The Evolution of ALTO Tower

ALTO tower in 2012 as a pair of NS helpers push past.

Built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1915, ALTO (JK) tower, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, remained in service for the next ninety-seven years, closing in 2012. Over that time it worked under the auspices of four different railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), Penn Central, Conrail and Norfolk Southern and each railroad, in turn, brought something new to the table. It is easy to think of railroad history over the last century to be one of subtraction; infrastructure being removed as a transportation monopoly yielded to competition from air travel and highways. However, for at least its ninety-seven years in service, ALTO’s story was one of adaptation to the ever changing times.

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No Time to Waste

Bear Mountain bridge and the Hudson River.

I was lucky to be one of the last hires on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, starting in June 1968, six short months before the Penn Central takeover of my railroad. What later turned out to be Amtrak was being discussed at the time. Passenger trains were being discontinued, and the ones still operating were losing money. It was obvious that many long distance trains were on the ropes; if a railroad trip across North America was to be taken, there was no time to waste.

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Richmond Division Recollections

Introduction

Main Street Station, Charlottesville, Virginia -1970

My introduction to a railroad paycheck was during the summer of 1969. During junior and senior high school years, 1967-1968 at Alexandria (Virginia), I frequented Alexandria Union Station to meet Railway Post Office trains. The ticket sellers and baggage-mail porters became familiar and friendly to me. I had found a summer job during June, 1969, at Arrow Moving Company in the west end of Alexandria. It paid two dollars per hour, but only if you went out on a moving assignment. I was thin and immature, so the coordinator would look around the room of candidates and pick those who appeared more athletic. I did my share of moving refrigerators up three flights of stairs, but on many days I wasn’t assigned to a move by 11 a.m. after having arrived at the office by 7 a.m. On those days there was no pay and nothing to do except to go home and try again the following morning.

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Saturdays and Sundays at NW Tower

A diesel coming to tie on and take the train to Brewster.

By the mid 1960s, my father was still working a “relief” job. This meant OW on Mondays, JO on Tuesday and Wednesday, and NW on Thursday and Friday. For several years the railroad was short on towermen, and my dad worked his days off at NW.  Saturday was my big day to go with him. My dad was always a good relief and came in early—most men were. Jim Donahue was the day man and was ready to leave after we showed up and he let my dad know if anything was not normal. That meant with the interlocking machine as well as trains not running in their normal order.

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Wrecking Ball

East Broad Top Railroad yard – Mt. Union, Pennsylvania

I am with two of my best friends. We are riding through central Pennsylvania after a successful visit to the Alco haven of Scranton. Following the Norfolk-Southern, ex Pennsy main is always interesting and by the time we reach Mt. Union we are in good shape for images of big black horses pulling freight.

The object here is to peek into a lost world, frozen since 1956, caused by the shutdown of the East Broad Top Railroad. Mt. Union was the site of the EBT’s major yard and was their interchange point with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Most of the yard, a few structures, plus a load of old narrow-gauge hopper cars still exist here. They are intact (mostly), but the ravages of all these years are slowly dissolving them. Read more

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Editor’s Notebook

Rockingham County, Virginia – March, 2018

Do Cameras Matter?

Most of you are probably aware of the flurry of new camera announcements that have come out in the past few weeks. Nikon, Canon and Panasonic have unveiled full-frame mirrorless offerings, and Fuji has once again stepped up the game in APS-C.

Normally, I wouldn’t be paying too much attention to all of this, but recently my seven year old DSLR has been acting flaky which has started me thinking about a replacement. My Pentax MX film camera is still going strong after thirty-five years, so why am I thinking about replacing my digital camera after only seven years? But that is a topic for another day. Read more

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