[Note: photos on this page represent the story and were not taken by the author.]
February 19, 2005
Beginning a career on the railroad was a dream a lot of young boys had when I was a young man, especially as a locomotive Engineer. We knew that success as a fireman and after acquiring sufficient seniority we would someday sit on the right hand side of the big locomotives and pull the long freight trains through the countryside waving at kids and sometimes the pretty girls. I was provided that opportunity in the summer of 1953 when I applied for and was hired by the New York Central Railroad (Michigan Division) at Anderson, Indiana. Of course I would have to pass the physical and take my student trips under the supervision of a fireman on the different classes of jobs I would be required to fire when I was deemed qualified.
A student fireman in those days was paid $4.00 for the trip; no matter how many hours he worked. They worked a through freight from Anderson to Elkhart; from Anderson to Jeffersonville, a local freight from Anderson to Wabash and from Anderson to Greensburg. Then a yard engine at Anderson. The Engineer and Fireman on the jobs you worked trained you and decided if you were qualified and signed off in writing your qualifications. The quicker you accomplished this qualifying the sooner you could mark up on the extra board and stand to be called for jobs as a fireman and be paid full pay under the contract.
My first full paid job on the railroad was on a through freight #74 from South Anderson Yard to Elkhart. Needless to say I was filled with fear and trepidation, fear that I would really screw things up, like run out of steam, fail to do my job properly and as a result, bring disgrace on my Dad and Grandfather You see I came from a railroad family, my Grandfather worked all his life on the New York Central, as an Electrician in Indianapolis. My Dad started on the New York Central in Indianapolis as a Hostler shuffling engines to the coal dock, the water tank, the sand house, to supply them so they were ready and supplied to pull the trains when the crews were called. Later in his career he was promoted to Engine House Foreman at Wabash, Indiana. He always wanted to be an Engineer and I guess when I was hired as a fireman it fulfilled one of his dreams through me,
My first day I approached South Anderson engine house and as I drove along the road toward the engine house, I saw my engine sitting on the ready track, a thin curl of dark smoke coming from her stack She appeared to be resting, saving her energy for the hard work ahead and she was big. She was waiting for me and the Engineer. I parked my car and walked into the roundhouse to the ready room and saw the Engineer was registering. I introduced myself and met Gabe Ginn the Engineer. He was an old timer, been around for quite awhile and was friendly to me. I went out the door toward the locomotive anxious to get things ready.
I climbed up the ladder to the cab and stowed my grip in the seat box where I would sit during the trip north. I checked the ice box in the tender for drinking water and found a full can of water but no ice; so I swung down off the engine went to the ice house and got a 25 pound block of ice and tossed it up onto the gangway. Climbing up into the cab again I placed the ice in the ice box and set the water can on top so we would have a cool drink on the trip, after all it was summer time.
I then swept the deck clear of any coal and used the squirt hose to clean it and settle the coal dust on the deck and in the tender. I checked in the cab to make sure we had the required tools, two kerosene lanterns, one with a clear glass and one with red glass; a red flag and a white one, a monkey wrench; a special tool called a shaker bar which was about four feet long, a tool we needed in the event the grates in the firebox needed shaking; a clinker hook, a long metal rod with a double hook on the end to pull clinkers in the firebox up so they would burn out; a can of oil for the lubricator on the engine and a can with a long narrow spout for the engineer to oil around on the engine. My Dad had told me to wipe the Engineers seat down and also the brake handles and throttle handle. This I did and then looked in the fire box as to the condition of the fire. it looked awful dead in there so I turned on the jets to the distributing plate and started the stoker to bring the fire back to life. About this time the Engineer arrived and climbed into the cab, placing his grip under his seat and grabbing the oil can he climbed back down to oil around the engine.
Pretty soon he returned to the cab took his seat and released the independent brake which controls only the engine brakes, he turned the reverse lever to the forward position (on this locomotive the reverse lever was in the form of a wheel) and reached for the throttle, pulled it gently open and the engine started to move. We eased along the track toward the switching lead and the brakeman lined the switch so we could exit the ready track. After passing the switch the brakeman gave a signal to stop, he then lined the switch for the lead and gave a back up signal and we started backing to our train. The coupling was made and the brakeman coupled the train air hose to the engine air hose, this would supply the train brakes with air from the engine as needed.
I checked the fire again and saw that the coal was burning nicely but I knew it needed more so I ran some more in with the stoker. The engineer received a signal from the rear of the train to make a train brake test, he blew the whistle, one long blast indicating he was setting the brakes and reached for the automatic brake setting the train brakes. The rules require that air brakes on a train be applied and each car on the train be visually inspected to see that the brakes apply. (See Air Test) Since South Anderson Yard had its own air plant, that part of the inspection had already been made once the train had been made up. The car inspectors had hooked up the yard air and applied the brakes and walked the train visually inspecting each car to see the brake had applied. When they reached the other end they would release the brakes and again walk the train to visually see that the brakes on each car released. All we had to do was to apply the brakes to make sure the brakes applied and released on the rear car of the train and air was being restored to the rear. The engineer got a release brakes signal from the rear and he moved the brake valve to the release position. The air pumps on the engine started supplying the train line system with air to release the brakes on the cars.
When the rear car released, the engineer received a high ball ( go ahead) from the rear and we could begin our trip. Gabe looked over at me and asked "are you ready" and I replied "I guess". This gave rise to a small lecture from the engineer. Gabe said, "don't guess, you know, you are responsible to provide the power for this engine to get where we are supposed to go, if you fail we all fail. I won't leave until you tell me you are ready and your fire is ready, we will sit here for an hour or more. if necessary. Now, are you ready?"
I jumped and looked in the firebox and the fire was burning brightly but I wanted to make sure so I turned the jets to the coal distributing plate and started the stoker, I really wheeled the coal into the firebox and we started making black smoke out the stack. I noticed I couldn't see the engine house anymore and the houses south of the yards had disappeared because of the black smoke. I looked over at Gabe and said I'm ready and he opened the throttle and took the slack out of the train and we started our trip to Elkhart.
We made the trip and had no problems, the big black L-3 locomotive did a good job for me and when we arrived at Elkhart Engine House I patted her on the side of the cab as I climbed down and said "Thanks, you did good". I looked around to make sure no one saw or heard me cause they might think I was nuts.This event began a 37 year railroad career for me.
Robert Stierwalt hired out 6/25/53 at Anderson . In the middle 60's became road foreman at Corning, NY-Trainmaster Bay City,Mich - Detroit as Rules Examiner and then Labor Relations in Detroit, Altoona, and Indianapolis Then back to Detroit until retirement in 1990. His father was the engine house foreman at Wabash. Now resides in New Mexico.