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Conversations With My Neighbor: Fireman for the New York Central Train History Photos

It has been my opinion for quite a while that my house ought to be a reality TV show. Not far from Goldens Bridge train station, we roommates met via Craigslist. We currently have three people in the house, but in the past have had four. And one dog. Her name is Kaylee, and she weighs almost as much as me. Correction, she weighs nearly what I weighed before I got a job that provided me enough money for my junk food and Coca-cola addiction. The fourth roommate, and there have been two, has always been the smelly one – whether it be from not washing, or from smoking a million packs a day. The first two formed a band that frequently makes noise in our basement, which if you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably heard about. They are also dating off and on. If I had a dollar for every time they broke up and she moved out, only for her to move back in not soon after, I’d be rich. They are currently together, but by the time the next train arrives in Goldens Bridge, who knows…

In a strange coincidence during one of those breakups, the two got into a fight outside. He threw a CD at her, but was off the mark and it flew into the neighbor’s yard. And they forgot about it. Several days later the neighbor shows up, CD in hand, returning what they must have “lost”. In the chatter that followed during this encounter, my roommate discovered that the neighbor once worked for the railroad, back when they still used steam on the Harlem Line. When my roommate told me about it, I knew I had to speak to this man. And so, one afternoon while walking the dog, I spotted him outside on the porch and said hello.


The man on the left is my neighbor, John

My neighbor certainly has an intresting viewpoint in regards to the history of the Harlem line. He witnessed the final years of steam on the line, and the trains that replaced them. He was a Fireman, while that position still existed, anyway. He told me he’d put water in the boiler in the engine in Goldens Bridge that would run to Mahopac, and then on break, would walk to his house, have a sandwich and tend to the plants in his garden. It was one of the many jobs he had over the years, including working in Chatham, Dover Plains, Brewster and Goldens Bridge. Occasional winters were spent working on the Maybrook Line in Danbury and Hopewell Junction. Besides seeing the end of steam, he witnessed the transition from the New York Central to Penn Central, Conrail, and Metro North, until finally retiring in 1991.


The above photos of his are of the Empire State Express no. 999, taken in Chatham in 1952

We always thought we’d lose the passengers. We never thought we’d lose the freight…

John motions to his wife, telling me how she hates how he always says this. It is hard for him to understand the state of matters today, shipping everything by truck. Trains were so much more efficient, he says. Watching the news every morning, the traffic reports show cameras of the traffic on every bridge going into the city, with traffic backed up for miles… and plenty of box trucks in wait. He muses about how everything has changed. Everything today is technology based…

“It was boring…” he said of being an engineer today. He turns to look at me with his weathered face, but his light blue eyes are still bright. He tells me that having good eyes was essential for working on the railroad. When starting out he had to undergo various vision tests, to have the vision to see a signal light from a mile away. To see in fog, and to see through your peripheral vision. It baffled him to see people working for Metro North, people that wore glasses. Because now, you didn’t need to see signals outside, everything was in the cab. Having perfect vision isn’t a necessity as it once was. Although hiring a more diverse workforce, in both gender and color, was a new thing, seeing the people wearing glasses seemed like it was harder to get used to for him.

He refers to himself as an “old timer” and says that most of the people he worked with weren’t really interested in his stories. I think he finds it amusing that someone is so interested in them, especially a young female. But that is hardly the first time I’ve heard that before. Some of the things he told me were not stories in their entirety, but quick smatterings of thoughts and memories. Comparing distractions of cell phones today, to people he recalled watching baseball games on portable televisions long ago. People that would throw rocks and bottles at the train, and how he once got a “face full of glass” – an event he didn’t care much to elaborate on. Stories he heard from the “old timers” of his day, of bootleggers during prohibition, and people that smuggled out Canadian ale on the trains. And when I asked about uniforms, he told me of others on cleaner trains that wore suits to work, suits with inner pockets where flasks could be hidden.


More photos from my neighbor’s collection

For 43 years my neighbor worked for the railroad, though he mentioned another family member that had a record, close to 50 years of service to the rail. His daughter and son both work for Metro North, in North White Plains, and over on the Hudson Line. Despite living next door, I don’t see the man much. He spends part of his time at a house upstate, and when he happens to be in Goldens Bridge, he often sits outside, on the porch hidden by bushes. But every time I walk by, mostly on the way to or from the train station, I look over to see if he is hidden behind those plants. Because even though our conversations have been few, they’ve always been most interesting.

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Comments
  • Al Cyone:

    Thanks for a great story, well-told. Though I can’t help but wonder how long you lived next door to a man with whom you shared this interest without ever speaking with him. I suspect he wouldn’t mind if you stopped by with a cold six-pack on one of these hot days.

  • Very interesting Emily. See if you could find out what his children's name are. I like "oldtimers" stories too.

  • Chuck:

    Can you divulge his name? He was probably there before I was, but I may remember him.