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By Pat Foran, Editor
Lowell “Jake” Jacobson — a short-line safety champion, railroading icon and longtime leader of the Copper Basin Railway — died July 24 from heart failure. He was 80.
Jacobson served Union Pacific Railroad for 29 years before becoming chief operating officer of the Copper Basin in 1986. He served as president and COO for more than 30 years, retiring in February 2020. Sold to copper company ASARCO in 2006, the short line operates a 54-mile line and 7-mile branch line in Arizona and interchanges with UP.
Jacobson turned the Copper Basin into one of the safest U.S. short lines. In 1993, he led an effort to preserve and repair the railroad’s track after the Gila River flooded. His commitment helped the Copper Basin achieve a perfect safety record that year.
Disappointed that there wasn’t a program recognizing short lines’ safety achievements, Jacobson created his own. For the next six years, he honored the lines that achieved solid safety performance. In 1999, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association took over the recognition program and named it the Jake Awards after Jacobson.
The original model, legend has it, for the Marlboro Man — a figure used to advertise Marlboro cigarettes from the mid-1950s through the 1990s — Jacobson was larger than life and perseverance personified. A prototype rugged individualist who met adversity head on.
In the early 2000s, he overcame prostate cancer and four major surgeries, including a radical prostatectomy in November 2002. In typical Jacobson fashion, he had prostate surgery on a Monday, was out of the hospital Wednesday and back to work that Friday.
“I really needed to get a whiff of diesel fuel and creosote,” he told me in March 2003.
Must have been something medicinal in that mixture. The quality of life, he told me, gets better each day. “I appreciate being alive,” Jacobson said.
His zest for life was infectious; his tendency to speak in maxims, endearing.
“I feel so fortunate to have had the privilege to be employed in this hallowed fraternity we call ‘railroading,’” Jacobson told me, a phrase he’d used many times, but one that never failed to deliver. “Whether it’s sharing what I’ve learned about railroading, the human aging process or something medical, I’ve got a debt to pay.”
It’s the other way around, as I wrote in March 2003. We owe him.
Jacobson is survived by his wife Patricia, a son and daughter, and several grandchildren.