This realm on the World Wide Web combines the realities of prototype railroading with the drama of trying to capture the prototype in miniature. Just creating this blog with my colleague has forced me to think more deeply about what I’m doing as a model railroader and why I’m interested in railroads at all. There will be much more about these thoughts in the days ahead.
Hardly ever addressed in the model railroad press is the personal profile that I think drives most of us into the hobby: powerful memories. We build, we model, we operate because of memories.
I spent my childhood in a railroad town, Enola, site of the then world’s largest classification yard on the Pennsylvania Railroad. If an I1sa in shifter service in the westbound receiving yard blew a dirty stack it sent my mother and our neighbors fleeing into back yards to rescue the sheets drying on the clotheslines. Wind speed and direction determined who would have to run cinder-covered sheets through the ringer washer a second time.
To this day I imagine a cut finger would bleed Pennsy Tuscan red. At least, that’s my fantasy. My grandfather, S. O. Rowe, an engineman, piloted freights across the Middle Division between Enola and Altoona. He was retired already when I was a mere child but I imagine him to this day sitting proudly in his right hand seat on his L1 decapod. For a time, one of his sons, my Uncle Ed, sat on the left seat box as his fireman. But, as I was growing up, Uncle Ed was a remote figure in my life, lofty, somewhat gruff and intimidating, and supervising PRR motive power in the Northern Region.
My great, good fortune in the creation of memories was my Uncle Paul. As a young man he married my father’s fourth sister, Mabel, and worked as a passenger conductor between Harrisburg and points east, Philadelphia and New York. To me, he had the best job in the world. He enjoyed the romance of conducting the Tuscan red fleets of the Pennsy blue ribbon trains from Harrisburg to places of real importance, the big cities of the East.
But the one job Uncle Paul seemed to like the most had little to do with the blue ribbon fleet moving at eighty miles per hour over the electrified territory of the PRR. When he had enough seniority, he bid the conductor’s job on one of the lowliest and slowest trains on the Pennsy timetable. Train 645, and its counterpart, train 638.
The station at Harrisburg was one of the most intricately choreographed places on the railroad. While more trains served stations like Philadelphia, those trains either passed through or terminated there. At Harrisburg, trains from the east, west, north and south had trades to make. Pullman sleeping car routes converged and diverged there. Many Chicago and St. Louis trains eastbound shed cars at Harrisburg into Baltimore-Washington trains while collecting cars from these cities westbound. Buffalo and Erie arrivals and departures, while fewer in number, added to the high iron dance.
In the early evening, a westbound train left Pennsylvania Station in New York City with a sleeping car in its consist bound for Roanoke, Virginia. A shifter switched it out on arrival at Harrisburg and spotted it on track 1 in the station, the track with the easiest access to the sharp turn to the bridge across the Susquehanna River to the west shore. There “J” Tower (now preserved at the Strasburg [PA] Railroad) stood sentinel at a crossover and a double “wye” that routed trains to the lines that once comprised the Northern Central Railroad and the line to Hagerstown, Maryland, and Winchester, Virginia, that once comprised the Cumberland Valley Railroad.
The sleeping car wasn’t isolated on track 1 for long. East of the station, a single unit diesel locomotive, a railway post office car, and a coach waited to back down and couple to the sleeper. Train 645 was now complete and ready to board the coach passengers who had to leave the train from New York and climb the steps to the station concourse and wait until 645 was ready to receive them. The first class passengers in the sleeper were untroubled by the requirement to change trains.
Around 11 pm, (the exact departure time varied over the years), 645 began it’s leisurely journey over Pennsy rails to Hagerstown. There, in the middle of the night, the engine would be cut off and a Norfolk and Western Railway engine would be added to continue the slow journey on N & W rails to Roanoke. Meanwhile, the Pennsy engine turned on a wye at Hager Tower and waited a short time for the arrival of eastbound train 638 for the trip to Harrisburg and the connection to an eastbound train for New York.
My Uncle Paul was an avid, and successful, gardener. I think he bid on this job because it gave him an overnight run that didn’t involve a lot of work and an early morning arrival home. After a few hours of sleep he was out in the garden for the rest of the day. I, of course, took no interest in his garden but the glamour of his railroad career thrilled me.