He Rides into the Dawn on the Fireman's Seat, Published 27 March 1948
Here we are at Altoona about to go round the Horse Shoe curve In a diesel cab, and to ride througth the night and into the dawn seated high on the fireman's seat in a three unit engine whipping the Pennsylvania Limited to Pittsburgh.
I am having coffee out of a paper cup. and eating four doughnuts with the passenger train master, at Altoona. I have said goodbye to the P.RJ1. 5529. which has this revolutionary wheel arrangement: oo-OO-OO-oo. Now it was to be oil for steam, as I climbed up into the diesel. Sittini In the dark with me were Special Duty Engineer F. C. Kepple. Fireman E. J. Donnelly, Conductor C. W. Ouston, and Engineer Ira Shoman.
Soon Under Way
Soon we were under way, as we started the 17 cars rolling up the long two per cent grade to Gallitzin. You have to get the picture to appreciate what is happening. We are all standing around in the dark, in the cab, while the engineer opens her up gradually. There are four tracks, gleaming under the headlight of the diesel. But this is no ordinary line where you might meet a train every two hours. This is a railroad where you not only might, but actually do, meet a train about every two minutes. Out of courtesy our engineer on Train 79 cuts off his headlight every time he meets a freight, coming this way. On the outer track, we passed freights going uphill with us. We left them as if they were standing still. On the far track were the freights coming down hill, the engineers holding on at low speed lest the long drags get away from them. From time to time another passenger would roar by us, half dark, half illuminated on the near track.
I had always imagined the Horse Shoe Curve to be spectacular, but I do not think I realized that it was on a two per cent grade. So when I hit the lower end, there was a freight train taking water. The rear end brakeman had dropped a flare. At the rear were two Santa Fe type pushers. Then a mile away, but just across the valley, yet away above us. was the light of the head end engine. It is hard to realize that a train a mile long can spread itself not only all round a hairpin turn, but go up five storeys or so into the air too. So we swung and swung and swung, our diesel taking the hill effortlessly, in contrast to the coal burners panting laboriously up the long grade.
But there were fresh delights. On we went, passing more trains than I had ever seen in one space, and at one time before. They really railroad on the Pennsy. There were helper engines by the dozens, lying around here and there, ready to push the long drags up the long hills.
Famed For Flood
Then came Johnstown, famed as Remember the Johnstown Flood. It is laid in a narrrow valley, but not too narrow but what the street cars could operate. The fteel workers for Bethlehem were already going on shift, as we got there before dawn.
What should have been a dawn broke, but it wasn't a dawn at all. but a smog. Then we heard the telephone shout: "You ve got a hot box I think, 91, pull over and have a look at it." . Pretty soon the three yellow lights, instead of being straight up and down on the signal bridge, were slanted obliquely, and we were running on caution. Then they ran them horizontally, and we stopped. Then caution again, and we swung over to another track. Not long after, we saw a big engine on a siding. The fireman opened the cab door and yelled: "I think you stink."
"Who's that?" I asked.
"He's the fellow causing the trouble," he replied. "He had the hot box."
Then we got a string of straight up and down yellows, and we rode along at high spped till we began picking up the Pittsburgh suburban traffic. At one time we swung to another track to go round a slow moving .commuter train, twice more we swept past other locals, moving to town. Once there was a cry: "There's the boss." as some Pennsy Brass Hat was about to take his morning train into town.
The fog closed in on us, and we drove by dead reckoning, from light to light. This was Pittsburgh as you always imagined it. We moved through a combination of smoke and mist which made a solid pall of darkness, and it was only when nearing the downtown station that we could 'see where we were going.
This . kind of railroading was fascinating, since we moved, not on orders, but on lights. We could go as fast as we liked if the lights were right. The fireman sang out every light as we approached, and it was reechoed by the engineer. It would also be reflected in the cab, where the position of the lights was also assumed on a scale about the circumference of a hockey puck. You might hear the engineer say: "Clear in the cab" or "coming to caution." But the engineer never dared lift his foot off one-control, or the train would stop dead. So we moved swiftly, efficiently, through crazy constellations of lights, through a low level firmament which made sense to the train crews, and which might well confuse anybody else. Finally, through smoke and grey atmosphere, the Pennsylvania Limited No. 79 nosed her way into Pittsburgh station, and my predawn run was over.
There was a taxi strike in Old Smoky, and all I had to do was get three pieces of baggage across town in the nine o'clock rush. In my, next, around Pittsburgh, then on up through Ohio.