1940-2021: Remembering Jake Jacobson, the legend, icon and ‘No. 1 railroad man’

The personalized license plate on Jacobson’s classic Ford Mustang summed up his approach and attachment to railroading. Colin Rees/Regional Connect

A railroader’s railroader. A short-line safety champion. And a preeminent classic car and Colt 45 pistol collector, entertaining yarn spinner, exquisite margarita maker and rugged individualist who served as the original model of the cigarette advertising icon Marlboro Man.

Lowell “Jake” Jacobson will be remembered for many things, not the least of which as a man tirelessly devoted to his craft and fellow railroaders. The longtime leader of the Copper Basin Railway, Jacobson died July 24 from heart failure. He was 80.

Jacobson rose to the level of legend and industry icon in the eyes of many short liners. His personalized license plate — “#1 RR Man” — said it all.

In January 1987, Jacobson joined the Copper Basin Railway as general superintendent, but became general manger soon afterward. He eventually served as president and chief operating officer for more than 30 years before retiring in February 2020.

Based in Hayden, Arizona, the Copper Basin operates a 54-mile line and seven-mile branch line in Arizona, and interchanges with Union Pacific Railroad. Prior to joining the short line, Jacobson served UP for 29 years in various capacities. 

He inherited the failures of the railroad’s six previous GMs and was left with “a vessel of worn out and mostly broken equipment and deteriorating infrastructure” when he became leader, recalls Bobby Blake, the short line’s former general superintendent. Blake worked alongside Jacobson — who he considered a friend and mentor — for three decades.

“Jake wasn’t a pessimist who dwelled on the past, but rather was an optimist who looked forward, possessing the ability to envision what the Copper Basin could be versus what it was,” Blake wrote in an email. “He was definitely one of a kind and will be greatly missed.”

Jacobson and employees Jacobson (end of table at center) was dedicated to his employees, but could be strict about following rules and resistant to people whose "give a damn was broke," as he put it. Copper Basin Railway

Jacobson faced several ownership transitions at the short line — from Kennecott Copper Co. to Magma Copper Co. to BHP Group to ASARCO — that heavily impacted day-to-day operations and brought “scalding scrutiny” from new owners who demanded better service from an already strained railroad, Blake said. But Jacobson was able to remold and revive the Copper Basin.

He was a unique and strong-willed individual who possessed many desirable qualities, wrote Blake.

“Jake was very generous with his time and resources, and frequently displayed his goodwill towards everyone at the railroad, as well as many others in the local communities,” he said.

Expressing goodwill and serving as a brother’s keeper was a way of life for Jacobson. He was born in Riley County, Kansas, on Sept. 17, 1940. His mother Irene, father Myron and grandfather were railroaders, so Jacobson followed in their footsteps. Safety was important to the family, and their attention to it helped Jake, his father and grandfather accomplish something rare during their careers: avoiding a personal injury. 

As the Copper Basin’s leader, Jacobson coined the phrase, “Our real power is in the pride of our people.” He made sure it was adorned on each locomotive.

Jacobson also led efforts to post signs all across the railroad that stressed the importance of respect, common sense, safety and sincere caring among employees. His biggest gripe was when a worker or colleague displayed no effort on a task — he often characterized it as someone whose "give a damn is broke.”

“He didn’t care much for people (employees or not) who required pampering, and was more receptive to those who could ‘suck it up’ and perform otherwise,” wrote Blake.

Jacobson sought to instill a group approach to safety and family-style culture to better inspire and motivate workers — actions that helped turn the Copper Basin into one of the most efficient and safest U.S. short lines. 

Jacobson Each locomotive in the short line's fleet displays a phrase coined by Jacobson to emphasize the importance of every worker. Copper Basin Railway

That management acumen came into play in 1993, when a track section near Kearney, Arizona, was washed away by Gila River flooding. Jacobson and a number of his employees built a dike to hold back the floodwaters. They slept only a few hours for many nights at a nearby railway depot, then worked long days battling the flood. 

The team’s perseverance and tireless efforts helped save most of the rail line. Then not long afterward, they fought raging wildfires, too.

Assembled by Jacobson over time, the team gleaned off each others’ talents and became the best collective bunch in the Copper Basin’s history, Blake wrote. They frequently demonstrated the willingness to engage and overcome natural disasters, customers’ needs and industry deficiencies, he recalls.

“Jake and his team developed unique practices to combat wildfires and floods, provide customized scheduling, improve infrastructure — including bridge conversions or replacements — generate or distribute ballast, and provide in-house training to satisfy federal and state regulations,” said Blake. “Some of these practices have been copied and used by other short lines or service providers, both foreign and domestic.” 

Jacobson was a good man who loved his job and believed in his managers and workers, which helped spur camaraderie and awareness, says Copper Basin Railway Office Manager Rikki Galka, who worked with Jacobson for 30 years.

“Jake was a man dedicated to safety. He wanted everyone to go home to their families,” she says. “He will be missed by so many people.”

Jacobson not only put a lot of effort into his railroad’s operations and safe practices, but into recognizing short lines’ safety efforts as well, Galka says. After the Copper Basin achieved a perfect safety record in 1993, Jacobson found it disappointing there wasn’t a program that recognized short lines’ safety achievements. So, he created his own. Through most of the remaining ’90s, Jacobson each year announced and honored the short lines that had achieved solid safety performance. 

“It might have to be a cheap piece of paper in a Wal-Mart frame,” he was known to say about the simple certificate he gave as a recognition award. But he eventually fashioned a special lapel pin he also would give to honorees.

In 1999, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) took over the annual safety recognition program and named it the Jake Awards after Jacobson. Since its official inception in 1995, the program has distributed more than 6,200 Jake Awards to small railroads.

Jacobson was a legend in the railroad industry and the association’s history is deeply entwined with his, said ASLRRA President Chuck Baker in an email.

"Garnering a Jake Award is a highly valued win for our members, recognizing their railroad’s above-industry safety performance, and reflective of the passion that Jake had for safety, and his impact on our industry," Baker said.

Throughout his career, Jacobson impacted countless others and made many friends through his kind words and actions, says Galka. 

“He always had silver dollars in his pocket and would give them to people at random to provide them good luck in whatever was going on in their lives,” she says.

Strong leaders like Jake tend to gain respect and trust from many people they come into contact with, says Colin Rees, the owner of short line and transportation services provider Regional Connect in Australia, who first met Jacobson in 1994 during a U.S. visit and came to know him as a mentor. 

“You can’t buy this respect and trust, it has to be earned,” Rees wrote in an email. “Jake did that in spades in his every day connection with his people and others around him.”

Jacobson could be very strict if rules weren’t followed, but he would fight to the end for his people, Rees said. He also applied the same tenacity and people-handling skills to problem-solving.

Rees recalled a story Jacobson told him about a front-row parking space dispute among some UP administrative employees during Jake’s tenure at the Class I. Jacobson was asked by upper management to help resolve the problem, which he first attempted to smooth over by meeting with everyone involved. But the issue persisted in the form of employees jockeying for the best parking spots.

Jacobson then advised everyone to meet him in the company parking lot the next morning in their cars and follow him in his truck.

“Jake drove one mile to another parking lot, where he asked everybody to park, come to the front gate … [and then] walk with him back to the UP offices. Once everybody was there, he said, ‘Now we can do this again tomorrow and park farther away, or you can park here at your leisure,’” Rees wrote.

From that point on, the employees cooperatively chose parking spots.

Over the years, Rees and his daughter Kellie — who was interested in learning more about railroading — spent a lot of time with Jacobson. During one of Kellie’s visits in April 2012, her grandmother died.

“As I was breaking the news to Kellie at her hotel, Jake was at her door waiting to give her any support she needed,” said Rees. “Jake also organized the American flag to be flown at half-mast in respect for Kellie’s grandmother — a very touching gesture from Jake.”

To honor Jacobson, Rees flew flags at half mast at Regional Connect’s Ettamogah rail hub in Australia.

Kellie Rees Kellie Rees (at left) visited with Jacobson often in Arizona to learn more about railroading. The Australian also discovered Jake was a great storyteller and margarita maker. Colin Rees/Regional Connect

Sometimes during their visits, Jacobson would take Colin and Kellie Rees to sheds where he kept meticulously restored Mustangs and trucks.

“I mean they were beautifully restored, back to brand new. Jake was quite a collector and just loved to take you for a spin in them,” wrote Colin Rees.

Jacobson also would share many stories about how he managed the railroad over terrific margaritas, which he became known for, he said. Toward the end of dinners, Jacobson would bring out his collection of Colt 45s “that looked straight out of a Wild West movie,” with pearl handles and chrome barrels, Rees recalled.

After dinner, Jacobson would take guests to his balcony, where he’d continue to share stories. He was very interested in hearing about guests’ exploits, too.

“Jake loved a good yarn, and we made sure we had plenty for him,” Rees said.

Jacobson was so colorful and full of life — enough to overcome prostate cancer and four major surgeries, including a radical prostatectomy, in the early 2000s — he inspired a movie script (see sidebar). In the late 1990s, screenwriter Frank Leimbek wrote “Railroad to Redemption” about Jacobson. But after meeting with Jake several times in 2002, Leimbek rewrote part of it to incorporate more of the real railroader’s exploits and experiences.

After reading the script, Jacobson — who was quite humble — believed it was more fiction than fact.

“Sounds like a hell of an exciting life. My life ain’t that racy,” Jacobson told Progressive Railroading Editor Pat Foran in early 2003.

But what a life it was — meaningful and impactful enough for Jacobson to be named the Copper Basin Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year for 1998 and a "Great Railroader of the Century" in December 1999. It’s also one that will be long remembered in the rail industry.

Jacobson is survived by his wife Patricia, a son and daughter, and six grandchildren. A virtual celebration of life will be held for him on Sept. 18.