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.

The board for the lever machine in NW tower.

Back in those days we had one train per hour going west to Brewster and one eastbound. Both had to change power, and you would not want to line the local from Grand Central Terminal (GCT) toward Yard A. The electric motors were all stored and serviced at the motor shop in yard A. A diesel had to come from the engine house in Yard C for the change of power move. So the local would come in from GCT, discharge its passengers, and go into Yard C, and the diesel would come out and sit in the “pocket” in front of NW. When the train for Brewster came into Holland Avenue station, the car knockers would cut off the motor and sometimes a few cars from the head end, and after they cleared the 33 switch, the diesel would get the jack and proceed east and tie onto the train, get a brake test and go west.

For east-bounds from Brewster, about ten minutes before their arrival the motor would come out of Yard A and go into 29 pocket just east of the tower. When the train came into the station, the car knockers would cut off the diesels and they would go east and back across the plant into Yard C to get serviced. The motor and sometimes additional coaches would back out of 29 pocket, tie onto the train, get a brake test and go east to GCT. A few minutes later the local would come out of Yard C, pick up local passengers, and head for GCT.

Looking west. NW tower is on the left and North White station is on the right.

Between the through trains to and from Brewster, a local would come in from GCT and one would go east to GCT. Starting around 6 p.m., service to and from Brewster would be every two hours, and that’s when our small grill would come out. I fired it up and we would have a fresh grilled Hamburger and always fried onions and saltine crackers—never a roll! To go with our dinner, I would have tea and my dad would drink his coffee. After everything was cleaned up and put away, out came the TV. We watched Laurence Welk, The Honeymooners, and a movie. At 11p.m. the TV was put away and we would wait for dad’s relief.

The old yard office. It was torn down in the mid 1960’s.

Some other things were always going on during my dad’s tour also. The yard master changed shifts at 4 p.m., so the new yardmaster would give my dad his line-up as to what tracks in Yard C to put the locals on that came in as well as the ones that left. This was based on how many cars were coming and going. Sometimes, if the car wash in Brewster was not working, they would run very large extras to North White. My dad hated this move as it took quite a while to make, and it tied everything up. You wash cars at 1 mph, so this train would come down and have to back across the interlocking. No radios in those days! So in between trains the plant was tied up as was Yard C. After shoving through and clearing up, trains would come and go, changing power, and then this drag would come out, run around the train, and go west back to Brewster. As I recall, this move took two hours and keeping the regular trains on time was a challenge for everyone. My dad often said he liked his job because it was never the same every day. This was because of this type of move, or because of late or disabled trains. You were always thinking.

They knew me well and treated me as if I was running the place, but everyone knew that my father was sitting there watching every move I made.

Diesels passing by the train station on the way to yard C to be serviced.
A yard move with an RS3.

Sometimes my dad worked NW on a Sunday, so I could go with him then, too. Things were almost the same as on Saturdays, except that the eastbound from Brewster would have some extra cars as travel late on Sundays was heavy with people going back into the city. He also had two more trains, JNDO that ran from Brewster to the Westside Yard. It was always called “The Dog.” As I recall, it did not always stop at NW on Sundays, but did during the week to make a pick up. They made a drop on the way back for the local that ran during the week out of NW and went east. As far back as I can remember, the engineer on The Dog was Earl Stein, a very large man who always blew the horn and gave us a big wave coming east. During late summer he would stop at the tower and give my dad a bag of fresh vegetables. My dad always gave the crew any type of move they needed.

The next added train on Sundays was No. 955 from Chatham. The engineer on that job was Ray Hart, who befriended me and would let me ride with him anytime I wanted. I’ll save that for another story. Another wonderful engineer I rode with all the time is Bobby Palmer. I am happy to say he made trips with me on Amtrak as well as to my new railroad home, the Railroad Museum of New England. I will write about Bobby another time.

Electric motor taking MU’s to GCT.
Electric motor taking MU’s to GCT.

Yes, those days at NW were wonderful times for me, and I met many great guys. Willy Knowles was the afternoon dispatcher. He and my family went way back as he was from Crestwood. “Young Jack,” he would call me when I OSed the trains. Jimmy Hall was the conductor on the yard job, and he and his brakeman, Bobby Harmon, would tease my dad and tell him I did a better job than he did running the tower. Ernie Shoemocker was the yardmaster as was Willy Dolan the cat man. They knew me well and treated me as if I was running the place, but everyone knew that my father was sitting there watching every move I made. What I would not give to go back fifty years and do it all over again.

A train going to Brewster leaving the Holland Avenue station with FL9. These came during the early Penn Central days when they took off trains on the New Haven. They were used between Boston and New York and also on the Hartford line as well as the branch lines.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. I am not a writer, just a story teller,  sharing my life as a kid growing up on the New York Central Railroad with my dad.

Note: All photographs date from the mid 1960s to around 1970)


John SpringerPhotographs and text Copyright 2018

Tower Architecture

“CW Cabin” – Hinton, West Virginia – Chesapeake & Ohio – Robert Staples photo

Railroads today are very standardized in their operations and equipment. It is very difficult to distinguish one railroad from another other than by their paint scheme. Things were different in the golden age of railroading. The railroads were very different from each other in terms of operating practices, the equipment used to move freight, and even the structures used to support operations such as depots or interlocking towers.

I will cover just the general look and design that the railroads followed most of the time. Please keep in mind that there were always exceptions to the rules.

Each railroad’s towers had their distinctive look and most followed a standard design or plan, but even within the same railroad, the towers could differ in looks or style from line to line. Read more

Interlocking Towers
 A Lost World

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Pennsylvania RR – Bowie Maryland – Photo by Ed Lenio

The interlocking tower, while not totally gone, has virtually vanished from the railroad scene. Whether it was a humble one story shanty or a magnificent two, three or more stories tall building, they once served a vital function. Some controlled where double track went to single; others controlled where two or more railroads crossed; others controlled a vast and complex passenger station “throat”.

Towers could be built to a particular railroad’s standard blueprint, but they all had their own personality. It was easy to recognize a certain railroad’s tower. Pennsy had it own look, as did the New York Central, Erie and the rest, but no hard and fast rules applied, even within the same railroad.

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Baltimore & Ohio – JD – Maryland – Photo by Gordon Bjoraker – May 1985
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New Haven RR – Greenwich, Connecticut – Photo by Tom Donahue – 1973
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Michigan Central (NYC) – BO – Kalamazoo, Michigan – Photo by Trey Kunz
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New York Central – Alexis – Toledo, Ohio – Photo by Dan Maners – Feb 1989
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Pennsylvania RR – Clagg, Kentucky – Photo by Dan Maners – March 1988

The inside of an interlocking was a fascinating and magical place.

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Baltimore & Ohio – NA – Baltimore, Maryland – photo by Bob Uhland

Watching the operator going about his duties was a sight to behold. There was always something going on; the constant chatter on the dispatchers line, the “ding” of the bell notifying that a train was “on the circuit “, or the operator transcribing a train order. The special smell of the grease used to lubricate the throw rods added to the ambiance.

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Erie RR – AC – Marion Ohio inside – Photo by Dan Maners – Oct. 2002
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Baltimore & Ohio – CX – Maryland – Photo by Bob Uhland – November 1984

With the advent of CTC, radios, and more recently computers, it is now possible to control hundreds of miles with only one dispatcher. Downsizing the physical plant and outright abandoning of portions of the railroad helped hasten their demise.

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Big Four (NYC) – Cobb – Coal Buff Indiana – Photo by Bob McCord – 1965
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Chesapeake & Ohio – Carleton, Michigan – Photo by Trey Kunz – 23 May 2001
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Chicago & Eastern Illinois RR – Haley – Terre Haute, Indiana –  Photo by Rich Hafer – September 1999

Dan ManersText Copyright 2016
Photographs Copyright 2016 by the photographer credited in the photo captions.
See more of Dan’s work at his website: North American Interlockings.

Maine Central Remembered

January, 1968
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“Tower MD’s building housed the CTC machine, relays and electronic equipment, a robust heating system, the operator, and a cat.”

When passenger service on the Maine Central Railroad (MEC) ended in 1960, I was 15 years old and had never been to the State of Maine. After the passenger trains were gone, the freight business was alive and well, thanks to the smart investments and wise business management of E. Spencer Miller, President of the railroad from 1952 through 1975.

My introduction to Maine was in 1964 through Colby College, which together with the railroad, was a major presence in Waterville, where the Maine Central had its repair shops, and its largest and most important classification yard.

Excursions beyond Waterville served as a diversion and study break from grinding through textbooks in the college library, and presented the chance to learn more about the railroad and how it worked.

One bitterly cold January day, a trip to explore the eastern portions of the Maine Central seemed like a good idea. I headed up toward Northern Maine Junction, where the MEC interchanged cars of Maine products, including printing paper, pulpwood, and potatoes, with the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad.

Around 1957, the Maine Central was still very much investing in the railroad, and a new CTC installation between Pittsfield and Northern Maine Junction was authorized to realize savings in redundant trackage and improve efficiency in the operation. The upgrade eliminated double track, and replaced the automatic block signals with a modern centralized traffic control system.

Tower MD’s building housed the CTC machine, relays and electronic equipment, a robust heating system, the operator, and a cat. On this winter day, I’m sure Phil Butler, the tower operator,  was not expecting any weekend visitors to his lonely outpost, but he was most cordial and welcoming. I think he appreciated anyone who was interested in what he did and how he did it. After some railroad small talk, he explained the machine and how it worked. Tower MD was also a train order office, and so the order hoops and train order signal over the building were part of the station’s equipment.

To me, these photos are a time capsule of the Maine Central in good times. Trains were run at speed on well maintained track, most of the time with “High Green” Clear signals displayed.

After the boom years of the 1970’s, a combination of business and economic factors brought the Maine Central to its knees. Wall Street raiders took over the debt free railroad, precipitating a long and bitter strike of the Maine Central’s loyal and hardworking employees.  Hundreds of track miles which had served the state’s industries for one hundred years and more were either abandoned or no longer maintained.

Today the CTC is gone. Most of track has a speed limit of 10mph, and many of the paper mills have closed as their product has become unneeded in the internet world.

It has been hard to watch the decline, but I certainly have many wonderful memories of what main line railroading was like Down East, back on that bitter cold winter afternoon.

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Tower MD – Northern Maine Junction

Bob Hughes – Photographs and text Copyright 2016

A Lesson Learned

The sign along the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision for the town of Shattuc.
The sign along the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision for the town of Shattuc.

Railroad interlocking towers once dotted the landscape so much that it seemed like they would always be there. Many towers still stand and watch silently as their human operators and the interlocking levers they controlled have been replaced by new technologies controlled from afar. Many other towers have vanished completely, with only a patch of gravel marking the spot where the tower once stood.

In the small, central Illinois town of Shattuc stood one of these towers. For years Shattuc Tower stood as a silent sentinel, watching the trains of many railroads roll by its broken and boarded up windows, its interlocking levers frozen in place from when the tower was decommissioned and the tower operator walked out of the tower at the end of the very last work shift. In its heyday the tower controlled the movements of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads. In later years the tower stood guard over the Burlington Northern and Chessie System, before being closed sometime in the 1980s. After being closed, CSX and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains rolled past the unused tower on the CSX’s Illinois Subdivision and the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision.

Looking southeast toward Shattuc Tower
Looking southeast toward Shattuc Tower
Looking south along the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision
Looking south along the BNSF’s Beardstown Subdivision
Looking east along the CSX’s Illinois Sub. (Now out of service)
Looking east along the CSX’s Illinois Sub. (Now out of service)

Today the tower is gone, and one of the two rail lines it once controlled is no longer a through route. Shattuc Tower was torn down in December 2014, after having stood as an empty, silent sentinel for many decades. In 2015, in a filing to the Surface Transportation Board under STB Docket No. AB-55 (Sub-No. 748X), CSX requested and received approval to discontinue service on its Illinois Subdivision between Caseyville, Illinois and Aviston, Illinois. Because of this, the rest of the subdivision now lies dormant with an uncertain future. However, BNSF trains still ply the rails of the Beardstown Subdivision, rolling past the empty spot where the tower once stood.

Looking east down the CSX Illinois Subdivision., with the interchange track in the foreground
Looking west down the CSX Illinois Subdivision., with the interchange track in the foreground

When I came across Shattuc Tower back in 2005, the abandoned railroad tower grabbed my attention more than the previous abandoned railroad towers, depots, and stations I had come across. Previous to coming across Shattuc Tower I had never thought much about these by-gone structures disappearing, which is a shame because so few of them are still standing and even fewer are being used. Shattuc Tower made me realize just how important it is to document the railroading environment as a whole, rather than just locomotives and the rail cars they move. The tower had stood watch along with its operators for so many years and then in the blink of an eye it was abandoned. This abandoned state was to me a reminder of just how quickly life can change after being the same for so long. The tower was a reflection of life and how the advancement of technology changes how people interact with their world. Before being torn down, Shattuc Tower taught me the valuable lesson to get out and document what I can because what is standing today may not be standing tomorrow.

Looking northwest at the tower at sunset. The BNSF’s Beardstown Sub. crosses left to right over the CSX’s Illinois Subdivision
Looking northwest at the tower at sunset. The BNSF’s Beardstown Sub. crosses left to right over the CSX’s Illinois Subdivision

Tom Gatermann – Photographs and text Copyright 2016