Life on the rails

Retired Western Maryland Railway workers recall heyday

Retired Western Maryland Railway workers recall heyday

September 03, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

They work on the railroad no more.

And they certainly weren't just working to pass the time away, as the song goes.

There are still signs of Hagerstown's railroad heritage, like the Hagerstown Police headquarters that still looks like the train station it used to be.

But decades ago, when the now razed Hagerstown Roundhouse complex was bustling with activity and automobiles backed up for blocks as trains went down what is now Burhans Boulevard, it was more obvious why Hagerstown is called the Hub City.

During the 1940s through 1960s, many railroad workers lived in Hagerstown's West End, close to work, several retired Western Maryland Railway workers recalled recently.


The blue-collar work was dangerous, and the office work required alertness as the yard office clerk checked to make sure train cars were in their proper order.

A boxcar loaded with explosives had to be at least 15 cars from the locomotive and a tank car couldn't be next to cars carrying lumber in case the lumber were to slide off and hit the tank car, said retired yard office clerk Thelma Brewer, 79, of Hagerstown.

"I've always said working for the railroad was like working for the family. Everyone seemed to get along well, and you had to work together because one job depended on the other," said Brewer, whose sister also worked for the railroad.

A.D. Powell Jr., 83, of Hagerstown, followed his father, a locomotive fireman, into the business.

Powell started as a machinist apprentice in Hagerstown in 1942. Like many railroad workers, he had a break in his career to serve his country during World War II.

As a machinist, Powell often found himself standing atop a locomotive grinding metal in a throttle valve or whistle base to seal leaks or in one of the roundhouse's pits, underneath a locomotive, doing repairs.

Several men, not Powell, got knocked off the top of locomotives by cranes carrying equipment overhead, said Bill Dieterich, 82, who lives off Dual Highway.

"If you didn't keep your wits about you in those busy backshops, things happened," said Dieterich, who made 48 cents an hour as an apprentice machinist in 1942. After six months, he got a raise to 52 cents an hour.

After returning from sailing the open seas with the U.S. Navy, Dieterich worked for the railroad for about six months more before deciding the confinement of the railroad shop wasn't for him.

"It was hard, back-breaking work. Those steam engines were big, heavy pieces of equipment and it took a lot of heavy tools and all to work on them. ... It was hard, heavy, dangerous work, really," Dieterich said.

The backshops near the roundhouse were smoky, hot, dirty places, especially in the summer, because there was no air conditioning, Dieterich said.

Brewer said there was no air conditioning in the yard office either, so bugs often flew through the open windows.

With a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation, she worked eight hours a day, every day.

Retired conductor J.R. Leight of Chambersburg, Pa., remembered getting called to work at 1 a.m. to take a train to Baltimore or Cumberland, Md.

"You went, didn't matter if it was snowing or blowing or what was going on," said Leight, 86.

For workers within a mile of work and without a phone, a callboy came out either on foot or on bicycle to get him.

John F. Hamburg, 85, of Hagerstown, liked the irregular hours and the beautiful scenery and wildlife he'd see from moving trains.

Hamburg grew up during the Depression. "In those days, in Hagerstown at least, railroading was probably the most well-paid job," he said.

Unfortunately, working for the railroad also often meant being furloughed. Usually it was in the summer when the demand for coal, used to heat homes, dipped, he said. Hamburg worked for Brandt Cabinet Works during those times.

"I never hated a job as much in my life as I did that job," Hamburg said. The cabinet company was beside the tracks so he had a constant reminder that railroaders were making $35 a week while he was earning $15 to $18 a week.

Workers on the trains, like Hamburg, had their own adventures.

Hamburg recalls the front wheels being derailed west of Hancock when the train hit rocks on the track.

Another train - he wasn't on it - derailed during a rock slide on the way to Cumberland and the locomotive ended up in the C&O Canal. It took at least a week for a big crane to get the locomotive out of the canal and for the tracks to be fixed, Hamburg said.

Leight, who worked on Chambersburg tracks before being transferred to Hagerstown in January 1941, worked as a brakeman, flagman and conductor.

As flagman, his duties included protecting a stopped train from being hit by another train.

Far behind the stopped train, he would place devices on the track that would emit a "bang" when hit by another train, signaling the conductor to stop immediately.

Despite occasional hardships, Leight enjoyed his more than 41 years with the railroad.

"I liked it or I wouldn't have stayed. I always found it fascinating," he said.

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