Friday, April 27, 2012

The Classic Railroad Pocket Watch

 One of the most important, and treasured pieces of equipment that railroaders from the classic period of railroad history was the pocket watch..., or "Turnip" as it was lovingly referred to by some old-timers.

If you were in the market for a watch in1880, would you know where to get one? You would go to a store, right? Well, of course you could do that, but if you wanted one that was cheaper and a bit better than most of the store watches, you went to the train station! Sound a bit funny? Well, for about 500 towns across the northern United States, that's where the best watches were found.

Why were the best watches found at the train station? The railroad company wasn't selling the watches, not at all. The telegraph operator was. Most of the time the telegraph operator was located in the railroad station because the telegraph lines followed the railroad tracks from town to town. It was usually the shortest distance and the right-of-ways had already been secured for the rail line.

Most of the station agents were also skilled telegraph operators and that was the primary way that they communicated with the railroad. They would know when trains left the previous station and when they were due at their next station. And it was the telegraph operator who had the watches. As a matter of fact they sold more of them than almost all the stores combined for a period of about 9 years.

This was all arranged by "Richard", who was a telegraph operator himself. He was on duty in the North Redwood, Minnesota train station one day when a load of watches arrived from the east. It was a huge crate of pocket watches. No one ever came to claim them.

So Richard sent a telegram to the manufacturer and asked them what they wanted to do with the watches. The manufacturer didn't want to pay the freight back, so they wired Richard to see if he could sell them. So Richard did. He sent a wire to every agent in the system asking them if they wanted a cheap, but good, pocket watch. He sold the entire case in less than two days and at a handsome profit.

That started it all. He ordered more watches from the watch company and encouraged the telegraph operators to set up a display case in the station offering high quality watches for a cheap price to all the travelers. It worked! It didn't take long for the word to spread and, before long, people other than travelers came to the train station to buy watches.

Richard became so busy that he had to hire a professional watch maker to help him with the orders. That was Alvah. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The business took off and soon expanded to many other lines of dry goods. 

Richard and Alvah left the train station and moved their company to Chicago -- and it's still there.

IT'S A LITTLE KNOWN FACT that for a while in the1880's, the biggest watch retailer in the country was at the train station.

The Conductor and Engineer Compare Watches

It all started with a telegraph operator: Richard Sears and his partner Alvah Roebuck!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Yardmaster's Revenge (Lulu Island Part Two)

A few days after the Lulu Island experience of the previous post, we were back in Port Mann, working our regular East Lead job under the watchful eye of the yardmaster and his immediate supervisor, the General Yardmaster. From their lofty perch in the three story control tower built next to the Fraser river and at the west end of the yard, they scanned the yard, using binoculars, keeping track of the several locomotives and crews that moved about, pulling, pushing and kicking cars. 

Trains arriving from the east were cut off in the tracks assigned to them by the yardmaster and the road locomotives were given a route to get to the shop tracks.  Trains arriving from a number of originating yards within the Greater Vancouver Terminal, including Vancouver, North Vancouver, Lulu Island, New Westminster and Sapperton were also put into tracks in CN's huge Port Mann yard facility.  The locomotives arriving with these trains, or 'transfers', also had to get to the shop track by working their way westward through the yard and beyond, to the diesel servicing facility.  It could often take the best part of an hour to bring an engine from the east end of the yard to the shops at the west end, due to yard activity and congestion.

The road and yard crews started their shifts by gathering in a one-story cinder-block building called the "booking in room".  This building housed locker rooms for switchmen, trainmen, engineers and conductors.  Also found there were appearance registers for train and engine crews and a train register on which conductors entered significant information about their trains, both arriving and leaving.  A kilometer (one kilometer = 0.62137 miles) east of this building was the three story tower structure on the north, or river side of the western end of the yard.
CN SW1200RS  #1286 - Built by General Motors Diesel in 1957
Harry Schimm Photograph
We had taken our engine, a two-unit consist of  SW1200RS switchers off the shop and, after picking up three or four serviced cabooses from the cab track, we proceeded eastward to the control tower.

Even if there were no other trains or engines in the way, it could take ten minutes to take a locomotive from the shop track to the tower.

I know.... I've used this photo already, but apparently, the tower was camera shy
and this is the only one I have been able to locate. This photo was taken as the crew of CN GP9 4216 was 'dropping', or making a 'running switch' that would see the caboose in the photo drift into the caboose track using its own momentum. Note, the switchman is reaching for the RACOR 22 switch handle, while keeping a close eye on the rapidly approaching caboose.  He will line the switch and leap onto the caboose to 'ride the cab' to a spot, adjusting its speed with the handbrake.  The engineer is maintaining eye contact with the engineer of the locomotive behind him, ensuring that he will have enough room to get his engine stopped safely.

The foreman climbed the three stories to the yardmaster's office to receive our switch lists and other instructions prior to heading through a clear track to the east end of the yard.  There we began our shift, marshaling recently arrived trains, setting trains that were due to leave for points east and west, and making sure they had fresh cabooses placed on their tail ends.

After three and a half hours of "pounding the lead", and looking forward to going home with a three-hour quit, the foreman and his helper check their lists to ensure that all the work that was given to the crew has now been completed.

Knowing there would still be another hour and a half to "put in" before we can make our way back to the shop track, one of the crew members changed the channel on his portable radio and pressed the 'transmit' button.

East Lead crew and SW1200RS locomotive at Port Mann Yard. The yardmaster has delivered a fresh set of lists for the crew.

Photo courtesy CN Rail and CNRHA (formerly CNLINES SIG)
Lorne Perry Photo 

"Port Mann Tower?".  "East Lead calling. Over."

Not hearing a response, he called again.

"East Lead calling the Tower, Over!"

This time, the yardmaster answered with, "Port Mann Tower."

"We've finished up all the work on the first set of switch lists and would like to come down to the tower for a coffee and fresh switch lists, Over."

"Permission denied, East Lead!"  "Stay where you are and I'll bring your lists up to you."

We expected to be dealt a little retribution in response for the 'slippery' move we pulled off during our Saturday trip from Lulu Island, and we wondered what the boys in the tower might have in mind for us this evening.

Ten minutes later, a half-ton truck arrived with a large cloud of dust in full chase.

The door opened up and the General Yardmaster stepped out, and clutching a sheaf of switch lists in one hand, he retrieved his sliding trousers with the other and began to stride briskly toward where the three of us had been waiting by the river.

With a slight grin on his face, he tossed his head and said...., "Do you remember how smart you thought you were last weekend?"  "Well, you boys aren't going home until we're finished with you."  "you're ours for the night."

Handing a pile of switch lists to the foreman, he turned and walked purposefully back to the truck and spinning the tires in the dirt, he drove back to the west end of the yard.

After he drove away, the foreman brought his helper into the cab of the engine and, switching on the overhead lights in the cab, we proceeded to have a good look at the work we had  been given to complete before we could go home.

There was something terribly amiss!!  There were at least eight long pages of car numbers to switch out and these cars were buried in nearly every track in the yard.  There was enough work here to keep two crews busy for eight hours!!!!

You may recall that the yard crews were working on a "quit system" that allowed crews to go home after 5 hours on duty.  You may also recall that we had pulled a 'fast one' on the yardmaster when we quietly crept onto the shop track with the Lulu Island engines and then crept out again without letting the yardmaster know that we were in town.  Well, we expected to have to do penance for that little bit of fun we'd had, but..., it looked like they were going to hold our feet to the fire for a full 12 hours!

We went back to work with the understanding that we would see where we were at the expiration of 5 hours on duty; then we would re-visit our situation.

When we had been working for a little over five hours, the yardmaster called and ordered us to pull some cars out of track 36 that we had been holding out in there.  He had a transfer coming off the Fraser River bridge and needed track 36 for that train.

We reached into track 36 and coupled on to the easternmost car.  Not wanting to be easily tracked by the tower, we decided to abandon radio transmissions and revert to hand signals.  We knew that we could work safely on hand signals, leaving those in the tower wondering what we were up to.

Railroad man using hand signals to control movement of cars.
Photographer and source unknown
RBH collection

The switchman gave me a hand signal  with his lantern and I reversed the engine, released the brakes and began to pull on the cars we had tied on to.  The foreman and I began counting the "bumps" in the slack between the cars as the engine slowly pulled backward.  A stop signal appeared in the gathering darkness.   I applied the brakes, stopping our movement.  Leaning into the open window, I watched the light from his lantern bobbing rhythmically as he walked deeper into the track, searching in the darkness for cars that were standing in the darkness there.  Once again, the switchman swung his lantern in a wide circle, ending in a quick spinning motion at the top of the arc.  This was the signal to back up, all the way out onto the lead.  He was telling me that we had all the cars in the track.  I watched as the little point of light from his lantern went through the motion of following him up onto the ladder at the end of the last car for the ride out to the east lead.

Once we had all the cars out of track 36,  I watched as he lined a switch into a track in B yard.  Giving me a big "proceed forward" signal, I urged the two SW1200's to push those cars into clear, where we cut the engine off and parked the engine under the Port Mann highway bridge so that we could have a talk about what our next move would be.  It was plain to see that those in the yard office planned to make our shift a long one.  Crews on the west lead had called us on the radio, saying that they had been released from duty with only four hours on duty!!  The yardmaster had told them that we would be doing some of their work too before we would be allowed to go home.

Ahh, the game was afoot.

After weighing the obvious options..., and this didn't take long, because we really didn't have many to weigh..., I suggested that we try a little artful dodgery.  It was time for a bit of heavy equipment "stick-handling".  I ran my plan by them and they agreed to the plan I cobbled together.  

Explaining the plan to the crew.
Photo Don Birch
RBH collection

When the transfer engine emerged from track 36, we were there to meet them.

Three SD-40's emerging onto lead after depositing their train in a yard track.
"The Bomb Train is arriving from the Yale Sub.
Photo by the author

After a couple of minutes discussing our plan with the crew in the cab of the lead SD40-2, the transfer's engine, we had them pull their power out onto the lead, where we slipped our two SW1200RS's onto the west, or back end of their power.

We all knew that it was common practice for CN to move yard engines between terminals, using transfer crews to effect these moves.  Since Port Mann diesel shop was the primary service and repair facility for the Greater Vancouver Terminals, yard power was often seen coupled onto the rear of a transfer consist.  We figured that those in the tower might not tumble to our little deceit.  Our best, and only hope was to conceal our locomotives out in the open, causing them to appear to be "road power".

Once coupled together, we extinguished our headlights, class lights, number lights and cab lights.

The two sets of motive power appeared as one, and moved as one. Together, we rolled down a clear track to the west end of the yard. Once there, we found our route to the shop track blocked by a westbound transfer that was pulling slowly out of the yard, heading for Vancouver.

We came to a stop..., directly beneath the outwardly angled windows of the control tower.

The yardmaster and the general yardmaster were both standing at the windows, binoculars to their eyes, searching the darkness for any sign of our engine, or our crew.

The assistant yardmaster began calling for us on the radio.  When we didn't answer, he called other crews in the area, asking if anyone had seen us in the last hour.  No one would admit to having seen us.  It seemed as if we had simply...., disappeared!

The General Yardmaster came out of the tower and, getting into his vehicle, he drove within fifteen feet of the end of our engine, which was still stopped, waiting for the Vancouver-bound transfer to clear the crossing.

And there he stopped, also blocked by the exiting Vancouver transfer.

The head end brakeman from the Lynn Creek transfers' engine walked over to the General Yardmaster's vehicle and stood by the drivers window, talking with him for the ten minutes it took the Vancouver transfer to get out of the way.  As soon as the crossing had been cleared, the GYM drove away, jaw set firmly, heading toward the east end of the yard.  Raising a considerable amount of dust into the air, he disappeared eastward on the mid-yard service road.

He was on a mission, as were we.

We huddled in the darkened cab of our locomotive..., waiting...., not daring to lift our heads for a look around.

After what seemed an eternity, the congestion cleared at the west end of the yard and the transfers power, along with ours moved westward, out of the yard and onto the shop track.

We swiftly tied down the locomotives and went to the booking-in-room, where we found the General Yardmaster waiting for us.

With one hand on his hip and the other raised in the air, he pointed his index finger, first at the foreman and then at me.  Then, both arms fell loosely to his sides and he broke into a huge grin.

Saying nothing, he turned on his heels and walked out into the darkness.

We changed into our street clothes and went out to the parking lot and home.

Until today, our secret has been kept; our supervisors not knowing how we managed to get two  locomotives past their watchful eyes, under the bright lights of the control tower and onto the shop track without being seen..., by anyone!