Sunday, March 9, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

The very heavy snow fall we here in Pennsylvania had this past week-end reminds me of my first winter spent on the railroad. On December 12, 1944, snow began to fall about noon. I was still in high school, so it was no big deal to a high school student, except that visions of snow days crossed my mind.
When I went to work at 5:30 the next morning, there was 8 inches of heavy snow on the ground, and this snow continued until we had 21 inches of the stuff. School was cancelled, of course, since the buses couldn't run. That meant that I and my student buddy could work full time on the railroad until school re-started in a few days.
That was the day of railroad passenger trains, and the Erie had 6 of them daily, 3 eastbound and 3 westbound, plus 2 more that carried mail and express only, 1 eastbound and 1 westbound. There was a long (about 100 yards) black-top platform along side of the main track, where the passengers detrained. This platform had to be clean of snow and ice, which was our job during the blizzard. I can remember starting to shovel at the Main Street crossing, work east to the end of the platform, shoulder my shovel, walk back to the Main Street crossing, and start all over again.
Due to the heavy wide-spread snowfall, the New York Central Railroad, which at that time ran from New York City to Chicago, right along the Great Lakes, had to detour their main-line west-bound passenger trains from Buffalo, New York to Cleveland, Ohio over the Erie. We were amazed and excited to see the legendary trains of the Central; The Empire State Express, The 20th Century Limited, and others passing our station. I can remember the wonderful whistles of the New York Central steam engines, especially the 4-6-4 Hudson types. I think that the Central also had the new 4-8-4 Niagaras in stock, but am not sure. I also remember some of the Central freight trains also being detoured over the Erie, since this was war-time, and the freight had to be moved.
It was a three-day school vacation for my buddy and me. It was hard work, but pleasant.
A result of this snowfall was that Main Street of our little town developed two ruts in the heavy snow, since we didn't have any snow-clearing equipment to handle such a large snowfall. The standing joke at that time was that a stranger, finding his way into town, would ask "Which rut do I take to get out of this place?" That was more truth than fiction, since the ruts grew larger by the day, and if you didn't stay in your rut, you didn't go anywhere.
As I have mentioned before, Camp Reynolds was just a few miles down the road from our town. In, I believe, March of 1945, an engineer company stationed at the camp brought in its equipment, which included power shovels, bulldozers, etc., along with high-pressure water hoses, and cleaned up Main Street. We hadn't really seen the pavement since December 12 of 1944.

Friday, February 22, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

I do believe that railroaders are some of the finest story-tellers on earth. Railroading was an exciting occupation, sometimes dangerous, sometimes humorous, but always interesting.

An old-time Railway Express man once told be this one, and he swore at the time that it was true. Names have been eliminated to protect any remaining relatives.

This story happened around the time of World War I. There is a small town just a few miles west of Greenville, PA named Shenango. Shenango at that time was a very busy place; in fact, it was busier than its larger neighbor Greenville. The main reason for this was that Shenango was a railroad hub. The Erie Railroad, the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad all entered Shenango, and shared a large passenger station there.

The station agent at Shenango was, to put it mildly, not a very nice person. At the time of this story there were many immigrants moving through the area on the various passenger trains of the three railroads. All the trains stopped at Shenango to discharge or pick up passengers, and the station agent had a little business going on the side. He would brew up a large batch of tea, pour this tea into beverage bottles, jam corks deep into the necks of the bottles, and sell the tea as beer to the passengers passing through. He made sure that he didn't sell to any of the passengers that were going to spend some time at the station; just to the ones who might get off to stretch or pick up some tobacco, etc. By the time the unfortunates discovered that the beer had turned into tea, the trains were on their ways to Chicago or Jersey City or Pittsburgh.

The station agent was not very well-liked by anyone, due to his temper and self-importance. My friend, the story-teller, and a friend of his once got even with the agent. They had unloaded a calf in a large crate from one of the late evening trains just after the station had closed for the night. The crate was open on one end, with just some wire keeping the calf from escaping through that end. The two men parked the baggage truck containing the calf and the crate in front of the agent's office door, with the open end right next to the door, locked the wheels of the baggage truck, and went home after a hard day's labors. On arriving at work the next morning, the agent was greeted by the crate, the calf, and a large pile of manure.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

When the United States entered World War II, I was in the seventh grade of a township school. The school had eight classrooms, one for each grade, plus eight regular teachers, one for each grade, grades one through eight. There was also a gymnasium which held a large stage.
Grades one through three faced a large pasture, bordered by the Kremis-to-Osgood short line of the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad. Grades four through six were on the opposite side of the building, and faced nothing particularly interesting. Grades seven and eight were in the front of the building, and faced a township highway, bordered by a large forest. The rear of the school faced a large play ground, where recess was held twice a day, weather permitting.

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Jamison, our seventh grade teacher, brought a small radio to school, and the whole class listened to President Roosevelt's appeal to Congress to declare war on Japan. It was a historic moment, whether we knew it or not.

My fond memories of this school include being in the first three grades, watching the long Bessemer trains going south, loaded with iron ore. At that time, the Bessemer had some of the largest Texas-type steam locomotives in service on any railroad. It was the habit of the Bessemer to have one of these locomotives on the head-end of the southbound train, with another Texas-type pushing against the loaded train, with a caboose behind the pusher. The Bessemer at that time used the Kremis-Osgood short line for most of its ore trains, because to use the main line of the Bessemer, the trains would have to go through Greenville, PA, with the result that the town would be tied up for quite sometime, since there were three crossings in the town, and the ore trains were quite long, and quite slow.

In May of 1944 I hired out on the Erie Railroad as a freight and baggage handler at the Greenville passenger station and freight house. It was an exciting time. In 1942 the U. S. government bought up some of the farm lands south of Greenville, and turned it into, first, Camp Shenango, later re-named Camp Reynolds.

The camp was not a training camp as such, but on a good day, and with the wind in the right direction, we could hear rifle fire from the ranges at the camp four miles away. I can remember by father taking me to the over-pass near the camp on a Sunday afternoon, and watching the troop trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad, which entered the camp, loading and unloading soldiers.

Something that most people don't remember now is that during World War II, many Mexican nationals came to the states to work. At Greenville, there was a track gang of at least twenty men of various ages headquartered. I was taking Spanish in high school, and became friends with a few of them. They helped perfect my dubious Spanish, and I, in turn, would buy things for them from the stores, such as writing paper, pens, candy, etc., whatever they didn't have time to buy for themselves. I learned much later that, after the war was ended, and they were headed back home, many of them were attacked on the border by Mexican bandits, and never arrived home safely. I've always wandered whether or not some of my friends were included in that bunch.

After Camp Reynolds was in business for about two years, German prisoners-of-war began to be brought in. The camp received some of its small freight at the Erie freight house. I can remember five or six German prisoners, guarded by a non-com from the camp, usually armed with a M-1 carbine, plus a non-com driver, also armed, arriving to pick up some freight. I would get the papers ready to sign; the guard would tell me to point out what was to be taken, and then to step out of the way. He would say something to one of the Germans, they would go to work, the non-com would sign the papers, and they were off back to the camp. It was quite interesting, and I felt no fear at the time. I didn't get a chance to speak to any of the prisoners, since the non-com was strictly business, but I would have liked to.

Of course, when men or boys work closely together, there is usually some horse-play and practical jokes. There was a clerk in the track supervisor's office at that time who liked to play tricks, but didn't much care to have the tricks returned. I was the object of some of those tricks at one time; instead of being harmless, some bordered on being malicious. I once found my new pair of work gloves tacked to the warehouse door, one tack for each finger.

The clerk was in the habit of using Copenhagen snuff, kept the snuff box in his desk drawer instead of carrying it around with him. Somehow, mysteriously, the snuff box took on a charge of cayenne pepper. There was some red-faced cursing, threatening, etc., but the tricks stopped, at least against me.

More later.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

In 1944 the main headquarters of the Erie Railroad Company were located in the Midland Building, Cleveland, Ohio. The Erie at that time issued pay checks twice a month, on the 15th and the last day of the month.

The checks for the employees that worked in my home town always arrived on eastbound passenger train Number 6 on the evening before the actual pay day. It was the custom to give out the pay check before the actual pay day if the employee wanted it, even though the check could not be cashed until the actual date on the check.

A man who worked on the track gang at that time was known to us as "The Swede." I never knew his actual name. He was probably 5 feet 11 inches tall, bald as an egg, very strong. I once saw him pick up a full-size railroad tie and carry it to the place where it was needed. A legend has it that "The Swede" could pick up a piece of rail by himself. His foreman saw it happen, told him to double-up with the rail. "The Swede" took it to mean that he should carry two pieces of rail, and he did. As I mentioned, this is a legend. There were many legends on the railroad.

Anyway, "The Swede" had a little business going on the side. It worked like this: he would meet Number 6 the evening before each pay day. Those who wanted their checks at that time would wait for the ticket clerk to hand out the checks. The next stop was to see "The Swede." "The Swede" would cash your check for a fee. The fee varied with each person. If your check happened to be in the amount of, say, $100.03, "The Swede" would ask you to sign the check, hand it to him, and he would give you
$100.00, keeping the 3 cents. However, if your check was for $100.97, "The Swede" would give you $100.00, keeping the 97 cents. I don't know whether or not this business was legal, but it surely did prove popular with those who didn't want to wait until next day to cash their checks.

I never saw "The Swede" without money. He was quiet, hardly said a word to anyone. He lived by himself in a little shack next to one of the two rivers that went through our town, and loved to fish. Another legend has it that two brothers of dubious character once decided to rid "The Swede" of some of his money. One of the brothers hit him with a baseball bat. "The Swede" just shrugged it off, threw one of the brothers into the river. The other brother ran, and wasn't seen in town for almost a month. No one else ever tried to take money from "The Swede."

Monday, January 21, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

I'm going to leave Cleveland for awhile, and go back to my first weeks on the Erie, which would be the summer of 1944.

I had hired out as a baggage and freight handler on May 24, 1944 while still a sophomore in high school. Summer vacation came along; so did a few pay checks.

I had been, ever since I could remember what an airplane was, a nut about airplanes. In those days, there was a huge variety of private airplanes, such as Piper, Taylorcraft, Waco, Stinson, Aeronca, Laird, Travel Air, etc., along with the large commercial planes from Douglas and Boeing, not to mention a few of the old Ford "Tin Goose" tri-motors still flying.

There was a little air port located about 4 miles outside town. Every chance I could, I would beg, wheedle, bribe, or whatever, to get my father to take me out to the airport to watch the planes. This was probably in 1936 or so, and there was lots of activity at the little grass field.

At that time, you could almost count on there being an air show at the airport every summer. Also, a Ford tri-motor usually spent a week there, giving rides. In fact, my first airplane ride was a 20-minute one in a Ford, paid for by my grandfather, God bless him. I don't remember just how much the ride cost, but I imagine, for 1936, it
was expensive.

Back to my first summer on the railroad. After I had a few paychecks under my belt, I called an older friend, who had taken flying lessons, for advice. He put me on the trail of his instructor, who, after thinking about it a bit, said he would be glad to take me up and let me get the feel of handling a plane.

I remember hitch-hiking out to the field one fine summer afternoon. The pilot told me what was going to happen, and how much the first lesson would cost. We agreed to the terms. We took off, and after getting up so far, he told me what to do, and how to do it. I think the plane was a Piper J-3, but it could have been a Taylorcraft, since that was also a popular plane at the little airport.

We rode around for about 20 minutes, I guess. I was awkward, of course, but the pilot seemed to think I was doing all right for the first time. After landing, we talked about further lessons, and I decided to do it, since my pay seemed to be safe for at least the summer.

However, fate stepped in after I had something like 4 hours or so of instruction.

Back in those days, a carnival or a circus, or both, always paid a visit to our little town. The circus would stay just over-night, but the carnival would set up for usually a week. A carnival arrived about mid-Summer and set up. After the first night, the big talk around my circle of friends was that there was someone called a "geek" in the carnival, and that this person would bite off the head of a chicken, for a price. This was stunning news. I made up my mind that I would see it.

The fore-mentioned fate then stepped in. The next day I contacted a case of the German measles. I was advised that I should stay indoors out of the bright sun, and not to read. Of course, I knew better.

As a result, I missed out on seeing the geek. I also lost some of my eye-sight, because I did go outdoors in the bright sun, and did read the funnies.

Also, in those days, a person needed 20/20-vision in order to obtain a pilot's license. I had 20/20 when I started my lessons, but after the measles, I didn't.

So went my dream of flying.

About 20 years ago my wife and I went for a Sunday drive. Our route took us past the new local airport, with paved runways, lights, radio, etc. One of my friends had a 2-place Cessna, was just landing. He taxied up, spotted me, asked if I wanted to go up for awhile. He knew some of my history regarding planes. We took off, got about 150 feet up. He said "It's all yours," and handed it over to me. What a wonderful afternoon! We fooled around a bit, shot some landings, finally landed. I then realized just what I had missed by being a bit foolish.

Friday, January 18, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

A few weeks after moving into my room on West Blvd., Cleveland, Ohio, I felt secure enough to start looking around the city. At first, it was bewildering, but as I became more used to the heavy traffic and the large crowds, I began to enjoy finding new neighborhoods to explore.

In those days, and I'm talking about 1947, Cleveland was a really thriving city. I had started collecting records at age 16 while in high school, so one of the first things I did was search out record stores. I found a beauty; Record Rendezvous on Prospect Avenue. It became my second home. I made friends with one of the managers and a few of the clerks; they started pointing things out for me, also picking out new releases as they came into the store. I once went too wild, because at the end of one buying spree, I discovered that I was almost out of money, and pay day 10 days away.

For five days I actually lived on bread and water. Once in awhile, one of the fellows at work would invite me into the station's restaurant for coffee and donuts, which, in my condition, was manna from heaven. After getting my next pay, I made the resolve that a bank account would be opened, and that I never again would live on bread and water. I have kept my resolve, even though I have come close to bread and water a few more times in my life.

Since I had no kitchen where I boarded, I had to eat all my meals out. At first, I would ride the Detroit Avenue street car into Public Square, walk to East 9th Street and visit The Forum, a cafeteria. It was a very good place to eat. I hope it is still in business. One day, while walking around my neighborhood, I ran across a truly fine little restaurant named Palmina's. It was located on Detroit Avenue, about a block from my room. It was an Italian restaurant, with terrific service and a friendly staff. It, also, soon became another home-away-from-home. I truly do hope that it is still in business, because it surely was a fine place to eat.

In those days, Cleveland had outstanding public transportation. The rapid transit system ran into The Terminal from the East. In my neighborhood, I could catch a Detroit Avenue street car into Public Square every 20 minutes until, I think, midnight. After midnight, the street car ran every 30 minutes. I, also, could cross over a foot bridge that went over the Nickel Plate Railroad tracks and catch a Madison Avenue car into Public Square. On rush hours, the transit system would hook trailers, heated by charcoal in cold weather, to the regular street cars. One really did not need an auto in those days unless he really was in a hurry, or had a hot date. I would buy a weekly pass for, I believe, $1.50, which entitled me to ride anywhere on the system, and never leave the car. In fact, some of the homeless actually did buy a pass and spend their nights inside on a street car.

There was a fine ballroom at West 25th Street and Clark Avenue, called, I think, the Aragon Ballroom. The ballroom drew the name bands once in awhile. I danced to Vaughn Monroe there, also Hal McIntyre and Elliott Lawrence. I felt sorry for McIntyre and Lawrence. The polka-mad Clevelanders actually booed both bands.

On thinking back, I once was almost run over in traffic on Madison Avenue. I was heading into the city, had missed my Detroit Avenue car, so decided to walk over to Madison Avenue and catch that car. Anyway, I started to cross the street to reach the car stop, and what did I spy but one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen? She appoached, and actually made me stop dead in my tracks, right in the middle of busy Madison Avenue. Horns started blowing, and I almost stepped into the path of an approaching automobile. I never saw her again, but she is remembered.

Monday, January 14, 2008

21 Years On The Erie Railroad

After officially taking the relief job at the Cleveland, Ohio passenger station, I, naturally, had to learn the job. I did receive much help from most of the people involved, expecially the Baggage Agent and the two Asst. Baggage Agents. However, since no one had bid on the job before, the regular people were working their jobs seven days a week, picking up quite a bit of over time. Since I had bid on the job, and been awarded it, I kind of spoiled their nest eggs.

However, I made up my mind that since I bid on the job, was awarded the job, I was going to work the job, come hell or high water. The first month or so was not very happy. Some stumbling blocks were thrown in my path; however, the people involved soon found out that when I made up my mind to do something, I did it. Gradually, things improved, and by the first of March I had just about fit in with everyone.

At that time, the Cleveland passenger station was a very busy place. If memory serves, the day started at 3:30 a.m. with Train Number 687, a train that ran from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania thru to Detroit, Michigan, the routing being Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad from Pittsburgh to Youngstown, Ohio; Erie Railroad from Youngstown to Cleveland, and the New York Central from Cleveland to Detroit. A P&LE engine was used from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, where a NYC engine took over. At 5 a.m. the return move arrived from Detroit, powered by a New York Central engine. The P&LE engine that arrived from Pittsburgh on Train 687 was used to take this train, Train 688 to Pittsburgh. Trains 687 and 688 were almost always powered by a 9200-series Pittsburgh & Lake Erie 4-6-2 Pacific, not as large as the Erie 2900 series Pacifics.

At 8 a.m. Train Number 624 departed, heading to Washington, DC via Erie to Youngstown, P&LE from Youngstown to Pittsburgh, then Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from Pittsburgh to Washington. An Erie engine was used on this run from Cleveland to Youngstow, always a 2900-series Pacific.

Immediately after Train 624 departed, a commuter train arrived from Youngstown, usually powered by a small Erie Pacific, with no baggage or mail cars on the head end. It stopped at almost every station on the route from Youngstown to Cleveland, brought many workers who lived in the small towns to their daily jobs in Cleveland.

After the commuter train arrived, things were quiet until 11:45, when Train Number 625 arrived with coaches and Pullmans from Jersey City, New Jersey. Train 625 started from Jersey City as Train Number 5, The Lake Cities, which was broken up at Youngstown, Ohio. Part of the train went west from Youngstown to Chicago as Train 5, The Lake Cities, while the balance of the train went to Cleveland as Train 625. Both these trains were powered by a 2900-series Pacific.

At 1:00 p.m. Train 626, heading to Youngstown and Pittsburgh departed, powered by an Erie Pacific as far as Youngstown.

Things were again quiet until 3:25 p.m., when Train 685, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland arrived, usually powered by a 2900-series Pacific. This train had coaches for Detroit, but were switched to the Cleveland Terminal by New York Central power.

At 5:15 p.m. Train 686 departed, heading for Youngstown, with a connection there with Train Number 6, The Midlander, heading to Jersey City, and the balance of the train going to Pittsburgh. This train was usually powered by a 2900-series Erie Pacific.

Shortly after Train 686 departed, the Cleveland to Youngstown commuter train departed, with many stops along the way.

Things were again quiet until 9:30 p.m., when Train 623, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland arrived, again powered by a 2900-series Erie Pacific.

And, finally, Train 679 from Pittsburgh to Cleveland arrived at 11:40 p.m., usually powered by a P&LE 9200-series Pacific engine.

Train 679 usually carried a car, called a storage car, almost completely filled with U. S. mail. At that time, an 8-man crew, not employed by the Erie Railroad, came in about midnight to help with the mail. I'm not really sure who they worked for, but they surely did do a wonderful job in clearing up the mail. In fact, all of the trains arriving or departing from the Cleveland passenger station carried U. S. mail, with the exceptions of the two commuter trains. Most of the trains carried something called a R. P. O. car (Railway Post Office car), with a usual 4-man crew, and this crew sorted and bagged mail enroute.

More later about my adventures on the Erie Railroad in Cleveland.