Syracuse Post-Standard, Sun., Sept. 23, 1945
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande (Bertrande Snell)
Not so many years ago, the village depot was a kind of general meeting
place, where citizens in all walks of life were prone to meet informally and
often to discuss the pros and cons of this and that, while waiting for the
evening train from the city.
There was always a continuous flow of light, or heavy, sarcasm thrown in
the general direction of the station agent, who, generally, richly deserved
it and always had more or less an adequate answer.
Yes, sir, it was always a jovial and carefree crowd that watched No. 3
come in, each evening. After the train's departure, the agent always hied
himself homeward, leaving the premises to the tender care of the night
operator. All he had to do was hang around from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. - or
whatever time the usually fat and always blowsy agent considered near enough
- sweep the floor, trim the lamps, copy train orders and telegrams off the
Morse wires, and, hardest of all, keep awake - at which last task he was
It was, of course, one of these night men who first saw and reported the
"White Flyer" - a legend on the old RW&O railroad- which more or less serves
the village north of Syracuse to Watertown and points north and east.
This branch of the NYC has from time immemorial, been known as the
"Hojack." The origin of this title seems to be lost in the mists of
antiquity, which mists will be in some future article, endeavored to pierce
- but that will be another story.
To return to the "White Flyer."
In the lonely watches of the night, as the presumably wide awake
telegrapher kept his lonely vigil at the key, he would, betimes, hear a
sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and peering fearfully through the
window, he would see the White Flyer - ghostly engineer at the throttle and
fireman with his hand on the bellrope - tearing swiftly through the night.
It was never my good, or ill, fortune to see this phantasmagorum, but I
have the (almost)unimpeachable evidence of many old-time Hojackers who did.
There was George Murphy, now retired and dwelling in Phoenix, who
counted the coaches on the ghost train, as it swept through Parish. He made
the number six, but Frank Hayner at Mallory claimed there were but five that
You don't suppose, do you, that they might have stopped at Hastings and
George Rowe relates that he saw the White Flyer pulling in to Central
Square about 3 a.m. one dark, misty night.
He grabbed a red lantern and ran out on the tracks to flag it. George
says he caught his foot on the outside rail and fell flat, directly in the
path of the on-rushing train, which passed over his prostrate body, doing
him not the slightest harm. He admits, however, that he was considerably
Many old railroaders, readers of The Post-Standard, will recall
trainmaster Jimmy Halleran, located at Oswego for many years. Noted for many
things other than just railroad, was Jimmy.
How many will remember the circular of instructions which emanated from
Jimmy's office on the completion of the double track line between Pulaski
Some office wag had inserted the following paragraph:
Trains - approaching each other on double track, will come to a full
stop and will not proceed until each has passed the other.
Another time, during a terrific storm, the bridge at Red Creek went out
and all traffic was at a standstill beyond that point.
Jimmy hurried to the scene, with his master mechanic and crew. From
division headquarters at Watertown, came a bevy of engineers and craftsmen
to speed to speed the work of construction. Anon, comes a message from the
Red Creek, N.Y.
Advise if engineers have completed drawings and when construction will
And back, over the vibrant wires, goes this immediate reply:
Don't know, if the pictures are done, but the bridge is up and the trains
One time, a few of "us boys" got together and drew up a set of "rules"
for the government and railroad telegraphers. Time has proven to most of us
that we might have been better employed, but I venture to give you a
discreet number of these rules, as first authorized by a committee,
consisting of such old timers as Roy Nutting, Loyal McNeill, Earle Benson,
this chronicler, and many others:
The Rum, Waterburg & Ogdenstown R.R.
Rules Governing Telegraph Operators
I - J.H. G. is the Whole Push.
II - Train Detainers report to the Chief Train Detainer and will also, be
governed by the rules of the Bartenders' Union.
III - Telegraph Operators report to the Chief Train Detainer, and will also
receive instructions from anyone who thinks he has any authority, including
the Section boss.
IV - Operators will receive sufficient salary to enable them to purchase
uniforms and chewing tobacco. If they have families - "The Lord will
V - The Operators' summer uniform shall consist of a dirty shirt and a straw
hat. The winter uniform will be the same as above, with the addition of a
rawhide cord, wound nine times around the body and terminating in a leather
badge, bearing the inscription, "I AM IT." This must never be removed,
except at the wearer's funeral.
VI - Any operator who is observed on duty under the influence of
intoxicants will be asked to explain why he did not whack up with the boss.
If no satisfactory explanation be forthcoming, enough money will be deducted
from his salary to treat the crowd.
VII - Any operator who has been dismissed from the service will not be
again dismissed unless, and until, he has been re-employed.
VIII - If you faithfully observe the above rules, you will deserve all you
Just a fleeting memory of an old-time Syracusan who also was prominent
along the Hojack 40 years ago:
Louis Windholtz owned and operated a canning factory at Parish for many
years. He was a kindly man, with a keen sense of humor as the subjoined
trifle will show.
I was a "student: at the Parish station, learning (I hoped) to be a
telegrapher. I was alone in the office one day, Agent Shaver having gone to
the village for a short time.
Mr. Windholtz came in and inquired about something, the details of which
I do not recall. Blown up with pride at being in charge of the office for
even so brief a period, I gave him the kind of answer which was known, in
those times, as 'fresh."
Louis eyed me for a long moment; his eyes twinkled and he said:
"Ach so! Venn ve sveep der floor, ve run der railroadt, 'nicht wahr."
The Days of Old, the days of Gold,
When skies were blue and fair;
Ah, knew not I that these would die,
Or, if I knew, would care.
But Memory is a living thing,
Or gay, or sad it be -
And, so I say to you today,
"Thank God for Memory!"
Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY Nov. 18, 1945
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
Engineer Cotter eased open old 2165's throttle and No. 21, the
northbound local slid slowly out of Salina yards. Barney Fiddler was
fireman; hop, Loren Look, the conductor, and the flagman was Denny Haley.
Fred Mug was the head "shack" and Dick Jones rode the cubicle.
Here was a sextet of hard-bitten railroaders ready for any emergency,
and fearful, neither of "Hell, or high water." They drifted into Liverpool
about 6:45 a.m. and unloaded a bit of merchandise on agent Jimmy Dial's
platform; then whizzed through Woodard on operator Richardson's "highball,"
and jolted into Clay Station.
Here the agent, Charlie Zoller, had some switching for them, and they
worked at this for some 30 minutes. The previous night had been bitterly
cold, the thermometer falling to 25 below zero in this section, but when
the local left Clay, about 8 a.m., the weather had moderated, and snow was
falling steadily. there was a stiff wind from the northwest and the snow was
beginning to drift.
There was a halt at Brewerton, where engineman Cotter gave his steed a
"drink" from the water tower. "We'll never make Richland if she don't let
up," he said, as he stamped into the station, where telegrapher Coon Rogers
was getting train orders from Oswego.
"Hell," said Conductor Look, "we won't never make it anyway, if that
double diagnosed dispatcher don't get his nit-wits together an' get us out
o' here - what's he say, Coon?'
"Here y'are," said the operator at last, "meet No. 4 at Mallory, an'
don't waste no time at Central Square - get out o'here, now an' step off
They dug out of Brewerton through the blinding storm, which grew worse
by the minute. Sherman Coville at Central Square had his instructions to
highball them over the O&W intersection without delay, and the train limped
into Mallory and onto the siding, as Courbat's noon whistle sounded.
--And there the train of 13 cars remained for two weeks; for this was
the beginning of the Big Storm of March 5, 1904, and Oswego county's
greatest blizzard was in full swing.
After No. 4, due in Syracuse at 12:50 p.m. arrived seven hours late that
evening, not a wheel turned on the Hojack between Salina and Richland for
five days. In some of the "cuts" the snow was drifted to the tops of the
telegraph poles, after the storm had blown itself out - which did not happen
until snow had fallen violently and continuously for more than 72 hours.
The crew of the local waited in the Mallory depot until No. 4 struggled
in from the north, with a rotary snow-plow trying to keep the rails clear
ahead of it. Then, they all came back to Syracuse, with the exception of
fireman Barney Fiddler, whose mother resided at Mallory, a short distance
from the depot.
Next morning, when I came down from Jim Jackson's where I was boarding,
to open the depot, the snow was piled to the top of the waiting room door,
and all the windows on the west side were completely drifted in. The train
dispatcher at Oswego issued instructions for all telegraphers to remain on
continuous duty in readiness for emergencies. So there we were, with nothing
to do - and 50 miles of rails covered with seven feet of snow on the level!
We recall that this was a halcyon period for Jerome Fiddler, the old
track walker, who lived just across from the station. He, too, was happily
idle for more than a week, while, as he confided in me:
"Me pay keeps travelin' right along, glory be!"
Well, after a couple of days it stopped snowing and some of the boys
from the mile-distant village tramped out a single-file foot path through
the drifts and came over to see what was doing. There were Lyman Hoyt, Tobe
Robinson, Len Snow, George Courbat, Lester Fiddler and others, who formed a
sort of parade as they plodded along the cavernous path to the depot, where
I had been alone in my lack of glory for all too long.
Fireman Fiddler hit upon a happy expedient to add to the jollity of
nations. He discovered some barrels of beer in the freight house, which had
arrived just before the storm made all deliveries impossible. This beverage
had frozen solidly in the kegs, so Barney heated a poker in the stove,
knocked in a bung, inserted the red-hot poker and pushed mightily toward the
center of the keg.
The amber liquid which oozed forth as a result of this operation was of
sweetish taste, not at all unpleasant, and its potency was of that variety
known as HIGH. Then we all gathered around the crimson-bellied stove in the
waiting room, played a little poker; drank a little (?) nectar, told a
little list of stories - and had, in general, a heck of a good time!
Finally, five days after the storm had started, a big snow-plow, pushed
by two locomotives, left Salina and made the 21-mile trip to Mallory in a
little over two days. Another plow left Richland at about the same time, and
they finally met near Parish. Thus, the line was cleared for passenger
traffic, and soon, matters began to shape normally.
In a section noted for its violent storms, this was easily the fiercest
and longest continued of any within the memories of the oldest citizens at
that time - and it has had no serious competitors since.
Of that salty and valiant train crew, which left Salina on that stormy
morning in 1904; of all the agents and telegraphers I have mentioned here;
of all the others who have appeared - there remain to survive, only Denny
Haley of Syracuse, and this narrator; I to reminisce in my wandering way;
and he, perhaps, to verify the tale, or point out its inaccuracies.
So, Denny, let's give each other three rousing cheers - and I'll say:
"Give 'er the gun, hoghead, the Big Roundhouse is Just Around the
Syracuse Post-Standard, Jan. 27, 1946
Just Around the Corner By Bertrande Snell
The Pennsylvania Division of the old New York Central, known to
old-timers as "The Fall Brook," connects with the main line at Lyons and
winds south through Corning to Clearfield, Pa. It crosses the Pennsylvania
state line at Lawrenceville and, from there on, it runs through the
Alleghenies. It is in reality a true "Scenic Route," although, alas, there
are no longer any passenger trains scheduled on the line south of Corning.
In 1912, there was a little way station known as Beeman between
Lawrenceville and Presho. Here vegetated, at this time, a telegrapher by the
name of Honnis. he had little to do, save report the passing of the numerous
coal trains and ponder on the vicissitudes of human life. these activities
he interspersed at too frequent intervals with a satisfactory flow of the
famed Tioga county triple-elixir.
As he sat thus, day by day, his grievances, real or fancied, grew space,
until he became a man obsessed. One day his muddled brain gave birth to the
Great Idea, and he acted thereon with promptness and despatch. The very next
morning, he hied himself to Corning, where were located the division
offices. He made directly for division superintendent, D.W. Dinan's office .
He swung open the office door and discovered Mr. Dinan seated behind his
desk, facing the door.
Without preliminary, Honnis dove into his hip pocket, with quick if
trembling hand; fished out a snub-nosed revolver and fired three shots in
the general direction of the official. At the sound of the shots, assistant
superintendent L. P. Van Woert rushed from his adjacent office; but halted
abruptly, at sight of the armed figure in the doorway.
Before Van could do anything about making himself scarce - which he,
afterward admitted was his primary intention - Telegrapher Honnis reversed
his weapon and shot himself in the head, dying as he slumped to the floor.
Having thus satisfactorily provided for his own future, the gentleman exits
from this narrative.
Superintendent Dinan, it was found, had suffered but one hurt - a slight
flesh wound in the right shoulder. Another of the bullets had sliced off a
coat button, and the third went wild.
This tragedy, not unnaturally, caused considerable furor in railroad
circles throughout the country, and one result was that railroad officials
were not nearly so easy of access for a considerable period thereafter.
The big boys didn't exactly lock their doors; but they took precautions!
Which precautions form the groundwork, for the following anecdote, which has
a slightly different finale from the preceding one.
A few months after the event recorded above, a young telegrapher on the
Hojack - we will call him Fred, principally because that's not his real
name - was the victim of a series of events, which eventually led to his
dismissal. He was working on the west end, between Oswego and Rochester, at
the time; and he decided to go to Watertown and try to induce
Superintendent F.E. McCormack to reconsider.
Resplendent in his "Sunday suit" of navy blue, and with a purposeful
glinting his somewhat less-than-eagle-eye, he descended upon the division
office and sought out the chief dispatcher, George Henry Williamson, his
"Sorry, Fred," counseled George Henry. "I can't do anything for you, the
Old Man has the goods on you and he won't budge."
"Well, " replied Freddy, "I'm gonna see him, anyway. I'll sure give him
a line. Gee! I don't want to get fired just now - I ain't got time for it!"
"Won't do you any good, I'm afraid," counseled the chief dispatcher,
"but it's your funeral, suit yourself."
With which comforting assurance, George Henry turned away and applied
himself to his own worries.
So, Fred hung his overcoat on a nail, buttoned his tight-fitting
suit-coat about his manly torso, and stepped into the hall, declaiming as he
"I'll fix old F.E.M. plenty!"
Well, the chief clerk finally let him into the superintendent's sanctum,
but he had hardly begun his plea to the boss when the door opened and in
walked a "harness bull," a man in plain clothes. The cop waltzed directly to
our wondering hero and asked:
"Your name is Fred Ennis?"
And without waiting for an answer, he continued:
"Just step out into the hall a minute, we want to talk to you!"
Fred glanced at the boss, but got no encouragement there. F.E.M.'s face
showed nothing but a look of blank bewilderment, so Freddy accompanied the
two men to the door.
Outside, the two ranged themselves on either side of the luckless
brass-pounder and the man in civvies spoke for the first time:
"You come up from Wallington this morning, didn't you?"
"Yes," replied Freddie, "that's right."
"Boss fired you a couple days ago, didn't he?"
Fred nodded, miserably, still uncomprehending.
"Frisk him," said the questioner to the uniformed man.
The cop slid practiced hands around Freddie's middle. One hand halted in
the vicinity of his right hip pocket, where his tightly buttoned coat
revealed a bulge.
"Huh!, here it is. I guess," he grunted. He dove into the pocket and
with a flourish drew forth - Freddie's big curved meerschaum pipe in its
"Hell!" snorted the detective, "That ain't no gun. Excuse us, young
feller - and - and - keep your mouth shut about this." And the two marched
away, much disgruntled.
It developed that, when Fred had left the dispatcher's office, his loud
assertion that he'd "fix" F.E.M., was overheard by a passing caretaker.
Noting the bulge on Freddy's hip, he immediately recalled the Corning
affair, and with visions of manslaughter in his mind, he hurried to the
street, where he fortunately (?) found a policeman chatting with a force
detective, and hurriedly spilled his beans.
Still eschewing any fiction in this veracious narrative, it is nice to
be able to record that Mr. McCormack called Fred back into his office and,
after learning the details, indulged himself in a hearty laugh - and
reinstated him on the payroll.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Feb. 17, 1946
Just Around the Corner By Bertrande Snell
Jim Jackson gazed from his kitchen window, early one February morning in
1903. and remarked:
'She's comin' from the northwest an' I'll bet we're goin't to have an
old ripsnorter. When you see the snow comin' down slantwise that way, you
can get ready fer a storm."
The wind howled around the big white house on the hill, across the
tracks from Mallory depot, and the soft flakes were falling faster and
faster. And, as I struggled down to the depot for the morning passenger
train, it was getting worse by the minute. No passengers emerged from, or
boarded No. 7 that morning - and that was the last train we saw for some
time. Clayt Fellows, section boss, showed up for a brief survey of the
situation and then he and his men holed up in the section house to await
All morning and afternoon the storm increased in fury and the uproar of
its mighty travail was almost deafening. My telegraph wires had been
unworkable since late morning, and on the road between Richland and Salina,
I had no means of knowing their position, or condition.
About 4 p.m. I got my switch lamps ready and started south with two of
them. One was to be placed at the junction of Corbett's spur, and the other
on the sidetrack switch stand. The wind was blowing ferociously, the snow
was swirling in such compact clouds that it was impossible to see a single
foot in any direction, except at intervals, when the storm lulled for a few
I was walking down the center of the main track, when suddenly from out
of nowhere came a mental urge, intuition, "hunch," or whatever you care to
call it, that I should step across to the adjacent side track. Almost
involuntarily I did so - and I had taken not one step from my new location,
when a snow plow, pushed by two engines whizzed by on the track I had just
left! All I got was a slight addition to the storm's mighty roar, a ghostly
flash, a shadowy, fast-moving mass - and the show was over!
Must I admit I was a bit weak at the knees for the next few minutes?
Sam Hollingsworth, one of the engineers on the plow, said afterward that
he got just one glimpse of me as i stepped over to the siding. He claimed
he could sense, by my leisurely manner that I had no idea there was anything
behind me. And he swore mightily and oft it was so close, that had I been
two inches larger at the waist, the snow plow flange would have hit me!
Jim Jackson was sitting in his big chair by an east window, and during a
break in the storm he saw the plow bearing down and apparently running right
over me. Grabbing his coat and cap, he ran down the hill "faster," as he
said, "than any 72-year-oldster ought to travel." Plodding down the side
track, he finally glimpsed a form ahead of him and yelled lustily, but I
didn't hear him. I went on and set my lamps, and returning, met him.
We went back to the depot, and my day's work being done, we went up the
hill for supper. As we left the station, however, Jim's wife, "Car'line"
came plowing through the snow in eager search for us.
After supper we sat rather quietly in the big cheery living room,
discussing my near-adventure and listening to the wild hullabaloo outside.
Finally, Jim looked at me with a speculative eye, and remarked: "Y'know,
I don't hold, generally, to the use of liquor, but it seems to me, Bert,
that in memory of a dumb out-an' -out miracle, we could do worse than to
celebrate your good luck with a nice hot toddy - that is, providin' of
course that we had anything to make it with!"
The old rascal knew that I had a bottle of Tucker's rye up in my room. I
used to get a reasonable supply of that famous brand at Garlock's liquor
store, across from the old New York Central depot, whenever I came to
Syracuse. Perhaps the reason my supply was a bit low at that time, was due
to the fact that I hadn't been in town for some time!
Anyway, we had our hot toddies - one apiece - and, although Car'line
sipped hers in very small portions and with a most deprecatory manner, as if
she did it under protest, she left no final dregs in her glass.
Jim related again, in full detail, the story of his one and only
extended journey beyond the confines of Hastings- a two weeks sojourn in
Oswego on jury duty, 'way back in the '70s. It had been a great adventure
for him and he seldom failed to recount it, exhaustively, whenever he could
induce any listeners to stay within hearing distance, long enough for the
One of his favorite episodes of the occasion was about the waitress at
the old Adams House in Oswego, who, at the end of each dinner, came to the
tables and chanted: "Apple, mince, cherry, raspberry, custard an' punkin,"
to which outburst, Jim claimed he always replied, "I'll take a small hunk of
"And," he used to chuckle, "I always got 'em, too!"
Then, when the yawns became alarmingly manifest, Jim arose from his big
morris chair, knelt beside it; and, while we reverently bowed out heads, he
offered thanks in his own sturdy and unflowered tones - thanks for the
preserving hand of the Father, which had been held over me that day...And,
folks, when he had finished, I felt myself nearer to the Throne of God than
I had ever been before!
So - a mighty storm howled and raged outside; the force of nature seemed
to be at war; but here, within, was peace and comfort and thankfulness and
good fellowship. Perhaps just a tiny preview of heaven - who may know?
Jim and his Car'line have slept for, now, these many years; but I never
journey by the big white house on the hill without thinking of that day,
long ago, when death passed so closely by me, that I could feel the brush of
his ebony wing.
Syracuse Post-Standard, March 10, 1946
Just Around the Corner By Betrande Snell
I went over to Oswego one night in August, 1901. I was on my way to
Newfane, Niagara County, where I was going to work as telegrapher on the
Hojack. As you know, the west end of the Hojack runs from Oswego to
Suspension Bridge, following pretty closely the shore of Lake Ontario all
Here at Oswego, was the dispatcher's office, the division offices being
situated in Watertown. A new superintendent had just come to Watertown. He
was from down New York City way and not widely known in these parts at the
time. He barged into the Oswego dispatcher's office one evening for the
first time. He walked over to Roy Nutting, the message operator, and asked:
"Anything there for me, young man?"
Roy looked up from his sounder and seeing a perfect stranger before him,
"I can't say - would they have your picture on 'em?"
Mr. Hustis, being a man with a sense of humor, recovered almost
immediately from the shock, introduced himself and was accorded proper
service. Yes, Roy was always that way, he had a snappy pick up, and he could
let you down easily, or otherwise, as his mood might dictate - a prince of a
good fellow! I stayed with Roy that night, and next morning started on my
It was a long tedious grind from Oswego to Newfane. We rolled and
rattled through Hannibal, Red Creek, Wolcott, Ontario, Webster, and various
other assorted villages, finally reaching Charlotte, which was near the
half-way mark in my journey. From Charlotte, we fared on, ever westward,
with the lake at our right and the flat, fertile countryside stretching out
at our left. Hilton, Morton, Lyndonville, Ransomville - and then in Niagara
county we came to my destination.
"Here you are, oppy," said friendly Fred Hurlburt, the conductor, as we
came to a stop., "you ain't been up here before, have you?"
I confessed that this was my first railroad job, and he added, "Well,
you'll be okay. Art Dakin, the agent, is a fine fellow - he'll take care of
you. So long; see you tomorrow."
At this period, I was considerably on the verdant side; being just past
18, and never having been very far from the parental roof before. However,
in a day or two, I was "all set," having made Agent Dakin my friend for
life, by offering to help him out on the day job.
You see, the yearly peach season was just opening. Niagara county
peaches are known the country over for their exquisite flavor and beauty and
these shipping days were strenuous ones on the railroad. I worked from 7
p.m. to 8 a.m.; then, after breakfast I turned to and assist the agent -
sometimes, until late afternoon.
So, you wonder when I slept, eh? Why my dear people, it was a sad night
for me, when I couldn't get in at least six hours of "shut-eye" on the job!
There were few trains at night and Newfane was a relatively unimportant
station. The principal reason for assigning a night man there was so he
could run the pump and keep the huge water tank opposite the station full of
water for the use of locomotives.
The village consisted of the depot, a small store, a blacksmith shop and
less than a dozen dwellings within a small radius. Westward, some few rods
down the track, was a high trestle over Burt Creek. here one descended 86
steps to the bank of the stream, where nestled the little pump house which
supplied water for the big tank.
There were a couple of youths, about my own age, who habitually hung
around the depot; and I soon conceived the idea of using some of their spare
time (they had, apparently, no other kind). I intrigued Pink Niles with the
idea that he should learn to run that pump. He took up with it at once.
"Sure thing," says Pink, "that'll be fun. An' when you've learned me,
I'll learn Pete, here; an' in between the three of us, we'll have a hell of
Which is just what we had!
Now the bald fact is, that what I knew about running a steam engine was
so little as to be something less than negligible. Even that little was on
the negative side. I knew about a few things I was supposed NOT to do with
the blamed thing, but the whys and the wherefores of its workings were as a
sealed book to me.
Well sir, by reason of the most astounding good luck, we three - Pink
and Pete Travis and I -got along famously with the pumping business for a
few days. Then disaster began to loom. We had boiler trouble; every day we
had it. Nobody knew the cause, nobody had any advice to offer - we probably
wouldn't have taken it anyway.
At last, a brilliant light, smote me right between the eyes, as I was
billing a car of peaches. I hurried down to the pump house where Pink and
Pete were industriously doing the wrong thing in the wrong manner.
"Shut 'er off!" I yelled. " I gotta idea."
"What, another one?" razzed Pink, "the last one you had wasn't good."
Anyway, we shut her off, pulled fire, and then I set Pete to watch,
while I went back to work.
"Soon's you can put your hand on the inside of the firebox, without
burnin' it; let me know quick," I instructed.
In a couple of hours Pete came up to the station and said the cooling
process was complete. I ran down, grabbed a monkey wrench, shoved railroad
lantern in the firebox, followed with head and shoulders, and performed an
operation. Then I hustled over to Tom Caine's blacksmith shop and had
another operation performed. Then I reversed all of the above processes,
built a new fire, and got up steam.
And it worked! The pump started functioning and the recovery was
For several weeks there was no trouble of any kind at the pump house;
but finally serious things happened to the pump itself, and here there was
nothing I could do, so Agent Dakin wired Master Mechanic Lonergan at
Next day came Pete Chetney, trouble shooter, to fix the pump. With
master hand and eye, he quickly located and repaired the piston trouble.
Then, as a matter of inspection, he aimed his flashlight into the cavernous
depths of the cold boiler and peered. He started. He peered again. He
sputtered. He cursed. He grabbed a wrench and this time HE operated.
With the damning gadget in his hand, he turned, fixed me with his pale,
blue eyes, and - then the explosion!
Pete Chetney was known from Ogdensburg to Suspension Bridge, from
Watertown to Salina, as an unrivaled master of vituperation, and he knew no
superiors. In the field, he was absolutely unique, and I verily believe that
on this occasion he delivered himself of every "cuss" word in his huge
repertoire. Please, O please, don't ask me to repeat any of it - I could
never do it justice...After nearly half a century, I sometimes awake in a
cold sweat from dreaming that Pete Chetney is telling me off again!
You see our boiler trouble had been that the soft plug in the top of the
firebox kept melting our, extinguishing the fire, and I had been refilling
it with melted lead seals. Of course the real trouble was a faulty injector
keeping the water at the danger point nd melting the plug.
But I had fixed that! When I went to the blacksmith shop that time, I
had Tom Caine weld a piece of iron spike into that pesky plug! Mister, she
never leaked after that.
But, why the boiler never blew up is more than I can tell you. Surely
Providence holds her saving hand over some mighty dumb people, doesn't she?
Syracuse Post-Standard, May 9, 1946
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
One sultry day in the summer of 1903, No. 11, the Hojack flyer, came
surging along at 60 miles an hour, and at a point approximately 300 yards
west of Red Mill bridge, she collided head on with a light engine and
caboose which was running extra from Richland to Salina.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life and only a few serious injuries,
but, as the surrounding terrain cluttered with falling debris; above the
hiss of escaping steam and the shrieks of terrified and injured passengers,
could be heard the stentorian voice of farmer John Quinn, issuing from his
back door as he apostrophized to the world:
"Now ain't that a hell of a way to run a railroad?"
Forty-five years ago the Hojack was manned and operated by as sturdy and
salty a bunch of men as could be found anywhere in the states - and in those
days, the percentage of :hard" boys among railroaders was high. This don't
mean that they were either disreputable, or inefficient; they became tough,
originally because they had to be and, finally, because this toughness had
become a habit and a joy.
Number 21, the local freight, pulled into Mallory one morning in 1904
and sidetracked to let No. 9 pass. However, the passenger train got orders
from Train Dispatcher Nutting to stay at Mallory until No. 9 had passed. As
a matter of fact, they remained some three of four hours.
During this interim, Hop Look, the conductor, browsed around in the
Watertown way-car and sorted out an "eighth" of beer, which he lugged into
the station waiting room, where he and Dick Jones, the flagman, dumped its
contents into the tin water cooler, which was an adjunct to every wayside
railroad station in those days. this receptacle stood empty - as usual - and
Hop's donation filled it to the brim.
Somebody went back to the caboose and got an empty quart fruit jar to
serve as a goblet.
At this point Hop announced solemnly and with appropriate adjectives,
that any lily-livered so-and-so who couldn't empty the quart jar with on
quaff, would not be allowed to do any more quaffing. And he appointed an
able and willing committee to enforce this by-law.
This ultimatum automatically eliminated me from any wassail, after the
consumption of my first quart. I became almost at once, just an interested
spectator. It is possible hat such rigidly enforce abstinence caused me to
remember the episode with greater clarity than i could have done, otherwise.
It would have done your heart good - or otherwise, according to your
predilections - to have seen that four gallons of brew disappear! I went
across the road and got a couple of Mary Jerome Fidler's famous mince pies
to add more flourish to the fiesta and more solidity to the menu.
Everybody solemnly asservates that he never told anybody else about this
episode, but it wasn't more than four days before every Hojacker from Salina
to Watertown knew all about it. inasmuch as every narrator added some
touches of his own invention, the story soon got beyond any bounds of
reality and was finally relegated to the limbo of railroad fiction - which
was probably just as well for the future standings of hop Look, Dick Jones,
Denny Haley, Sam Cotter, Barney Fidler and this narrator.
The old-time railroad telegrapher was a romantic soul, although he would
have been the first to deny it. You see, there was always something
impressive, something vast, something "out of this world," in his ability to
sit at a desk in some shabby cabin of a railroad depot and converse with
people hundreds of miles away!
And what a great bunch of brass-pounders used to infest the Hojack in
the early 1900s! There was Jimmy Duell at Liverpool, Ed Richardson at
Woodard, and Charlie Zoller at Clay. At Brewerton you would meet Charlie
Rogers or his son, coon, and, faring on to Central Square, you visited with
Ed Sprague and Sherm Coville. Hastings depot boasted the presence of Johnny
Benedict, while, at Parish you found George Murphy and Frank Hayner, a
betted by Louie Church. Union Square and Fernwood were represented by Fred
Nicholson and Bert Shear, respectively. Pulaski had a coterie of
telegraphers, among whom one recalls H.H. Franklin, Win. Pond and Sam Sweet.
I could tell you a rollicking story about each and every one of the
above gents; but lack of space and prudence combine to limit me to an
occasional outburst of reminiscence, as we go along from week to week.
Nowadays, they run the trains by telephone instead of Morse code and
luck; so the present personnel is naturally of a different timber, but I
dare say no less efficient than that of old. (I wouldn't dare say anything
They sent Jim Hustis up to Watertown in 1903, as division
superintendent. Jim was from the New York City general offices, with plenty
of theoretical knowledge by not little practical experience. Hard-boiled
Trainmaster Frank McCormick was the real boss while Hustis was at Watertown.
Frank knew all the ropes and when he ran out of rope, he would use twine or
anything else to keep 'em rollin'.
One day, Jim Hustis was standing in the Syracuse train shed, waiting for
No. 3 to take him to Watertown. Juke Bodine, veteran car inspector, was
taking a look at the journals with lantern in one hand and dope-pail in the
"How long have you worked here?" asked him, more to make conversation
than from any real desire to know.
"Forty-six years," replied Juke, "and always on this here one job, by
crummy. Considerable of a stretch, ain't it?"
"That's right," agreed Jim, "and just what is it that you're always
looking for in those car wheels?"
"Damned if I know," replied Juke, cheerfully, as he reached for his
Post-Standard, July 7, 1946
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande (Bertrande Snell)
Back in the first years of this century, they used to run a special
monthly train on the Hojack, between Salina and Watertown. This was known to
all and sundry as "The Whiskey Special" and its function was to link the
liquor jobbers with their North Country trade.
Every 30 days, there would be a number of cars loaded with varied
assortments of embalming fluid then in vogue, for the delectation of the
denizens of Watertown and points to the north.
One warm, foggy night in 1891, Engineer Sam Hollingsworth pulled out of
Salina yards at 1:30 a.m. with a train of 23 cars, loaded to the gills - the
cars, of course - with liquor. His conductor was Matt Shephard, the flagman
was Ted Mudge, and the head brakeman, "Silent" Jones - so named by reason of
his unceasing flow of verbiage.
They were running extra and had right of way to Mallory, where they were
to take the siding and meet the west bound fast freight. Sam eased through
Liverpool and by Woodard Junction; then he gave her the gun and they surged
eastward like a rocket. (Well - not quite that fast, maybe).*
The drag pulled into Mallory siding with 15 minutes to spare on 42's
time - and all hands in the caboose promptly went to sleep. As the fast
freight swept by on the main track, Engineer Hollingsworth seemed to sense
an extra amount of vibration for a few seconds, but a cursory examination
revealing nothing amiss, he promptly forgot it.
The extra pulled out onto the main track and high-tailed it for
Watertown. Without incident, they arrived as their destination just as the
grey dawn was breaking, pulled their load into the yard and signed off.
At 10 a.m. the call-boy routed Matt from slumber with the terse words:
"The Beetler wants to see you, quick - and boy is he tearin' mad!"
Sam yawned, dressed, unhurriedly and slowly propelled his lanky form
towards the super's office. As he entered the room, he perceived that the
rest of his crew had preceded him and were listening with no slight
attention to the blistering remarks of senior trainmaster, Frank E.
"You're a hell of a fine bunch of railroaders," spluttered Frank, "you
leave Salina with 23 loads and you pull in here with 22 - and not a damn
mark on your switchin' list. Matt, where did you switch that car?"
"I didn't switch no car," replied Shephard. "The only stops I made was
at Mallory for No. 42, an' at Parish for water."
"What's your story, Sam?" yelled F.E.M., turning to the engineer.
"Matt's got it right, Frank; we didn't do no switchin' an' we didn't
have no delays - an' what the hell are you talkin' about, anyway?"
The rest of the crew, corroborating these statements, old F.E.M. blew up
entirely, his flow of invective became almost unintelligible and his
naturally ruddy countenance assumed a hue of crimson which was no less than
a joy and a benison to his highly appreciative listeners.
Investigation followed investigation. The right-of-way was minutely
examined. Every section-boss from Salina to Watertown was on the lookout for
clues. But nothing developed. (I might, at this point, inject the statement
that I have in mind one section-boss, one station agent and one train
dispatcher who had cause to congratulate themselves on the fact that they
were not sleep-talkers).
The matter eventually became one of the mysteries of railroad lore.
Engine cabs, yard offices and cabooses have been the scenes of a
half-million so-called explanations of this affair - but no one of them
really explained the uncanny disappearance of boxcar A.T.& S.F. 18633.
So now, on this quiet Sunday morning; hear, O reader, the true and
unvarnished solution of the great mystery of the Hojack highjack.
Brilliant indeed, was the mind that had conceived and brought to full
fruition this wondrous scheme to temper any siege of drouth, which might
have been in the offing.
It is, indeed, regrettable that, as far as I am concerned, this mighty
thinker and his no less doughty fellow-workers, must fare down through the
dim corridors of time, "unwept, unhonored and unsung." Were I minded,
however, to do any divulging, it would be much the easier task to make a
list of those denizens of the area who were not involved, than of the
participants. I can at least tell you how they did it.
On the bank, just the Mallory sidetrack, stood two pine trees, about 25
feet apart. Their huge branches entwined and interlocked at a point not more
than 30 feet from the ground. Here, our adventurers constructed a heavy,
solid platform of two-by-fours. This staging at its completion was artfully
hidden by the thick foliage; its very existence known only to those who
constructed it. (And one other).
Just in front of these twin trees stood a local contractor's big
portable steam engine, placed there to operate a buzz-saw, which cut
cordwood and dropped it down a chute into cars placed on the siding below.
Above the tree platform, the boys installed a huge block-and-tackle,
with boom and grappling hooks; which machinery they were at some pains to
obtain surreptitiously at pregnant intervals.
When the "Booze Flyer" sidetracked that night, as usual; the sawmill
engine was under a full head of steam; the conspirators were waiting with
bated breath - yeah, they'd all had a few - and the stage was set.
As the west-bound freight rumbled by on the main track, two sturdy
youths from - never mind where they were from - two youths fastened a swivel
hook at either end of the car on the siding, directly in front of the trees,
while two others yanked the "pins" from the coupling blocks.
The steam throttle opened wide, the winch groaned a little, and the box
car rose from the rails. A couple of experts steadied its ascent with ropes,
and before the long drag of empties had passed, car A.T.& S.F. 18633 was
resting easily and securely on its everygreen-camouflaged platform, 30 feet
above the surface of the shuddering earth.
At this period in the era railroading, it wasn't considered necessary to
have all cars equipped with air brakes - only the 10 front cars of this
train having been so provided. As the box car rose into the air, the siding
being on an appreciable grade, the rear of the train gently slid forward and
closed the gap made by the removal. As contact was again made, one of the
boys shot the pin home and the train was intact!
An observer, whose utter veracity has never been impeached, once assured
me that the whole matter was consummated in less than three minutes by his
Waterbury watch - once again establishing the truth of the old axiom that
preparedness is nine-tenths of the battle!
Well, sir: they never did find hide, nor hair of that car until 'way
along in 1913, when the big wind blew over one of the trees - and down
tumbled the ancient tracks and running gear. That's all there was left. As a
matter of fact, there were a good many red-boarded smoke houses, hen houses
and other-houses for some years after in that section. The precious
contents of the car were, during the course of time, so widely distributed
and so carefully disposed as to create little comment - although they
certainly satisfied a good many thirsts, and super - induced, no doubt, an
appreciable number of headaches, other than the one suffered by the railroad
Anyone who is minded to read this tale with a modicum of distrust, is
here asked to remember that freight cars were much smaller 45 years ago than
they are today - however, I will not deny that tall-tale-tellers were just
as rampant then, as now.
*Note: Although this railroad physically ran north and south, the timetable
direction was east and west.
Syracuse Post-Standard, July 21, 1946
Just Around the Corner By Bertrande
There's a vast difference of opinion as to what constitutes true
greatness. I dare say a multitude of great men have lived and died without
anyone ever having suspected that they possessed this attribute.
You who read this have probably known your quota of great, near - great
and better-than average people but, perhaps you never heard of the great
Jimmy Halleran, trainmaster on the Hojack for a good many years during the
late '90s and the early days of this century.
Jimmy had his office in Oswego and he spread out from that point like a
a fungus, his tendrils reaching to Suspension Bridge on the west, to
Watertown on the north, and to Rome and Syracuse on the east. Before he came
into our midst he had been a train dispatcher on the West Shore, east of
Syracuse. Tradition has it he left those parts under some kind of cloud. It
is at least a matter of record that he came to Oswego, enveloped in an aura
of mystery and accompanied by a fragrance (not too unfamiliar in those days)
bearing a close resemblance to that of Tucker's.
He was a well setup man, with broad shoulders, Irish blue eyes and a
dignified swagger. he wore, habitually, a long frock coat, a black string
tie and a frown. Also, being a first grade railroad man, he came to be
cordially disliked by one and all who labored under him. I don't suppose he
ever realized his own greatness. Certainly, none of his underlings ever
would admit he had any - but, as a fair example of it, let me recite a
Harry Burt, the night operator at Parish, was fired. Halleran had tied a
can on him that very day, with the announcement he would be relieved from
duty as soon as an available man could be found. The occasion for the
dismissal has nothing to do with this story - but i can assure you it was
Harry sat in the bay window of the depot, listening, unhappily, to the
staccato cadence of the sounder. He heard the train dispatcher call "PD"
Pulaski and give him the "31" signal to stand by for train orders. Then, he
gave the same to Brewerton and transmitted an order making "meet" for 2d
No. 10 and No. 3 at Hastings.
Now, 10 was an overflow Thousand Island tourist train, traveling to
Syracuse, and 3 was the regular evening mail to Richland. Both trains were
badly delayed and the train order was issued to minimize the wait which the
regular passing point would have caused. No. 3, of course, was to take the
siding at Hastings and allow the club train to whiz by without halt.
As the disgruntled Harry sat, listening to the telegraphers at Brewerton
and Pulaski as they repeated the order back to the dispatcher, he came
suddenly to his feet. He listened again for a brief moment - and the sweat
began to bead his forehead. He had heard the operator at Brewerton repeat
the meeting point as Parish instead of Hastings. And the dispatcher had not
This meant that 3 would not take siding at Hastings, but would run 3
miles further east while the flyer, expecting to find 3 on Hastings siding,
would undoubtedly crash her, somewhere between the two stations.
Harry prodded the key, calling Brewerton. "B," "B," "B," "I," "I," "B,"
came the answer, at last. "Hold 3," he clicked.
-"She's gone, what's wrong?"
There was no time to tell him - there was no time to tell anybody -
there was only one thing to do, if it could be done. He grabbed a red
lantern, shot out of the door and scurried eastward like a scared rabbit.
Running over the bumpy ties, he stopped briefly to throw the switch at the
end of the side track, then scampered madly on, hoping he could get far
enough down the track to flag 10 down to a speed that would allow her to
negotiate the open switch without piling up.
A banshee wail came from far in front of him and he knew that it was now
just a matter of seconds - but he kept on, stumbling now, and gasping, but
still plunging eastward.
And there she was! A headlight flashed around the curve at Red Mill
bridge, and Harry stopped, spread his legs apart between the rails and
waved that lantern like a madman.
Even as he tumbled aside at the very last moment, he heard the hiss of
the air-brake and saw the engineer's white face through the steam as he
struggled with his levers. Then as the train lost speed, Harry grabbed the
hand rails of an unvestibuled coach and swung himself aboard. The train took
the siding safely and came to a stop in front of the station. The engineer
leaped from his cab and ran to the station, meeting Harry just as he
"What's goin' on here?" yelled Ed Cullen. "Who in hell threw that
switch? Who flagged me down at Red Mill? Who -?"
"Never mind, Ed," soothed the telegrapher. "Take a good look up the
west track there - did you ever see a bigger full moon in your life? Looks
to me, though, like it's kinda in the wrong place tonight."
Ed looked and gasped - it was 3's headlight that stared him in the
Well, that's all the story - except that Jimmy Halleran happened to be
riding on 10 that night and you can bet he congratulated Harry, no end. He
slapped him on the back and vociferated gratitude, until poor Burt began to
feel very much embarrassed. Then, the trainmaster added, as an after
"Don't forget, Mr. Burt, that you are still fired - that can I tied on
you is as tight as ever."
Next day, Jim called him on the wire and told him to go to Buffalo,
where he had made arrangements with Chief Signalman Charlie Olp for a job on
that division. "He'll take care of you," said J.G.H., "and after he's ironed
out the kinks, let me know - I'll have something good for you."
I hope that proves to you that old Jim Halleran was one of the great.
Some of those who knew him only in his latter years thought differently -
but a man has to be great only once to win the credit.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Sept. 15, 1946
Just Around the Corner by Bertrande
On a spring day in 1901, I got a telegram from Trainmaster Jimmy
Halleran, of Oswego, to go to Woodard and work the day trick for a short
time. Agent Dixon was off duty.
You know where Woodard is, of course. It's three miles north of
Liverpool on the Hojack; and it's here that the road branches - one leg
going to Oswego via Phoenix and Fulton, and the other continuing on to
Richland and the north.
Åt the time, as now, it wasn't much of a place - hardly aspiring to even
the name of settlement. The tiny depot was and is situated right at the apex
of the triangle formed by the divergence of the two branches.
North of the depot, a few hundred feet, a county road crosses the tracks
and wanders off toward Euclid and Hosside Holler. Right at the junction of
this highway and the railroad was a small general store - and that was all.
There were no swellings directly adjacent to the station, and the wilderness
camped closed to the tracks.
At this time, I had just started in the business of telegraphy, having
"graduated" as a student at Parish. My teacher, Agent George Murphy, now
residing in Phoenix, had (reluctantly, I hope) certified my fitness for work
and I had been duly commissioned as an "extra" operator on the division. I
was very green at the time, and my telegraph '"ability" was something which
I would rather not discuss too frankly - if it's all the same to you.
So - I went over to Woodard on No. 8, the late evening train, intending
to bunk in the waiting room until 7 next morning, when my tour of labor
would begin. In those days, you know, a telegraph office was open 24 hours
and needed but two men, since each did a 12-hour stint for a day's work.
This arrangement was ideal; since it made unnecessary any idle speculation
as to what you'd better do with your spare time.
Arriving at Woodard about 9:30 p.m., I found that the night operator was
also a "new hand" - a young fellow named Foster. He was a stranger to me,
but I found him a likeable fellow, albeit somewhat scared; since he
admitted that this was his very first night on duty alone, as a telegrapher.
When he learned that I intended staying all night with him, his joy was
almost pathetic - and we became fast friends in nothing flat.
Telegraphy is, I must tell you, a curious profession. It is, primarily,
about 10 percent code, 20 percent intelligence and the rest adaptability and
experience. It is one of the very few trades, where one good man, alone, is
of little use - he must also have a good man at the other end of the line.
Since there was never yet in the annals of the business, a telegrapher
who would admit that he was anything less than one of the best, you can see
how complications could easily arise. It was always a peculiar profession
and a large share of its professionals were peculiar, too.
Well, Foster and I decided we would both stay right there on the job
until we were relieved. We would sleep in the little waiting room which was
seldom occupied by passengers, and we would do a little fancy cooking on
the big stove which sat in a grilled niche between the waiting room and the
I walked down to the little store and bought a chunk of bacon, a dozen
eggs, a package of cocoa, a bag of crackers and a hunk of cheese. On my
return I noticed a young fellow of about 16 in the waiting room. I was about
to inquire of Foster if he knew him; when I became aware that Foster was
busy - very busy. he was trying to copy his first train order, "on his own."
It seems they were running an "extra" from Salina to Oswego, via
Woodard and it was necessary to get them to Woodard against any and all
traffic coming west on the mainline. A copy of this order had to be placed
at Woodard to notify all west-bound trains that the track between Salina and
Woodard was occupied until the extra arrived there.
It was with this order that Brother Foster was struggling. You will
understand that the order was being sent from the dispatcher's office in
Oswego and had to be repeated back by the operators at Salina and Oswego,
before the train could leave the yard.
Mr. Foster perspired; Mr. Foster reached for the key at 20-second
intervals and "broke." Mr. Foster trembled and Mr. Foster groaned; but the
staccato click of the devilish sounder became more and more confusing to him
- to both of us, for that matter.
The wrinkled train order blank in front of him bore a series of pencil
scratches and re-scratches which revealed nothing to anyone, and Foster was
sinking every moment deeper into the mire of his own helplessness.
At that moment, from the corner of an eye, he saw me enter the office and
reached for the key and spelled out, awkwardly:
"Minute - here-comes-the-day-operator. I'll ask him to copy this."
"Who-is-he?" asked Dispatcher Nixon at the Oswego key.
"It's Snell," responded Foster.
""Hell," exploded the sounder. "He ain't any better than you are - ok,
let him try it."
Then it was my turn to sweat, my turn to squirm, my turn to accomplish
absolutely nothing. It was an impasse.
At that moment, a rumbling voice came from the open ticket window.
"Lookit!" said the voice. "Here's your train order. That feller has
sent it 10 times an' I got it all written down, nice. You repeat it back
an' then copy it on your blank - take it easy."
And the lad I had noticed in the waiting room thrust a plainly written
copy of the order into Foster's outstretched hand and went back and sat
So, the train finally got started on the way toward us and we regained
some measure of composure, while we waited for our next test.
It developed that this lad who saved our lives was Charlie Kretchman of
Liverpool, who had been studying telegraph for some few months with Dixon,
the regular agent here. There was nothing miraculous about his having been
on hand at the crucial moment. He was on his way home after having been
over to the store to see his girl who was the daughter of the proprietor.
Charlie still lives in Liverpool and still telegraphs. You ask him
about that time when he copied his first train order and saved the day for
two would-be telegraphers.
Syracuse Post-Standard, March 9, 1947
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
The old time telegrapher always claimed he was in a class by himself
and that he refused to be bound by the ordinary rules that his less gifted
fellow men had laid down for the benefit of society.
He wasn't so wrong at that. He led a strenuous life; he worked long and
tedious hours; he drew pitifully small pay and he was by choice a wanderer
upon the face of the earth.
In speaking of this fraternity, I use the past tense, since their
activities have now almost ceased. The train dispatcher now controls his
trains by telephone, commercial telegraphy is 95 percent automatic, and it
will be a matter of but a few years when a Morse telegrapher will have
become a museum piece.
As I have remarked before in these columns, the mere ability to
transmit and receive the Morse dots and dashes is but a small part of that
intricate business which distinguished a really "good" operator from his
host of inferiors.
You see, it's like this: A telegrapher must be able to function in
three separate and distinct ways as he puts down each word that the clicks
spell out to him. First, he must recognize the Morse signal for what it
really is, then he must set it down on paper, either with a pen or a
typewriter. All of this within the space of a split second, while he is
already mentally reaching for the next signal. A first-class operator,
writing down 40 words or more a minute for any length of time, is most
certainly keeping the old brain cells shuttling, even when he doesn't
On the other hand, all of this concentration and ability would be of
small avail if the "sender" at the other end were not doing his full share
by transmitting the signals clearly, speedily and in the proper rhythm. As a
matter of fact, it always has been a dangerous thing to tell a telegrapher
that he's not a good sender. Even though it's probably true enough, he'll
never believe it and will most certainly be your enemy for life.
Just to illustrate how easily the telegrapher's trained ear can miss a
bet; let me relate a little incident in my own experience. In my Hojack days
I once labored for a few months at Newfane, which is in Niagara county, near
Lockport. One night the train dispatcher sent me a message for the conductor
of the pickup, reading:
"Pick up 3 cars peaches at Appleton, 2 at Lyndonville - all via
But the copy I handed up to the caboose as it rolled by the station
read like this:
"Pick up 3 cars peaches at Appleton, 2 at Lyndonville - 4 at Charlotte."
The substitution of "4 at" for "via" - the two sounding very similar
in Morse code - caused Conductor Grogan to hunt all over the Charlotte yards
for four non-existent cars of peaches. And did he tell me off on his next
Lance Corrigan used to work the Hojack dispatcher's office at Oswego.
This was back in 1904, when any good telegrapher could get a job on any good
railroad in the good old U.S.A. Lance was a crack-a-jack telegrapher and a
fast, fluent and witty talker. In the practice of his profession; he had
traveled from east to west, from north to south - but he always claimed,
"There's a lot more of 'em left."
Lance was a snappy dresser, but his elbows were always shiny from
leaning too long and too often on polished bars, and he was always broke
for the same reason. He was holding a job as day message man, and I held the
night trick in the same capacity; so we naturally became well acquainted -
and if I may say so with pardonable pride - the best of friends.
In spite of Larry's widely known addiction to the old throat gargle, he
was such a friendly fellow and so fine a workman that he quickly won favor
of the "higher-ups" - Chief Dispatcher, Ashe, and Trainmaster Halleran. In
those days, if the boss was on your side and you humped yourself a bit, you
could generally manage to wangle a little salary raise out of him from time
to time, and if you refrained from bragging about it, nobody would be the
wiser. Such goings-on were probably very nefarious and reprehensible; but
that's the way it was - and we were stuck with it, or on it, according to
the way modern regimented labor would look at it.
Anyway, the boss, liking Lance's work and not frowning too severely on
his elbow-bending propensities, cooked up a little scheme, whereby he could
grant a salary increase. "You have," said J.G.H., "considerable spare time
during the day, which you could use to advantage doing some of my office
work. I'll run the message wire to a desk in my office and you'll be all
This idea immediately appealed to Lance and he said so. He worked on
his new job in seeming content until pay-day rolled around. Fifty years ago,
this event transpired but once a month- and two or three days later we were
already looking forward, breathlessly (and penniless) to the next one.
Lance ducked out to the paycar and got his money, coming back, he sat
at his desk figuring furiously. At the culmination of his arithmetical
labors, he arose, grabbed his hat barged over to the beetler's desk.
"Jim," he announced without preliminary, "I'm through; gimme my time. I'm
off for the west this afternoon."
"Why, what's the trouble?" exclaimed the astounded trainmaster. "I
thought you liked your new job. You've been doing it might well, and I'm
paying you well for it, too. You can't quit me like that."
"Sure I can, feller," responded itch-foot Corrigan, "and I'll tell you
what the trouble is, too. Your job is all right; but me, I don't want it.
It's too much of an expensive job. Why, it costs me more money
every day to keep drunk enough to work this job than what the danged thing
is worth! So long - I'm I'm on my way.
And that was the last I ever saw of Lance Corrigan - boomer deluxe and
careful appraiser of comparative values.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Jan. 26, 1947
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
Rufe Potter was at his desk in the freight office. It was 3:30 p.m. and
he had just completed the consists for next morning's Cape Vincent local and
turned them over to the yardmaster. He wiped his favorite pen carefully on
the sleeve of his once-white linen duster which he always wore in the
office; filled his pipe with shag, lit it and leaned back, puffing
contentedly...Not that his days' work was all done - but why start on
another piece of work until you had to?
The freight agent, Clyde Allen, sat opposite and idly flipped through a
stack of car-cards as he remarked, " Rufe, you seen Frank Wilson this
afternoon? He ain't been in the office since mornin'."
"Aw," responded Rufe, as he yawned tremendously; "he's over at the
Woodruff, takin' in a few with Jimmy Halleran an' Pete Lonergan - they blew
in from Oswego this noon on 204."
"How come you know so much about what they're doin'?" queried Clyde with
a glint in his eye.
"Why, you just thought I didn't know where you was on that dang long
lunch-hour you took today - you ain't foolin; me none, mister. Well, so
long, Rufe, I gotta be gettin'."
The scene was the Hojack freight office at Watertown the season was
early autumn and the years was 1904. Jimmy Heustis was division
superintendent, Frank McCormack was senior trainmaster and Frank Wilson was
division freight agent. McCormack was he real boss of the division and he
knew practically all the answers, having learned his routine under such as
Pat Crowley and Dave Dinan.
At this period, Pat Crowley was superintendent of the New York Central's
Fall Brook division with headquarters at Corning. He was on the way up - a
way which was finally to land him in New York City as president of the
entire New York Central system. Pat's initials are P.E.C. and his strenuous
and successful efforts to get more tonnage behind the locomotives of the old
Fall Brook became so widely known that all the engineers flatly declared
that his "PEC" meant nothing less than "Pull Eighty Cars." Later on, when
Frank McCormack took over the Fall Brook job at Corning, we continued to
insist that his "FEM" stood for "Fetch Eight More." - And we were right
about that too.
But to get back to our hero, Rufus Potter, the billing clerk.
After Agent Allen departed, that afternoon, Rufe started in on some
transfer sheets, but was soon interrupted by Chief Clerk Harry (John Bull)
Howard, who dispatched him up the yard to get a list of car numbers from a
"symbol" train which had just pulled in from the north. This was little to
Rufe's liking; it was really not part of his job and, besides, he didn't
like Howard a little bit and he was aware that the feeling was mutual.
Reflecting, however, that it would be pleasant to get out in the open
after a day spent at his desk, he demurred but little and went his appointed
way. Completing his list, he decided that, instead of returning directly to
the office, he would slip across the yards and drift into the Woodruff, just
to see how many of the boys really were there.
Well, sir; when he got there, he found, as he had expected, quite a
delegation on hand; Passenger Conductor Fred Cole, "the best-dressed man on
the division;" Hank Lester, yardmaster; Bill Jewett, clerk; Agent Allen,
Pete Lonergan and Jimmy Halleran of Oswego, Frank Wilson, George Griffith, a
couple of brakemen from Syracuse - and one lone telegrapher from Parish.
"What you doin' here?" cried "John Bull" Howard, as Rufe ducked in, "I
thought I sent you up on track 11 to get them numbers from O-M3."
"Well, here they be," responded Rufe, "you want 'em?"
"No, hustle back to the office with 'em -have a beer?"
"Not on you, mister," retorted Potter - "I'll buy my own."
Which he accordingly did. As he gazed down the length of the bar, he
took in all the familiar faces there, and asked:
"Where's McCormack? I thought he came over a while ago."
"He was here," somebody said, "He just left a few minutes ago."
"That's good," chuckled our hero, "I ain't got no use for him, even if
he is the Big Boss. He gets on my nerves, he does, an' the less I see of
him, the better off I'll be."
--And now, Rufus really warmed to his subject and discoursed with
fluency and abandon as to the lack of merit in his boss. He highly spiced
verbiage heaped anthems upon the name of McCormack, and his adjectives of
invective sparked and sputtered like a wet solenoid.
"Why dang it all, if i ever get a good chance I'm gonna tell that guy
just what he is - and why. I ain't gonna pull no punches. I'm gonna let him
have both barrels and when the smoke clears away, I'll soak him with some
more. I tell you, boys that man is gonna take it from me and like it. he's
the most un-"
At this point in his harangue Rufe suddenly noticed that a deep, hushed
silence had fallen over the assemblage. The gent who stood at his elbow
seemed to be gazing beyond at some distant object which horrified him - and
Rufe caught from the corner of his eye a fleeting, but clear-cut picture of
the cause. There, in the open doorway within easy hearing distance, stood
the red-faced subject of his discourse - Superintendent Frank E. McCormack.
Rufe never blinked an eyelash, his posture changed not a hair, and his
discourse continued from the exact point where it had ceased for the space
of a fleeting heart-beat. "--But, right there, I stopped him. 'You can't
stand there,' says I 'and talk about Frank McCormack that way. He's a
first-class guy and a bang-up railroad man and he gets my vote, every time,
and I can lick the man that says no.'
"You know, fellers, that shut him up like a clam - not another word
outa the dang idiot - well, so long, fellers. I gotta get back to the office
- why good afternoon, Mr. McCormack, I didn't see you."
"Mr. Potter," said Frank, "I am about to pour a libation with you, join
-And as they blew away the collars, Frank continued, "By the way,
Rufus, who was that enemy of mine you squelched so efficiently?"
"Sorry, sir," vibrated his companion as he edged toward the exit. "I
don't know his name - he was a perfect stranger to me."
Syracuse Post-Standard, March 23, 1947
Just Around the Corner - By Bertrande Snell
On a warm evening of the early summer of 1905, Wilfred Passmore and I
arrived in Buffalo from the west. We had been telegraphing in the southwest
for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad and were on our way home, each
with about $300 in bills tucked away in one of our shoes, nestling
comfortably between skin and sock.
Unfortunately, we got into Buffalo rather late in the evening and
decided to stay there overnight. We got a room in a small hotel off Ellicott
Square, deposited our suitcases and started out to "look around" a little.
Just 36 hours later we sat in our hotel room and took inventory of our
assets. These consisted of two brand-new suits, two Ingersoll watches, a
varied assortment of pawn tickets and about $12 in cash. So, we decided to
go home. Passey lived in Gillette, Pa., and I lived in Parish, so it
immediately occurred to me that I could easily get over to Suspension
Bridge, where I was more-or-less known, nd bum a ride on the Hojack to
Oswego and thence home, with little, or no outlay.
My partner's case was different, since he was practically unknown as a
railroader outside of Pennsylvania. In spite of his strong reluctance i
forced all our remaining cash upon him - that is, all except a dollar in
change for, "emergencies" - and went our separate ways, promising to take up
where we left off, later (as to what had become of our joint $600 fund -
that's something not to be divulged in this particular story. So don't be
looking for it).
I trolleyed over to Suspension Bridge and hung around the signal tower
until 3 a.m., when I boarded the caboose of the east-bound fruit train
captained by Conductor Bob Cronin, whom I knew well. Bill and his crew
greeted me, not too effusively perhaps, but made me free of the caboose
accommodations, which in those days included plenty to eat and a place to
We arrived in Oswego about 10:30 that night and I promptly hied me to
the train dispatcher's office, where my good friend, Roy Nutting held down
the "third trick." i stayed with him until morning and easily negotiated a
loan of $10. I rode the baggage car of 201 to Pulaski. Here I waited for the
Salina-bound local freight, No. 22 which left there about 1 p.m. While
waiting I had contacted George Murphy, Parish station agent, by wire and he
had informed me that my folks were out of town for a day or two, so I rode
the local clear into Salina yards.
In those days this freight train boasted as salt and efficient crew as
you'd find in a month's hunt. Sam Hollingsworth was engineman, Barney Fidler
the fireman, and Bill Mudge head brakeman. In the caboose were Conductor
Loren (Hop) Look, Flagman Jones and Brakeman Denny Haley.
As we rattled over the frogs into Salina yards, late that afternoon,
Conductor Look fixed me with speculative eye, stroked his handle-bar
mustache and remarked:
"What you doin' tonight, Doug?"
When I assured him that my schedule was blank, he continued:
"You hang around till I sign off an' get washed up. I'm a-goin' over to
th' transfer dock for a minit, you come along an' I'll show you something
pretty dang classy."
So, a little later, Hop and I crossed the yard and visited the R.W.& O.
transfer house, just above the point where the overhead now crosses N.
Salina St. Here was a scene of great activity. Merchandise of every
description was being carted about the floors and shifted from one car to
another through the length of the long warehouse. At the point where we
entered, four or five freight handlers were loading a car of cheese.
This cheese was packed in wooden "half-boxes," weighing about 18 pounds
each. I dare say many of you will recall these cheese containers - flat,
round thin-sided boxes with supposedly tight-fitting covers. Two loaded
planks were placed across the interstice between the car door and that of
the warehouse, and the boys rolled these little boxes merrily up the incline
while one man in the car piled them up in neat tiers as they arrived.
It wasn't uncommon for a box to fall from the planks as it rolled, and
in such cases the container was frequently broken. For such emergency, there
were always near the transfer door, two or three tall piles of empty boxes
used as replacements. It was toward these boxes that Hop made his way.
"Hey, Rick!" he explained to Foreman Althaus. "Me an' Dough wants a
coupla these here empty boxes to take along. We're a-goin' to make some
whatnots fer th' wimin an' these'll be jest th' thing fer th' tops."
Rick waved a careless hand toward the empties. "Sure thing, Hop," he agreed,
"help yereself - they don't belong to me, nohow."
Hop winked violently at the two cheese-loaders and as he engaged them in
loud and rapid conversation, they diverted two of the rolling boxes of
cheese off the planks and in his direction. As one came to his hands, he
deftly placed it on the top of a pile of the empty boxes, and in a short
moment repeated the performance with the other.
After a not-too-long exchange of persiflage with everybody in sight, Hop
turned to me and remarked:
"Well, come on, Doug, here's yer cheese box - let's go."
With no apparent effort he reached up and plucked the full boxes from
off the pile of empties, handed one to me and started for the door. "So
long, Rick," he shouted to the foreman, "be seein' you."
And now you may visualize Hop and this narrator walking sturdily up N.
Salina, bearing between us 35 pounds of the best North Country cheddar that
was ever pilfered. We proceeded, forthwith, to Gaffney's Onondaga Hotel bar
room, where the savory stuff was deposited right on the bar and the
barkeep's kitchen knife quickly brought into play.
The north side sure had a cheese fiesta that night. Indeed, it is my
fondest hope that this narrative may meet the eye of some old-timer who was
actually at the feast.
Well sir, as we all stood around, eating cheese and otherwise keeping
the bartender busy, the swing doors with a mighty "swoosh" - and there,
immaculate and debonaire in his 6 feet 2 of virile manhood, stood my
partner, Wilfred Passmore, with whom I had parted in Buffalo only the day
After introductions all around, I forced a huge triangle of cheese into
the not-unready hand of my friend and demanded to be enlightened.
"Nothing to it," he averred. "I made it to Gillette in fast time and
explained everything to dad, especially how you were broke on account of us
using all the money for my carfare. So, like I've always told you, he's a
good guy and an understanding guy; and he handed me a stake and told
me to hunt you up, and here I am...This time, we'll try the far east. I
wired the New Haven chief at Willimantic and he's got jobs waiting for both
of us - come on, let's go."
"Sure," I grumbled, "you've got a stake, but me - I'm broke and I'm not
going to trot around on your money, feller, you can depend on that."
"My fine-feathered friend," bantered Passy, "I just told you my old dad
is an understanding man - and he thought about that, too. When he handed me
this hundred, he gave me another for you; here she is." And he tucked
$20 bills in my pocket.
There was nothing further to be said in the matter - so we went east.
And, do you know, down there on the N.Y.N.H.& H., Passy and I got ourselves
into the darndest mess you ever heard of. You see, it was like this - but
shucks! That's another story, entirely. Let's save it.
Thus we cavorted and cacchinated while still the glamor was on the
Post-Standard, April 13, 1947
Just Around the Corner by Bertrande Snell
Stories of the old railroad days are heartwarming and serve well as a
rainbow bridge to fond memories travel - but here's a little tale which is
so new that it hardly can be called history, since it happened only last
month - March 26, 1947, to be exact.
Ed Dayton has been station agent at Mexico for many years. In fact, his
total of continuous service on the Hojack adds up to 39 years. At present,
there is no night man at the Mexico station, and Ed's tour of duty is
supposed to end at 5 p.m. after which time the station is unattended until 8
On the night of March 26, Ed tapped out "good night" as usual at 5 p.m.,
but it was storming furiously and the big rotary snowplow was on the way
east from Oswego, ahead of 483, the night passenger train to Richland, so
the train dispatcher asked Ed to come back at 6 p.m. to clear the passenger
train which was due there about that hour.
The snowplow arrived at Pulaski, leaving a clear track for 483, which
arrived at Mexico at 5:20. Engineer George Lamb and Conductor Andrews came
to the office and asked for clearance cards so they could proceed.
"She's bad," said Engineer Lamb, "bad as any I've seen this winter - and
that's going some. Them cuts'll be fillin' up fast behind the plow and if we
don't get outa here quick, mebbe we won't be goin' anywhere tonight."
"That's right," agreed Conductor Andrews. "Come on, Ed, ain't that plow
cleared Pulaski yet?"
A this moment Ed got the "clear" signal from the Pulaski operator, so he
handed the trainmen their clearance cards which gave them a "highball" to
Pulaski. As they started for the station door, the local telephone rang
insistently and Ed answered. It was his mother, at home, who had received a
call from Mrs. Wood, living near the North Street railroad crossing at the
east end of the village.
"There's an auto on the crossing," she announced breathlessly, "it's
been stalled there quite a while and they can't move it - you better do
Well, the first thing Ed did was to leg it out of the station and catch
Engineman Lamb just as he was climbing into his cab. Then they notified the
conductor and all went back into the station.
Ed called the train dispatcher at Oswego and explained the situation.
After a little delay, the dispatcher issued orders to the train crew to ease
the train down through the cut, stop at the crossing and see if they
couldn't help get the auto off the track.
The crossing is about a half-mile east of the station and when they got
there they found the vehicle directly across the track and by this time, so
completely snowed in as to render any shoveling futile. The driver, Harry
Nicholson, had sent to a neighboring farm for a team to endeavor to pull the
car from its precarious position; so, leaving a flagman at the spot, the
train backed to the station and waited.
In the meantime, Station Agent Dayton was making frantic phone calls to
the homes of section men, village officials and others, but nobody answered
the calls. "I don't blame them," says Ed, "for it was a terrible night out;
the snow was driving down in a heavy white blanket and the wind was howling
like 40 banshees."
As hey sat in the office, waiting for word from the flagman, Engineman
"Here it is spring an' the storm's about as bad as any we've had since
'04, the time everything was tied up tight from Salina to Watertown. I was
brakin' on the Watertown local at that time an' we got to Mallory about 3
a.m. an' we stayed right there for a week. For three days o' that time,
there wasn't no telegraph wires either."
"Wind blowed 'em down, eh?" suggested Dayton.
"Nope: the cut just west o' Mallory was plugged so full of snow that it
was piled up three feet above the tops o' the poles an' grounded th' danged
'Why, you star-spangled, nickel plated liar," exploded Conductor
Andrews, "why you oughta be -"
But at this point, the flagman trudged in from the cut and reported the
crossing clear. The delayed train went its way and Ed went home. As he
plodded through the fierce storm his mind was busy recapitulating the events
of the evening. He was forced to the conclusion that the strenuous days of
railroading are not all in the past, as some of our latter-day romancers
would have us believe.
"If," ruminated Ed. "that phone call had been two minutes later, the
train would have been on its way east and the way the snow is blowing
through that cut, they never would have seen the car on the track and would
have run right into it. What might have happened then is anybody's guess;
but the rails were in such a condition that a derailment would have been
most probable - and lives might have been lost."
Ed has little to say about his own quick thinking in this episode; but
he is loud in praise of "Grandma" Dayton, Mrs. Wood and telephone operator,
Anyway, he claims last winter was the worst he has ever seen since the
blizzard of 1888, during which convulsion of nature he was born at New
Syracuse Post-Standard, May 25, 1947
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
As one looks back from a distance at the happenings of other days, there
are always certain characters and certain incidents that stand out against
the background of the past. In recalling my earlier years as a telegrapher
on many different railroads from Oklahoma to the Atlantic Ocean, I never
fail to think of one outstanding personality in the bygone parade. His name
was (or is) Harry L. Schneider, and he was, indeed, a character.
When I first knew him he might have been in his late 20s, a rather
stocky man, dark-haired, pleasant-featured, always well-dressed and
seemingly as carefree as a dust-particle in the sunlight. The thing you
first noticed about him was the fact that his left arm had been amputated
close to the shoulder, and a second glance showed that his right hand had
been badly mangled, leaving him possessed of only one thumb and the first
However, Harry could do more and better with his thumb and two fingers
than the average man could ever hope to accomplish with a full digital
equipment. He was an expert telegrapher, he knew the railroad game inside
and out, he was familiar with the routine of commercial telegraphy, having
"sat in" on some of the fastest wires east of Chicago – and he professed no
modesty in the narration and fulfillment of those capabilities.
He was a consistent lover of good company, good food and good liquor,
the last of which he consumed in vast quantities, with no apparent ill
effect. His spirit was seemingly unconquerable. Quips and "wisecracks"
showered from him like sparks from a red-hot horseshoe; he was the
personification of good humor and the apostle of good fellowship.
I recall with a grin the cards he was always passing out:
Harry L. Schneider
The Ragtime Millionaire
The World's Only Two-Fingered
Today a Plutocrat, Tomorrow, a
Always An Aristocrat
Have One on
During the course of the last half-century, I have met railroad
telegraphers of all sorts and conditions; I've seen them come, and I’ve seen
them go. And it has been a rare and wonderful experience – almost worth the
penalty of growing old to have viewed such a panorama. I have met lowly
"hams" who later became high officials; vice presidents who ended up as
bums; and a vast army of the ordinary boys who just stayed as they were and
drifted along with the tide.
If I ever make good on my 20-year-old threat to write a book titled,
"Tales of the Telegraph," there will be more snickers than sighs among its
few readers; for I shall recount but little of the obvious insincerity and
blatant incompetency of the great and near-great; concentrating rather on
the whimsical situations that 43 years of laughter and tears cannot have
failed tio evolve.
For instance, reverting to our deluxe boomer, Harry Schneider, let me
spin you a little yarn about him.
The first time I laid eyes on Harry was in the fall of 1911. He blew in
to the New York Central train dispatcher's office in Corning, immaculate of
attire, clean-shaven and reasonably sober. He was after a job, and Chief
Dispatcher Lynahan was, as always in those days, desperately in need of
telegraphers. Explaining with evident success that his handicap would in no
way interfere with performance of duty, he was duly hired and sent into the
message room for a telegraph test.
At that time, I was trying to hold down the division message job, with
not too great success. We had a couple of "fast" wires, one to New York
City and another to Buffalo and the men at the other ends of these circuits
were first-class telegraphers, speedy and accurate.
Well, "Uncle" John, as we all called Chief Lynahan, brought Harry in
and introduced us. At the moment I was working the New York wire. The sender
was a man named Relyea, a very speedy and competent man, but personally a
"grouch." He’' just informed me that he had a "file" of some 50 telegrams
and we had just started on them.
I opened my key, jumped up and greeted Harry and was about to resume
when Uncle John said:
"Let Mr. Schneider sit in for a few minutes, Bert, and tell me how he
makes out." And he ambled back to his office.
At my invitation, Harry tipped me a slow wink, dropped into the chair,
took a swift look around, saw that we were alone in the little room, and
pulled up his left trouser-leg halfway to his knee. Nestled neatly there,
between his skin and his Paris-gartered long sock was a full half-pint of
the genuine old telegraphers’ oil.
He grasped the bottle and removed the cork by the simple expedient of
pulling it out with his teeth. He passed the full flask to me with a
flourish of invitation. In the sacred spirit of brotherhood, I took a
vigorous swallow and returned it. I fancied I saw a fleeting shade of
contempt on his features as he noted the negligible amount I had consumed,
but without comment he tilted the container and the contents ran down his
throat without let or hindrance until the last drop disappeared.
Burying the dead soldier in the depths of the big wastebasket, he
turned to the business in hand. Lighting a cigarette with one simple motion,
over, tapped "GA" (go ahead) and closed the key.
By this time, Bro. Relyea in New York was fit to be tied. The wire had
stood open, of course, ever since I had stopped him, some six or seven
minutes before, and when he started, he really opened up.
Schneider listened a second or two, smiled and pulled the ancient
Remington nearly into his lap. His thumb and two fingers hovered over the
keys for an instant – and he went to it!
He flashed those completed telegrams from the typewriter to the
message-hook in a continuous and blurring stream of paper without halt or
hesitation, as his three flashing digits banged the old "mill" like the roll
of a snare drum. As I stood, awestruck, he turned to me with a smile and
spoke low-toned, without altering his stride.
"That guy's good, but I know where there's a better one – and he's
sittin' right in his chair," And I believed him!
I soft-footed over to Uncle John’s office and beckoned to him. He
entered silently, observed the scene with appreciation, and as the sender
finally came to a halt, with the signal "NM" (no more), he said quietly:
"Young man, you are a telegrapher." - Than which no higher praise could
be asked or given.
It later developed that Harry had, by actual count copied 27 messages in
21 minutes – and that’s going some, even for a guy with a full complement of
Morse telegraphy is dead - pushed aside and strangled by the cold hand
of mechanized communication. The day of the boomer, with his battered "bug,"
his threadbare suit, his gin-flaunting breath, and his eager, questing soul,
is gone forever. But the drudgery and the romance, the despair and the
exuberance, the woe and the happiness that were the traveling companions of
the old-time telegrapher, still swell in the hearts of the few who survived
the awesome ordeal.
And may heaven bless us, because that's all we need, now!
Syracuse Post-Standard, Aug. 17, 1947
Just Around the Corner by Bertrande Snell
(Excerpt from an article essentially about the intensity of the heat wave at
"Whatdaddye mean - hot?" snorted Denny Haley, the erstwhile,
politically-minded Hojacker. "boy, when I was alderman, I could make the
north side (of Syracuse) hotter'n this right in the middle of a blizzard.
Why, look, son; when I was railroadin' on the Hojack - that was when they
used to have the hot days - and I don't mean of course.
"Why, I remember one day in latest August of 1904, i was flaggin' on the
local freight from Salina to Richland; and when I hopped the caboose at 6
a.m. it was already so hot you couldn't put your hand on the grab iron
without raisn' a blister. By the time we got to Central Square that mornin',
Barney Fidler, the fireman, didn't have much to do after he banked the fire.
"He took on a full tanko' water at Brewerton and the sun beat down on
the engine on the engine tank so fierce that by the time we got through
Hungry Lane cut, she was bilin' like all get out. All Barney had to do was
set there an' work his injector, lettin' the water run from the tank into
the boiler. Yep, that sure was a hot day.
"Why, wen we got to Richland, old man Butts an' his clerk, Schwartz had
organized a picnic. There they set, in the shade of th' ash pit, stuffin'
themselves with grilled frog-legs, by Judas!"
'Where'd they get'em, Denny?" I foolishly asked.
"Well, I just been tellin' you how hot it was, and in them days there
was considerable of a yard at Richland, with a lot o' switches to throw; an'
I'll be teetotally swizzled if the sun hadn't roasted every frog on every
switch in th' yard...Yep, that was a hot day, son - so long call me again."
-And I softly and reverently laid the receiver in its cradle and walked
away on tip-toe.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Oct. 12, 1947
Just Around the Corner by Bertrande Snell
Ah, but there's bad news in the North Country!
Through the outer fastness of Daysville, in the farm-homes of New Haven;
among the denizens of the pretty village of Mexico, and deep in the hearts
of North Scriba's strawberry growers there's a pulsing sadness and a feeling
of bitter anguish.
Fate, in the form of an official order, approved by governmental
sanction, has struck at last...And there will be no more passenger trains on
the Hojack between Pulaski and Oswego. October 1. was the fatal day - a day
which may be appropriately draped in somber black on future Oswego
Old-timers, who have been watching developments were not too much
surprised at the culmination of this tragedy - they had seen it coming - but
when, at last, the blow fell, they were none the less saddened and
For many years there have been no passenger trains on the west end of
the Hojack from Oswego to Suspension Bridge - a mighty long stretch of
rails. More and more curtailed has become the service on other Hojack
divisions - and now this, the latest and saddest blow of all!
Why, I can recall when there were eight passenger trains puffing daily
between these two points - and they carried a lot of passengers, too.
In the early 90's, you could stand in the window of Trainmaster Jimmy
Halleran's Oswego office and see a whole lot of railroad activity. to the
west were the big railroad yards, the roundhouse and the shops, presided
over by Pete Lonergan, and to the east you could watch the trains rolling in
over the bridge - practically one right behind the other!
That, folks, was long before they started to grow greensward between the
rails for decorative purposes. That was the day when railroaders were salty
and sassy, locomotive smokestacks long and bell-crowned; and every other
brakeman you met was short his right thumb as the result of a losing battle
with a recalcitrant coupling pin. Badges of honor we deemed these
foreshortened digits - symbols of service and guardians of grim
At the turn of the century you could leave Pulaski by train for Oswego
at 7:30 a.m., 11:20 a.m., 3:15 p.m., or 7;05 p.m., as your fancy might
dictate - and there were four other trains leaving Oswego, eastbound, at
appropriate intervals. In those days, Pulaski depot was a busy place. Agent
Austin was in charge, with a telegrapher, a clerk and a baggage man to
assist him. Later, Harry Franklin took over the agency, to be succeeded by
Earl Benson, who in turn gave way to John Benedict.
On your way to Oswego in those days, your first stop was Daysville -
there's not even a depot there now - where you would see Agent Marty Sampson
(or, perhaps, Bert Shear) hustling out to the baggage car. After no undue
hesitation here, you chugged on to Mexico, where presided the veteran
Matthewson, who adorned that one depot for more than 50 years. Then on to
New Haven, whose station agent was another old-timer, even then, Ed Prior,
who still lives there, was in charge of the New Haven depot from 1895 until
1941 - and I have never heard of his growing old!
The last stop, east of Oswego, was North Scriba (Lycoming), where the
big strawberries came from. Here labored George Murphy as the Hojack
representative. In the same capacity, George went later to Parish, and still
later to Phoenix, where he continued as agent until his retirement, some
three years ago. He still dwells in Phoenix and he'll feel sorry, too, about
those ghost trains that no longer haunt the rails.
There are still three veteran station agents left on the Pulaski-Oswego
line: Ray Geer at Pulaski, Ed Dayton at Mexico and Charlie Lodge at Lycoming
- but any one of these will freely admit that "she ain't what she used to
be" - and they won't be referring to the "old grey mare," either!
Well, the fast trains are going faster and faster - and the slow trains
are going fast, too. The sturdy hands that gripped the throttles of the big,
old steam hogs are, one by one, growing pulseless and cold; the keen eyes
that peered ahead from the cab windows have closed in their last long sleep,
and the rusty, grass-grown rails vibrate no more to the impact of the big
drive wheels - except when the tri-weekly local freight goes plodding by!
In the old days, railroading was a rugged job and railroaders were a
rugged company. They were rough, they were ready,. And not so very steady -
But they got there just the same.
I recall a favorite story that Barney Fidler, Hojack fireman for many
years, used to tell with great glee. Barney claimed his uncle Mort was the
best locomotive engineer that every yanked a throttle on the Hojack or any
other road. He sat on the right side of the cab for more than 40 years - and
then, all of a sudden-like, he took sick, and died at the age of 71.
There was a big funeral. Everybody for miles around came to pay their
respects to the memory of the old man; for he had been a friend to everybody
and everybody's friend. After the services, they loaded uncle Mort into the
open hearse and started for Little France burying ground. Everybody went
along in their buggies and their "democrat' wagons. Barney claimed it was
the longest funeral procession ever seen in Oswego county. As the cortege
approached the cemetery gate, the deceased pushed up the casket-lid with a
powerful hand, and leaned on one elbow, gazed back at the long, apparently
interminable string of carriages.
"By Jumpin' Jickety," shouted the old hogger, "She's sure a mighty long
drag - betcha the drinks we have to double into the graveyard."
Anyway - that's how Barney used to tell it.
Nov. 16, 1947
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
Fifty years ago, the lowest-paid railroad traffic employee was the
telegrapher. The section hands, unshaven and unshorn, were just a notch
ahead of the professional brass-pounder in point of salary. On most eastern
railroads, a half century back, the average telegrapher's pay was $30 a
month - and, in those days, a month's work meant 30 or 31 days of 12 hours
each. Did I say 12 hours? That, friends, was the minimum.
At one-man stations, your agent-telegrapher was lucky if he ever got
away from his job with less than 14 or 15 hours behind him. Let's take the
Syracuse - Watertown division of the old Hojack as a pertinent example. The
agent at Mallory was required to be on duty there at 6:30 a.m. - a half hour
prior to the arrival of the first passenger train. He was then supposed to
be constantly on duty until the departure of westbound No. 8, which was due
there at 8:40 p.m. (and was generally from two to three hours late).
It is a fact that the regulations permitted our hero - that's what he
was - time off for lunch or dinner, but this period. Its time and its
duration, was strictly up to the Oswego train dispatcher, who allowed him to
eat "whenever it might be most convenient for the company's interest." And
right here was another catch - if it happened that the dispatcher had
miscalculated and really needed the services of the agent during the time he
was absent, said official, in his explanation of whatever delays may have
been caused, always solemnly averred that he had granted no absence
permission to the agent.
Now, please don't assume that this diligent employee's troubles were all
over for the day when he locked up and went home about 10 p.m. Not so - the
rule book, under "Duties of Station Agents," contained the following
"On closing the station at night, the agent in charge will post a card
in the office window where it will be plainly visible from without. This
shall give complete information as to where the agent may be located during
the night, in cases of emergency."
And such occasions, Mister, were by no means uncommon.
During the whole of a 12-to-14-hour day, the gentleman I am describing
had been more or less actively engaged in a whole galaxy of jobs - agent,
telegrapher, baggageman, express agent, Western Union manager, ticket agent,
accountant, bookkeeper, cashier, janitor, and roustabout - to mention a few.
He was required to wear his pretty, blue uniform, with the brass
buttons at all times, while on duty, and the "tailor car: cam through twice
a year to take his order for a new suit. As these outfits set him back
$19.75 apiece, there were always two monthly pay days during the year when
he walked into the paycar and drew the princely sum of $10.25 for 30 days of
Yes, friends, we had to have a sense of humor in those days. However, it
was well to keep most of this strictly under tour hat - as witness my own
experience in 1904. For my own amusement, I concocted a set of "Rules," and
distributed them rather widely among my associates. I will bore you with a
few fragments of this masterpiece, just as illustrations:
Rule XII - Telegraphers and Station Agents report to and receive their
instructions from the superintendent, the chief dispatcher, the section
boss; or any one else who pretends to have any authority.
Rule XVIII - Telegraphers will receive sufficient remuneration to
purchase uniforms and chewing tobacco. If they have families, they must
remember that the Lord will provide.
Rule XXI - The Company as such, has no conscience and cannot, therefore,
be responsible for that of any employee.
Some of the boys got a big laugh from this bit of persiflage - but me -
I stopped laughing when trainmaster Jimmie Halleran came down from Oswego
and fired me for "insubordination."
Why, then, you may well ask, did anyone ever become a railroad
telegrapher? The reasons varied, I suppose, according to the characteristics
of each individual; but there's a certain fascination about the business
that gets you, even before you start. The great majority of the old-time
telegraphers were graduate students of certain veteran station agents who
knew a good thing when they saw it.
Take, for instance, Bill Shaver of Parish. He was Hojack station agent
there for some 12 years prior to 1900. Bill was a great fellow - a pleasant,
jolly man with a great fund of humor and a ready, infectious laugh. He
always managed to have three students at the office in the following order:
No. 1 - pretty well trained in office work and a fair telegrapher; No. 2 -
intermediate in these subjects and supposed to be under the tutelage of No.
1; No. 3 - a "freshman" just starting in, who was also the janitor and
errand boy. No. 1 was never certified to the Superintendent as ready for
work, until Bill had a prospect ready to take No. 3's place. You see, No. 1
was the man who took over the job when Bill wanted to go uptown for an hour,
or so - which happened not infrequently.
Shaver kept this up for many years, and turned out a large number of
telegraphers, among them I might mention: Loyal McNeal, at present a Hojack
train dispatcher in Watertown; the late Earle Benson of Pulaski; Frank
Alsever, now with the N.Y.N.H.& H. at Worcester, Mass.; Roy Nutting and
Burnell Miller, both now deceased; and a host of others, including this
Bill was just one of a great many who made use of this plan to render
life a bit easier for themselves, while at the same time offering the youth
of the community an opportunity to learn a profession. Yes - a profession
that exerted a strange, not always beneficent influence
on its followers. A profession that wound its magnetic tentacles around the
very hearts of the old-time brass-pounders. You will note that I here use
the past tense; since the key and sounder of the Morse code are now in the
very last process of becoming museum pieces.
It is related that, after a long life spent amidst the clickety-clack of
the busy sounder old Hermann Veeder died, and his soul was wafted through
the ether in ever-widening concentric circles of light, which finally dumped
him gently at the Pearly Gates. As he gazed upward where the shining towers
gleamed in the supernal glory of Heaven's eternal light, his courage almost
failed him and he felt a bit sick. But at last he made shift to knock
gently, Oh! So gently, on the gold-and-nacre panel of the closed door.
At his second or third timid attempt, the might gate opened a mere crack
to reveal the severe features of St. Peter, who gruffly demanded:
"Who are you; and why come ye here?"
"I'd like to come in, please, if you don't mind," quavered Hermann, "I
just died, you know."
"Your name," snapped the Guardian. Hermann gave the required information
and another question followed instantly:
"I was a telegrapher, your honor, and I've come up here for my overtime
- you see, I -"
With a mighty heave of his sturdy shoulders, the good saint opened wide
the massive twin-gates so swiftly that their gem-studded surfaces shimmered
like flying rainbows in the ineffable radiance of the sun of Paradise.
"Enter, my good man, enter," he invited as a broad smile illumed his
features, "long have we waited for one of your tribe to seek admittance here
- and, verily, you are the first of them all. Come, friend, you'll enjoy it
here - for it is written that, on earth, you surely led one hell of a life."
Syracuse Post-Standard, Jan. 25, 1948
Just Around the Corner - by Bertrande
In 1905 I was telegraphing for the New York Central in Northern
Pennsylvania. This division runs from Lyons down through Corning and enters
Pennsylvania at Lawrenceville. At Jersey Shore it branches off to Clearfield
on one hand and Willamsport on the other. The section between Wellsboro and
Jersey Shore, a distance of some 60 miles, is sparsely settled, a
mountainous, rugged and teeming with the virgin "wildness" of nature.
I was stationed for some years at a little 14 by 16 telegraph office
called Ulceter, about midway between Slate Run and Cammal - both of them
lumber towns at the turn of the century. The little office sat on the bank
of the river (Pine Creek) and on either side rose the steep mountains.
At this point the valley was just wide enough for the river, the
railroad, and the narrow, little-used highway. The only dwelling within a
half-mile was that of the Callahans, some 300 yards south of the office.
Here "Uncle" Dan Callahan owned a few acres of river-flat, and did wisely
well with their considerable fertility. Of the four sturdy sons he and "Aunt
Car" had raised only one, the youngest, remained at home.
This one, Matt, you would be unlikely to forget, had you known him for
any length of time, as I did. he was about 19 when I first met him; broad
shouldered, strong, active - and, I really believe, as absolutely fearless
as any man I have ever known. He was a rather handsome, good-natured fellow,
with but little education; but as quick-witted as they come. His whole idea
of life seemed to be centered in "having a good time." He was a heavy
drinker, would fight anyone, anyway where, on the slightest provocation,
and withal had a most charming personality which made him highly popular
among women and children.
He was one of the first acquaintances I made when I came - and we were
friends for many years.
It was some little time after midnight in the late autumn of 1905. A
gentle wind whispered down the mountain-side and rustled the dead leaves to
eerie song. The lanterns on the distant switch targets loomed dimly through
the black darkness as I gazed out upon the tracks from the telegraph desk. A
northbound coal train had just rumbled by and I was waiting for the
clearance from Slate Run, three miles to the north.
In the little patch of light that shone on the rails from the kerosene
lamp over my desk, I saw a sudden movement, there was a quick, furtive step
on the little wooden platform outside - and as the door swung open with a
rush, there stood a big bearded man pointing a revolver at me! I was about
20 years old at the time and I was still unused to this wilderness, having
been here only three or four weeks; so donąt blame me too much when I tell
you that I was literally scared stiff. The round hole in the end of that
gun-barrel appeared to be the approximate size of a length of stovepipe and
it didnąt waver in the slightest.
The husky brute wasted no time in introduction or explanation; he
advanced steadily into the little room and toward my shrinking form.
"I'd as soon shoot you as not," he growled, "pull that chair over into
the corner and an' set down."
Still holding the menacing gun, the intruder grabbed a fishing rod from
the wall, tore off the reel and proceeded to tie me like a cocoon with
innumerable loops of the stout line. Now, I was helpless in two ways - from
abject fright, and from the constriction of the tight cord.
Then the big man turned his attention to my well-filled lunch pail which
I had not touched during the evening. He wolfed the food like a man who was
obsessed by hunger - which he undoubtedly was, but he continued to keep a
wary eye on my helpless form. In a remarkably short time he had devoured the
entire contents of the pail - cold coffee and all.
"Okay, chief, that's better," he grunted, "-you got any money?" And he
advanced upon me, gun in hand. I couldn't move either legs or arms,
tightly-bound as they were, but I managed to nod miserably and quaver, "some
in my hip pocket."
In those days we got paid only once a month, and it had been just the
previous day that the pay car had visited us. (O sorrow and alas!)
As my unwelcome guest came closer, there was a loud crash as a piece of
rock ballast came through the glass of the side window and landed with a
heavy thud on the telegraph desk.
My captor wheeled toward the sound, firing a shot as he turned, and in
that same split-second the door burst open and through the opening surged
Matt Callahan, yelling like a fiend. His rush carried him clear across the
shanty and his left shoulder hit my visitor with a stunning force, driving
him to the wall, before he had a chance to turn. Matt backed off as his
victim hit the wall; he flexed his mighty right arm; his rock-hard fist came
up almost from the floor and landed flush on the point of his opponentąs
I am prepared to make positive declaration that Mattąs haymaker lifted
the gent's feet a full 15 inches from the ground, before he pitched forward
-definitely down and out. In the fully approved method of backwoods warfare,
Matt kicked his fallen foe three times in token of victory, at the same time
emitting a yell which could have easily been heard for three miles.
Quickly he unwound me, laughing heartily at my grotesque appearance and
"Cheer up, pal," he cried, "it's all over now. We'll tie up this damned
so-in-so with this here same line, an' if he comes to before I get him
ready, I'll wrap this blankety-blank poker around his neck an' choke him to
"Now, you get on the wire an' tell Slate Run to get Constable Jake Tomb down
here quicker'n hell."
My trembling fingers finally managed to tick off the news to telegrapher
Ivan Campbell at the Run, while Matt tied his prisoner securely and rolled
him onto the cushioned bunk at the rear of the room.
"I see somebody in here with you when I came round th' curve," explained
my friend, "an' I injuned up, soft, to see what it was. Seein' you all
tied up an' this jasper domineerin' at you with his cannon, I knowed
somethin' has to be did, so I done it.
"I sneaked up, fired that rock through the winder an' busted through th'
dam door. An' frum now on, tell everybody to lay off you, because you're a
friend o' Matt Callahan's - an' I can lick any man in Lycoming county - an'
dang well they know it!"
Finally, Constable Tomb had rounded up half the able-bodied citizens of
Slate Run, the posse arrived and the still partly unconscious prisoner was
removed. Next day they took him to Jersey Shore and there he was quickly
identified as an escaped prisoner from Bellefonte, for whom there already
had been a three-day hue-and-cry.
Poor Matt! The last time I saw him was in the summer of 1923, when I
returned to the Pine Creek Valley for a visit. He had been overseas in World
Wart I and had been slightly "gassed." He was a physical wreck, but still
tried to carry on with his ready smile and his unconquerable spirit.
Just a few years later he died in a veterans' hospital near
Philadelphia, and they brought him back and buried him in the little private
cemetery across the tracks from his old home. He was a "tough nut˛"- but he
was all MAN.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Feb. 15, 1948
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
Your old time railroader was a rugged individual. He had a tough job
to do; and when he worked, he worked hard; and when he relaxed he relaxed -
easily and with enthusiasm. For all I know, the present breed conforms to
these same specifications, but it is inevitable that they have changed in
For instance, I wonder how many modern "hog-heads," "shacks" and
'brass-pounders" are willing to admit that they believe in ghost trains?
In the early years of this century you could always start a caboose
conversation by a casual reference to the "White Flyer" of the Hojack or
the "Midnight Drag" of the D.& H.
I am sorry to admit that during more than 20 years of telegraphing on
more than a dozen railroads from the Connecticut coast to the sage-brush
of Oklahoma, i was never privileged to behold this phantasmagoria - but I
recall one night when I came mighty close to it!
In 1901 I was a green night telegrapher at the Hojack depot in Parish.
In those days there was a big water-tank there and it was one of the
night-man's duties to run the steam pump and keep the water supply
adequate at all times. Generally, however, we did our pumping in the daytime, so we
could get some "shuteye" at night.
The night man worked from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. After midnight the rail
traffic became rather thin; quiet settled down on everything and the low
hum of the outside wires was conducive to a longing for officially-forbidden
sleep. And, sometimes, when a fellow really got into the very depths of
slumberland, even a passing train would fail to awaken him.
However, Frank Haynor who had preceded me on this particular job, was
a man of attainments and vision. he had perfected a device - an idea,
rather - which was guaranteed to produce results; and he passed this invention on
to me when he left.
Frank had bored a small hole in the casing of the bay window, facing
the tracks. Through this hole he ran a length of fishline out to the main
track. Then, he fastened one end to a wooden peg about six inches long, which he
drove into the ballast on the INSIDE of the rail. within the office, the
coal hod, half filled with anthracite and rounded out with a half dozen
empty cans was tied to the other end of the string and balanced on the
edge of the telegraph desk by the tautness of the line.
With this arrangement, the weary telegrapher could relax in slumber on
bench in the adjacent waiting room, secure in the knowledge that any
passing train was bound to break the string and send the loaded coal hod bouncing
to the office floor with appropriate sound-effects.
Late one August night in 1901, I ascertained that the line was clear
Of trains from Pulaski to Salina tower, and prepared to snatch some slumber.
I rigged up the contraption described above, turned out the kerosene lamp in
the waiting room and laid me down to dream. it was a rather warm, cloudy
night. The air was still and a heavy mist hung like a curtain beneath the stars.
As I found later by checking back on the time, I slept for nearly two
hours, when I suddenly found myself wide awake. I ran through the office
door and found my alarm machine still intact - the hod balanced delicately
on the edge of the desk, and the tight string passing through the hold to
the outside. There was no sound from outside and the telegraph was silent
as the grave.
Rushing to the outside door I took a quick look up the track,
eastward. No sound, nothing to see. Then, I gazed west through the mist and I
glimpsed twin flickers of red beyond, far beyond, the limits of the switch-target.
In a moment the faint gleam was swallowed by the mist or was carried around
The curve as it sped toward Hastings depot. But as sure as death and taxes -
The two red lights i saw that night were the rear markers on a caboose!
Lantern in hand, I stepped to the main track and closely examined the
rails. The little stake attached to my fishing line was still in place - but
on the instant, I saw something else.
As I have told you, the night was misty, and the roadbed was saturated
with dampness - but, there in front of me, the twin rails were absolutely
dry! Even as I gazed, the iron began to gather dampness again - and it was
then, brother, I realized I was scared!
I returned to the lighted office and called Central Square, the next
open office, west. Frantically, I clicked out - "CQ, CQ, CQ." and after an
agonized century of delay I got an answer - "I-I-CQ." Before my fumbling
fingers could begin to spell out the question, veteran telegrapher Sherm
Coville's clear, deliberate Morse code informed me:
"Yes, she just went by - high-tailin' for Brewerton - ain't she a
beaut? What was it?" I asked, "I didn't see or hear a thing."
"Why, you dummy, that was the White Flyer, making her yearly run
tonight - first time I've seen her since '87 and I wouldn't have missed it for a
Later reports showed that the four other night offices between
Richland and Salina had watched the phantom train go by - nobody had missed it but
Roxy Dunham at SX Tower (Salina) reported that he saw the blamed thing
vanish into nothingness just as it was crossing the West Shore intersection
in front of his office. The report which he forwarded to the division
office at Oswego mentioned that the train was made up of engine, tender, two flat
cars and a caboose - all glaring white through the misty gloom. The engine
got so close to him before it disappeared that he noted the brass bell
swinging on the dome and the steam shooting from the safety valve - but
there was no sound!
Forty years ago, I could have found you a hundred Hojackers who would
swear to having seen the famous White Flyer wheeling its ghostly,
soundless way over the silent rails. But all my own memory has to cherish is that
one fleeting glance of two red markers shining dimly through the mists of the
As Trainmaster Jimmy Halleran remarked when I told him about it:
"Bertrande, my experience with you leads me to believe that you're always a
little too early, or a little too late. By the way, do they make any rectified cider
around Parish these days?"
Syracuse Post-Standard, April 11, 1948
Just Around the Corner
O harken, now, to my saga of the Hojack - a song of the days, long gone,
a song that I sing from the heart and a tale that I tell from the soul.
And, listen too, ye modern Hojackers; for you, also. O fledglings, when
twilight comes, will have a tale to tell and a song to sing of these, your
days. And the gist of it and the swing of it will be even as this of mine.
For as long as a man shall live, Age will sing of Youth and Youth will
dream of the future.
Hope for the young; memory for the old - what a blessed thing of life!
Ballad of the Hojack
Come, all ye old-time railroad hams,
And listen now to me;
I'll sing you a song of the Hojack days
In nineteen-two or three -
Before the rails got rusty;
When the safety-valves were tight -
And a "day's work" meant you worked all day
And most of the blasted night!
When you pounded brass for thirty-a-month
And your uniform of blue
Made you pals of the village gals,
Who always fell for you!
You took your rest in the waiting-room
When the morning hours were small
And you slumbered away till the break of day;
Nor heeded the frantic call
Of the sounder, there on the office desk
As the train dispatcher tried
To make a meet for twenty-one
Ere her running time had died.
You carried your lunch in a big tin pail
Whose top was a coffee can;
And you raided the freighthouse for beer and gin
Like a regular railroad man!
The clickety-clack of the sounding brass
Was music to your ears
And you laughed aloud in the joy of youth
Not rocked of the fleeting years.
Now, these were the boys in the days of old
Who gave us their Morse-code skill
From West Shore crossing, just out of the yard
To Richland, over the hill
There was Jimmy Duell at Liverpool
At Woodard were Foster and Maine.
And every day you'd see at Clay
Charlie Zoller and Billy McCane.
At Brewerton station, all the Rogers' relation
Could handle the telegraph key -
Old Charlie was agent, and "Coon" was the clerk,
With others in close harmony.
From there you would fare to old Central Square,
Where Covell and Sprague did their stunts;
Then came this old-timer, the "Mallory rhymer,"
(Who wasn't an old-timer, once!)
At Hastings, John Benedict labored
And as onward to Parish we flit,
We greet George Murphy and Frank Haynor, too -
Both men of good humer and wit.
Fred Nicholson next, at old Union Square;
And at Fernwood we noted Bert Shear;
While Pulaski had Austin and handsome Will Pond
To keep all the business clear.
Too many, too many of whom I rhyme
Have gone where there's no overtime;
Where clicking sounders don't intrude,
But we who wait the Super's call
(Which comes to one, which comes to all).
Forget them not - for they were men
We fondly hope to see again!
No more the singing wires sing,
No more the "bugs" their message fling.
Thru all the world's expanse
They killed the Morse code and they trod
Upon the corpse, all prone.
"For now, you see," they yelled in glee
"We run the trains by phone!"
As o'er the Hojack's rusty rails
The few sad drags still go,
The roadbed cries in agony
Beneath the weight of woe.
And from the churchyarda, near and wide
We hear a low, sad moan:
"They're runnin' the trains by phone, me lad.
"They're runnin' the trains by phone."
Now this is my song of the Hojack,
And this is my bid or fame -
That, among the old-time Hojack hams,
You'll find my written name:
That I knew these men and loved them
And that I'm proud to say,
"I too, worked on the Hojack,
When the Hojack had its day!"
Post-Standard, Nov. 14, 1948
Just Around the Corner
The old-time train dispatcher was a man who deserved no one's envy.
Nevertheless, he was looked upon by station telegraphers as a favored
individual, lolling in the lap of luxury, working "short" hours, and blessed
as the friend and companion of countless bartenders.
On a single-track railroad, before the introduction of the telephone as
a means of running trains, the dispatcher had need to be a man of many
qualities. He must be a first-class telegrapher, a strategist, a diplomat, a
man of quick and accurate decisions, and a past master in the science of
railroading. He must be able to hold his liquor with little visible effect,
and his patience and understanding must be almost boundless.
In the days of which I write - the early years of the century - the
train dispatcher on a single-track division held the train movements in the
palm of his hand and the reflexes of his brain. There were no manual or
automatic block signals to protect rail movements; no intricate system of
safety devices; and no means of communication except the Morse code.
Memory reaches back and brings to showy view a sturdy band of Hojack
dispatchers at Oswego, around 1903.
Here you would find the veterans of that era - Charlie Brown, Johnny
Ashe, McClosky, Snyder ad Hartney. And back of these stalwarts stood the
"younger set" - Walrath, Nixon, Nutting, McNeal and a number of other bright
young men whose names escape me at the moment. Of the above mentioned, only
two now survive - Matt Sampson, retired and living in Oswego; and Loval
McNeal, who is still "in the harness" at Watertown and still going strong.
May his shadow never grow thin.
In those days there were two sets of dispatchers at the Oswego office;
one for the Syracuse-Watertown-Rome area, and the other for the "west end" -
from Pulaski to Oswego and on to Suspension Bridge along the shore of Lake
The dispatchers office was always in a state of feverish activity, and
an uninitiated observer would be prone to wonder how order would ever emerge
from such chaos. Here were a dozen clicking telegraph sounders, each
speaking in a different tone and each carrying a different message to the
listening ear beside it. Here sat the dispatcher, clutching at his eye-shade
as he studied the train sheet before him.
Across from him sat the "copier," a telegrapher whose function it was to
copy all train orders as the dispatcher clicked them off. These orders must
be repeated from both stations to which they were sent, and each word and
figure carefully checked by the copier as the repeat came in. This was the
job, next to that of dispatcher, most coveted by every telegrapher on the
In one corner, by a window, sat the chief dispatcher at his desk, busy
with voluminous reports of delays, accidents and train tonnage. At his right
was the door of the Grand Beetler's office. In my time, the division
trainmaster was always known by his title - and the incumbent who figures in
this story always and ever lived up to his title.
This was James G. Halleran, an imposing gent with a red face, a hoarse
voice, and a piercing eye. Every inch a superb railroad man, he ran he
division with an iron hand and an unfailing perspicuity which sometimes
approached the miraculous. Honored and respected by his superiors, he was,
of course, cordially disliked by his inferiors - who were greatly in the
majority! I can readily vouch for his discernment, since he fired me thrice
within a space of two years!
About 7:30 of a stormy evening in December, 1901, i sat at the telegraph
desk in Parish depot and copied some instructions ticked off by dispatcher
"Extra 2321 just leaving Pulaski - coming west - a double-header
snowplow - there's a big drift on tracks between Union Square and Parish -
must be cleared before No. 8 can leave Pulaski - I'll hold 8 there until
plow reports clear at Parish - watch it, now, and report him clear just as
soon as you can - No. 8 will be delayed, but they couldn't get thru that
drift until it's plowed. The extra has orders to take siding at Parish to
let No. 8 by - give me a quick clearance, now."
I gave him my "ok" and waited. If the plow met with no bad obstacles,
she should clear the drift and get into my siding in about an hour; but
Dispatcher Nixon was a nervous guy and he kept asking me every 10 minutes if
there were any signs of 'em.
After the full hour had elapsed, he became still more impatient and kept
the sounder clicking at still shorter intervals.
I went outside and listened. I found the snowfall had started again, but
then I heard the faint snort of a locomotive and saw the west end
switch-light turn red. The plow entered the siding and puffed toward the
office. As the switch-light turned back to white - (that was before they had
begun to use green as a safety signal), I ran into the office and reported
the train "in the clear."
Nixon immediately called Pulaski and gave the waiting passenger train
the signal to go ahead.
In a few moments, the brakeman burst into my office and shouted:
"Hold No. 8 at Pulaski; our pusher engine broke a flange an' she's back
there by Red Mill bridge with two trucks on the ground!"
I reached for my key and gave Nixon the bad news - but the passenger
train was already on her way. She was nearly a half hour late and would be
trying to make up some of the lost time. There were no scheduled stops for
her between Pulaski and Parish, since the two
intermediate stations, Fernwood and Union Square, were closed at night with
no one on duty. A crash seemed imminent, for at this very moment there was
not more than seven or eight miles intervening between the rushing passenger
train and the stalled engine.
Suddenly, I remembered something! The agent at Union Square had an
office student, who was becoming fairly proficient as a telegrapher; and
this man just loved to hang around the close office at night and practice.
Agent Fred Nicholson had given him a door-key so he could get in any time he
wished; and he and I frequently had long talks over the wire.
I ignored the chattering sounder of the dispatcher's wire; cut in on the
Western Union circuit and frantically called "N-N-N." After what seemed like
countless centuries -actually less than a full minute - the circuit opened
and the young squirt at "N" queried:
"What the hell do you want now? I'm just going home!"
My fingers trembled as I spelled out:
"Hold No. 8. Put your red board on 'em. Don't let 'em get by you!"
He didn't get it the first time, nor yet the second; but, finally, he
understood...And he later told me that the oncoming train was less than 300
feet from the station when he flipped the red board down!
Well, that was that. The passenger train was held up at Union Square for
hours until a crane came out of Salina yards and put the crippled engine on
the track. Dispatcher Nixon had complimented me on my quick thinking an
quicker action - and by morning, my head had become twice its normal size
and I basked in a veritable halo of glory - for was I not a hero? The answer
to that question was definitely no - as Trainmaster Halleran explained to me
in harrowing detail the next day.
"In the first place," declaimed The Beetler, "you shouldn't have
reported that plow clear until a member of its crew had so informed you -
don't you ever read the rule-book? In the second place, you tried to play it
smart by not telling the dispatcher about the student at Union Square. In
the third place, you're supposed to know that when a train stops for any
reason, on the main track, a flagman must go back with lantern, torpedoes
and fusees to stop all trains - remaining there until recalled by the engine
(Holy mackeral! I had never thought of that!)
"In the fourth and last place," resumed J.G. H., "quick thinking is a
necessary part of every true railroader's equipment; but he must not only
be quick - he must also be right. You guessed wrong, three times last
night, in as many minutes, and it's only by the mercy of God that a bad
accident was avoided.
"As of now, I am tying a can to you, Bertrande. Go your
too-quick-thinking way in peace, and may the good Lord watch over you. I
think you'll need a lot of it!"
Thus fell one hero from the shaky heights of his self-built pedestal!
Post-Standard, March 27, 1949
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande Snell
There are so many abandoned depots along the old Hojack that seem to
gaze forlornly at the casual passer-by. Most of 'em don't even stare - their
windows are boarded up and their doors are tightly closed. But there they
stand, weather-beaten and dilapidated monuments to an era that has nearly
Too, there are a number of hamlets along the line where the depots have
been torn down and the grass grows where once the semaphore reared its proud
head, and dandelions bloom beneath the spot once occupied by the telegraph
Take Hastings, for instance ...I stood by the tracks just the other day
and surveyed the little, deserted depot, which once looked so big and
bustling to a teen-age rookie like me. As I looked at the shabby old
building, the years rolled backward - some two score of 'em - and I seemed
to see station agent John Benedict standing in the doorway, clad in his
smart blue uniform with the gold buttons, smoking one of Jake Schumacher's
best Parish-made cigars.
Just back of the depot stood the big white house where John and his
family lived for many years and raised a family of children. There was no
other dwelling in the immediate vicinity; Hastings station being about a
mile off the main highway. It was reached by a narrow county road which
crossed the track at the depot and meandered off in a northeasterly
direction to "Never-Never Land."
Brother Benedict used to come over to Parish occasionally on No. 3,
which hesitated at Hastings about 6:50 p.m. He would then have an hour and a
half in which to take in the bright lights before returning home on No. 8,
the last passenger train of the day, which was due at 8:30 p.m. These
excursions were, of course, strictly off-the-record, since the agents at
one-man stations were required to be on duty at all times, until given
"G.N." (good-night) by the train dispatcher.
At this time i was a telegraph student at Parish depot, under the
tutelage of genial Bill Shaver, and I had gotten to the point where I was
allowed to sit in on the dispatcher's wire occasionally. John and I had it
all fixed up that when he made one of his evening excursions to Parish, he'd
give me the proper wire hint that when the train pulled in at Parish I would
report it to the train dispatcher as just left Hastings - three miles west.
This worked fine and dandy for some little time until one night, John
notified me that he'd been on the train - and I prepared to do the usual.
Just as No. 3 pulled up in front of the station, I opened the key and sent
the code report to the train dispatcher in Oswego:
"Os, Os, HG - No. 3 A & D 6:51 p.m." This being translated meant, "On
sheet, on sheet Hastings - No. 3 arrived and departed at 6:51."
When I closed the key the sounder began to chatter again. The dispatcher
was making some sort of a reply! I was unprepared for this, being still
pretty slow on the receiving end of a wire, and not expecting a reply,
anyway. I was alone in the officer at the moment the agent having gone out
to meet the baggage car. I immediately realized that I wasn't getting a
thing the sounder was saying. Panic-stricken, I rushed from the office and
intercepted John just as he was alighting.
"Come here quick," I gasped, "The dispatcher's trying to tell me
something and I can't read a word of it.
John ran to the instrument just as it fell silent, the sender evidently
finished whatever he was saying. Benedict shook his head in disgust, opened
the key and asked for a repeat. After a moment, he smiled and turned to me.
"Did you get it this time?" he asked.
I was forced to admit "Not a word, John: that man Nixon sends too fast
"Well, Bert," relied my friend, "you can stop trembling and wipe that
sweat off your noble brow. All the dispatcher wanted was to let me know that
I could close the joint now and go home for the night. No. 8 is way late out
of Watertown and he says I needn't wait. I'll betcha someday you'll get to
be a two-way operator, even if you are a little one-sided at present. There
are probably worse telegraphers than you somewhere - but I'll be danged if
I can recall any just at the moment."
- And he grinned widely as he patted my shrinking shoulder and went his
This trifling episode happened nearly a half-century ago - in 1901, to
be exact - and I'm glad to note that Mr. Benedict is still extant. He lives
in Syracuse at 206 Slocum Ave., having been retired for a number of years.
- And long may he flutter!
On the old Hojack, when twilight falls
And the moon comes over the hill
When the plaintive note of night bird calls
Thru the mystic evening chill,
There, soft 'neath the glow of the brooding sky
The lonely depots stand,
And as the boxcars thunder by
The shuddering rails demand:
"Click-click - click-clack; Oh, take us back
To the days of long ago;
When the suns were brighter and the loads were lighter
And the hearts of men aglow!
But the weeds have grown on the old door-sill
And the ghosts that lurk inside
Slink thru the gloom of the silent room;
And the echoes, far and wide,
Moan, softly moan, in their grief, alone
From the freight house rafters high
Where the dust and grime of the olden-time
Show black to the watcher's eye,
"Click-clack, click-clack," sing the rusty rails
And the drive wheels spin as the train rolls in
From the mists of yesterday!
Biographical Sketch of Bertrande H. Snell
Bertrande H. Snell, author of the preceding articles, was a telegrapher
all his working life. For many years he was employed by the New York
Central Railroad, and for 33 years was a telegrapher for Western Union in
Syracuse. One of his columns, dated Jan. 30, 1949, outlines his career in a
way only he could write it:
"The first person singular pronoun, is going to come in right handy
during today's blast, because I am minded to discourse to you a little on a
very uninteresting and pallid theme - myself. You see, something happened to
me last week which changes the complexion of many familiar things around and
"A few days ago my Western Union boss called me into his office and
recited a few salient facts of which I was already aware.
'The old Morse code,' he remarked, ' is all shot to hell. In almost no time
at all, we're not going to have any. Our modern system of telegraphy has
given Mister Morse the final coupe de grace; he is now defunct, obsolete,
and completely knocked for a loop. So, arrives now the moment when some of
you oldtimers who have stuck so closely to your key and sounder will have to
go way back and sit down.'
"Then, in a few (but not few enough) well chosen phrases he offered me a
voluntary retirement from the vanishing field of dot-and-dash.
As the solemn tones of John's voice fell upon somewhat deafened ears, the
walls around me seemed to fall away, the speaker's voice faded, the rushing
years tumbled backward - and I stood, once more, a teen-age youth in the
office of the railroad depot at Parish.
"It was in the late winter of 1899. I had graduated from Parish high the
year before; and now I had come to the depot to see genial Bill Shaver, the
station agent, in regard to matriculating as a telegraph student. Bill
grinned widely at my request and freely admitted that he could find room for
"At the time, he already had three students - Roy Nutting, Burnell
Miller and Loyal McNeal - but he was the kind of man who dearly loved to
lead the helping hand. So the next day I started on my careen (I mean
career) as a telegrapher - and now, 50 years later, almost to the day, I
have come to the end of it.
"After graduation from Bill Shaver's "School," I worked on the Hojack
for a few years; but a certain irrepressible restlessness, combined with the
fact that Trainmaster Jimmy Halleran tied a can on me, set me to wandering
from one railroad to another, looking for "something new." From the east to
the west, so far as Wisconsin, and south to the Texas borderline I traveled,
working on no less than 14 different railroads in a span of two years.
"It was a great life, my friends, a wonderful life, but you gotta be
young to fully appreciate it. That's why I'm free to tell you that I'll do
it all over again the very next time Mister Morse and I come back!
"In 1905 I kinda 'settled down' on the Pennsylvania division of the New
York Central, where I spent 12 happy and carefree - if not profitable -
years in and around Williamsport, Pa., and the adjacent county of Lycoming.
Coming to Syracuse in 1917, I threw in with Western Union and here I have
been ever since.
"I have learned to love Syracuse and its people. The passing years have
only served to increase that feeling to the point where it is hard for me to
imagine a better community in which to spend one's days (and nights).
"Thus I sat and dreamed as the Boss finished the details of his gentle
heave-o; and behold! I awoke to find myself a pensionaire. Or, as Bill of
Avon puts it, "A lean and slipper pantaloon." Come to think of it, my good,
old dad had a phrase which carries the idea to its ultimate. He used to say:
'Generally speakin', a man don't know how much until he's 60 - and by
that time, it's too darn late."
But let's not dwell upon that just now; because if the good Lord and you
readers spare me for another two years or so, i intend to come up with a
diatribe on "How It Fells to Be an Unrepentant Failure." So stick around,
folks - the worst is yet to come!
"To say that I am leaving my old organization without regret would be
untrue, but this same regret is thickly studded with the jewels of happy
remembrance. I have tried to make as few enemies as possible; and as for
myself, I hope no slightest thought of enmity or envy toward anyone in
Western Union (Or anywhere else, for that matter.). They're a fine bunch of
boys and girls, all the way from superintendent to caretakers. May they all
live long and happy and flourishing as the evergreen tree in the vale of
Bertrande Snell commenced his column in the Syracuse Post-Standard on
Jan. 13, 1945 and continued it until shortly before his death on June 26,
1949. For years his column was expanded from four to six days a week. The
weekly columns were of a light-hearted nature, making note of birthdays,
anniversaries, etc. His Sunday columns were primarily of a reminiscent or
historical nature, which included railroad stories.
His writing days ended on the morning of June 25, 1949 when he suffered
a stroke at his home at 326 S. Crouse Ave. in Syracuse. At the time he was
striken he was working on his column and a partially typed page was still in
his typewriter when he was taken to the hospital. Also beside the
typewriter were his notes he had written with a soft pencil on news copy
paper. He died on June 27, 1949 at the age of 67.
Mr. Snell was survived by his wife, who he always referred to as "Milady
Helene;" two sons, Harold of Syracuse and Gerald of New Brunswick, N.J.; a
daughter, Mrs. George Booth of New Hartford, N.Y.; three step sons, J.H.
Huff of Toledo, Ohio, Elmer Huff of Syracuse and Dorman Huff of Holland,
Ohio; seven grandchildren nd three great-grandchildren. Following funeral
services Mr. Snell was interred in Pleasant Lawn Cemetery, in his home town
Syracuse Post-Standard, June 28, 1949
Bertrande Will Be Missed
To the Editor of The Post-Standard:
Bertrande is dead. He left us on rather short notice, which was quite
unlike him. Barely a week ago I met him on the street where we chatted for a
few minutes, and he wanted me to go to lunch with him. I was headed for home
for that, so we went into the editorial department at the Post-Standard, and
visited a few minutes longer.
Probably but few of his readers knew his real name. It was Bertrand
Harry Snell. We always called him Bert. Like my own, his early ancestors
probably were among the Palatines who came to this country in 1710. This
name is found in the lists of these people; and I understand that several
Snells, who probably were descendants, have their names inscribed on the
honor roll of the Oriskany monument.
I shall have to confess that although those of my own forebears are also
said to be there. I have never seen this battlefield memorial except in
pictures. I mentioned his apparent ancestry and the Revolutionary War
service to Bert one day some years ago. His gravity and response were
characteristically humorous: "Yes, sir, and they were where the bullets were
the thickest! - biding under the ammunition wagons." But to all accounts
there was no hiding.
Bert and I, still having some difficulty believing that our own
independence had been achieved, carried on the conflict through many long
years of service with the Western Union in this city; fighting life's
battles shoulder to shoulder, and sometimes, in a friendly way, with each
But Bert was always my staunch friend, despite some unimportant points
of philosophic disagreement now and then. He always eventually conceded that
I was right - probably because my superlative obstinacy offered no
When I retired from the telegraph service in 1936 it was Bert who saw to
it that I was presented with a beautiful gold watch suitably inscribed: and
he, himself, made the presentation.
He and I were country boys learning telegraphy about the same time on
the old "Hojack," he at Parish, i believe, and I at Cigarville, now Clay. I
didn't know him then, nor of that fact until I met him some years later. He
had some newspaper experience before coming to Syracuse. He wrote good
verse. Among his poetical compositions, "Ingetrude of Helsingfors," stands
out as a vibrant, heart-throbbing tale of Viking love. The man who could
read it and not want to discover a continent - or another Ingetrude! - is
completely immune to the lure of adventure:
"So deep of chest, so round of thigh,
So flaxen haired, so blue her eye,
She looked - and cravens turned to Thors
For Ingetrude of Helsingfors."
I shall miss him and his writings; his reminiscences of his railroad
days, his "Uncle Noel," and such tales as The Battle of Clapsaddle Pond."
Some of these are in my scrap-books. But I find that I am about five years
older than Bert, and soon.
I too, shall rest with none - and persecuted Dalatine.
Syracuse EDWIN H. YOUNG.
(Editorial) Post-Standard, June 28, 1949
Bertrande H. Snell
Bertrande was a man worth knowing. Quiet and unassuming, with a rare
sense of humor and a deep understanding of human nature, good and bad, he
was a fine companion.
We'll miss him here at The Post-Standard, with which he was associated
for many years indirectly as a Western Union telegrapher ad directly as a
columnist. His work was a columnist began in 1945 and became popular
immediately. But it is a characteristic of him that his work was improving
constantly. His writings had reached a high degree of excellence, but even
so he would never have been satisfied.
Bertrande had built up a wide circle of readers even before he started
his column, "Just Around the Corner," however. He earlier wrote many poems
for the Morning's Mail; they attracted attention because of their rolling
rhythm and pungent expression of thought.
He had a gift not only for expressing his thoughts with poetic and
epigrammatic feeling, but also possessed a keen eye for the unusual, quaint
or bizarre. His columns benefited from these gifts.
He was happy in his field and it is too bad that he was stricken at a
time when he was so firmly established in his field. His death is a serious
loss to us and to those who enjoyed his epigrams, observations and poems so