the New York Central
I sat in my car at the Pottery Road crossing one day recently waiting for several trains to pass by and started remembering how things used to be. Railroading is certainly different than when I was a kid in the 1940s and 1950s. I spent practically every free moment "down at the railroad." In those days railroading was much more interesting and personal than today.
I had some relatives who, over a period of many years, held down a variety of railroad jobs, and hence was able to get the "inside scoop" on railroad operation. There was the white-collar job in a ticket office or a freight house, or in a main-line signal/switch tower where there was never a dull moment. Then there was the lonely work in a single-track tower out in the middle of nowhere handling "meets" and train order work.
If one preferred working outside, there were always the busy four-track main-line towers where the operators spent more time outside than in, on busy days, handing up orders to crews of passing trains.
Since railroads such as the New York Central were highly unionized, labor practices in force in those days would seem strange today. By means of "bidding" on the many temporary jobs that were offered, one could move from division to division, city to city, or from town to town. In earlier times such transient railroaders were called "boomers." They led interesting lives and, as they went from one place to another, they became aware of the differences in operating practices. For instance, it was sometimes a culture shock to go from a slow-moving branch line to the high-speed main line. The main-line operator, on the other hand, would find himself floundering with complicated train orders and procedures on a single-track job. But many men switched jobs just for a change of pace.
The Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo divisions of the New York Central were quite individualized These differences wouldn't be noticeable to someone outside the system. But to those close to the New York Central, each division seemed to be a separate railroad.
The Syracuse Division consisted of the four-track main line, the single-track West Shore, and a few minor branches such as the Chenango Branch through Fayetteville and Manlius on to Cazenovia and Earlville; and the "Fall Brook" from Lyons to Corning, the terminal area in Syracuse, and the DeWitt yards.
The Rochester Division comprised the Auburn Branch which ran from Syracuse Junction through Auburn, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Geneva, Canandaigua, Fishers, Victor and Pittsford to Jay Street in Rochester. The Rochester Division also included the "Falls Road" from Rochester to Suspension Bridge (Niagara Falls). the old "Peanut" line west from Canandaigua to Batavia, the "West Hojack" north of Syracuse originally from Oswego along Lake Ontario through such places as Sterling, Red Creek, Wolcott, Sodus, Williamson and Webster, then across the bridge at Charlotte and on all the way to Lewiston. (No one is really sure how the nickname "Hojack" originated.)
The Buffalo Division was concentrated in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area and west. While lacking in mileage, it more than made up in its complexities of facilities and volume of business.
There were only two major four-track main lines in the country, and the New York Central had one of them. The Syracuse Division operated the main line west from Syracuse all the way to Wenda just a few miles east of Depew, a suburb of Buffalo. At Wenda (pronounced Wendy) were track pans, troughs of water about a half-mile long where steam locomotives with scoops below the tender took on water on the fly.
The two tracks on the south side were for passenger trains and the two on the north for freights. The nearby West Shore track was signaled for eastbound only. The signals and switches were manually operated following written train orders and telegraphic communications. Signals were one to two miles or a bit more, apart. Trains were kept two or three of these signal blocks apart for safety.
The NYC ran numerous single-track operations, each completely different—from the Auburn Road with manual-block operation of scheduled passenger trains, to single-track operation of scheduled freight trains and "extras" as on the "Hojack," to running high-speed trains on the double-track "Falls Road" west of Rochester. Many types of railroading were represented, more so than on most other railroad systems.
Railroads like the Lehigh Valley, Erie, and DL&W mainlines were primarily two tracks with turnouts. Frequently, a freight would take to the siding to let the scheduled passenger train pass. The manual block system was replaced with centralized traffic control. There were more railroad employees on the Syracuse and Rochester Divisions years ago than there are on the entire line between New York and Buffalo today. Up until the 1960s there was a railroad YMCA in East Syracuse.
The DeWitt yard of the Syracuse Division was the largest in New York State. More trains were made up and broken down here than at any other place. The east end "gate" to the yard was at Kirkville, at Tower 44, on the Mohawk Division. At that point the passenger and freight tracks split, the freight rails ran into DeWitt and the passenger tracks went past Tower 48 at Midler Avenue, and on the elevation into the Syracuse station, then on to Syracuse Junction in Solvay, where the freight and passenger lines again intersected.
The west side gate to the DeWitt yard was at the Clark Street wye, in East Syracuse. A wye track layout allows locomotives and their tenders to be turned around by running an engine up one leg of a wye, then backing down the other leg onto the through track and then traveling forward onto the same rails it had come on, in the opposite direction.
The freight tracks then, which are today's main line, skirted the northern edge of Syracuse. At Park Street the "Hojack" did, and still does, leave the main line and run north through Liverpool. There is a wye at Park Street so that trains can leave the main line from either direction.
The territory west of Tower 2 at Syracuse Junction in Solvay was again a four-track main line. At this point, the Auburn Road tailed off to the southwest through Camillus. There had been tracks running east from this point to Geddes Street—the route of the original railroad when trains ran through the streets until 1936. Also at this point, trackage had run east to the Salina yard which was the original site of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg facilities when that line was a separate railroad. Carousel Center now occupies the same site.
Nearby, the old Lackawanna Railroad's Syracuse Branch paralleled the New York Central main line west of Tower 2, then tunneled underneath the mainline and headed north to Baldwinsville, Fulton and Oswego. The Lackawanna had a roundhouse and related facilities at Magnolia Street, off West Fayette Street. Their business had been primarily coal traffic.
The question has been frequently asked why would anyone want to work on the railroad? There were hundreds of reasons, some commonplace, like a son following in his father's footsteps, or because of the recommendation of a relative or friend. A young man in those days was very proud to say, "I'm a railroader."
The many miles that made up the main line of the New York Central consisted of countless thousands of ties, spikes, and sections of rail. But more than these cold, hard, colorless things, the railroad consisted of people. People who worked at jobs they always complained about, but would not trade for any other.
Stretched down the main line, these people rarely saw each other in person, but they communicated daily on the telegraph or telephone. They were bound together by their love of railroading. "You need never be ashamed of being a railroad man," a wise old brakeman once said.
© 2002, Richard F. Palmer