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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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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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

Blowing the Past Away

I was driving down Highway 4, between Rosetown and Swift Current, Saskatchewan, when I saw the old abandoned wood crib elevator in a farmer’s field just off the highway. How, I wondered, did it come to be there, all alone?

As it turns out, the elevator was once on a railway line—the old Canadian Pacific Railway McMorran Subdivision. Built in 1923, it was one of at least two elevators in the hamlet of Thrasher. But on this summer day in 2015, there is only one elevator left, abandoned like the rail line, and like Thrasher itself. Read more

Last Stand on the Topeka Sub

The cantilever at Eudora, Kansas. with one US&S searchlight, stood for nearly a century. It is now gone.

Since 2015, I have lived on or near the BNSF’s former Santa Fe Topeka Subdivision. This proximity has allowed me to watch firsthand the replacement of the searchlights, color light signals, and the code lines that have governed the subdivision for decades. All over the country, on busier lines, the old signals have been falling, rapidly replaced by Positive Train Control (PTC) and the new, “Vader” style color light signals. The BNSF’s former Santa Fe Topeka Sub is no exception. Running from Holliday to Emporia, Kansas (KS), this portion of the BNSF has acted as a relief valve for the busy Emporia Sub. It also hosts Amtrak’s #3 and #4, the east and westbound Southwest Chiefs. While the signals on many lines have been upgraded on many parts of the BNSF system, the Topeka Sub has largely been untouched. That is until now. Read more

The New River Gorge

Part Five
A wet autumn day in Thurmond.

Any time I visit the New River Gorge I almost always spend some time in Thurmond. For rail fans visiting southern West Virginia, Thurmond is certainly a must see place. Almost all of the railroad structures which crowded this narrow strip of flat land are gone. Still, there is much about this place which carries you back a hundred years to the boom times of the New River coal fields. A great deal has been written about Thurmond, much of it available on-line, and I’ll not do a history summary here. But I will touch on some of the highlights. Read more