Rensselaer Reminiscences - Wallace C. Rudd '33

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In 1929, I rode the New York Central from Yonkers to Troy, NY to start my career as an electrical engineer. I was enrolled as a freshman at RPI after attending a technical high school because of my interest in machinery and electricity.

When I got off the train in Troy, I realized that it was a railroad center with many of the tracks running in the streets of the city. The New York Central, Boston & Albany, Delaware & Hudson, Rutland, and Boston & Maine Railroads all came together in a large plaza opposite the station, which was directly at the foot of a large hill on the top of which was RPI. Hundreds of stone steps led down from the college and ended just a few feet from the railroad tracks.

Even though I was to be an electrical engineer, I had great interest in mechanical things, and several years previously had even made an operating vertical steam engine in my high school machine shop. So, seeing the railroad area with numerous steam locomotives standing around me resolve to spend time there as soon as I could. The Sunday afternoon after being settled in the dormitories, I went down the steps to the station and there began a unique friendship and experience.

On a side track directly in front of the station was a lone NYC locomotive, 4-6-2 Pacific type. The engineer in overalls was greasing the big end of the connecting rods by inserting a stick of what looked like soap into a hole and then screwing a plug down on the stick, forcing the grease into the bearing. I watched him for a while without any comment from either of us. When he finished, he climbed up in the cab and sat in the engineer's seat eating a sandwich. I sashayed around on my tip-toes trying to get a view of the inside of the cab and finally got up enough nerve to get on the bottom step with my head just above the foot plate (the station platform was at track level). He saw me and motioned for me to come up into the cab - Seventh Heaven! It was about 4 pm and shortly the fireman came above and started working on the fire. Still, there was no conversation - I just looked and absorbed it through my pores - tubes, levers, gauges, and two foot-pedal air-operated fire doors side by side.

About 4:20 pm, a Delaware & Hudson engine came roaring in, going toward New York with the Laurentian (the Montreal-New York daytime express). The D&H engine was uncoupled and took off down the main line into a side track from which it would return to Montreal on another train later. In the meantime my engineer prepared to move the engine, and I started to get off. He stopped me and for the first time spoke: "Stay on, we'll give you a little ride." The bell was turned on, the valves moved to forward, and he opened the throttle after checking with the fireman that the left side was clear. We stopped several feet at a track signal just before we crossed Broadway, a heavily traveled street.

When the signal changed, we proceeded across Broadway, down to the police station, and went through switches, which were set by a signal tower, bringing us onto the main line. Then we backed up onto the Laurentian. Promptly, at 4:40 pm, he said I was to get off, and he left on his run of 110 miles to Harmon, NY, where his steam locomotive was replaced with an electric engine to pull the train into Grand Central Station in New York City.

Needless to say, the next day (Monday), I ran out of school and down the hundreds of steps at 4:02 pm, on the dot and got aboard for the short ride to the police station and back to the head of the train which was just even with Broadway.

During this run, we had a little conversation, and I found out his name was Leo and they left Harmon with the up Laurentian at about 10:40 am and arrived in Troy at 1:02 pm. They held over in Troy doing maintenance, picking up express cars for New York, and on occasion, getting coal and water. They then left at 4:40 on the down Laurentian and turned the engine over to a hostler in the Harmon shops in the evening. They worked two days and were off one.

During the layover period, the engine was turned around by using the wye in the streets, which involved quite a bit of switching. After this, if work on the engine was not necessary, the engineer and fireman would sleep on benches in the tunnel underneath the tracks that connected the station with the various platforms.

From that point on, I was aboard whenever I could be. On Saturday and Sunday, if Leo was on the run, I would be waiting at 4:20 and get aboard for the ride and switching to turn the engine around. On the wye at one point, we just put the nose of the engine on the Green Island bridge over the Hudson River. Leo and I became friends even though there was not a lot of conversation. He did not have a steady fireman so the fireman changed quite often. Even so, I got along with them, and they did not seem to object to my presence. Much of the handling in the city after the main run was normally done by the fireman and Leo just rode along without comment.

Whenever Leo was not in the engineer's set, I was there, trying to understand the myriad of valves on the boiler backhead as well as the pressure gauges and Loco Valve Pilot (trip valve position versus speed recorder). Finally, Leo recognized my serious interest and started to teach me about the various parts. We followed piping and lines, and even crawled under the engine and tender to see where things were. During this period Leo kept telling me that I would not learn anything from books and courses at RPI but only from practical experience. Luckily, I did not argue with him but today know both were necessary for a successful engineering career.

At this time on the New York Central, an engineer did not have a special engine assigned to him as on some railroads. He was given many engines, most of which were filthy because you never knew whether you were going to get the same engine on the next run, so why clean it. All the engines were in the 3000 to 4000 series and most we had were 3300 and 3400. Some had boosters (auxiliary engine on the rear two wheels for an assist in starting a heavy train) and some not. All were built in the 1912 to 1915 period, I believe. Typical total weight of engine and tender was 200 tons.

As some form of compensation for the teaching, I started to do cleaning and minor maintenance on the engines, washing windows, sweeping the footplate, oiling the bell, etc. and when no one was around, running the engineer's injector (filling the boiler with water). After some of this testing, Leo would come aboard and glance at the water level glass and have a double take. He would then look at me and the injector controls and kind of shake his head. He never said anything about it, however, even though I had raised the boiler water level way beyond normal.

Then on day I was in the engineer's seat, and the fireman came aboard and checked his fire. The D&H Laurentian engine came roaring in, and Leo started to climb the left (fireman's) steps. He got his head above the footplate, and I started to get out of his seat. He motioned and said, "Stay there. Take her down to the south end of the station and stop at the jack."

I nearly went through the floor, turned on the air to the bell, cranked her into forward, and notched open the throttle for a few seconds. I was shaking like a leaf. I closed the throttle and she started to creep (the cylinders were hot). Then I opened the throttle a little again and finally made the 200 feet to the end of the platform using the tender brake to stop. In a cold sweat I started to get out of the seat again and he said, "Stay there, take her down to police station. When the jack changes, I'll take her from there". I did and made it without blowing a cylinder head. I was soaked with sweat! He took over and backed up the train and took off as usual.

Back the next day and did it again. All was well with the world even though my college work wasn't going that well (too much locomotives). I had been spending time in the library learning about valve gears, Westinghouse air brakes, etc. even though part of the time I was taking a prescribed course in steam engines at RPI.

After this had gone on for a few weeks, Leo allowed me to back up, and finally couple to the Laurentian. Then it went further. On Saturday and Sunday, I would take over at 4:02 pm when they came in and did all the handling around the wye, and sometimes pick up a fast freight car that was to go on the head end of the Laurentian for the New York run. During this, we had to cross many main streets with crossing gates dropping into position holding up traffic. On one of them, River Street, we would have to sit in the middle of the road with all traffic stopped and wait for a signal and switch to change. You should have heard the horn blowing; eveyone was made at me.

By this time I was known to the Laurentian train crew (conductor, brakeman, etc.), the tower men doing the switching, and the station personnel. Shortly, I started doing the 4:30 final run and coupling all by myself. Leo and his fireman would only show up when the train was about to leave. During this period, classmates would be out of school and crossing Broadway while I was handling at 4:35. On seeing them, I would give a small toot on the whistle which was against regulations in the city, and Leo would bawl me out, of course. This brought questions on "How about a ride?" I played it very carefully and only a few got aboard, always with the admonition that they do exactly what Leo said and if he said black was white, they would agree with him (my first attempt at diplomacy).

Sometimes on Thursday, I could get out of school early and would beat it for the engine if Leo was on. The Boston & Main brought in a fresh fish refrigerator car and parked it in front of the our engine. It had to be coupled to the rear of our tender so this involved a train order from the agent and the switching the locomotive onto other tracks and backing onto the fish car. This I usually did alone and in many cases the train order was handed to me, not Leo. To this day, I never will understand the total complicity of all these men in rule violations which could have had serious repercussions from job loss to criminal charges.

Once while doing this, I tried something I always wanted to do. While going forward at about 15 miles an hour, what would happen if I cranked the valve gear (these engines had a screw reverser which activated the Walschaert gear by air) into reverse and opened the throttle? When I did it, the side rods made such a clatter, it scared me to death and I closed the throttle immediately. No damage and I never did it again.

Another time Leo was teaching me about draft inthe firebox (created by exhaust steam and the steam jet blower). We were drifting through the station at about 10 miles an hour. He had me open one of the two fire doors and put a block between and then close it, leaving a narrow slot to look through. He asked me to watch what happened to a shovel of coal as it entered through the other fire door. Of course, he had cooked up a deal with the fireman so he had a shovelful of fine coal (no big chunks). The fireman tossed the coal in through the other door just after Leo opened the throttle nearly full for a second or two. The blast of exhaust steam created so much draft that the fire lifted in places and the shovel of coal never hit the fire but arched down and then went down the flues and ended up in the smokebox. Boy! Some draft!

Once in a great while, we would take the engine down into south Troy to a water tower and get water. This meant going through the streets slowly and operating manual switches until we got to an old round building where there was engine water. I did the handling but Leo was right alongside me just in case. The fireman did the switch throwing.

One Saturday we had to go down the main line about 10 miles to Rensselaer where there was a roundhouse and coal tower. Lo and behold, the road foreman of engines showed up and went with us. Obviously, I did not handle but rode the whole operation right next to Leo with no objections from the Boss. I was thrilled to death to be on the main line at fairly high speed with the light engine rocking and rolling. We filled the tender with coal and returned. Several years later, my first job after getting a degree in electrical engineering was to be a drawbridge operator over the Hudson River right next to this roundhouse.

Then came near disaster! I was handling without Leo or the fireman and was backing onto the Laurentian on the main line at 4:30 pm. It was December and quite dark. The backing signals were being given by a car knocker at the head of the Laurentian on Broadway using a lantern. The lantern was going in the usual rotary pattern for backing with me leaning out the right side window, hand on the throttle. I was moving about five miles per hour and was approaching the cross street, Broadway. Close up, you could see very little either forward or backward from the engineer's seat. There was always a crossing guard who held up a sign when the train was coming, to stop traffic, so I never had been required to stop before when coupling to the train in all the times I had done this maneuver.

Suddenly the lantern signal changed from rotary to a cross swing which meant stop! I guess I was in a fog and didn't recognize it and did nothing, and then it became an irritated cross swing. I thought he felt I was going too slow so opened the throttle a little and the engine barked. The lantern disappeared, and I came to my senses, closed the throttle, threw on the engine tender brake, and she stopped with a screech. There was shouting and then Leo and the fireman climbed aboard. Leo looked at me with disgust. It seems a mail truck had been let through as I was backing and had stalled on the track. The car knocker and crossing guard had realized I wasn't going to stop, and they pushed it out of the way, saving me from disgrace, and everyone else from serious trouble.

Leo bawled me out and told me to stay home for a month and study the signal book and after that I could handle again. I did as I was told and came back chagrined but was allowed to handle, doing so till Leo retired some time later. I tried to work the same deal with the following engineer, but didn't make it. He wanted no part of it, and I don't blame him. He wouldn't even let me on the locomotive.

Looking in retrospect, Leo was near retirement and risked the loss of his job or other punishment for breaking the rules. My thanks to Leo for his generosity to a wet-behind-the-ears 18-year-old. I tried to trace him years later to really thank him, but never could find him, even to checking the retirement records of the New York Central Railroad.