Railroad Stories: The Way It Was Stories working as a railroad fireman

Stories working as a railroad fireman

By Chuck LeFever | June 7, 2022

Recalling a short but enjoyable career on the left side of Erie engine cabs

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Steam locomotive with train under signal bridge
Mikado 3156 clatters past Marion (Ohio) Union Station with a westbound headed onto the Dayton branch, on which fireman LeFever saw service at the end of his career working as a railroad fireman. H. W. Pontin photo


Working as a railroad fireman: It was the end of summer. Billy, Wimpy, and I had finished cleaning up after the last threshing job and watched Mr. Hedrick slowly drive the rig out to the road and head west to the winter storage building behind his blacksmith shop. The rig consisted of a Huber steam traction engine, with full canopy, big flywheel, water well out front, a Superior separator, and a converted buggy for supplies. As boys will do, we talked a lot about machinery and anything to do with steam engines. We were sorry to see the engine leave for the season, but there was Don Pickett’s sawmill and its faithful Frick steam engine to visit in the winter. Another steam vehicle we knew about was the local doctor’s beautiful little Stanley steamer. It was a delight to see this auto moving quietly along, with only a wisp of vapor betraying its source of power.


Railroads were plentiful throughout Morrow County, located just north of the very center of Ohio. We could not travel five miles in any direction without crossing a railroad. Most every trip provided a chance to see a train. And such a variety: the Big Four’s Cleveland-Cincinnati main line to the east, the Erie’s main line to the north, and the single-track Toledo & Ohio Central to the southwest. With a west wind, we could hear the various whistles coming from Marion, where the trains of four railroads mingled. The short whistle bursts identified New York Central’s on-off whistle control that gave the engineer no chance at artistry. Pennsylvania freight engines emitted a European-like high, piercing sound. The Hocking Valley (a Chesapeake & Ohio property), with its huge Mallets and endless coal drags, won many hearts with its rich, sonorous bass-tone whistles. The Erie chime whistle was made distinct by each engineer’s signature use of the pull rope. An aunt who lived near the T&OC line once said, “It’s so comforting to know that when I die, I’ll be in the little graveyard there next to the railroad.” Yes, railroads were part of our lives.


As a teenager, I decided to make railroading my livelihood. I wanted to be on steam locomotives, which meant working as a railroad fireman. For a farm boy in the early 1940s, becoming a locomotive fireman required only a bit of gumption and a positive outlook. What follows is the route taken by an eager lad who, having left the family farm at 17, found railroading hard to beat.


Applying for a job working as a railroad fireman


One October day, Dad dropped me off at Marion Union Station and then went to a livestock auction west of town. Upstairs I found the office of Mr. Maghee, superintendent of the Erie’s Kent Division, who said he had only a minute. In our brief talk I learned I had to be 18 to be hired as a fireman, but I could learn about the railroad and its motive power by working in and around the enginehouse in the meantime.


At the roundhouse, I found the parts shop and met the manager, who asked how much I weighed (120 pounds), would I live in Marion (yes), and did I have a Social Security card (no). Nearby on a two-wheeled handcart was a large hunk of metal. The manager asked me to place it on a workbench. The metal turned out to be one-half of a locomotive wheel bearing, weighing about the same as a full bushel of wheat. Using my legs rather than my back, it was an easy lift. The manager said, “Good job,” and told me to show up Monday with leather gloves and steel-toed shoes.


My job often took me into the roundhouse, so I learned something about locomotive repair, the inside of fireboxes and boilers, and the like. As I neared 18, I was sent to see Mr. Woodward, the road foreman of engines. He asked a few questions and had me fill out a one-page form. Next was a vision test. Out of a closet, a clerk brought a long wooden trough and placed it on a table, turned down the lights, had me sit facing the end of the trough, and handed me two cords. I was to look down the trough and line up the two pegs sticking up. I tugged at the cords and could see that the pegs moved. I did this three times. Then out came a wooden box with several holes in one side. In each hole was what looked like tufts of wool fibers of different colors. When a slide was moved one way or the other I had to identify the yarn color. After I completed that test, Mr. Woodward said, “It is likely we will meet again,” and shook my hand.


A new man had to make student runs to see engine crews at work, get an idea about the routes the division covered, and become used to the sounds and language of railroading. So, three days after my 18th birthday, I was ready when the phone call came: “Come to the caller’s office at 7:30 Wednesday morning. This will be to Kent on freight No. 98. We’ll get you back to Marion on something.”


This signaled the end to my parts job and a big step toward working as a railroad fireman.


Engineer Ben Stine and fireman Hank Ward were the crew for the huge, beautiful Berkshire on 98. The train was solid reefers bound for Jersey City. Five more trips to Kent, a couple on Mikados on the branch line to Urbana, plus a one-way ride aboard the Erie Limited’s K-5 Pacific, ending with a midnight deadhead home on the westbound Limited, completed this part of my training. But more education, reading, classroom work, and exams lay ahead.


My first day on the job


Steam locomotive in profile in street crossing
Fireman LeFever’s first paying job working as a railroad fireman was on a sister to C-3 0-8-0 252 (pictured at Johnson City, N.Y.). L. W. Bullock photo


My first paying job—the midnight to 8 a.m. westbound trimmer in Marion Yard—soon came. I arrived early and learned I had this same job for the next five nights! Working for the railroad was not just a job; it became a way of life. The crew change was made at a spot between the roundhouse and hump; there I found engine 243, a squat 0-8-0 with a Vanderbilt tender, one of 55 such switchers Baldwin built between 1927 and 1930 to a USRA design. I examined the inside of the cab to see how different it was from a road engine. There was no stoker, but a handy scoop shovel, a foot-operated air valve to open the firedoor, and, on the right side, a hanging throttle just like the Berkshires had. I looked into the firebox and noted its smaller size compared with the road power. Yes, I would be able to reach all the corners. I found the blower valve, checked the water glass, then climbed onto the tender and found a good supply of coal and the tank close to the full mark.


Soon the engineer, Ira Kimble, climbed into the cab, asked my name, and whether we needed coal or water. When I said we were in good shape, he laughed and said, “Buck must have gotten religion.” (It seems that Buck Snyder, fireman on the 4-to-midnight trick, had often left the tender a bit short on essentials.) This being my first hand-firing experience, Mr. Kimble was very helpful. Our job was to back-haul trains that had come in from the east, push them over the hump for classification, assist in making up westbound trains, and, as the last thing each morning, pull cars from the C&O transfer track. We began by moving cars from the yard tracks, sometimes one car and sometimes a sizable cut, building a general merchandise train for Hammond, Ind., that departed at 4:45 a.m.


Mr. Kimble proved to be a fine teacher. He schooled me how to stand — on the balls of my feet, a bit to the left of the firedoor, about five feet back. With practice I developed a rhythm that I remember to this day. Hand-firing, I found, was much like dancing — keeping your balance ensured that the engine deck would not move out from under you. After a few nights of hand-firing, it dawned on me why my farm experience with a scoop shovel helped me get hired in the first place.


Meals on the go


Later, I learned another aspect of hand-firing: steam engines, especially the switchers, made a great kitchen — well, at least a grill. From other crewmen I learned the skills of cooking a meal on a cleaned scoop shovel. But there were downsides to firebox cuisine, as I discovered on a cold Jan. 1 when Fred Hanna and I were working the hump trimmer.


We had decided to celebrate the New Year with a version of Bananas Foster. The dish had been prepared at home, and the cold weather kept it firm. We were stopped on what seemed to be a safe track. Topping this elegant dessert with chocolate, we placed it on the shovel and thrust into the firebox. At just that moment, a boxcar got loose and came down the slope, hitting us a hefty blow. The Bananas Foster shot off the shovel and struck the firebox arch. The hit from the car caused no equipment damage, but Fred and I had to share a Hershey bar instead of our fancy dessert!


Fill-in work at distant yards


Smoking steam locomotive with train in freight yard
Kent, Ohio, pictured during World War II, was the east end of fireman LeFever’s territory working as a railroad fireman. Erie photo


The Marion extra board provided crew fill-ins for distant yards, usually for a week. I didn’t mind such assignments; being away from home was part of the adventure for a young, single man. My favorite place to go was the Akron yard, which was close to town and had good lodging and cafes nearby, aside from the closest eatery, the misnamed Sanitary Kitchen.


Akron had an interesting variety of switching power. The mix included H-21 Consolidations 1698 and 1703, a K-4 light Pacific, and other odd, temporarily assigned steamers. The 1703 — her number, not year built (that was 1905 or so) — most often headed west on the Rittman turn that dipped into yards at South Akron, Barberton, and Wadsworth. Akron also had two diesels, Alco-GE 100-ton boxcabs 21 and 22. Their 600 hp Ingersoll-Rand engines, with exposed rocker arms and springs, clattered like oily knitting needles. Usually only one of these was in Akron at any given time. They were there because the several rubber and paper companies in town did not want cinders mixed into their products. Lifting a string of cars out of the paper mill back across West High Street with one of these engines required patience — by the crew and by the waiting auto traffic. Often the load was so equal to the available power that you could look down from the cab and count the ballast stones.


Another reason a week in Akron was good duty was the roundhouse foreman, Russ Melling. Crews arrived early before most shifts and would sit around the stove area, enjoying discussions on a wide range of subjects. Mr. Melling, a true gentleman, acted as arbiter, rarely joining in the actual arguments. The hostler, originally from Kentucky, was Cutty Workman. Once, Cutty was holding forth in his soft twang when he was asked why he had mentioned rats. Cutty shot back, “Ah don’t mean the little mousy kind, Ah mean raht now!”


Engineer Ed Lemon, a huge, bulky man, had used his seniority of 40-odd years to bid what he thought would be a nice noon-to-8 daytime local. But wartime traffic added a lot of overtime, and Ed constantly complained about arriving home only to find his supper cold and his wife already asleep. Charley Loy, another old-timer, apparently felt it was his place to instruct the younger men on the delicate subject of women. His approach was to regale us with examples from his own seemingly inexhaustible experiences — real or imagined. Jack Davies supplied one-liners on demand. They were good men, railroad men.


Running the K-5s


Erie’s K-5s, based on the USRA heavy Pacific design, dated from 1919-1926. As a student fireman, I rode the 2934 and a couple of others, but the extra board offered few passenger runs. However, my fastest trip from Marion to Kent was on K-5 2931, not with passengers but with 10 cars of Oregon cherries! These special trains of fresh fruit ran on passenger schedules and had rights over all trains except the Erie Limited and Midlander/Lake Cities.


To save time on the engine change at Marion, the locomotive that brought the train from Chicago left it sitting on the eastbound main track in the yard. Waiting for the car inspectors after we had tied on, the engineer on this trip, F.  J. Hochberg, said to me, “If you want a treat, run back a couple of cars and take a deep breath — but be quick!” What a sensation! The air was perfumed with that rich aroma of ripe, sweet cherries. F.J. treated the division as a racetrack, and we arrived at Kent 25 minutes faster than the Midlander’s schedule!


Learning about the locals


New men soon learned about two local freight trains, the “Swipe” and the “Loafer.” The Swipe mainly picked up cars, while the Loafer set off and did requested switching for customers. Working either of these runs was always instructive for me. Moving from one town to another, in and out of yards as mainline traffic allowed, one could see much more of the country and details of the railroad itself. Often it took a full legal day (16 hours) to go from one end of the division to the other (114 miles). These runs also gave us an opportunity to sample the fare at various eating places and meet local people. The food quality was generally high. Fresh produce, homemade pies, doughnuts, and thick beef sandwiches kept us well-fed and happy. The folks who ran these cafes were extra nice and accommodating to railroaders.


Those wonderful Berkshires


Idle steam locomotive in profile
Of all the hand-fired engines he worked on, he liked the K-4 Pacifics best. No. 2744 is at Kent in 1930 (right); 2712 was a regular on the Urbana local freight. G. A. Doeright Jr. photo


This account of my time working as a railroad fireman would not be complete without a word on the wonderful S-class Berkshires. The S-3s and S-4s, built in 1928-1929, mercifully replaced the older USRA 2-10-2s as the top power on the Kent Division during the early war years. The Berkshires had both power and speed. With higher drivers, a strong booster, and large-capacity tenders, these engines tamed the division’s saw-toothed grades and kept tonnage moving at a good clip. Whipping a long string of West Coast reefers on a fast eastbound No. 98 was a grand sight for bystanders and exciting for the crew. After a few weeks’ grind at college, drawing a run on one of these great engines restored my good humor and reminded me how lucky I was.


My prime achievement as a fireman came in summer 1950, my last year at Ohio State University and what proved to be my last year with the Erie. I was able to bid a regular local run that lasted all summer. I looked on this as sort of a graduation gift in making me a full-fledged fireman.


The local ran from Marion southwest to Urbana, and on occasion to Dayton. Bill Derringer, who hired out in 1927, was my engineer and another reason for my good fortune. Bill and I had worked together before, and he had urged me to bid the job.


The local was a full week’s work. We left Marion at 7 a.m. Monday, stayed over in Urbana that night, returned to Marion on Tuesday, then repeated the process twice more until Sunday, when the train didn’t run. We usually had K-4 Pacific 2712, fitted with smaller drivers than when she was in passenger service. Hand-fired, she was a sweet steamer, rode like a Pullman, and had plenty of power for the typical train on this flat, fairly straight line. Of all the hand-fired switchers and road engines on which I worked, I liked the trim K-4 the best.


Departure from Marion was a bit complex. The Urbana “cow path” was not accessible from the west end of the yard, nor was it directly accessible from the east end without a reverse move. How fast we got out of town depended a lot on mainline activity — not only on the Erie, but also the other three railroads though Marion.


The routine was to leave the roundhouse “out” track, run to the west end of the yard, back up and tie onto our train, and wait. At a signal, Bill would back us out of the yard eastward, across the C&O and PRR diamonds flanking Marion Union Station, and into a siding by the grain elevators . . . where we would wait some more. Typically, we’d have to sit until one or more Big Four freights, and perhaps a C&O or Pennsy train, too, would pass through the interlocking. When a signal finally came from the operator up in tower AC, Bill would ease us through the plant, over the Route 30 crossing, briefly onto Big Four track, and at last onto our own line to Urbana.


Out on the branch, we would set off and pick up cars carrying everything from coal to fencing, then mosey on to the next town. Our midday meal, more or less, would come at Peoria or St. Marys. Typically, we would tie up in Urbana between 4:30 and 6 p.m. There the hostler took charge of the engine to get it serviced and turned for the trip back north while we headed for a boarding house and supper. Next day, it was up at 5 and back to Marion.


Working as a railroad fireman comes to an end


Although my career working as a railroad fireman was short, my memories are long-lived. Six decades later, I can easily recall just how a given locomotive sounded, how the cab smelled, or what the ballast looked like. My time on the Erie was when I was young and impressionable. I believe that, if suddenly placed in the cab of a K-4 Pacific or an S-3 Berkshire, I would be able to function effectively and safely.

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