One of the greatest things about this job is having people with knowledge just up and supply it. Ask a question in this space, and somebody out there has answers and is kind enough to share them with us. I get to pass them on and call it writing my column.
Howie typed this in a beautiful two-pager that came in the mail:
I got caught up in your comments about the old Pennsylvania Railroad section gangs because my father was a part of one of them. I suppose I could submit this but I’m giving it to you so that you can add to it.
I believe that each section was about ten miles long. I base that on the fact that each section had a track walker and that was my father’s last position. His route was from Port Allegany to Larrabee, but I don’t really know where Port Allegany began.
If my memory isn’t too clouded by some Maryland Rye I think the foreman for the Liberty to Port was George Botera. I remember the Port foremen as Fred Rassman and later Ernest Peterson—Richie’s father.
I am sorry I can’t remember all the Port crew but they included John Carlson, Rhinhart Johnson, Ernest Winterquist, Fred Gustafson and a couple of others (probably Swedes!).
These men were responsible for the maintenance of their “section” of the railroad. The track walker actually walked the track every day. He carried a couple of rail spikes, a spiking maul, an iron open end wrench about 18 inches long and a few large nuts and bolts.
These last were used to bolt the plates that held the rail together. If it was a minor problem the walker could put in a new bolt or drive in a new spike. More serious problems such as replacing rail or a cross tie was left to the crew. This intensive maintenance allowed the trains to travel at high speeds with the confidence that the track was in good condition. Since there were lots of trains and the only time repairs could be made was between trains, these gangs had to be fast and efficient.
One of the duties of the crew was keeping the switches open. Switches were the devices that allowed sections or cars of the trains to be removed from the main line to a different track or “siding.” A siding is a short section of track where cars are placed that contain merchandise slated for a particular customer. One has recently been installed at Two Mile to handle machinery and equipment related to the new drilling industry.
These switches had a habit of freezing in the cold months and I remember many times when Dad had to go out in the middle of the night to clean the switches. At that time everything came by rail and there were switches for the Pierce Bottle Plant, The American Extract, The Railway Express and the Tannery, so there was lots of work.
When you consider that the track walker actually walked about 20 miles every day you can believe that it took a strong man to do it. Most of these men were former woodsmen and were used to brutal labor.
I remember the man who replaced my father when he was no longer able to work. He lived in Turtlepoint and his name was Phillipe Italliano. By the time Phillipe was replaced the system had become motorized and the crew and track walker traveled in a pickup modified to travel on rails.
I recall a tool shed that was located beside the tracks about where the Route 6 bridge spans the tracks. It was beside Fred Rassman’s house. Some place around here I have a picture of that gang and if I ever find it I’ll give it to you.
I knew all these men and am surprised that I remember so many! If I remember anything else I’ll let you know.
Now I am thinking that my dad must have known some of those men. When he was a very young man he worked on the section a while. I remember a cap he had that came from those days, and a particular set of overalls my parents called railroad clothes. There were a lantern and a dinner bucket that were associated with that work, too.
There are others with some of these memories, so I’ll watch and listen for their input. Meanwhile I am grateful to my good colleague for his. He never ceases to amaze.
While surfing for spellings of Larrabee I came across this mention in a wonderful old history: “Larrabee post-office (usually spelled Larabee) was established in August, 1852, and Ransome Larrabee appointed master. The settlement became a place of importance in the fall of 1874, when the railroad builders gathered around the junction of the McKean & Buffalo, with the Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia and the R. N. & P…”
The book is “History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, and Forest, Pennsylvania,” by M.A. Leeson, J.H. Beers & Company.
To a couple of other readers: I loved the input about how police were dispatched back in the day, and how mercy was granted to a woodchuck, deserved or not—but I have to defer sharing those until another column. Meanwhile, as little Oliver said, “Please…may I have some more?”