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Jim Peters
Tales of the Rails

The Big Top
By Jim Peters

Jan 29, 2003
About ten days before the circus hit town the "advance man" arrived in his own railroad car. He arranged for a lot to set up on, distributed as many posters as possible (along with free tickets) and dealt with various provisioners to feed the army of personnel and animals. Ringling Bros. played in Erie every summer (afternoon and evening performances) at the "circus field." It was a huge open area on Erie's southwest side. The smaller circuses and carnivals used an area at 18th & Ash Sts., near the PRR yard.

The NYC freight station was located on Sassafras St., just north of 14th. On the south side of the freight house were three house tracks. Access to box cars was by steel plate bridges, connecting each car to the ones alongside it. On the north side was a long brick driveway paralleling the team tracks. It was fascinating to watch the circus unload here. Specially-built 80 foot flat cars carried the wagons. Many of these cars were built by the Warren Car Co. at Starbrick, PA on the Valley Branch. Each wagon was pulled forward to the end ramps by a team of horses on the driveway, steered by a man holding the wagon's tongue.

Then there was the parade from the railroad to the lot. Gaudily painted wagon after wagon passed in procession. There were many with caged animals, the bandwagon ablare with music, the ticket wagon and the big steam calliope at the end. There were even non-utilitarian "show wagons." Included, of course, was the long line of "ponderous pachyderms" linked trunk to tail. Also, the marching performers in costume, smiling and waving to the crowds while deftly sidestepping animal droppings.

It was strictly a cash and carry setup between RR and circus. Dad told me that one night he was called for the first section at Collinwood, and the engine did not tie on until a bag full of money changed hands. Moving this conglomeration involved cooperative logistics of both parties. Usually it was performed with military precision, but sometimes things could go wrong. Twice it happened when I was involved.

Part 2
Feb 2, 2003
The NYC's Valley Branch crossed the main line of the Erie RR at Falconer Jct., which was controlled by the Erie's DV Tower. There was a wye there for engines to turn in steam days, and a water tank. Sometimes Ringling Bros. made an overnight move from Jamestown to Erie and we received their trains at the junction for movement to the main line at Dunkirk. It ran in four sections, with the passenger cars in the last. Each section consisted of about 25 cars.

In 1947 i was working at "G" Cassadaga, a day office, as were all the stations on the branch, except DV was open 24 hours. This time I was ordered to open my office at 8 PM. I was relieved at 10 PM by Bill Mascaro, an Op off the main line. Sensing he was unfamiliar with single track and manual block, I told him that 11 and 14 had been annulled (they usually met at Falconer). I said the traffic tonight consisted of light sections south and circus trains north, the latter running on positive blocks. Also, not to put the signal to STOP until the caboose passed, otherwise the Conductor would pull the air. The signal was normally at STOP, except when displayed for an immediate movement. However, I usually cleared it when a train entered my block, 'cause one time I was distracted (by a pretty gal, maybe?) and was jolted back to reality by the hogger wailing for the signal.

Anyway, the next morning when I returned to the station the 4th section was standing on the main! Bill said the 3rd section was still at Fredonia with a broken knuckle. There wasn't a spare one on the train and the car shop at Dunkirk had none to match the older type coupler. Trainmaster Fitzgerald was at the scene and I heard him on the phone exclaim, "This damned show is opening in Erie this afternoon if I have to drag it there myself!" Finally, a matching knuckle was dug up, probably from an older car somewhere. I heard my office call and got a clear block north. Some of the crew and circus people were on the ground milling around, and when they saw the green signal everybody hurried back onto the train.

Part 3
Feb 2, 2003
Sally and I were married in the spring of 1948 when I held a regular position at Sinclairville (office call "V"). We were renting a house uptown, next to the Fire hall. That year it had been decided not to open my station for the circus movement, in order to economize. That night we were awakened around 2 AM by someone pounding on our door. It was the Mayor, saying there was an emergency and I was to report for duty. It was very foggy that night and if it was a wreck I hoped it wasn't a real bad one. The Dispatcher said the 4th section was overdue at Cassadaga and to stay open until we knew where it was. I surmised it had stalled or gotten a drawbar on the hill out of Falconer to Ross Mills.

There were two 60-volt bulbs in the office, wired in series with the signal lamps. I turned them on and the northbound indicator did not light. I screwed in a spare bulb and it didn't light, so it had to be the one in the signal. It was a foolhardy thing to do but I climbed up the narrow ladder to the top of the mast. A slip off a wet rung would have been disastrous, me with a new wife and all. I couldn't budge the bulb behind the semaphore lens, then realized it was not the screw-in type.

The station was located on the outside of a horseshoe curve. I was concerned they'd stall if the engineer stopped due to an improperly displayed signal. As it turned out I had been right, he had stalled on Ross Mills hill. I made out a Form A clearance card, to be handed on to each end on the fly. I heard the whistle for the crossing at the Witch Kitch Inn and went outside with lantern and hoops, wondering if I'd be seen in time. The headlight emerged from the murk and each end made the grab, mission accomplished.

Before closing up for the night Leonard Frazita, the Op at X Tower in Dunkirk, called. He said Trainmaster Curtiss was there and wanted to know if my block lights were working. I told him southbound, yes, northbound no. A long pause. "What did you do?" "Gave 'em a highball and a Form A." Another pause, then, "OK,"

Afterward I thought it was a stupid thing to do. If either end had missed the grab they would have surely stopped and I could have been censured. Besides, even in the thick fog, they probably could have seen the semaphore in the CLEAR position.

Jim Peters

Jim Peters "Tales of the Rails" stories are Copyrighted by Jim Peters and may not be used without his express permission.
"My Dad, Al Peters, was a Trainman and Conductor, starting with the NYC in 1916. Retired in 1968. I started in 1942 as Agent-Operator, and worked on the Erie Division until retiring on disability in 1981. Some of the positions I worked were Freight Agent, Ticket Agent, Teletype Operator, Dispatcher Report Clerk and Train Dispatcher in the Cleveland Union Terminal, when the Erie Division and Cleveland Divisions were consolidated in 1963. Altogether I worked at 20+ stations and offices in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Main Line and Valley Branch. - Jim Peters

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