I have been and always will be a railroad fan. Generations of my family on my father’s side have worked for a railroad. As immigrants from Italy, the railroad offered good pay and steady work. My father was the last of those tried and true railroaders. Most all of the family members I can remember worked for the New York Central Railroad. It was the premier railroad in its time, offering passenger and freight service throughout the Northeast and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The New York Central was formed in 1853 by industrialist Erastus Corning as a consolidation of ten, independent and smaller railroads. It became highly successful and profitable within a short period of time. By 1925, the railroad operated 26,395 miles of track. A disastrous merger with The Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968 led to eventual bankruptcy in 1970 with the newly named Penn Central Railroad now in its death throes. The federal government took over and Conrail was born. The railroad’s fate was now sealed. Liquidation occurred in 1998 and Conrail was absorbed by CSX and Norfolk Southern.
As a young boy, I could always be found reading about and researching railroading. My father had a series of thick, black hard cover railroad engineering reference books in his possession; and I was glued to their pages. Right of way design, signaling, electric power and rolling stock facts and figures were abundant. These books even smelled like they came from a track-side shanty, handled by the greasy hands of a track foreman seeking advice on how to replace a frog or unfreeze a switch. Thankfully, much of that knowledge still resides with me today. Technology may have changed, but railroad fundamentals remain etched in stone.
My fondest memory of the railroad was when my father was on vacation. He would drive to work to pick up his weekly pay check and I would accompany him. He worked out of the 34th street freight yard in Manhattan. It was a huge! Hundreds of sidings and switches moved countless freight cars loaded with goods. Switching engines roared and belched diesel fumes as they pulled and shoved rolling stock to either break down or make up freight trains. The experience was surreal. I can still smell the fumes, lubricating oil and salt water coming from the adjacent Hudson River. Everything was in motion, a ballet of commerce and raw power. Sensory overload took hold from the cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells emanating from this breathing behemoth. The ground shook and I was hooked.
My dad would show me around, introduce me to his coworkers and treat me to lunch at a nearby Sabrett hot dog stand. “Two with everything” was the standing order. Once, I even got to sit in the engineer’s seat of an idling diesel engine awaiting clearance to embark on a cross country journey. The engines were rumbling and I could feel their power throughout my body. It was like riding a dragon, only better. I can see why generations have been drawn to railroading, it is hypnotic and addictive.