleveland, where the railroad was submerged in a dug-out channel 15 feet below the street level and overpasses. “It was just right to throw rocks and fire guns,” Jarrett says, or, when the train stopped on a siding to let another train pass, to jump on the car train and steal car parts.
A report from the car companies’ New York distribution point in Buffalo included, when Jarrett had first become Senior Director of Norfolk Southern Police ion 1985, 35 pages of what is called "exceptions"—thefts, delays, and vandalisms..
A few months later, the Buffalo commissioner of police reported to a convention of police in Brosnan Forest, SC, “I am happy to make the statement that we had zero exceptions at the Norfolk Southern automobile ramp for the month of December.”