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Railroading switching station closed

November 22, 2000

Railroading switching station closed



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photos: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Switching towerHEDGESVILLE, W.Va. - A way of railroad life quietly slipped into the history books here Tuesday.

Although no one is sure when it was built, railroad workers believe a tiny wooden tower along the CSX tracks near the General Motors plant may have been used to direct train traffic since 1900.

Inside, railroad workers used 64 levers to control signals and switches for trains as they rolled in and out of Martinsburg.

Switching stationAs the trains passed, workers visually inspected the trains through the windows in the top of the tower to make sure they were not experiencing any mechanical problems.

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Nothing was wrong with the setup, and the tower was still being used to switch trains up until last Friday.

But CSX has found an easier way to control train traffic through use of radio signals. From the corporation's headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla., CSX can now control switches anywhere in its rail system, said Dick Campbell, the last person to control the West Cumbo tower.

Switching stationWest Cumbo switched its last train last Friday. On Tuesday afternoon, CSX crews took out the radio which workers used to communicate with engineers.

Campbell guided the tower's last freight train through at 3 p.m.

The bearded tower operator opened the window and waved his hand down a couple times to the approaching CSX train.

The engineer responded with a couple of toots.

"It's sort of sad," said Campbell, who has put in 34 years with CSX. "Technology is slowly doing away with us. You think back to what all happened here," he said.

There is plenty to recount.

The closing of the West Cumbo tower also served as a reunion of sorts for telegraph operators who worked there. Telegraph operators used to use Morse code to communicate with other railroad workers.

About five telegraph operators showed up at the West Cumbo tower Tuesday to talk with Campbell and trade war stories.

They talked about the slickest telegraph operators, the ones who could pull a busy shift controlling the switching operation and never get a spot on their neatly pressed clothes. Or the ones who couldn't do the job.

Those telegraph operators didn't last long because one bad flip of a switch could lead to a collision, the telegraph operators said.

They recalled a head-on collision between two trains in 1957 near West Cumbo tower that left three dead.

Telegraph operator Melvin Butts recalled a dreary, rainy evening in September 1954, when he was working at West Cumbo. A freight train weighed down with a large load of coal began approaching the tower when Butts heard an awful noise. The ground began to shake.

About 50 cars full of coal had derailed, and spilled their load as they passed the tower.

"I thought that sucker was going to come through here," said Butts, of Martinsburg.

In the 1950s and 1960s, much of the train traffic being controlled by the West Cumbo tower was hauling coal out of the southern West Virginia coalfields, said R.C. Long, another telegraph operator.

Railroad companies like the Baltimore and Ohio, Chessie and CSX hauled the coal from the coalfields into Martinsburg. Telegraph operators in the West Cumbo tower would switch the trains into several nearby railroad yards.

The coal cars would be disconnected and hooked up to other trains from the Reading, East Rutherford and other train companies, which would haul the coal to points throughout the East, Long said.

"It was a big interchange," Long said.

There were numerous switching towers along the country's railroad system and telegraph operators gathered at West Cumbo rattled-off names of ones that have been shut down. The Miller Tower just west of West Cumbo was shut down in September, but one remains in Hancock, Md., and one near the train station in Martinsburg, operators said.

The building from the Miller Tower and the controls from inside the West Cumbo tower will be saved to make a complete replica of a switching tower that will be used as part of the renovation of the B&O Roundhouse in Martinsburg, said retired CSX worker Jim Ricard.

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