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Early railroad memories

Started by trainman203, March 11, 2023, 06:10:02 PM

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Most of us got involved with trains and railroads as children, many with electric trains, others by living close to the railroads and seeing trains pass. Your age has a lot to do with what you saw and what brought you into this pastime that brings us together.

This is a place to relive those memories and share them with us. I've got a lot to say here, but I've got to gather my stories together.  I'll let a couple other people lead off first.

Terry Toenges

My Dad's layout on the right in the pic is what got me interested from day 1. I was 14 days old when this pic was taken. :) 
He was a semi driver and early on he used to work the rail yards unloading the piggyback trailers from the flat cars.
I used to get-wind up trains every Christmas until '58, when I got my very own Lionel train set. He had sold his layout before we moved to Gladstone, MO. in early '58.
My first railroad journey was when I was 4. My Aunt's friend took me by train to Colorado where my Uncle in the Army was stationed. We left from St. Louis Union Station.

This was the layout by the time I was about 4 around 1954.





Feel like a Mogul.


Terry, do you have any of that stuff anymore?


Early Railroad memories, part one

I can't remember a time ever when I wasn't aware of trains.  When I was born in 1948, both the Texas and New Orleans main line and the the Missouri Pacific branch lin in my hometown were 100% steam powered.  The Southern Pacific's prime passenger train passing through our town, the Sunset Limited, was still all heavyweight cars and steam powered, as were the several other local T&NO passenger trains on the schedule in those days.

We were the same distance from both, about a half mile or so maybe, and I could hear those high-pitched screaming steam whistles all the time, unable to tell which Railroad it was, because they both had the same whistles.  One great memory I have of the whistles was on one incredibly hot summer afternoon, with the sun being an obscure orange disc in the humidity-heavy hazy sky, hearing an unbelievably lonesome whistle scream, faintly drifting in and out on the wind from the northeast, which meant that the Missouri Pacific was on its way out of town up to the main line 50 miles north.

No one had any air-conditioning in those days, and we were no exception. The nights were almost unbearably hot. We had a giant 4' diameter attic fan that thumped all night long trying to get a breeze through the windows, but really didn't do much good.  I remember lying there sweating in the middle of the night and hearing what I learned later what was a deep – toned six chime whistle on the T&NO, undoubtedly pulling eastbound No.6 through.

When I was about four, my mother enrolled me into some little preschool on the other side of the railroad from us. It was a block and a half south of the T&NO, and a half block south of an eastbound Missouri pacific line, both running in paved streets.  That was unfortunate for me because the freight trains were pretty frequent, and I'd go wild going running out to the street to watch them pass. I remember very clearly the screaming five chime whistles squalling to the east as the steam engine came into town, and I would be like a rocket, trying to get to where I could see it.  I learned later that the engines were all 2–8-2's  and 2–10-2's.  I'd usually be able to manage to get a quick look at the valve gear churning on those engines before the teacher had me by the collar, dragging me back into the classroom.

That's enough for now.  Models came a little later.

Terry Toenges

I still have the Lionel set that I got in 1958. Over the years I had painted and repainted it. One time, I had it painted in black light paint. This one isn't mine but it is just like the one I got back then.

Feel like a Mogul.


Early Railroad memories, part two

I did not know until I had been gone for many long years what a great railroad town my hometown was in the early 1950s. The Texas and New Orleans was the big mainline presence while the Missouri Pacific was a branchline terminus tucked into nooks and crannies around the northwest edge of town. But, in addition to all of that, the Texas and New Orleans was the eastern terminus of two branchlines that ranged south out of town. In many ways, the town was like a railroad hub.

The easiest place for me as a child to see the railroad was the T&NO, with streets paralleling it on one or both sides the whole way through town, plus about six blocks of double track street running in the eastern end.  The freight house and passenger depot were pretty much in the middle of the T&NO complex.  Across the main line from these was a wye that led south into the two branchlines. In the middle of the wye was a little engine service area where several small steam engines that ran the branchline were kept.  A large black water tank was there too.

My mother passed this locomotive service area almost every day in the car driving on errands. And I would be in the car with her. I was between four and six years old but I remember that place as clear as if it were yesterday.  The water tank was right by the gravel street we drove on, dripping water all the time with puddles all around the bottom of it.  All of the Texas and New Orleans steam engines were oil-fired, so an oil service tank car was always shoved up to the end of a siding in the service area.

 The engine service area had a number of tall pine trees around it, and I remember several engines sitting up in the trees with steam up, one being overfired because you could see the fire flashing and flaring between the spokes on the last set of drivers, very dramatic and scary for a little kid. Going west on that street, you went around a little lumberyard, and then the street returned to trackside with the tie ends being almost right up in the street gravel.  One time a locomotive was sitting on that section of track as we passed within five or six feet of it. Water was pouring out of the injection overflow and puddling into the street. I remembered that when we got home. I got on my tricycle and carried a garden watering can, pouring out water as I pedaled down the driveway.

They were several other places to see the T&NO.  They will come next.


I'm going to answer this thread by first seperating the real railroading from the model railroading, because to em they have always been seperate activities. And the real railroading has always been more important than the modelling.

The first train ride that I know I was on was a PRR local to visit my maternal grandparents in Sturgeon, PA just west of Pittsburgh on the Panhandle line. I have no memory of the ride. PRR commuter service in the Pittsburgh area ended three months after I was born. The first train ride I remember was on the Monongahela Railway where we were invited up in a Baldwin shark as the crew worked the yard at Meadow RUn.

I was fortunate enough to live in a railfan family. I am the third generation to follow this path. My paternal grandfather was an electrical engineer who was keenly interested in interlocking plants, trackwork and signalling. As a result I learned alot about railroad engineering and signalling from him, and we tended to go to places on the busy mainlines in the area. The former PRR mainline east of Pittsburgh was a favourite spot. It ran probably three times the trains of the B&O, which was also a busy line. Horseshoe Curve was one of the many spots we went to often.

My dad was the opposite. He was keenly aware of the changing railroad scene in the 1970s, and went to great lengths to document the scene before it disappeared. His passion was, and is, the smaller railroads and shortlines that were fast disappearing in those days. When we went on vacation, the local rail lines and shortlines in particular were mandatory stops. SOmetimes this would result in a cab ride from a bemused crew not used to people photographing their train. Things were alot more relaxed in those days, and nowhere was this more true than on the shortlines. Unfortunately, most of these operations were abandoned years ago. In many cases, the infrastructure could not support the weight of the heavier cars that became standard in the 1990s.

The coalfields of Appalachia were our home turf. The nearest yard was Connellsville, a hump yard and division point on the B&O. 4 other railroads also came to town, and it was a fascinating place where these railroads wove over, under and around each other. Amazingly, for all the railroad activity, none of these lines crossed at grade. It truly was a spaghetti bowl of the type the so called "experts" tell us is unprototypical. But Connellsville was just one of many towns in the area where the rails of multiple companies converged.

One of the favourite hang out spots was BoWest, where the Western Maryland had a crew change point for the run through trains off the N&W (P&WV.) The crews came out of BoWest JC, where the yard and locomotive servicing facility sat on a branch off the mainline. Crews for trains not working the yard used an ancient truck on railroad wheels known as the jitney to get to the mainline. As was common in the area, there were no direct roads between the yard and BoWest. Also typical was the bridge just west of the switch than spanned a B&O line on one end, and the PRR on the other. We could see the trains on the B&O mainline from this spot while we waited on the few trains the WM ran.

Over on the B&O side, the hump yard was serviced by a set of former C&O cow and calf switchers running as an ABA set. FOr those not familiar with the cow and calf term, a calf was a switcher B unit, and the cow was the A unit. The yard, in addition to being a crew change point, sorted cars from the branch lines in the area that fed it. The most important of these was the FM&P, locally known as the "sheepskin," which connected the mainline to Fairmont and the coalfields of West VIrginia where B&O had a virtual monopoly. As a result, it was a busy place. Best of all was the tower that controlled everything, Greene Jc, was sometimes staffed by an avid railfan and train collector who loved having visitors. All in all, the B&O was a friendly railroad, and even the railroad cop would stop and talk to you. He was far more concerned about kids cutting through the active hump yard on their way to the river to fish than he was about railfans.

Over on the PRR, now Conrail, side the extensive network of branchlines that literally reached up every hollow in search of coal were largely out of service as the mines played out. But the tracks were still in place for many years. Teh mainline, however, was a busy three track line that all the important trains used. The PRR uin its heyday was a rich railroad, and spared no expense trying to improve its line. In contrast to the B&O, whose line remained largely where the first surveyors plotted it back in the mid 1800s, the PRR had been straightened, with curves and tunnels eliminated, several times over the years. But while they could eliminate the curves they could not tame the grades. The topography of Western Pennsylvania is rugged, with narrow valleys cut deep by rivers and streams that never seemed to head in the direction the PRR wanted to go. As a result, they had to cut through the hills across multiple summits followed by descents to waterways they could not follow, followed by yet another climb out of a valley. This became my railroad of choice, and many hours were spent on those grades listening for approaching trains that could be heard for miles. WE rarely had to wait long. Even to this day, this is the most heavily trafficked line in the area, and the grades still challenge even the most powerful AC drive locomotives that modern engineering can produce.

I had a ringside seat as COnrail took the weed strewn worn out track and tired locomotives of the Penn Central era and rebuilt them into one of the premier railroads in the country. Yes, interesting but marginally performing locomotives and cars had to be sacrificed along the way. We lost some very atrtractive paint schemes too as the various railroads were molded into one coherent system. But overall the changes were hugely positive. But the COnrail was never as friendly as the B&O anyway, and we ewre never able to hang out in those PRR towers the way we could on the B&O.

Adulthood coincided with the collapse of the steel industry and the devastating impact on the local economy. There are many places that even 40 years later have never fully recovered from the economic damage incurred during this time. The steel mills were huge customers of coal, and their demise also forced the shutdown of many of the remaining mines. They were also huge users of rail service, and for many years cars idled by the downturn were stored everywhere until they were finally sold or scrapped.

No railroad was more profoundly affected by this than the P&LE. The line to COnnellsville had previously suffered to loss of its interchange with the Western Maryland as the latter abandoned its mainline into COnnelsville. What little interchange traffic there was left came from the B&O, who had little interest in turning over traffic that they could probably handle on their own lines as the B&O parallelled the P&LE for much of its length. Teh biggest remaining customer onthe branch, a coal mine in West Newton, shut down just before the steel industry collapse. And then came the unthinkable. The railroad, which directly served almost every steel mill in western Pennsylvania, had always had no trouble finding traffic. In fact, as a NYC and later PC subsidiary, it was one of the few profitable parts of Penn Central. This along with a minority stake held by outsiders allowed it to regain its independence while the rest of Penn Central was folded into COnrail. After a few hugely profitable independent years, it suddenly lost most of the traffic that had kept it profitable. The P&LE's decline mirrored that of its onetime parent, as the railroad became a decrepid rundown property where trains rolled along rickety track because the railroad couldn't afford to dig the tracks out of the mud. SUrplus equipment and track was sold off to keep the rest of the railroad afloat, but it wasn't enough. BUt it did keep them going until CSX bought the railroad in the early 1990s.

I had been out there documenting all of this, particularly on COnrail. My specialty became locomotives, which had always held interest for me. I walked the lines of surplus locomotives in Altoona and other places, checking serial numbers and noting discrepancies. COnrail's roster was an enigma, with certain types of locomotives where nothing was what it seemed. There were many cases under NYC and PC where shady practices were used for accounting reasons involving wrecked locomotives. These were not officially documented by the railroad, of course, but number swaps between locomotives were common. There were alot of these among the GP7s, and even a few cases where GP9s and GP7s swapped numbers resulting in a couple of GP7s remaining on the COnrail roster, numbered as GP9s, for ten years or so after the rest of the GP7s had been retired. IN addition, COnrail's own rebuild programs among those units were a mess, with official railroad documents listing certain rebuild nas havng been originally one locomotive, but a check of the order numbers stamped in the frame revealing that the core was something completely different. I found it all fascinating, and still do to this day.

Jeffery S Ward Sr
Pittsburgh, PA


Early Railroad memories, part three

Steam locomotives were a central focus of my pre-school developing attention span.  I remember them more than anything else in what I did not know was the very end of the closing act of the grand pageant of classic golden-era American railroading. Railroads went everywhere and did everything. They carried everything. Everyone rode trains.  There was a great mystique and aura  of romance about them. But it was not to last but another short couple of years.

We rarely passed the T&NO depot at any other time of the day than early to mid afternoon. But for some reason, one day my mother drove past there, with me in the car, in mid morning. Just to the east of the Corrine Street crossing was the western end of the depot passenger platform, with a water column for the steam engines on the passenger trains to top off the water tank during a station stop.  As we crossed of the track, on my side of the car, I could see the water column just topping off a Vanderbilt tender, the engine facing eastbound and the cylindrical tank rear of the tender being nearest to me. The fireman up on the tender deck was not being very careful, and water was splashing and spraying everywhere, and running all down the sides of the tender tank and onto the platform. I was looking into the sun, and all of this kinetic water action was catching the light and sparkling intensely, not unlike a natural waterfall, making quite an impression on a kid.

Many years later, when I started going to the depot on my own to watch the daily drama of No. 5 and No. 2 calling at the depot within a half-hour of each other, I saw a large metal plate set into the concrete of the platform down by Corinne Street and realized it was where the water column had been. Believe it or not, it is still there, certainly with an underground pipe leading from it to where the water tank had been... undoubtably still holding water that didn't quite make it to a locomotive.

In those days, you could not get a hamburger from some fast food place on every corner.  When my father decided we were going to have hamburgers for supper, the only place in town to get them was a joint called Johnny's down on Hopkins Street, one block west of Corinne Street, near the depot and right at the T&NO crossing and where Washington Street crossed Hopkins Street while paralleling the track.  One evening toward sundown my father drove to Johnny's to pick up supper, and parked facing west on Washington Street alongside Johnny's. Johnny's was a rundown bar, so he could not bring me inside with him, but rather left me in the car while he ran in.  This was very good for me because while he was in there an eastbound steam freight came stomping by and past in great glory.  I remember that silver smokebox front and centered headlight like it was yesterday.  I also recall this train having a cupola caboose, the last time I ever saw one on a mainline train since bay window cars were taking over.

Also, while I was waiting in the car, I spotted a yellow-painted metal device on top of a rail of a spur track across the street. I later learned this was called a "derail," a device designed to prevent a runaway car from rolling onto the main.  Of course, when we got home, I had to have such a thing on my Lionel track.  I got a piece of yellow modeling clay, pressed it all around the rail, and it was the best looking derail I ever saw.

There's still more T&NO steam, then I'll get to the MP.