Riverside man still going strong at 88


CHET CRAMER STILL GOING AT 88. He was early day railroader and riverboat man.

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Reprinted from the WENATCHEE WORLD with permission from Wilfred R. Woods, and submitted by Walt Thayer.

RIVERSIDE-You might be able slow Chet Cramer down a bit, but you'll have a hard time stopping him.

After 88 years filled with bruises, close calls and plain hard work, Cramer is still going strong.

Cramer, one of Okanogan County's old timers, has lived in the county off and on since he came here from Montana 69 years ago.

In his first few years here, Cramer was part of something that revolutionized life in the nearly empty county--construction of the old Great Northern rail line up the Okanogan Valley.

Working on the railroad was not an easy life for Cramer, who had two close brushes with the great beyond.

One time, he recalls, he was hauling a wagonload of dynamite and blasting powder from Brewster to Monse where track crews were blowing a right of way through solid rock.

It was a cold, icy winter night, but the crews wanted the explosives by the morning so they could get an early start.

Cramer and a companion had already left Brewster when the companion decided to go back to get something he had forgotten. Cramer pulled the team to the side of the road and agreed to wait.

A tired Cramer fell asleep. But as he dozed, several burros came up to the wagon, picking a fight with the rig's mule team. The mules bolted.

When Cramer woke, he was on top of a load of explosives being wildly pulled down a dark, bumpy, icy road by a team of upset mules.

Uncertain about how long it would be before his explosive cargo blew him into shreds, Cramer desperately tried to slow the charging animals.

'I couldn't leave,' Cramer dryly recalls.

After about a mile, Cramer finally brought the team under control to his indescribably relief.

'It makes me laugh now, but it was no laughing matter then,' he says with a smile.

Cramer came even closer to death on that same construction job when he was hauling gravel fill for the Monse tracks in a horse-drawn, track-guided wagon. That time, he remembers hearing a shout to clear the area and an explosion in the rocks ahead.

'I hope to tell you I ran,' he says.

Almost as soon as he got off the wagon, a huge, flying boulder landed squarely on the driver's seat.

As he tells the story, Cramer points to a stove in his Riverside-area cabin.

'It was about twice as big as that,' Cramer says.

'I look at those tracks every time I drive past them and think 'I had a close call there'', he says.

In those early years in the Okanogan, Cramer worked other jobs as well as the railroad, doing a bit of everything, he says.

For a time, he hired himself out as a horse and buggy driver carrying traveling salesmen on four-day runs around the county. The circuit began at Pateros and stopped in Okanogan the first day, Conconully the second, Winthrop on the third and finally back to Pateros on the fourth day.

Cramer also worked as a fireman on the old riverboats that came up the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers from Wenatchee to Okanogan until the boats were replaced by the railroad.

For a time, he also drove horse-drawn road construction equipment. He remembers some wood-block streets he helped build in Wenatchee.

'They didn't last long,' Cramer says. 'Whenever you'd get a good rain, the blocks would start floating out.'

One time during those early years, Cramer recalls, he bought a new saddle horse 'that was supposed to be broke.'

His first try at mounting the horse was in front of a saloon on First Avenue in Okanogan, the town's main street in those early days.

'That horse threw me real nice right through the door into the saloon,' Cramer reminisces.

Through all his scrapes, bruises and close calls, Cramer kept going strong until he finally had a serious injury working in Seattle's railroad yards in 1925.

It happened while he was up on a ladder working on a locomotive. Because another worker had failed to post warning flags, a rail car barreled through the area and knocked Cramer off the ladder. The fall and impact broke his back in two places. That left him unable to work for five years.

But Cramer finally did return to work, mostly as a mechanic for various food processing plants throughout the Northwest. He tells how during the busy season he would sometimes work two 72-hour shifts in a week with one 12-hour break in between.

Cramer kept working until age 79 when he was finally forced into retirement by a leg injury.

That might have slowed him down some, but it couldn't stop him. Along with his wife, Cramer has worked tending sheep for four of the five years the couple has lived in Riverside. That work ended this year only because the owner sold the herd.

But Cramer does not mind. That gives him more time for two of the great loves of his life--hunting and fishing. This summer, the Cramers took off in their mobile home to live for two months at one of Cramer's favorite fishing spots.

'I do love my fishin'', Cramer says.

Of course there is work to be done now that cold weather is on the way. Cramer has been busy lately hauling and cutting firewood to fuel his wood stove during the winter months.

That's okay with Cramer because it gives him just another excuse to be outdoors. That's important to Cramer, part of the reason he lives in the country.

'We like the country,' says Frieda, his wife. 'I think that's what has made Cheat live as long as he has. . . good, fresh air.'