Wednesday, July 15, 2009

21st Street Tower and My Dad

Back in his younger days, before I was born, my father had aspirations of being a railroader. He started his short lived (by choice) railroad career in 1960 with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He worked as a tower man but that job lasted only a few months when he was let go in a round of lay-offs being the low man on the totem pole.

In 1961 my dad went to work for a small railroad on the southwest side of Chicago known as the “Chicago and Western Indiana” or “C&WI” for short . The railroad was the owner of Dearborn Station so much of the railroad traffic arriving in Chicago from the east, south and west utilized or intersected the C&WI tracks.

These intersections, known as “interlockings” or “junctions”, were controlled by one or more men stationed in a tower which overlooked the junction. They controlled the flow of traffic through the junctions by operating mechanical levers or electric switches in the tower which lined up the tracks in order to route a train through the area. It was a very important and high stress job as any mistakes could cause collision between two trains resulting in fatalities. Mistakes could also cause major back ups and congestion which meant big delays and heavy expense if a train was routed incorrectly. In short, there was no slack or any tolerance for mistakes in such a job.

There were 13 towers on the C&WI and a tower man had to know them all. Some of the junctions had relatively few lines which crossed so they were easier to operate. There were however two towers which were extremely complex to operate. The first is the famous “State Line” tower which was North America’s largest interlocking controlled by strong-arm mechanical levers. Traffic through this junction was very heavy and this job was a real challenge however there were two men who worked this tower so you had someone to cover your back and equally shoulder the load.

The lesser known tower but, among railroad men, no less legendary was the 21st Street Interlocking. This tower controlled all the traffic in and out of Dearborn Station. Here is a link to a website which describes 21st Street in depth with photographs and a track plan . Here is an additional link which shows an interior picture of the tower with the control levers .

Quoting from the first website, “In all the world there may never have been a junction to rival 21st Street in its prime. It had at one time 26 diamonds, and well over 150 trains a day rumbled through it. On page 83 of his book, Track Planning for Realistic Operation, John Armstrong marvels at a photo of the plant: "Seven curved crossings on each track! Crossings right through turnouts! ... They're all here at 21st St. Junction in Chicago."

“Passenger trains comprised more than 75% of the traffic through here, and the roster was staggering. Here's a very small sample: The Super Chief, The Broadway Limited, the Wabash's Bluebird to St.Louis, the C&EI's Dixie Flagler bound for Florida, the Monon's Thoroughbred to Louisville, the GT's Toronto-bound International, the Erie's Lake Cities for Hoboken/New York, the IC's Iowa-bound Land O' Corn and GM&O's Midnight Special to St.Louis. It's not surprising that 21st Street was sometimes described as ‘The Crossroads of the Midwest.’"

The really incredible thing about this junction is it was a one man job! Even more incredible to me is my dad did that job! I have heard his stories before but I was especially enthralled this past week when he shared his experiences with me once again about working this tower.

My dad hired on with the C&WI and right away one of the supervisors had it in for him. He was not too impressed with any hot shot coming from the Pennsylvania Railroad and thought my dad would generally look down on their little railroad although this was not the case. To really put the heat on he decided it would be a neat rick to put my dad on 21st Street as his first job. Some of the other veterans of the line mentioned to the supervisor this was a bit cruel but he said, “It will make him or break him.” To make matters worse he also directed, “And put him with Floyd.”

Floyd was an old timer with the C&WI. He was THE MAN when it came to 21st Street. He knew all there was to know about working that junction and didn’t have the inclination or the time to put up with any nonsense from railroader wannabes. So, on his first day out, my dad went to work with Floyd.

Floyd told my dad to just sit his ass in the chair in the corner and read the newspaper. He wasn’t interested in wasting his time on training another kid who would not be able to cut it and quit under the pressure. This went on for a week or two. My dad was always respectful and occasionally they exchanged a few words and they discovered they knew some of the same people. This led to Floyd deciding to teach the kid the ropes, “I’m going to show you how to do this job right. You write down everything I say in that book of yours.” And he did.

After one week my dad went on a weekend trip with my mother and studied all the notes he had made. There were 79 control levers to know. There were 2300 moves per day to be done. The combinations could boggle the mind.

Back at work on Monday Floyd gave dad a little test. “OK you got the Superchief comin’ in on track such and such. You’ve got a 100 car drag on this other track. Look in that note book of your s and show me the line up.” My dad proceeded to do the moves by memory. A little impressed Floyd throws another problem at him; again dad does it from memory. Now Floyd is really impressed at this young man. He says, “OK kid. You have shown me you really have a desire to do this job. I’m going to show you how to really run this thing. I’m going to show you moves nobody knows. I’m going to teach you everything I know.” For the whole week Floyd was true to his word and my dad soaked it up like a sponge.

Now 21st Street was a real bitch of a job. The railroad would give a guy all the time he needed to get it down. The minimum time it took to learn it was usually a few months. After ten days Floyd called up the MAN and told him to come up and test my dad. The guy came up and Floyd said, “Just do what I taught ya’ and you’ll be fine.” With that he started to go downstairs to get some coffee. At this the MAN went into a panic, “Floyd, you can’t leave the tower! No way this kid is ready!” Floyd: “He’s ready. Just test him.” Of course we know dad passed the test. The MAN signed off and dad was certified to run 21st Street.

In the interest of trying to keep it as short as possible I will stop here. I plan to add more tales of dad working the towers in following entries.