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