Stories by "Bertrande"
from the
Syracuse (N. Y.) Post Standard

One railroad lore enthusiast, Richard Palmer, sent a series of entertaining articles which were found in the Syracuse Post Standard. These articles appeared in the Post Standard under a column entitled, "Just Around the Corner" and were written by Bertrande Snell. An index of publication dates appears below. Before we start Bertrande's stories, allow me to present the biographical sketch for Bertrande, as presented by the Post-Standard. Two additional pieces which appeared in that newspaper after his death appear in the Index under the date, June 28, 1949. (by sitehost)

Biographical Sketch of Bertrand H. Snell

Bertrande H. Snell, author of the following articles, was a telegrapher all his working life. For many years he was employed by the New York Central Railroad, and for 33 years was a telegrapher for Western Union in Syracuse. One of his columns, dated Jan. 30, 1949, outlines his career in a way only he could write it:

"The first person singular pronoun, is going to come in right handy during today's blast, because I am minded to discourse to you a little on a very uninteresting and pallid theme - myself. You see, something happened to me last week which changes the complexion of many familiar things around and about me.

"A few days ago my Western Union boss called me into his office and recited a few salient facts of which I was already aware.

'The old Morse code,' he remarked, ' is all shot to hell. In almost no time at all, we're not going to have any. Our modern system of telegraphy has given Mister Morse the final coupe de grace; he is now defunct, obsolete, and completely knocked for a loop. So, arrives now the moment when some of you oldtimers who have stuck so closely to your key and sounder will have to go way back and sit down.'

"Then, in a few (but not few enough) well chosen phrases he offered me a voluntary retirement from the vanishing field of dot-and-dash. As the solemn tones of John's voice fell upon somewhat deafened ears, the walls around me seemed to fall away, the speaker's voice faded, the rushing years tumbled backward - and I stood, once more, a teen-age youth in the office of the railroad depot at Parish.

"It was in the late winter of 1899. I had graduated from Parish High the year before; and now I had come to the depot to see genial Bill Shaver, the station agent, in regard to matriculating as a telegraph student. Bill grinned widely at my request and freely admitted that he could find room for one more.

"At the time, he already had three students - Roy Nutting, Burnell Miller and Loyal McNeal - but he was the kind of man who dearly loved to lead the helping hand. So the next day I started on my careen (I mean career) as a telegrapher - and now, 50 years later, almost to the day, I have come to the end of it.

"After graduation from Bill Shaver's "School," I worked on the Hojack for a few years; but a certain irrepressible restlessness, combined with the fact that Trainmaster Jimmy Halleran tied a can on me, set me to wandering from one railroad to another, looking for "something new." From the east to the west, so far as Wisconsin, and south to the Texas borderline I traveled, working on no less than 14 different railroads in a span of two years.

"It was a great life, my friends, a wonderful life, but you gotta be young to fully appreciate it. That's why I'm free to tell you that I'll do it all over again the very next time Mister Morse and I come back!

"In 1905 I kinda 'settled down' on the Pennsylvania division of the New York Central, where I spent 12 happy and carefree - if not profitable - years in and around Williamsport, Pa., and the adjacent county of Lycoming. Coming to Syracuse in 1917, I threw in with Western Union and here I have been ever since.

"I have learned to love Syracuse and its people. The passing years have only served to increase that feeling to the point where it is hard for me to imagine a better community in which to spend one's days (and nights).

"Thus I sat and dreamed as the Boss finished the details of his gentle heave-o; and behold! I awoke to find myself a pensionaire. Or, as Bill of Avon puts it, "A lean and slipper pantaloon." Come to think of it, my good, old dad had a phrase which carries the idea to its ultimate. He used to say: ‘Generally speakin', a man don't know how much until he's 60 - and by that time, it's too darn late.’ “

“But let's not dwell upon that just now; because if the good Lord and you readers spare me for another two years or so, I intend to come up with a diatribe on "How It Fells to Be an Unrepentant Failure." So stick around, folks - the worst is yet to come!

"To say that I am leaving my old organization without regret would be untrue, but this same regret is thickly studded with the jewels of happy remembrance. I have tried to make as few enemies as possible; and as for myself, I hope no slightest thought of enmity or envy toward anyone in Western Union (Or anywhere else, for that matter.). They're a fine bunch of boys and girls, all the way from superintendent to caretakers. May they all live long and happy and flourishing as the evergreen tree in the vale of happiness."

Bertrande Snell commenced his column in the Syracuse Post-Standard on Jan. 13, 1945 and continued it until shortly before his death on June 26, 1949. For years his column was expanded from four to six days a week. The weekly columns were of a light-hearted nature, making note of birthdays, anniversaries, etc. His Sunday columns were primarily of a reminiscent or historical nature, which included railroad stories.

His writing days ended on the morning of June 25, 1949 when he suffered a stroke at his home at 326 S. Crouse Ave. in Syracuse. At the time he was stricken he was working on his column and a partially typed page was still in his typewriter when he was taken to the hospital. Also beside the typewriter were his notes he had written with a soft pencil on news copy paper. He died on June 27, 1949 at the age of 67.

Mr. Snell was survived by his wife, who he always referred to as "Milady Helene," two sons, Harold of Syracuse and Gerald of New Brunswick, N.J.; a daughter, Mrs. George Booth of New Hartford, N.Y.; three step sons, J. H. Huff of Toledo, Ohio, Elmer Huff of Syracuse and Dorman Huff of Holland, Ohio; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Following funeral services Mr. Snell was interred in Pleasant Lawn Cemetery, in his home town of Parish.

Date Published

Date Published

Sept. 23, 1945

April 13, 1947

Nov. 18, 1945

Aug. 17, 1947

Jan. 27, 1946

Aug. 31, 1947

Feb. 17, 1946

Oct. 12, 1947

March 10, 1946

Nov. 16, 1947

May 9, 1946

Jan. 25, 1948

July 7, 1946

Aug. 29, 1948

July 21, 1946

Nov. 14, 1948

Jan. 26, 1947

Dec. 5, 1948

March 9, 1947

Jan. 16,1949

March 16, 1947

Feb. 6, 1949

March 23, 1947

May 1, 1949


June 28, 1949

The Bertrande Snell Stories

Post-Standard, September 23, 1945
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Not so many years ago, the village depot was a kind of general meeting place, where citizens in all walks of life were prone to meet informally and often to discuss the pros and cons of this and that, while waiting for the evening train from the city. There was always a continuous flow of light, or heavy, sarcasm thrown in the general direction of the station agent, who, generally, richly deserved it and always had more or less an adequate answer.

Yes, sir, it was always a jovial and carefree crowd that watched No. 3 come in, each evening. After the train's departure, the agent always hied himself homeward, leaving the premises to the tender care of the night operator. All he had to do was hang around from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. - or whatever time the usually fat and always blowsy agent considered near enough - sweep the floor, trim the lamps, copy train orders and telegrams off the Morse wires, and, hardest of all, keep away - at which last task he was seldom successful.

It was, of course, one of these night men who first saw and reported the "White Flyer" - a legend on the old R W & O railroad--which more or less serves the village north of Syracuse to Watertown and points north and east. This branch of the NYC has from time immemorial, been known as the "Hojack." The origin of this title seems to be lost in the mists of antiquity, which mists will be in some future article, endeavored to pierce - but that will be another story.

To return to the "White Flyer:"

In the lonely watches of the night, as the presumably wide awake telegrapher kept his lonely vigil at the key, he would, betimes, hear a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and peering fearfully through the window, he would see the White Flyer - ghostly engineer at the throttle and fireman with his hand on the bellrope - tearing swiftly through the night. It was never my good, or ill, fortune to see this phantasmagorum, but I have the (almost) unimpeachable evidence of many old-time Hojackers who did.

There was George Murphy, now retired and dwelling in Phoenix, who counted the caches on the ghost train, as it swept through Parish. He made the number six, but Frank Hayner at Mallory claimed there were but five that night. You don't suppose, do you, that they might have stopped at Hastings and switched one?

George Rowe relates that he saw the White Flyer pulling in to Central Square about 3 a.m. one dark, misty night. He grabbed a red lantern and ran out on the tracks to flag it. George says he caught his foot on the outside rail and fell flat, directly in the path of the on-rushing train, which passed over his prostrate body, doing him not the slightest harm. He admits, however, that he was considerably peeved!

Many old railroaders, readers of The Post-Standard, will recall trainmaster Jimmy Halleran, located at Oswego for many years. Noted for many things other than just railroad, was Jimmy. How many will remember the circular of instructions which emanated from Jimmy's office on the completion of the double track line between Pulaski and Richland? Some office wag had inserted the following paragraph:

Trains - approaching each other on double track, will come to a full
stop and will not proceed until each has passed the other.

Another time, during a terrific storm, the bridge at Red Creek went out and all traffic was at a standstill beyond that point. Jimmy hurried to the scene, with his master mechanic and crew. From division headquarters at Watertown, came a bevy of engineers and craftsmen to speed to speed the work of construction.

Anon, comes a message from the superintendent's office:

J. G. H.
Red Creek, N.Y.

Advise if engineers have completed drawings and when construction will start. D. C. M.

And back, over the vibrant wires, goes this immediate reply:

D. C. M.

Don't know, if the pictures are done, but the bridge is up and the trains running.

J. G. H.


One time, a few of "us boys" got together and drew up a set of "rules" for the government and railroad telegraphers. Time has proven to most of us that we might have been better employed, but I venture to give you a discreet number of these rules, as first authorized by a committee, consisting of such old timers as Roy Nutting, Loyal McNeill, Earle Benson, this chronicler, and many others:

The Rum, Waterburg & Ogdenstown R. R.

Rules Governing Telegraph Operators

I - J. H. G. is the Whole Push.

II - Train Detainers report to the Chief Train Detainer and will also, be governed by the rules of the Bartenders' Union.

III - Telegraph Operators report to the Chief Train Detainer, and will also receive instructions from anyone who thinks he has any authority, including the Section boss.

IV - Operators will receive sufficient salary to enable them to purchase uniforms and chewing tobacco. If they have families - "The Lord will provide."

V - The Operators' summer uniform shall consist of a dirty shirt and a straw hat. The winter uniform will be the same as above, with the addition of a rawhide cord, wound nine times around the body and terminating in a leather badge, bearing the inscription, "I AM IT." This must never be removed, except at the wearer's funeral.

VI - Any operator who is observed on duty under the influence of intoxicants will be asked to explain why he did not whack up with the boss. If no satisfactory explanation be forthcoming, enough money will be deducted from his salary to treat the crowd.

VII - Any operator who has been dismissed from the service will not be again dismissed unless, and until, he has been re-employed.

VIII - If you faithfully observe the above rules, you will deserve all you get.


Just a fleeting memory of an old-time Syracusan who also was prominent along the Hojack 40 years ago:

Louis Windholtz owned and operated a canning factory at Parish for many years. He was a kindly man, with a keen sense of humor as the subjoined trifle will show. I was a "student: at the Parish station, learning (I hoped) to be a telegrapher. I was alone in the office one day, Agent Shaver having gone to the village for a short time. Mr. Windholtz came in and inquired about something, the details of which I do not recall. Blown up with pride at being in charge of the office for even so brief a period, I gave him the kind of answer which was known, in those times, as 'fresh.’ Louis eyed me for a long moment; his eyes twinkled and he said: "Ach so! Venn ve sveep der floor, ve run der railroadt, 'nicht wahr."

The Days of Old, the days of Gold,
When skies were blue and fair;
Ah, knew not I that these would die,
Or, if I knew, would care.
But Memory is a living thing,
Or gay, or sad it be -
And, so I say to you today,
Thank God for Memory!"

Back to Date Published


Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY Nov. 18, 1945
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Engineer Cotter eased open old 2165's throttle and No. 21, the northbound local slid slowly out of Salina yards. Barney Fiddler was fireman; hop, Loren Look, the conductor, and the flagman was Denny Haley. Fred Mug was the head "shack" and Dick Jones rode the cubicle. Here was a sextet of hard-bitten railroaders ready for any emergency, and fearful, neither of "Hell, or high water." They drifted into Liverpool about 6:45 a.m. and unloaded a bit of merchandise on agent Jimmy Dial's platform; then whizzed through Woodard on operator Richardson's "highball," and jolted into Clay Station.

Here the agent, Charlie Zoller, had some switching for them, and they worked at this for some 30 minutes. The previous night had been bitterly cold, the thermometer falling to 25 below zero in this section, but when the the local left Clay, about 8 a.m., the weather had moderated, and snow was

falling steadily. there was a stiff wind from the northwest and the snow was beginning to drift.

There was a halt at Brewerton, where engineman Cotter gave his steed a "drink" from the water tower. "We'll never make Richland if she don't let up," he said, as he stamped into the station, where telegrapher Coon Rogers was getting train orders from Oswego.

"Hell," said Conductor Look, "we won't never make it anyway, if that double diagnosed dispatcher don't get his nit-wits together an' get us out o' here - what's he say, Coon?'

"Here y'are," said the operator at last, "meet No. 4 at Mallory, an' don't waste no time at Central Square - get out o'here, now an' step off it."

They dug out of Brewerton through the blinding storm, which grew worse by the minute. Sherman Coville at Central Square had his instructions to highball them over the O & W intersection without delay, and the train limped into Mallory and onto the siding, as Courbat's noon whistle sounded.

-- And there the train of 13 cars remained for two weeks; for this was the beginning of the Big Storm of March 5, 1904, and Oswego county's greatest blizzard was in full swing.

After No. 4, due in Syracuse at 12:50 p.m. arrived seven hours late that evening, not a wheel turned on the Hojack between Salina and Richland for five days. In some of the "cuts" the snow was drifted to the tops of the telegraph poles, after the storm had blown itself out - which did not happen until snow had fallen violently and continuously for more than 72 hours. The crew of the local waited in the Mallory depot until No. 4 struggled in from the north, with a rotary snow-plow trying to keep the rails clear ahead of it. Then, they all came back to Syracuse, with the exception of fireman Barney Fiddler, whose mother resided at Mallory, a short distance from the depot.

Next morning, when I came down from Jim Jackson's where I was boarding, to open the depot, the snow was piled to the top of the waiting room door, and all the windows on the west side were completely drifted in. The train dispatcher at Oswego issued instructions for all telegraphers to remain on continuous duty in readiness for emergencies. So there we were, with nothing to do - and 50 miles of rails covered with seven feet of snow on the level! We recall that this was a halcyon period for Jerome Fiddler, the old track walker, who lived just across from the station. He, too, was happily idle for more than a week, while, as he confided in me: "Me pay keeps travelin' right along, glory be!"

Well, after a couple of days it stopped snowing and some of the boys from the mile-distant village tramped out a single-file foot path through the drifts and came over to see what was doing. There were Lyman Hoyt, Toby Robinson, Len Snow, George Courbat, Lester Fiddler and others, who formed a sort of parade as they plodded along the cavernous path to the depot, where I had been alone in my lack of glory for all too long.

Fireman Fiddler hit upon a happy expedient to add to the jollity of nations. He discovered some barrels of beer in the freight house, which had arrived just before the storm made all deliveries impossible. This beverage had frozen solidly in the kegs, so Barney heated a poker in the stove, knocked in a bung, inserted the red-hot poker and pushed mightily toward the center of the keg.

The amber liquid which oozed forth as a result of this operation was of sweetish taste, not at all unpleasant, and its potency was of that variety known as HIGH. Then we all gathered around the crimson-bellied stove in the waiting room, played a little poker; drank a little (?) nectar, told a little list of stories - and had, in general, a heck of a good time!

Finally, five days after the storm had started, a big snow-plow, pushed by two locomotives, left Salina and made the 21-mile trip to Mallory in a little over two days. Another plow left Richland at about the same time, and they finally met near Parish. Thus, the line was cleared for passenger traffic, and soon, matters began to shape normally. In a section noted for its violet storms, this was easily the fiercest and longest continued of any within the memories of the oldest citizens at that time - and it has had no serious competitors since.

Of that salty and valiant train crew, which left Salina on that stormy morning in 1904; of all the agents and telegraphers I have mentioned here; of all the others who have appeared - there remain to survive, only Denny Haley of Syracuse, and this narrator; I, to reminisce in my wandering way; and he, perhaps, to verify the tale, or point out its inaccuracies.

So, Denny, let's give each other three rousing cheers - and I'll say: "Give 'er the gun, hoghead, the Big Roundhouse is Just Around the Corner!"


Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, Jan. 27, 1946
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

The Pennsylvania Division of the old New York Central, known to old-timers as "The Fall Brook," connects with the main line at Lyons and winds south through Corning to Clearfield, Pa. It crosses the Pennsylvania state line at Lawrenceville and, from there on, it runs through the Alleghenies. It is in reality a true "Scenic Route," although, alas, there are no longer any passenger trains scheduled on the line south of Corning.

In 1912, there was a little way station known as Beeman between Lawrenceville and Presho. Here vegetated, at this time, a telegrapher by the name of Honnis. He had little to do, save report the passing of the numerous coal trains and ponder on the vicissitudes of human life. These activities he interspersed at too frequent intervals with a satisfactory flow of the famed Tioga county triple-elixir.

As he sat thus, day by day, his grievances, real or fancied, grew space, until he became a man obsessed. One day his muddled brain gave birth to the Great Idea, and he acted thereon with promptness and despatch. The very next morning, he hied himself to Corning, where were located the division

offices. He made directly for division superintendent, D. W. Dinan's office . He swung open the office door and discovered Mr. Dinan seated behind his desk, facing the door.

Without preliminary, Honnis dove into his hip pocket, with quick if trembling hand; fished out a snub-nosed revolver and fired three shots in the general direction of the official. At the sound of the shots, assistant superintendent L. P. Van Woert rushed from his adjacent office; but halted abruptly, at sight of the armed figure in the doorway. Before Van could do anything about making himself scarce - which he, afterward admitted was his primary intention - Telegrapher Honnis reversed his weapon and shot himself in the head, dying as he slumped to the floor. Having thus satisfactorily provided for his own future, the gentleman exits from this narrative. Superintendent Dinan, it was found, had suffered but one hurt - a slight flesh wound in the right shoulder. Another of the bullets had sliced off a coat button, and the third went wild.

This tragedy, not unnaturally, caused considerable furor in railroad circles throughout the country, and one result was that railroad officials were not nearly so easy of access for a considerable period thereafter.

The big boys didn't exactly lock their doors; but they took precautions! Which precautions form the groundwork, for the following anecdote, which has a slightly different finale from the preceding one.

A few months after the event recorded above, a young telegrapher on the Hojack - we will call him Fred, principally because that's not his real name - was the victim of a series of events, which eventually led to his dismissal. He was working on the west end, between Oswego and Rochester, at the time; and he decided to go to Watertown and try to induce Superintendent F. E. McCormack to reconsider.

Resplendent in his "Sunday suit" of navy blue, and with a purposeful glinting his somewhat less-than-eagle-eye, he descended upon the division office and sought out the chief dispatcher, George Henry Williamson, his immediate superior.

"Sorry, Fred," counseled George Henry. "I can't do anything for you, the Old Man has the goods on you and he won't budge."

"Well, " replied Freddy, "I'm gonna see him, anyway. I'll sure give him a line. Gee! I don't want to get fired just now - I ain't got time for it!"

"Won't do you any good, I'm afraid," counseled the chief dispatcher, "but it's your funeral, suit yourself." With which comforting assurance, George Henry turned away and applied himself to his own worries.

So, Fred hung his overcoat on a nail, buttoned his tight-fitting suit-coat about his manly torso, and stepped into the hall, declaiming as he do so:

"I'll fix old F. E. M. plenty!"

Well, the chief clerk finally let him into the superintendent's sanctum, but he had hardly begun his plea to the boss when the door opened and in walked a "harness bull," a man in plain clothes. The cop waltzed directly to our wondering hero and asked:

"Your name is Fred Ennis?"

And without waiting for an answer, he continued: "Just step out into the hall a minute, we want to talk to you!"

Fred glanced at the boss, but got no encouragement there. F. E. M.'s face showed nothing but a look of blank bewilderment, so Freddy accompanied the two men to the door. Outside, the two ranged themselves on either side of the luckless brass-pounder and the man in civvies spoke for the first time:

"You come up from Wallington this morning, didn't you?"

"Yes," replied Freddie, "that's right."

"Boss fired you a couple days ago, didn't he?"

Fred nodded, miserably, still uncomprehending.

"Frisk him," said the questioner to the uniformed man.

The cop slid practiced hands around Freddie's middle. One hand halted in the vicinity of his right hip pocket, where his tightly buttoned coat revealed a bulge.

"Huh!, here it is. I guess," he grunted. He dove into the pocket and with a flourish drew forth - Freddie's big curved meerschaum pipe in its shagreen care!

"Hell!" snorted the detective, "That ain't no gun. Excuse us, young feller - and - and - keep your mouth shut about this." And the two marched away, much disgruntled.

It developed that, when Fred had left the dispatcher's office, his loud assertion that he'd "fix" F. E. M., was overheard by a passing caretaker. Noting the bulge on Freddy's hip, he immediately recalled the Corning affair, and with visions of manslaughter in his mind, he hurried to the street, where he fortunately (?) found a policeman chatting with a force detective, and hurriedly spilled his beans.

Still eschewing any fiction in this veracious narrative, it is nice to be able to record that Mr. McCormack called Fred back into his office and, after learning the details, indulged himself in a hearty laugh - and

reinstated him on the payroll.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, Feb. 17, 1946
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Jim Jackson gazed from his kitchen window, early one February morning in 1903, and remarked:

'She's comin' from the northwest an' I'll bet we're goin't to have an old ripsnorter. When you see the snow comin' down slantwise that way, you can get ready fer a storm."

The wind howled around the big white house on the hill, across the tracks from Mallory depot, and the soft flakes were falling faster and faster. And, as I struggled down to the depot for the morning passenger Clayt Fellows, section boss, showed up for a brief survey of the situation and then he and his men holed up in the section house to await developments.

All morning and afternoon the storm increased in fury and the uproar of its mighty travail was almost deafening. My telegraph wires had been unworkable since late morning, and on the road between Richland and Salina, I had no means of knowing their position, or condition.

About 4 p.m. I got my switch lamps ready and started south with two of them. One was to be placed at the junction of Corbett's spur, and the other on the sidetrack switch stand. The wind was blowing ferociously, the snow was swirling in such compact clouds that it was impossible to see a single foot in any direction, except at intervals, when the storm lulled for a few brief moments.

I was walking down the center of the main track, when suddenly from out of nowhere came a mental urge, intuition, "hunch," or whatever you care to call it, that I should step across to the adjacent side track. Almost involuntarily I did so - and I had taken not one step from my new location, when a snow plow, pushed by two engines whizzed by on the track I had just left! All I got was a slight addition to the storm's mighty roar, a ghostly slash, a shadowy, fast-moving mass - and the show was over!

Must I admit I was a bit weak at the knees for the next few minutes? Sam Hollingsworth, one of the engineers on the plow, said afterward that he got just one glimpse of me as I stepped over to the siding. He claimed he could sense, by my leisurely manner that I had no idea there was anything behind me. And he swore mightily and oft it was so close, that had I been two inches larger at the waste (sic), the snow plow flange would have hit me!

Jim Jackson was sitting in his big chair by an east window, and during a break in the storm he saw the plow bearing down and apparently running right over me. Grabbing his coat and cap, he ran down the hill "faster," as he said, "than any 72-year-oldster ought to travel." Plodding down the side track, he finally glimpsed a form ahead of him and yelled lustily, but I didn't hear him. I went on and set my lamps, and returning, met him.

We went back to the depot, and my day's work being done, we went up the hill for supper. As we left the station, however, Jim's wife, "Car'line" came plowing through the snow in eager search for us.

After supper we sat rather quietly in the big cheery living room, discussing my near-adventure and listening to the wild hullabaloo outside. Finally, Jim looked at me with a speculative eye, and remarked:

"Y'know, I don't hold, generally, to the use of liquor, but it seems to me, Bert, that in memory of a dumb out-an' -out miracle, we could do worse than to celebrate your good luck with a nice hot toddy - that is, providin' of course that we had anything to make it with!"

The old rascal knew that I had a bottle of Tucker's rye up in my room. I used to get a reasonable supply of that famous brand at Garlock's liquor store, across from the old New York Central depot, whenever I came to Syracuse. Perhaps the reason my supply was a bit low at that time, was due to the fact that I hadn't been in town for some time!

Anyway, we had our hot toddies - one apiece - and, although Car'line sipped hers in very small portions and with a most deprecatory manner, as if she did it under protest, she left no final dregs in her glass.

Jim related again, in full detail, the story of his one and only extended journey beyond the confines of Hastings--a two weeks sojourn in Oswego on jury duty, 'way back in the '70s. It had been a great adventure for him and he seldom failed to recount it, exhaustively, whenever he could induce any listeners to stay within hearing distance, long enough for the telling.

One of his favorite episodes of the occasion was about the waitress at the old Adams House in Oswego, who, at the end of each dinner, came to the tables and chanted: "Apple, mince, cherry, raspberry, custard an' punkin," to which outburst, Jim claimed he always replied, "I'll take a small hunk of each!" "And," he used to chuckle, "I always got 'em, too!"

Then, when the yawns became alarmingly manifest, Jim arose from his big morris chair, knelt beside it; and, while we reverently bowed out heads, he offered thanks in his own sturdy and unflowered tones - thanks for the preserving hand of the Father, which had been held over me that day...And, folks, when he had finished, I felt myself nearer to the Throne of God than I had ever been before!

So - a mighty storm howled and raged outside; the force of nature seemed to be at war; but here, within, was peace and comfort and thankfulness and good fellowship. Perhaps just a tiny preview of heavy - who may know?

Jim and his Car'line have slept for, now, these many years; but I never journey by the big white house on the hill without thinking of that day, long ago, when death passed so closely by me, that I could feel the brush of his ebony wing.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, March 10, 1946
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

I went over to Oswego one night in August, 1901 I was on my way to Newfane, Niagara County, where I was going to work as telegrapher on the Hojack. A s you know, the west end of the Hojack runs from Oswego to Suspension Bridge, following pretty closely the shore of Lake Ontario all the way.

Here at Oswego, was the dispatcher's office, the division offices being situated in Watertown. A new superintendent had just come to Watertown. He was from down New York City way and not widely known in these parts at the time. He barged into the Oswego dispatcher's office one evening for the first time. He walked over to Roy Nutting, the message operator, and asked:

"Anything there for me, young man?"

Roy looked up from his sounder and seeing a perfect stranger before him, promptly remarked:

"I can't say - would they have your picture on 'em?"

Mr. Hustis, being a man with a sense of humor, recovered almost immediately from the shock, introduced himself and was accorded proper service. Yes, Roy was always that way, he had a snappy pick up, and he could let you down easily, or otherwise, as his mood might dictate - a prince of a good fellow! I stayed with Roy that night, and next morning started on my westward way.

It was a long tedious grind from Oswego to Newfane. We rolled and rattled through Hannibal, Red Creek, Wolcott, Ontario, Webster, and various other assorted villages, finally reaching Charlotte, which was near the half-way mark in my journey. From Charlotte, we fared on, ever westward, with the lake at our right and the flat, fertile countryside stretching out at our left. Hilton, Morton, Lyndonville, Ransomville - and then in Niagara county we came to my destination.

"Here you are, oppy," said friendly Fred Hurlburt, the conductor, as we came to a stop., "you ain't been up here before, have you?"

I confessed that this was my first railroad job, and he added, "Well, you'll be okay. Art Dakin, the agent, is a fine fellow - he'll take care of you. So long; see you tomorrow."

At this period, I was considerably on the verdant side; being just past 18, and never having been very far from the parental roof before. However, in a day or two, I was "all set," having made Agent Dakin my friend for life, by offering to help him out on the day job.

You see, the yearly peach season was just opening. Niagara county peaches are known the country over for their exquisite flavor and beauty and these shipping days were strenuous ones on the railroad. I worked from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m.; then, after breakfast I turned to and assist the agent - sometimes, until late afternoon.

So, you wonder when I slept, eh? Why my dear people, it was a sad night for me, when I couldn't get in at least six hours of "shut-eye" on the job! There were few trains at night and Nefane was a relatively unimportant station. The principal reason for assigning a night man there was so he could run the pump and keep the huge water tank opposite the station full of water for the use of locomotives.

The village consisted of the depot, a small store, a blacksmith shop and less than a dozen dwellings within a small radius. Westward, some few rods down the track, was a high trestle over Burt Creek. here one descended 86 steps to the bank of the stream, where nestled the little pump house which supplied water for the big tank.

There were a couple of youths, about my own age, who habitually hung around the depot; and I soon conceived the idea of using some of their spare time (they had, apparently, no other kind). I intrigued Pink Niles with the idea that he should learn to run that pump. He took up with it at once.

"Sure thing," says Pink, "that'll be fun. An' when you've learned me, I'll learn Pete, here; an' in between the three of us, we'll have a hell of a time." Which is just what we had!

Now the bald fact is, that what I knew about running a steam engine was so little as to be something less than negligible. Even that little was on the negative side. I knew about a few things I was supposed NOT to do with the blamed thing, but the whys and the wherefores of its workings were as a sealed book to me.

Well sir, by reason of the most astounding good luck, we three - and Pete Travis and I -got along famously with the pumping business for a few days. Then disaster began to loom. We had boiler trouble; every day we had it. Nobody knew the cause, nobody had any advice to offer - we probably wouldn't have taken it anyway.

At last, a brilliant light, smoke me right between the eyes, as I was billing a car of peaches. I hurried down to the pump house where Pink and Pete were industriously doing the wrong thing in the wrong manner.

"Shut 'er off!" I yelled. " I gotta idea."

"What, another one?" razzed Pink, "the last one you had wasn't good."

Anyway, we shut her off, pulled fire, and then I set Pete to watch, while I went back to work. "Soon's you can put your hand on the inside of the firebox, without burnin' it; let me know quick," I instructed.

In a couple of hours Pete came up to the station and said the cooling process was complete. I ran down, grabbed a monkey wrench, shoved a railroad lantern in the firebox, followed with head and shoulders, and performed an operation. Then I hustled over to Tom Caine's blacksmith shop and had another operation performed. Then I reversed all of the above processes, built a new fire, and got up steam. And it worked! The pump started functioning and the recovery was complete.

For several weeks there was no trouble of any kind at the pump house; but finally serious things happened to the pump itself, and here there was nothing I could do, so Agent Dakin wired Master Mechanic Lonergan at Oswego. Next day came Pete Chetney, trouble shooter, to fix the pump. With master hand and eye, he quickly located and repaired the piston trouble. Then, as a matter of inspection, he aimed his flashlight into the cavernous depths of the cold boiler and peered. He started (sic). He peered again. He sputtered. He cursed. He grabbed a wrench and this time HE operated. With the damning gadget in his hand, he turned, fixed me with his pale, blue eyes, and - then the explosion!

Pete Chetney was known from Ogdensburg to Suspension Bridge, from Watertown to Salina, as an unrivaled master of vituperation, and he knew no superiors. In the field, he was absolutely unique, and I verily believe that on this occasion he delivered himself of every "cuss" word in his huge repertoire. Please, O please, don't ask me to repeat any of it - I could never do it justice...After nearly half a century, I sometimes awake in a cold sweat from dreaming that Pete Chetney is telling me off again!

You see our boiler trouble had been that the soft plug in the top of the firebox kept melting out, extinguishing the fire, and I had been refilling it with melted lead seals. Of course the real trouble was a faulty injector keeping the water at the danger point and melting the plug. But I had fixed that! When I went to the blacksmith shop that time, I had Tom Caine weld a piece of iron spike into that pesky plug! Mister, she never leaked after that.

But, why the boiler never blew up is more than I can tell you. Surely Providence holds her saving hand over some mighty dumb people, doesn't she?

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, May 9, 1946
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

One sultry day in the summer of 1903, No. 11, the Hojack flyer, came surging along at 60 miles an hour, and at a point approximately 300 yards west of Red Mill bridge, she collided head on with a light engine and caboose which was running extra from Richland to Salina.

Fortunately, there was no loss of life and only a few serious injuries, but, as the surrounding terrain cluttered with falling debris; above the hiss of escaping steam and the shrieks of terrified and injured passengers, could be heard the stentorian voice of farmer John Quinn, issuing from his back door as he apostrophized to the world:

"Now ain't that a hell of a way to run a railroad?"


Forty-five years ago the Hojack was manned and operated by as sturdy and salty a bunch of men as could be found anywhere in the states - and in those days, the percentage of :hard" boys among railroaders was high. This don't mean that they were either disreputable, or inefficient; they became tough, originally because they had to be and, finally, because this toughness had become a habit and a joy.

Number 21, the local freight, pulled into Mallory one morning in 1904 and sidetracked to let No. 9 pass. However, the passenger train got orders from Train Dispatcher Nutting to stay at Mallory until No. 9 had passed. As a matter of fact, they remained some three of four hours. During this interim, Hop Look, the conductor, browsed around in the Watertown way-car and sorted out an "eighth" of beer, which he lugged into the station waiting room, where he and Dick Jones, the flagman, dumped its contents into the tin water cooler, which was an adjunct to every wayside railroad station in those days. this receptacle stood empty - as usual - and Hop's donation filled it to the brim. Somebody went back to the caboose and got an empty quart fruit jar to serve as a goblet.

At this point Hop announced solemnly and with appropriate adjectives, that any lily-livered so-and-so who couldn't empty the quart jar with one quaff, would not be allowed to do any more quaffing. And he appointed an able and willing committee to enforce this by-law.

This ultimatum automatically eliminated me from any wassail, after the consumption of my first quart. I became almost at once, just an interested spectator. It is possible hat such rigidly enforce abstinence caused me to remember the episode with greater clarity than I could have done, otherwise. It would have done your heart good - or otherwise, according to your predilections - to have seen that four gallons of brew disappear! I went across the road and got a couple of Mary Jerome Fidler's famous mince pies to add more flourish to the fiesta and more solidity to the menu.

Everybody solemnly asservates that he never told anybody else about this episode, but it wasn't more than four days before every Hojacker from Salina to Watertown knew all about it. Inasmuch as every narrator added some touches of his own invention, the story soon got beyond any bounds of reality and was finally relegated to the limbo of railroad fiction - which was probably just as well for the future standings of nbsp; Hop Look, Dick Jones, Denny Haley, Sam Cotter, Barney Fidler and this narrator.


The old-time railroad telegrapher was a romantic soul, although he would have been the first to deny it. You see, there was always something impressive, something vast, something "out of this world," in his ability to sit at a desk in some shabby cabin of a railroad depot and converse with people hundreds of miles away!

And what a great bunch of brass-pounders used to infest the Hojack in the early 1900s! There was Jimmy Duell at Liverpool, Ed Richardson at Woodard, and Charlie Zoller at Clay. At Brewerton you would meet Charlie Rogers or his son, Coon, and, faring on to Central Square, you visited with Ed Sprague and Sherm Coville. Hastings depot boasted the presence of Johnny Benedict, while, at Parish you found George Murphy and Frank Hayner, abetted by Louie Church. Union Square and Fernwood were represented by Fred Nicholson and Bert Shear, respectively. Pulaski had a coterie of telegraphers, among whom one recalls H. H. Franklin, Win. Pond and Sam Sweet.

I could tell you a rollicking story about each and every one of the above gents; but lack of space and prudence combine to limit me to an occasional outburst of reminiscence, as we go along from week to week.


Nowadays, they run the trains by telephone instead of Morse code and luck; so the present personnel is naturally of a different timber, but I dare say no less efficient than that of old. (I wouldn't dare say anything else, anyway!)


They sent Jim Hustis up to Watertown in 1903, as division superintendent. Jim was from the New York City general offices, with plenty of theoretical knowledge by not little practical experience. Hard-boiled Trainmaster Frank McCormick was the real boss while Hustis was at Watertown. Frank knew all the ropes and when he ran of rope, he would use twine or anything else to keep 'em rollin'.

One day, Jim Hustis was sanding in the Syracuse train shed, waiting for No. 3 to take him to Watertown. Juke Bodine, veteran car inspector, was taking a look at the journals with lantern in one hand and dope-pail in the other.

"How long have you worked here?" asked him, more to make conversation from a any real desire to know.

"Forty-six years," replied Juke, "and always on this here one job, by crummy. Considerable of a stretch, ain't it?"

"That's right," agreed Jim, "and just what is it that you're always looking for in those car wheels?"

"Damned if I know," replied Juke, cheerfully, as he reached for his Mail Pouch!

Back to Date Published



Post-Standard, July 7, 1946
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell


Back in the first years of this century, they used to run a special monthly train on the Hojack, between Salina and Watertown. This was known to all and sundry as "The Whiskey Special" and its function was to link the liquor jobbers with their North Country trade.

Every 30 days, there would be a number of cars loaded with varied assortments of embalming fluid then in vogue, for the delectation of the denizens of Watertown and points to the north.

One warm, foggy night in 1891, Engineer Sam Hollingsworth pulled out of Salina yards at 1:30 a.m. with a train of 23 cars, loaded to the gills - the cars, of course - with liquor. His conductor was Matt Shephard, the flagman was Ted Mudge, and the head brakeman, "Silent" Jones - so named by reason of his unceasing flow of verbiage.

They were running extra and had right of way to Mallory, where they were to take siding and meet the west bound fast freight. Sam eased through Liverpool and by Woodard Junction; then he gave her the gun and they surged eastward like a rocket. (Well - not quite that fast, maybe).* The drag pulled into Mallory siding with 15 minutes to spare on 42's time - and all hands in the caboose promptly went to sleep. As the fast freight swept by on the main track, Engineer Hollingsworth seemed to sense an extra amount of vibration for a few seconds, but a cursory examination revealing nothing amiss, he promptly forgot it. The extra pulled out onto the main track and high-tailed it for Watertown.

Without incident, they arrived as their destination just as the grey dawn was breaking, pulled their load into the yard and signed off. At 10 a.m. the call-boy routed Matt from slumber with the terse words:

"The Beetler wants to see you, quick - and boy is he tearin' mad!" Sam yawned, dressed, unhurriedly and slowly propelled his lanky form towards the super's office. As he entered the room, he perceived that the rest of his crew had preceded him and were listening with no slight attention to the blistering remarks of senior trainmaster, Frank E. McCormick.

"You're a hell of a fine bunch of railroaders," spluttered Frank, "you leave Salina with 23 loads and you pull in here with 22 - and not a damn mark on your switchin' list. Matt, where did you switch that car?"

"I didn't switch no car," replied Shephard. "The only stops I made was at Mallory for 42, an' at Parish for water."

"What's your story, Sam?" yelled F.E.M., turning to the engineer. "Matt's got it right, Frank; we didn't do no switchin' an' we didn't have no delays - an' what the hell are you talkin' about, anyway?"

The rest of the crew, corroborating these statements, old F.E.M. blew up entirely, his flow of invective became almost unintelligible and his naturally ruddy countenance assumed a hue of crimson which was no less than a joy and a benison to his highly appreciative listeners.

Investigation followed investigation. The right-of-way was minutely examined. Every section-boss from Salina to Watertown was on the lookout for clues. But nothing developed. (I might, at this point, inject the statement that I have in mind one section-boss, one station agent and one train dispatcher who had cause to congratulate themselves on the fact that they were not sleep-talkers). The matter eventually became one of the mysteries of railroad lore.

Engine cabs, yard offices and cabooses have been the scenes of a half-million so-called explanations of this affair - but no one of them really explained the uncanny disappearance of boxcar A.T. & S. F. 18633.

So now, on this quiet Sunday morning; hear, O reader, the true and unvarnished solution of the great mystery of the Hojack highjack.

Brilliant indeed, was the mind that had conceived and brought to full fruition this wondrous scheme to temper any siege of drouth, which might have been in the offing. It is, indeed, regrettable that, as far as I am concerned, this mighty thinker and his no less doughty fellow-workers, must fare down through the dim corridors of time, "unwept, unhonored and unsung." Were I minded, however, to do any divulging, it would be much the easier task to make a list of those denizens of the area who were not involved, than of the participants. I can at least tell you how they did it.

On the bank, just the Mallory sidetrack, stood two pine trees, about 25 feet apart. Their huge branches entwined and interlocked at a point not more than 30 feet from the ground. Here, our adventurers constructed a heavy, solid platform of two-by-fours. This staging at its completion was artfully hidden by the thick foliage; its very existence known only to those who constructed it. (And one other). Just in front of these twin trees stood a local contractor's big portable steam engine, placed there to operate a buzz-saw, which cut cordwood and dropped it down a chute into cars placed on the siding below.

Above the tree platform, the boys installed a huge block-and-tackle, with boom and grappling hooks; which machinery they were at some pains to obtain surreptitiously at pregnant intervals. When the "Booze Flyer" sidetracked that night, as usual; the sawmill engine was under a full head of steam; the conspirators were waiting with bated breath - yeah, they'd all had a few - and the stage was set.

As the west-bound freight rumbled by on the main track, two sturdy youths from - never mind where they were from - two youths fastened a swivel hook at either end of the car on the siding, directly in front of the trees, while two others yanked the "pins" from the coupling blocks.

The steam throttle opened wide, the winch groaned a little, and the box car rose from the rails. A couple of experts steadied its ascent with ropes, and before the long drag of empties had passed, car A. T.& S. F. 18633 was resting easily and securely on its evergreen-camouflaged platform, 30 feet above the surface of the shuddering earth.

At this period in the era railroading, it wasn't considered necessary to have all cars equipped with air brakes - only the 10 front cars of this train having been so provided. As the box car rose into the air, the siding being on an appreciable grade, the rear of the train gently slid forward and closed the gap made by the removal. As contact was again made, one of the boys shot the pin home and the train was intact!

An observer, whose utter veracity has never been impeached, once assured me that the whole matter was consummated in less than three minutes by his Waterbury watch - once again establishing the truth of the old axiom that preparedness is nine-tenths of the battle!

Well, sir: they never did find hide, nor hair of that car until 'way along in 1913, when the big wind blew over one of the tress - and down tumbled the ancient tracks and running gear. That's all there was left. As a matter of fact, there were a good many red-boarded smoke houses, hen houses and other-houses for some years after in that section. The precious contents of the car were, during the course of time, so widely distributed and so carefully disposed as to create little comment - although they certainly satisfied a good many thirsts, and super - induced, no doubt, an appreciable number of headaches, other than the one suffered by the railroad company.

Anyone who is minded to read this tale with a modicum of distrust, is here asked to remember that freight cars were much smaller 45 years ago than they are today - however, I will not deny that tall-tale-tellers were just as rampant then, as now.

*Note: Although this railroad physically ran north and south, the timetable direction was east and west.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, July 21, 1946
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

There's a vast difference of opinion as to what constitutes true greatness. I dare say a multitude of great men have lived and died without anyone ever having suspected that they possessed this attribute. You who read this have probably known your quota of great, near - great and better-than average people but perhaps you never heard of the great Jimmy Halleran, trainmaster on the Hojack for a good many years during the late '90s and the early days of this century.

Jimmy had his office in Oswego and he spread out from that point like a a fungus, his tendrils reaching to Suspension Bridge on the west, to Watertown on the north, and to Rome and Syracuse on the east. Before he came into our midst he had been a train dispatcher on the West Shore, east of Syracuse. Tradition has it he left those parts under some kind of cloud. It is at least a matter of record that he came to Oswego, enveloped in an aura of mystery and accompanied by a fragrance (not too unfamiliar in those days) bearing a close resemblance to that of Tucker's.

He was a well setup man, with broad shoulders, Irish blue eyes and a dignified swagger. he wore, habitually, a long frock coat, a black string tie and a frown. Also, being a first grade railroad man, he came to be cordially disliked by one and all who labored under him. I don't suppose he ever realized his own greatness. Certainly, none of his underlings ever would admit he had any - but, as a fair example of it, let me recite a little tale:

Harry Burt, the night operator at Parish, was fired. Halleran had tied a can on him that very day, with the announcement he would be relieved from duty as soon as an available man could be found. The occasion for the dismissal has nothing to do with this story - but I can assure you it was p-l-e-n-t-y.

Harry sat in the bay window of the depot, listening, unhappily, to the staccato cadence of the sounder. He heard the train dispatcher call "PD" Pulaski and give him the "31" signal to stand by for train orders. Then, he gave the same to Brewerton and transmitted an order making "meet" for 2d No. 10 and No. 3 at Hastings.

Now, 10 was an overflow Thousand Island tourist train, traveling to Syracuse, and 3 was the regular evening mail to Richland. Both trains were badly delayed and the train order was issued to minimize the wait which the regular passing point would have caused. No. 3, of course, was to take the siding at Hastings and allow the club train to whiz by without halt.

As the disgruntled Harry sat, listening to the telegraphers at Brewerton and Pulaski as they repeated the order back to the dispatcher, he came suddenly to his feet. He listened again for a brief moment - and the sweat began to bead his forehead. He had heard the operator at Brewerton repeat the meeting point as Parish instead of Hastings. And the dispatcher had not corrected him.

This meant that 3 would not take siding at Hastings, but would run 3 miles further east while the flyer, expecting to find 3 on Hastings siding, would undoubtedly crash her, somewhere between the two stations.

Harry prodded the key, calling Brewerton. "B," "B," "B," "I," "I," "B," came the answer, at last. "Hold 3," he clicked. - "She's gone, what's wrong?"

There was no time to tell him - there was no time to tell anybody - there was only one thing to do, if it could be done. He grabbed a red lantern, shot out of the door and scurried eastward like a scared rabbit.

Running over the bumpy ties, he stopped briefly to throw the switch at the end of the side track, then scampered madly on, hoping he could get far enough down the track to flag 10 down to a speed that would allow her to negotiate the open switch without piling up. A banshee wail came from far in front of him and he knew that it was now just a matter of seconds - but he kept on, stumbling now, and gasping, but still plunging eastward.

And there she was! A headlight flashed around the curve at Red Mill bridge, and Harry stopped, spread his legs apart between the rails and waved that lantern like a madman. Even as he tumbled aside at the very last moment, he heard the hiss of the air-brake and saw the engineer's white face through the steam as he struggled with his levers. Then as the train lost speed, Harry grabbed the hand rails of an unvestibuled coach and swung himself aboard. The train took the siding safely and came to a stop in front of the station. The engineer leaped from his cab and ran to the station, meeting Harry just as he arrived.

"What's goin' on here?" yelled Ed Cullen. "Who in hell threw that switch? Who flagged me down at Red Mill? Who -?"

"Never mind, Ed," soothed the telegrapher. "Take a good look up the west track there - did you ever see a bigger full moon in your life? Looks to me, though, like it's kinda in the wrong place tonight."

Ed looked and gasped - it was 3's headlight that stared him in the face!

Well, that's all the story - except that Jimmy Halleran happened to be riding on 10 that night and you can bet he congratulated Harry, no end. He slapped him on the back and vociferated gratitude, until poor Burt began to feel very much embarrassed. Then, the trainmaster added, as an after thought:

"Don't forget, Mr. Burt, that you are still fired - that can I tied on you is as tight as ever."

Next day, Jim called him on the wire and told him to go to Buffalo, where he had made arrangements with Chief Signalman Charlie Olp for a job on that division. "He'll take care of you," said J. G. H., "and after he's ironed out the kinks, let me know - I'll have something good for you."

I hope that proves to you that old Jim Halleran was one of the great. Some of those who knew him only in his latter years thought differently - but a man has to be great only once to win the credit.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, Jan. 26, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Rufe Potter was at his desk in the freight office. It was 3:30 p.m. and he had just completed the consists for next morning's Cape Vincent local and turned them over to the yardmaster. He wiped his favorite pen carefully on the sleeve of his once-white linen duster which he always wore in the office; filled his pipe with shag, lit it and leaned back, puffing contentedly...Not that his day’s work was all done - but why start on another piece of work until you had to?

The freight agent, Clyde Allen, sat opposite and idly flipped through a stack of car-cards as he remarked, " Rufe, you seen Frank Wilson this afternoon? He ain't been in the office since mornin'."

"Aw," responded Rufe, as he yawned tremendously; "he's over at the Woodruff, takin' in a few with Jimmy Halleran an' Pete Lonergan - they blew in from Oswego this noon on 204."

"How come you know so much about what they're doin'?" queried Clyde with a glint in his eye.

"Why, you just thought I didn't know where you was on that dang long lunch-hour you took today - you ain't foolin; me none, mister. Well, so long, Rufe, I gotta be gettin'."

The scene was the Hojack freight office at Watertown, the season was early autumn, and the year was 1904. Jimmy Heustis was division superintendent, Frank McCormack was senior trainmaster and Frank Wilson was division freight agent. McCormack was he real boss of the division and he knew practically all the answers, having learned his routine under such as Pat Crowley and Dave Dinan.

At this period, Pat Crowley was superintendent of the New York Central's Fall Brook division with headquarters at Corning. He was on the way up - a way which was finally to land him in New York City as president of the entire New York Central system. Pat's initials are P.E.C. and his strenuous and successful efforts to get more tonnage behind the locomotives of the old Fall Brook became so widely known that all the engineers flatly declared that his "PEC" meant nothing less than "Pull Eighty Cars." Later on, when Frank McCormack took over the Fall Brook job at Corning, we continued to insist that his "FEM" stood for "Fetch Eight More." - And we were right about that too.

But to get back to our hero, Rufus Potter, the billing clerk. After Agent Allen departed, that afternoon, Rufe started in on some transfer sheets, but was soon interrupted by Chief Clerk Harry (John Bull) Howard, who dispatched him up the yard to get a list of car numbers from a "symbol" train which had just pulled in from the north. This was little to Rufe's liking; it was really not part of his job and, besides, he didn't like Howard a little bit and he was aware that the feeling was mutual.

Reflecting, however, that it would be pleasant to get out in the open after a day spent at his desk, he demurred but little and went his appointed way. Completing his list, he decided that, instead of returning directly to the office, he would slip across the yards and drift into the Woodruff, just to see how many of the boys really were there.

Well, sir; when he got there, he found, as he had expected, quite a delegation on hand; Passenger Conductor Fred Cole, "the best-dressed man on the division;" Hank Lester, yardmaster; Bill Jewett, clerk; Agent Allen, Pete Lonergan and Jimmy Halleran of Oswego, Frank Wilson, George Griffith, a couple of brakemen from Syracuse - and one lone telegrapher from Parish.

"What you doin' here?" cried "John Bull" Howard, as Rufe ducked in, "I thought I sent you up on track 11 to get them numbers from O-M3."

"Well, here they be," responded Rufe, "you want 'em?"

"No, hustle back to the office with 'em -have a beer?"

"Not on you, mister," retorted Potter - "I'll buy my own."

Which he accordingly did. As he gazed down the length of the bar, he took in all the familiar faces there, and asked:

"Where's McCormack? I thought he came over a while ago."

"He was here," somebody said, "He just left a few minutes ago."

"That's good," chuckled our hero, "I ain't got no use for him, even if he is the Big Boss. He gets on my nerves, he does, an' the less I see of him, the better off I'll be."

--And now, Rufus really warmed to his subject and discoursed with fluency and abandon as to the lack of merit in his boss. He highly spiced verbiage heaped anthems upon the name of McCormack, and his adjectives of invective sparked and sputtered like a wet celonoid.

"Why dang it all, if i ever get a good chance I'm gonna tell that guy just what he is - and why. I ain't gonna pull no punches. I'm gonna let him have both barrels and when the smoke clears away, I'll soak him with some more. I tell you, boys that man is gonna take it from me and like it. he's the most un-"

At this point in his harangue Rufe suddenly noticed that a deep, hushed silence had fallen over the assemblage. The gent who stood at his elbow seemed to be gazing beyond at some distant object which horrified him - and Rufe caught from the corner of his eye a fleeting, but clear-cut picture of the cause. There, in the open doorway within easy hearing distance, stood the red-faced subject of his discourse - Superintendent Frank E. McCormack.

Rufe never blinked an eyelash, his posture changed not a hair, and his discourse continued from the exact point where it had ceased for the space of a fleeting heart-beat. "--But, right there, I stopped him. 'You can't stand there,' says I 'and talk about Frank McCormack that way. He's a first-class guy and a bang-up railroad man and he gets my vote, every time, and I can lick the man that says no.'

"You know, fellers, that shut him up like a clam - not another word outa the dang idiot - well, so long, fellers. I gotta get back to the office, - why good afternoon, Mr. McCormack, I didn't see you."

"Mr. Potter," said Frank, "I am about to pour a libation with you, join me?"

-And as they blew away the collars, Frank continued, "By the way, Rufus, who was that enemy of mine you squelched so efficiently?"

"Sorry, sir," vibrated his companion as he edged toward the exit. "I don't know his name - he was a perfect stranger to me."

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, March 9, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell


The old time telegrapher always claimed he was in a class by himself and that he refused to be bound by the ordinary rules that his less gifted fellow men had laid down for the benefit of society.

He wasn't so wrong at that. He led a strenuous life; he worked long and tedious hours; he drew pitifully small pay and he was by choice a wanderer upon the face of the earth.

In speaking of this fraternity, I use the past tense, since their activities have now almost ceased. The train dispatcher now controls his trains by telephone, commercial telegraphy is 95 percent automatic, and it will be a matter of but a few years when a Morse telegrapher will have become a museum piece.

As I have remarked before in these columns, the mere ability to transmit and receive the Morse dots and dashes is but a small part of that intricate business which distinguished a really "good" operator from his host of inferiors.

You see, it's like this: A telegrapher must be able to function in three separate and distinct ways as he puts down each word that the clicks spell out to him. First, he must recognize the Morse signal for what it really is, then he must set it down on paper, either with a pen or a typewriter. All of this within the space of a split second, while he is already mentally reaching for the next signal. A first-class operator, writing down 40 words or more a minute for any length of time, is most certainly keeping the old brain cells shuttling, even when he doesn't realize it.

On the other hand, all of this concentration and ability would be of small avail if the "sender" at the other end were not doing his full share by transmitting the signals clearly, speedily and in the proper rhythm. As a matter of fact, it always has been a dangerous thing to tell a telegrapher that he's not a good sender. Even though it's probably true enough, he'll never believe it and will most certainly be your enemy for life.

Just to illustrate how easily the telegrapher's trained ear can miss a bet; let me relate a little incident in my own experience. In my Hojack days I once labored for a few months at Newfane, which is in Niagara county, near Lockport. One night the train dispatcher sent me a message for the conductor of the pickup, reading:

"Pick up 3 cars peaches at Appleton, 2 at Lyndonville - all via Charlotte."

But the copy I handed up to the caboose as it rolled by the station read like this:

"Pick up 3 cars peaches at Appleton, 2 at Lyndonville - 4 at Charlotte."

The substitution of "4 at" for "via" - the two sounding very similar in Morse code - caused Conductor Grogan to hunt all over the Charlotte yards for four non-existent cars of peaches. And did he tell me off on his next trip?

Lance Corrigan used to work the Hojack dispatcher's office at Oswego. This was back in 1904, when any good telegrapher could get a job on any good railroad in the good old U.S.A. Lance was a crack-a-jack telegrapher and a fast, fluent and witty talker. In the practice of his profession, he had traveled from east to west, from north to south - but he always claimed, "There's a lot more of 'em left."

Lance was a snappy dresser, but his elbows were always shiny from leaning too long and too often on polished bars, and he was always broke - for the same reason. He was holding a job as day message man, and I held the night trick in the same capacity; so we naturally became well acquainted - and if I may say so with pardonable pride - the best of friends.

In spite of Larry's(sic) widely known addiction to the old throat gargle, he was such a friendly fellow and so fine a workman that he quickly won favor of the "higher-ups" - Chief Dispatcher Ashe, and Trainmaster Halleran. In those days, if the boss was on your side and you humped yourself a bit, you could generally manage to wangle a little salary raise out of him from time to time, and if you refrained from bragging about it, nobody would be the wiser. Such goings-on were probably very nefarious and reprehensible; but that's the way it was - and we were stuck with it, or on it, according to the way modern regimented labor would look at it.

Anyway, the boss, liking Lance's work and not frowning too severely on his elbow-bending propensities, cooked up a little scheme, whereby he could grant a salary increase. "You have," said J.G.H., "considerable spare time during the day, which you could use to advantage doing some of my office work. I'll run the message wire to a desk in my office and you'll be all set."

This idea immediately appealed to Lance and he said so. He worked on his new job in seeming content until pay-day rolled around. Fifty years ago, this event transpired but once a month-- and two or three days later we were already looking forward, breathlessly (and penniless) to the next one. Lance ducked out to the paycar and got his money, coming back, he sat at his desk figuring furiously. At the culmination of his arithmetical labors, he arose, grabbed his hat barged over to the beetler's desk. "Jim," he announced without preliminary, "I'm through; gimme my time. I'm off for the west this afternoon."

"Why, what's the trouble?" exclaimed the astounded trainmaster. "I thought you liked your new job. You've been doing it mighty well, and I'm paying you well for it, too. You can't quit me like that."

"Sure I can, feller," responded itch-foot Corrigan, "and I'll tell you what the trouble is, too. Your job is all right; but me, I don't want it. It's too much of an expensive job. Why, it costs me more money every day to keep drunk enough to work this job than what the danged thing is worth! So long - I'm on my way.

And that was the last I ever saw of Lance Corrigan - boomer deluxe and careful appraiser of comparative values.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, March 23, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

On a warm evening of the early summer of 1905, Wilfred Passmore and I arrived in Buffalo from the west. We had been telegraphing in the southwest for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad and were on our way home, each with about $300 in bills tucked away in one of our shoes, nestling comfortably between skin and sock.

Unfortunately, we got into Buffalo rather late in the evening and decided to stay there overnight. We got a room in a small hotel off Ellicott Square, deposited our suitcases and started out to "look around" a little. Just 36 hours later we sat in our hotel room and took inventory of our

assets. These consisted of two brand-new suits, two Ingersoll watches, a varied assortment of pawn tickets and about $12 in cash. So, we decided to go home. Passy lived in Gillette, Pa., and I lived in Parish, so it immediately occurred to me that I could easily get over to Suspension Bridge, where I was more-or-less known, and bum a ride on the Hojack to Oswego and thence home, with little, or no outlay.

My partner's case was different, since he was practically unknown as a railroader outside of Pennsylvania. In spite of his strong reluctance I forced all our remaining cash upon him - that is, all except a dollar in change for, "emergencies" - and went our separate ways, promising to take up where we left off, later (as to what had become of our joint $600 fund - that's something not to be divulged in this particular story. So don't be looking for it).

I trolleyed over to Suspension Bridge and hung around the signal tower until 3 a.m., when I boarded the caboose of the east-bound fruit train captained by Conductor Bob Cronin, whom I knew well. Bill and his crew greeted me, not too effusively perhaps, but made me free of the caboose accommodations, which in those days included plenty to eat and a place to sleep.

We arrived in Oswego about 10:30 that night and I promptly hied me to the train dispatcher's office, where my good friend, Roy Nutting held down the "third trick." I stayed with him until morning and easily negotiated a loan of $10. I rode the baggage car of 201 to Pulaski. Here I waited for the Salina-bound local freight, No. 22 which left there about 1 p.m. While waiting I had contacted George Murphy, Parish station agent, by wire and he had informed me that my folks were out of town for a day or two, so I rode the local clear into Salina yards.

In those days this freight train boasted as salt (sic) and efficient crew as you'd find in a month's hunt. Sam Hollingsworth was engineman, Barney Fidler, the fireman, and Bill Mudge, head brakeman. In the caboose were Conductor Loren (Hop) Look, Flagman Jones and Brakeman Denny Haley.

As we rattled over the frogs into Salina yards, late that afternoon, Conductor Look fixed me with speculative eye, stroked his handle-bar mustache and remarked:

"What you doin' tonight, Doug?"

When I assured him that my schedule was blank, he continued:

"You hang around till I sign off an' get washed up. I'm a-goin' over to th' transfer dock for a minit, you come along an' I'll show you something pretty dang classy."

So, a little later, Hop and I crossed the yard and visited the R. W.& O. transfer house, just above the point where the overhead now crosses N. Salina St. Here was a scene of great activity. Merchandise of every description was being carted about the floors and shifted from one car to another through the length of the long warehouse. At the point where we entered, four or five freight handlers were loading a car of cheese. This cheese was packed in wooden "half-boxes," weighing about 18 pounds each. I dare say many of you will recall these cheese containers - flat, round thin-sided boxes with supposedly tight-fitting covers. Two loaded planks were placed across the interstice between the car door and that of the warehouse, and the boys rolled these little boxes merrily up the incline while one man in the car piled them up in neat tiers as they arrived. It wasn't uncommon for a box to fall from the planks as it rolled, and in such cases the container was frequently broke. For such emergency, there were always near the transfer door, two or three tall piles of empty boxes used as replacements. It was toward these boxes that Hop made his way.

"Hey, Rick!" he explained to Foreman Althaus. " Me an' Doug wants a coupla these here empty boxes to take along. We're a-goin' to make some whatnots fer th' wimin an' these'll be jest th' thing fer th' tops."

Rick waved a careless hand toward the empties. "Sure thing, Hop," he agreed, "help yereself - they don't belong to me, nohow."

Hop winked violently at the two cheese-loaders and as he engaged them in loud and rapid conversation, they diverted two of the rolling boxes of cheese off the planks and in his direction. As one came to his hands, he deftly placed it on the top of a pile of the empty boxes, and in a short moment repeated the performance with the other. After a not-too-long exchange of persiflage with everybody in sight, Hop turned to me and remarked:

"Well, come on, Doug, here's yer cheese box - let's go."

With no apparent effort he reached up and plucked the full boxes from off the pile of empties, handed one to me and started for the door. "So long, Rick," he shouted to the foreman, "be seein' you."

And now you may visualize Hop and this narrator walking sturdily up N. Salina, bearing between us 35 pounds of the best North Country cheddar that was ever pilfered. We proceeded, forthwith, to Gaffney's Onondaga Hotel bar room, where the savory stuff was deposited right on the bar and the barkeep's kitchen knife quickly brought into play.

The north side sure had a cheese fiesta that night. Indeed, it is my fondest hope that this narrative may meet the eye of some old-timer who was actually at the feast.

Well sir, as we all stood around, eating cheese and otherwise keeping the bartender busy, the swing doors with a mighty "swoosh" - and there, immaculate and debonaire in his 6 feet 2 of virile manhood, stood my partner, Wilfred Passmore, with whom I had parted in Buffalo only the day before.

After introductions all around, I forced a huge triangle of cheese into the not-unready hand of my friend and demanded to be enlightened.

"Nothing to it," he averred. "I made it to Gillette in fast time and explained everything to dad, especially how you were broke on account of us using all the money for my carfare. So, like I've always told you, he's a good guy and an understanding guy; and he handed me a stake and told

me to hunt you up, and here I am...This time, we'll try the far east. I wired the New Haven chief at Willimantic and he's got jobs waiting for both of us - come on, let's go."

"Sure," I grumbled, "you've got a stake, but me - I'm broke and I'm not going to trot around on your money, feller, you can depend on that."

"My fine-feathered friend," bantered Passy, "I just told you my old dad is an understanding man - and he thought about that, too. When he handed me this hundred, he gave me another for you; here she is." And he tucked $20 bills in my pocket.

There was nothing further to be said in the matter - so we went east. And, do you know, down there on the N.Y.N. H.& H., Passy and I got ourselves into the darndest mess you ever heard of. You see, it was like this - but shucks! That's another story, entirely. Let's save it.

Thus we cavorted and cacchinated while still the glamor was on the sunrise.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, April 13, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Stories of the old railroad days are heartwarming and serve well as a rainbow bridge to fond memories travel - but here's a little tale which is so new that it hardly can be called history, since it happened only last month - March 26, 1947, to be exact.

Ed Dayton has been station agent at Mexico for many years. In fact, his total of continuous service on the Hojack adds up to 39 years. At present, there is no night man at the Mexico station, and Ed's tour of duty is supposed to end at 5 p.m. after which time the station is unattended until 8 a.m.

On the night of March 26, Ed tapped out "good night" as usual at 5 p.m., but it was storming furiously and the big rotary snowplow was on the way east from Oswego, ahead of 483, the night passenger train to Richland, so the train dispatcher asked Ed to come back at 6 p.m. to clear the passenger train which was due there about that hour.

The snowplow arrived at Pulaski, leaving a clear track for 483, which arrived at Mexico at 5:20. Engineer George Lamb and Conductor Andrews came to the office and asked for clearance cards so they could proceed.

"She's bad," said Engineer Lamb, "bad as any I've seen this winter - and that's going some. Them cuts'll be fillin' up fast behind the plow and if we don't get outa here quick, mebbe we won't be goin' anywhere tonight."

"That's right," agreed Conductor Andrews. "Come on, Ed, ain't that plow cleared Pulaski yet?"

A this moment Ed got the "clear" signal from the Pulaski operator, so he handed the trainmen their clearance cards which gave them a "highball" to Pulaski. As they started for the station door, the local telephone rang insistently and Ed answered. It was his mother, at home, who had received a call from Mrs. Wood, living near the North Street railroad crossing at the east end of the village.

"There's an auto on the crossing," she announced breathlessly, "it's been stalled there quite a while and they can't move it - you better do something, quick."

Well, the first thing Ed did was to leg it out of the station and catch Engineman Lamb just s he was climbing into his cab. Then they notified the conductor and all went back into the station. Ed called the train dispatcher at Oswego and explained the situation. After a little delay, the dispatcher issued orders to the train crew to ease the train down through the cut, stop at the crossing and see if they couldn't help get the auto off the track. The crossing is about a half-mile east of the station and when they got there they found the vehicle directly across the track and by this time, so completely snowed in as to render any shoveling futile. The driver, Harry Nicholson, had sent to a neighboring farm for a team to endeavor to pull the car from its precarious position; so, leaving a flagman at the spot, the train backed to the station and waited.

In the meantime, Station Agent Dayton was making frantic phone calls to the homes of section men, village officials and others, but nobody answered the calls. "I don't blame them," says Ed, "for it was a terrible night out; the snow was driving down in a heavy white blanket and the wind was howling like 40 banshees."

As hey sat in the office, waiting for word from the flagman, Engineman Lamb remarked:

"Here it is spring an' the storm's about as bad as any we've had since ‘04, the time everything was tied up tight from Salina to Watertown. I was brakin' on the Watertown local at that time an' we got to Mallory about 3 a.m. an' we stayed right there for a week. For three days o' that time, there wasn't no telegraph wires either."

"Wind blowed 'em down, eh?" suggested Dayton.

"Nope: the cut just west o' Mallory was plugged so full of snow that it was piled up three feet above the tops o' the poles an' grounded th' danged wires."

'Why, you star-spangled, nickel plated liar," exploded Conductor Andrews, "why you oughta be -"

But at this point, the flagman trudged in from the cut and reported the crossing clear. The delayed train went its way and Ed went home. As he plodded through the fierce storm his mind was busy recapitulating the events of the evening. He was forced to the conclusion that the strenuous days of railroading are not all in the past, as some of our latter-day romancers would have us believe.

"If," ruminated Ed. "that phone call had been two minutes later, the train would have been on its way east and the way the snow is blowing through that cut, they never would have seen the car on the track and would have run right into it. What might have happened then is anybody's guess; but the rails were in such a condition that a derailment would have been most probable - and lives might have been lost."

Ed has little to say about his own quick thinking in this episode; but he is loud in praise of "Grandma" Dayton, Mrs. Wood and telephone operator, Bessie Cross.

Anyway, he claims last winter was the worst he has ever seen since the blizzard of 1888, during which convulsion of nature he was born at New Milford, Conn.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, Aug. 17, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

(Excerpt from an article essentially about the intensity of the heat wave at the time).

"Whatdaddye mean - hot?" snorted Denny Haley, the erstwhile, politically-minded Hojacker. "boy, when I was alderman, I could make the north side (of Syracuse) hotter'n this right in the middle of a blizzard.

Why, look, son; when I was railroadin' on the Hojack - that was when they used to have the hot days - and I don't mean of course.

"Why, I remember one day in latest August of 1904, I was flaggin' on the local freight from Salina to Richland; and when I hopped the caboose at 6 a.m. it was already so hot you couldn't put your hand on the grab iron without raisn' a blister. By the time we got to Central Square that mornin', Barney Fidler, the fireman, didn't have much to do after he banked the fire.

"He took on a full tanko' water at Brewerton and the sun beat down on the engine on the engine tank so fierce that by the time we got through Hungry Lane cut, she was bilin' like all get out. All Barney had to do was set there an' work his injector, lettin' the water run from the tank into the boiler. Yep, that sure was a hot day.

"Why, when we got to Richland, old man Butts an' his clerk, Schwartz, had organized a picnic. There they set, in the shade of th' ash pit, stuffin' themselves with grilled frog-legs, by Judas!"

'Where'd they get'em, Denny?" I foolishly asked.

"Well, I just been tellin' you how hot it was, and in them days there was considerable of a yard at Richland, with a lot o' switches to throw; an' I'll be teetotally swizzled if the sun hadn't roasted every frog on every switch in th' yard...Yep, that was a hot day, son - so long, call me again."

-And I softly and reverently laid the receiver in its cradle and walked away on tip-toe.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard, Oct. 12, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Ah, but there's bad news in the North Country!

Through the outer fastness of Daysville, in the farm-homes of New Haven; among the denizens of the pretty village of Mexico, and deep in the hearts of North Scriba's strawberry growers there's a pulsing sadness and a feeling of bitter anguish.

Fate, in the form of an official order, approved by governmental sanction, has struck at last...And there will be no more passenger trains on the Hojack between Pulaski and Oswego. October 1 was the fatal day - a day which may be appropriately draped in somber black on future Oswego calendars. Old-timers, who have been watching developments were not too much surprised at the culmination of this tragedy - they had seen it coming - but when, at last, the blow fell, they were none the less saddened and disgruntled.

For many years there have been no passenger trains on the west end of the Hojack from Oswego to Suspension Bridge - a mighty long stretch of rails. More and more curtailed has become the service on other Hojack divisions - and now this, the latest and saddest blow of all!

Why, I can recall when there were eight passenger trains puffing daily between these two points - and they carried a lot of passengers, too. In the early 90's, you could stand in the window of Trainmaster Jimmy Halleran's Oswego office and see a whole lot of railroad activity. To the west were the big railroad yards, the roundhouse and the shops, presided over by Pete Lonergan, and to the east you could watch the trains rolling in over the bridge - practically one right behind the other!

That, folks, was long before they started to grow greensward between the rails for decorative purposes. That was the day when railroaders were salty and sassy, locomotive smokestacks long and bell-crowned; and every other brakeman you met was short his right thumb as the result of a losing battle with a recalcitrant coupling pin. Badges of honor we deemed these foreshortened digits - symbols of service and guardians of grim accomplishment.

At the turn of the century you could leave Pulaski by train for Oswego at 7:30 a.m., 11:20 a.m., 3:15 p.m., or 705 p.m., as your fancy might dictate - and there were four other trains leaving Oswego, eastbound, at appropriate intervals. In those days, Pulaski depot was a busy place. Agent Austin was in charge, with a telegrapher, a clerk and a baggage man to assist him. Later, Harry Franklin took over the agency, to be succeeded by Earl Benson, who in turn gave way to John Benedict.

On your way to Oswego in those days, your first stop was Daysville - there's not even a depot there now - where you would see Agent Marty Sampson (or, perhaps, Bert Shear) hustling out to the baggage car. After no undue hesitation here, you chugged on to Mexico, where presided the veteran Matthewson, who adorned that one depot for more than 50 years. Then on to New Haven, whose station agent was another old-timer, even then, Ed Prior, who still lives there, was in charge of the New Haven depot from 1895 until 1941 - and I have never heard of his growing old! The last stop, east of Oswego, was North Scriba (Lycoming), where the big strawberries came from. Here labored George Murphy as the Hojack representative. In the same capacity, George went later to Parish, and still later to Phoenix, where he continued as agent until his retirement, some three years ago. He still dwells in Phoenix and he'll feel sorry, too, about those ghost trains that no longer haunt the rails.

There are still three veteran station agents left on the Pulaski-Oswego line: Ray Geer at Pulaski, Ed Dayton at Mexico and Charlie Lodge at Lycoming - but any one of these will freely admit that "she ain't what she used to be" - and they won't be referring to the "old grey mare," either!

Well, the fast trains are going faster and faster - and the slow trains are going fast, too. The sturdy hands that gripped the throttles of the big, old steam hogs are, one by one, growing pulseless and cold; the keen eyes that peered ahead from the cab windows have closed in their last long sleep, and the rusty, grass-grown rails vibrate no more to the impact of the big drive wheels - except when the tri-weekly local freight goes plodding by!

In the old days, railroading was a rugged job and railroaders were a rugged company. They were rough, they were ready,. And not so very steady - but they got there just the same.

I recall a favorite story that Barney Fidler, Hojack fireman for many years, used to tell with great glee. Barney claimed his uncle Mort was the best locomotive engineer that every yanked a throttle on the Hojack or any other road. He sat on the right side of the cab for more than 40 years - and then, all of a sudden-like, he took sick, and died at the age of 71.

There was a big funeral. Everybody for miles around came to pay their respects to the memory of the old man; for he had been a friend to everybody and everybody's friend. After the services, they loaded Uncle Mort into the open hearse and started for Little France burying ground. Everybody went along in their buggies and their "democrat' wagons. Barney claimed it was the longest funeral procession ever seen in Oswego county. As the cortege approached the cemetery gate, the deceased pushed up the casket-lid with a powerful hand, and leaned on one elbow, gazed back at the long, apparently interminable string of carriages.

"By Jumpin' Jickety," shouted the old hogger, "She's sure a mighty long drag - betcha the drinks we have to double into the graveyard."

Anyway - that's how Barney used to tell it.

Back to Date Published


Syracuse Post-Standard Nov. 16, 1947
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

Fifty years ago, the lowest-paid railroad traffic employee was the telegrapher. The section hands, unshaven and unshorn, were just a notch ahead of the professional brass-pounder in point of salary. On most eastern railroads, a half century back, the average telegrapher's pay was $30 a month - and, in those days, a month's work meant 30 or 31 days of 12 hours each. Did I say 12 hours? That, friends, was the minimum.

At one-man stations, your agent-telegrapher was lucky if he ever got away from his job with less than 14 or 15 hours behind him. Let's take the Syracuse - Watertown division of the old Hojack as a pertinent example. The agent at Mallory was required to be on duty there at 6:30 a.m. - a half hour prior to the arrival of the first passenger train. He was then supposed to be constantly on duty until the departure of westbound No. 8, which was due there at 8:40 p.m. (and was generally from two to three hours late).

It is a fact that the regulations permitted our hero - that's what he was - time off for lunch or dinner, but this period. Its time and its duration, was strictly up to the Oswego train dispatcher, who allowed him to eat "whenever it might be most convenient for the company's interest." And right here was another catch - if it happened that the dispatcher had miscalculated and really needed the services of the agent during the time he was absent, said official, in his explanation of whatever delays may have been caused, always solemnly averred that he had granted no absence permission to the agent. Now, please don't assume that this diligent employee's troubles were all over for the day when he locked up and went home about 10 p.m. Not so - the rule book, under "Duties of Station Agents," contained the following paragraph:

"On closing the station at night, the agent in charge will post a card in the office window where it will be plainly visible from without. This card shall give complete information as to where the agent may be located during the night, in cases of emergency."

And such occasions, Mister, were by no means uncommon. During the whole of a 12-to-14-hour day, the gentleman I am describing had been more or less actively engaged in a whole galaxy of jobs - agent, telegrapher, baggageman, express agent, Western Union manager, ticket agent, accountant, bookkeeper, cashier, janitor, and roustabout - to mention a few. He was required to wear his pretty, blue uniform, with the brass buttons at all times, while on duty, and the "tailor car: came through twice a year to take his order for a new suit. As these outfits set him back 419.75 apiece, there were always two monthly pay days during the year when he walked into the paycar and drew the princely sum of $10.25 for 30 days of toil.

Yes, friends, we had to have a sense of humor in those days. However, it was well to keep most of this strictly under tour hat - as witness my own experience in 1904. For my own amusement, I concocted a set of "Rules," and distributed them rather widely among my associates. I will bore you with a few fragments of this masterpiece, just as illustrations:

Rule XII - Telegraphers and Station Agents report to and receive their instructions from the superintendent, the chief dispatcher, the section boss; or any one else who pretends to have any authority.

Rule XVIII - Telegraphers will receive sufficient remuneration to purchase uniforms and chewing tobacco. If they have families, they must remember that the Lord will provide.

Rule XXI - The Company as such, has no conscience and cannot, therefore, be responsible for that of any employee.

Some of the boys got a big laugh from this bit of persiflage - but me - I stopped laughing when trainmaster Jimmie Halleran came down from Oswego and fired me for "insubordination."

Why, then, you may well ask, did anyone ever become a railroad telegrapher? The reasons varied, I suppose, according to the characteristics of each individual; but there's a certain fascination about the business that gets you, even before you start. The great majority of the old-time telegraphers were graduate students of certain veteran station agents who knew a good thing when they saw it. Take, for instance, Bill Shaver of Parish. He was Hojack station agent there for some 12 years prior to 1900. Bill was a great fellow - a pleasant, jolly man with a great fund of humor and a ready, infectious laugh. He always managed to have three students at the office in the following order:

No. 1 - pretty well trained in office work and a fair telegrapher; No. 2 - intermediate in these subjects and supposed to be under the tutelage of No. 1; No. 3 - a "freshman" just starting in, who was also the janitor and errand boy. No. 1 was never certified to the Superintendent as ready for work, until Bill had a prospect ready to take No. 3's place. You see, No. 1 was the man who took over the job when Bill wanted to go uptown for an hour, or so - which happened not infrequently.

Shaver kept this up for many years, and turned out a large number of telegraphers, among them I might mention: Loyal McNeal, at present a Hojack train dispatcher in Watertown; the late Earle Benson of Pulaski; Frank Alsever, now with the N. Y. N. H.& H. at Worcester, Mass.; Roy Nutting and Burnell Miller, both now deceased; and a host of others, including this scribbler.

Bill was just one of a great many who made use of this plan to render life a bit easier for themselves, while at the same time offering the youth of the community an opportunity to learn a profession. Yes - a profession that exerted a strange, not always beneficent influence on its followers. A profession that wound its magnetic tentacles around the very hearts of the old-time brass-pounders. You will note that I here use the past tense; since the key and sounder of the Morse code are now in the very last process of becoming museum pieces.

It is related that, after a long life spent amidst the clickety-clack of the busy sounder old Hermann Veeder died, and his soul was wafted through the ether in ever-widening concentric circles of light, which finally dumped him gently at the Pearly Gates. As he gazed upward where the shining towers

gleamed in the supernal glory of Heaven's eternal light, his courage almost failed him and he felt a bit sick. But at last he made shift to knock gently, Oh! So gently, on the gold-and-nacre panel of the closed door. At his second or third timid attempt, the might gate opened a mere crack to reveal the severe features of St. Peter, who gruffly demanded:

"Who are you; and why come ye here?"

"I'd like to come in, please, if you don't mind," quavered Hermann, "I just died, you know."

"Your name," snapped the Guardian. Hermann gave the required information and another question followed instantly:


"I was a telegrapher, your honor, and I've come up here for my overtime - you see, I -"

With a mighty heave of his sturdy shoulders, the good saint opened wide the massive twin-gates so swiftly that their gem-studded surfaces shimmered like flying rainbows in the ineffable radiance of the sun of Paradise.

"Enter, my good man, enter," he invited as a broad smile illumed his features, "long have we waited for one of your tribe to seek admittance here - and, verily, you are the first of them all. Come, friend, you'll enjoy it here - for it is written that, on earth, you surely led one hell of a life."

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Syracuse Post-Standard, Nov. 14, 1948
Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande Snell

The old-time train dispatcher was a man who deserved no one's envy. Nevertheless, he was looked upon by station telegraphers as a favored individual, lolling in the lap of luxury, working "short" hours, and blessed as the friend and companion of countless bartenders.

On a single-track railroad, before the introduction of the telephone as a means of running trains, the dispatcher had need to be a man of many qualities. He must be a first-class telegrapher, a strategist, a diplomat, a man of quick and accurate decisions, and a past master in the science of railroading. He must be able to hold his liquor with little visible effect, and his patience and understanding must be almost boundless. In the days of which I write - the early years of the century - the train dispatcher on a single-track division held the train movements in the palm of his hand and the reflexes of his brain. There were no manual or automatic block signals to protect rail movements; no intricate system of safety devices; and no means of communication except the Morse code. Memory reaches back and brings to showy view a sturdy band of Hojack dispatchers at Oswego, around 1903.

Here you would find the veterans of that era - Charlie Brown, Johnny Ashe, McClosky, Snyder and Hartney. And back of these stalwarts stood the "younger set" - Walrath, Nixon, Nutting, McNeal and a number of other bright young men whose names escape me at the moment. Of the above mentioned, only two now survive - Matt Sampson, retired and living in Oswego; and Loval McNeal, who is still "in the harness" at Watertown and still going strong. May his shadow never grow thin.

In those days there were two sets of dispatchers at the Oswego office; one for the Syracuse-Watertown-Rome area, and the other for the "west end" - from Pulaski to Oswego and on to Suspension Bridge along the shore of Lake Ontario.

The dispatchers office was always in a state of feverish activity, and an uninitiated observer would be prone to wonder how order would ever emerge from such chaos. Here were a dozen clicking telegraph sounders, each speaking in a different tone and each carrying a different message to the listening ear beside it. Here sat the dispatcher, clutching at his eye-shade as he studied the train sheet before him.

Across from him sat the "copier," a telegrapher whose function it was to copy all train orders as the dispatcher clicked them off. These orders must be repeated from both stations to which they were sent, and each word and figure carefully checked by the copier as the repeat came in. This was the job, next to that of dispatcher, most coveted by every telegrapher on the division.

In one corner, by a window, sat the chief dispatcher at his desk, busy with voluminous reports of delays, accidents and train tonnage. At his right was the door of the Grand Beetler's office. In my time, the division trainmaster was always known by his title - and the incumbent who figures in this story always and ever lived up to his title.

This was James G. Halleran, an imposing gent with a red face, a hoarse voice, and a piercing eye. Every inch a superb railroad man, he ran he division with an iron hand and an unfailing perspicuity which sometimes approached the miraculous. Honored and respected by his superiors, he was, of course, cordially disliked by his inferiors - who were greatly in the majority! I can readily vouch for his discernment, since he fire me thrice within a space of two years!

About 7:30 of a stormy evening in December, 1901, I sat at the telegraph desk in Parish depot and copied some instructions ticked off by dispatcher Nixon. "Extra 2321 just leaving Pulaski - coming west - a double-header snowplow - there's a big drift on tracks between Union Square and Parish - must be cleared before No. 8 can leave Pulaski - I'll hold 8 there until plow reports clear at Parish - watch it, now, and report him clear just as soon as you can - No. 8 will be delayed, but they couldn't get thru that drift until it's plowed. The extra has orders to take siding at Parish to let No. 8 by - give me a quick clearance, now."

I gave him my "ok" and waited. If the plow met with no bad obstacles, she should clear the drift and get into my siding in about an hour; but Dispatcher Nixon was a nervous guy and he kept asking me every 10 minutes if there were any signs of 'em.

After the full hour had elapsed, he became still more impatient and kept the sounder clicking at still shorter intervals. I went outside and listened. I found the snowfall had started again, but then I heard the faint snort of a locomotive and saw the west end switch-light turn red. The plow entered the siding and puffed toward the office. As the switch-light turned back to white - (that was before they had begun to use green as a safety signal), I ran into the office and reported the train "in the clear." Nixon immediately called Pulaski and gave the waiting passenger train the signal to go ahead.

In a few moments, the brakeman burst into my office and shouted: "Hold No. 8 at Pulaski; our pusher engine broke a flange an' she's back there by Red Mill bridge with two trucks on the ground!"

I reached for my key and gave Nixon the bad news - but the passenger train was already on her way. She was nearly a half hour late and would be trying to make up some of the lost time. There were no scheduled stops for her between Pulaski and Parish, since the two intermediate stations, Fernwood and Union Square, were closed at night with no one on duty. A crash seemed imminent, for at this very moment there was not more than seven or eight miles intervening between the rushing passenger train and the stalled engine.

Suddenly, I remembered something! The agent at Union Square had an office student, who was becoming fairly proficient as a telegrapher; and this man just loved to hang around the close office at night and practice. Agent Fred Nicholson had given him a door-key so he could get in any time he wished; and he and I frequently had long talks over the wire.

I ignored the chattering sounder of the dispatcher's wire; cut in on the Western Union circuit and frantically called "N-N-N." After what seemed like countless centuries -actually less than a full minute - the circuit opened and the young squirt at "N" queried:

"What the hell do you want now? I'm just going home!"

My fingers trembled as I spelled out:

"Hold No. 8. Put your red board on 'em. Don't let 'em get by you!"

He didn't get it the first time, nor yet the second; but, finally, he understood...And he later told me that the oncoming train was less than 300 feet from the station when he flipped the red board down! Well, that was that. The passenger train was held up at Union Square for hours until a crane came out of Salina yards and put the crippled engine on the track. Dispatcher Nixon had complimented me on my quick thinking an quicker action - and by morning, my head had become twice its normal size and I basked in a veritable halo of glory - for was I not a hero? The answer to that question was definitely no - as Trainmaster Halleran explained to me in harrowing detail the next day.

"In the first place," declaimed The Beetler, "you shouldn't have reported that plow clear until a member of its crew had so informed you - don't you ever read the rule-book? In the second place, you tried to play it smart by not telling the dispatcher about the student at Union Square. In the third place, you're supposed to know that when a train stops for any reason, on the main track, a flagman must go back with lantern, torpedoes and fusees to stop all trains - remaining there until recalled by the engine whistle." (Holy mackeral! I had never thought of that!)

"In the fourth and last place," resumed J.G.H., "quick thinking is a necessary part of every true railroader's equipment; but he must not only be quick - he must also be right. You guessed wrong, three times last night, in as many minutes, and it's only by the mercy of God that a bad accident was avoided.

"As of now, I am tying a can to you, Bertrande. Go your too-quick-thinking way in peace, and may the good Lord watch over you. I think you'll need a lot of it!"

Thus fell one hero from the shaky heights of his self-built pedestal!

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Syracuse Post-Standard, June 28, 1949

Bertrande Will Be Missed
To the Editor of The Post-Standard:

Bertrande is dead. He left us on rather short notice, which was quite unlike him. Barely a week ago I met him on the street where we chatted for a few minutes, and he wanted me to go to lunch with him. I was headed for home for that, so we went into the editorial department at the Post-Standard, and visited a few minutes longer.

Probably but few of his readers knew his real name. It was Bertrand Harry Snell. We always called him Bert. Like my own, his early ancestors probably were among the Palatines who came to this country in 1710. This name is found in the lists of these people; and I understand that several Snells, who probably were descendants, have their names inscribed on the honor roll of the Oriskany monument.

I shall have to confess that although those of my own forebears are also said to be there. I have never seen this battlefield memorial except in pictures. I mentioned his apparent ancestry and the Revolutionary War service to Bert one day some years ago. His gravity and response were characteristically humorous: "Yes, sir, and they wee where the bullets were the thickest! - biding under the ammunition wagons." But to all accounts there was no hiding.

Bert and I, still having some difficulty believing that our own independence had been achieved, carried on the conflict through many long years of service with the Western Union in this city; fighting life's battles shoulder to shoulder, and sometimes, in a friendly way, with each other.

But Bert was always my staunch friend, despite some unimportant points of philosophic disagreement now and then. He always eventually conceded that I was right - probably because my superlative obstinacy offered no alternative!

When I retired from the telegraph service in 1936 it was Bert who saw to it that I was presented with a beautiful gold watch suitably inscribed: and he, himself, made the presentation.

He and I were country boys learning telegraphy about the same time on the old "Hojack," he at Parish, I believe, and I, at Cigarville, now Clay. I didn't know him then, nor of that fact until I met him some years later. He had some newspaper experience before coming to Syracuse. He wrote good verse. Among his poetical compositions, "Ingetrude of Helsingfors," stands out as a vibrant, heart-throbbing tale of Viking love. The man who could read it and not want to discover a continent - or another Ingetrude! - is completely immune to the lure of adventure:

"So deep of chest, so round of thigh,
So flaxen haired, so blue her eye,
She looked - and cravens turned to Thors
For Ingetrude of Helsingfors."

I shall miss him and his writings; his reminiscences of his railroad days, his "Uncle Noel," and such tales as The Battle of Clapsaddle Pond." Some of these are in my scrap-books. But I find that I am about five years older than Bert, and soon. I too, shall rest with none - and persecuted Palatine.




(Editorial) Post-Standard, June 28, 1949

Bertrande H. Snell

Bertrande was a man worth knowing. Quiet and unassuming, with a rare sense of humor and a deep understanding of human nature, good and bad, he was a fine companion.

We'll miss him here at The Post-Standard, with which he was associated for many years indirectly as a Western Union telegrapher ad directly as a columnist. His work was a columnist began in 1945 and became popular immediately. But it is a characteristic of him that his work was improving constantly. His writings had reached a high degree of excellence, but even so he would never have been satisfied.

Bertrande had built up a wide circle of readers even before he started his column, "Just Around the Corner," however. He earlier wrote many poems for the Morning's Mail; they attracted attention because of their rolling rhythm and pungent expression of thought. He had a gift not only for expressing his thoughts with poetic and epigrammatic feeling, but also possessed a keen eye for the unusual, quaint or bizarre. His columns benefited from these gifts.

He was happy in his field and it is too bad that he was stricken at a time when he was so firmly established in his field. His death is a serious loss to us and to those who enjoyed his epigrams, observations and poems so much.

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Syracuse Post-Standard, Sunday, December 5, 1948

Just Around the Corner By Bertrande

It occurred to me just now that I have been telling you railroad stories for a long time; better men than I have to you (sic) better railroad stories for the better part of a century - but, who among us has not almost forgotten all about the ubiquitous section gang?

One reads the hectic and thrilling annals of brave engineers and faithful firemen; of the fearless conductors and their resolute trainmen of the nervous but unfailing telegraphers; and of that grouchy superman who is the trainmaster - but who has ever bothered to throw a modest nosegay at the lowly section-hand, whose sweat and grime made all these narratives possible?

All along the right-of-way on every American railroad, you find these laborers jumping frantically but with well-timed precision from between the rails as the ‘flyer’ thunders by. And they’re back there again with their pinch bars, their mauls and their spike buckets before the rails have ceased to vibrate from the contact of the big drive-wheels. A railway roadbed is always in need of repair; it is constantly under

the impact of terrific shocks of oncoming trains and it must be, at all times, in a state of almost perfect alignment...And who but the faithful and long-suffering section-hand keeps it that way?

Maintenance of a railroad’s trackage is, of itself, a science which calls for a high degree of specialized engineering skill and a vast amount of intricate planning and careful execution. The unsung and mostly unnoticed section boss must be a man who knows his business and has the knack of imparting his knowledge to those who labor in his gang.

Time was, half a century ago, when a large percentage of section bosses were Irishmen. They labored mightily, and they swore roundly, and they dearly loved their authority - an authority which enabled them to direct the every movement of their 6-to-8 men gangs. Themselves, they took no orders from any one, save the maintenance superintendent - had woe to any other official who attempted to ‘give ‘em the lip!’

In the Parish section gang, during the late 90s, there labored a gent whom we will call Mike Mulcahey (because that was not his name). Mike was a good section hand, an excellent example of that sturdy breed of men who keep the melody in the ‘singing rails.’ In not too long a time his excellent work attracted the attention of his superiors; and, on a day, he was called to the Super’s office to undergo an examination as to his fitness for the job of section boss. Mike passed the test with flying colors; his natural ability and his experience being in no wise allowed to stay in the background when his native wit and intelligence urged them to the fore.

Soon a vacancy developed along the Hojack and Mike was notified that he was, as of that date, in charge of section 16. Next morning, Mike appeared at the section house far ahead of his men and surveyed the scene with a smile of utter satisfaction and content. As his men approached, he gave them a flowing hand-salute and announced:

‘Mornin‘, byes, Oi hov a word for ya. As ye well know, Oi’m now yer new boss, an’ we’ll get along fine - but remember, me lads, Oi want nothin’ out o’ ye but silence, and damn little o’ that!’

He waved majestically toward the sliding doors of the section house and commanded:

‘Shake a leg, now, an’ get out th’ hand car.’

So the boys took out the car and set it more or less gently upon the rails. Then they waited for the next ukase from the stern limps of boss Mike.

‘An’ now,’ he added, ³‘put ‘Eer back into the house, n’ we’ll knock off fer th’ rest o’ th’ forenoon in honor o’ this grand occasion...Oi’ll show ye who’s boss around here from now awn.’

At the age of 18, I took a turn at this section hand business for a few months. That’s how come I know so much about it’s being real, honest-to-goodness work!

In those times, we bent our backs in the sun for 10 hours a day. And, mister, when you drag ties, set fish plates, and hammer home a slew of those big spikes to fill one of those big days, you don’t know anybody to accuse you of being a ‘sissy.’ Although you might be too tired to resent it, at that.

Of course, I got a little time off on the first day, because I was made victim of the legendary ‘initiation’ monkey-shines that had to be undergone by every rookie. We started work that morning near the east switch stand and one of the men soon approached me with an empty oil can, requesting I run down to the section house, about a half mile distant, and ask the boss for some red oil for the switch light. After I had been sent back empty-handed, but bowed beneath the load of sarcasm the boss had unloaded upon me, I started to swing my pick in disgust. It wasn’t long before the boss, himself, strolled up with a well-feigned look of worry on his face.

‘Dang it all,’ he growled, ‘Joe Scanlon, over to Central Square, ain¹t never brung back that rail-bender I lent him last week. Now we gotta use it today, fixin’ that Red Mill curve. Here, Burt, you scoot over to the Square an’ get that bender. It’s a might heavy to carry, so take yer time comin’ back.’

So off I went - not exactly ‘scooting,’ either, for it’s nine miles from Parish to Central Square. When I finally arrived and informed boss Scanlon of my errand, I caught a fleeting look on his face, which by the mercy of Providence penetrated my skull to the extent that I realized on the instant that I had been made the butt of another practical joke.

Joe quickly recovered his poise, telling me he’d loaned the fabled instrument to Ed Greene at Brewerton, and that I’d better go there and ask -

But his words came too late - I had caught on. So, to even up matters a little, I spent nearly the whole afternoon getting back to Parish, where I faced the uncouth laughter of my associates as well as I was able.

All of which brings me, apropos of nothing at all, to the case of Swen Gustafsen, trackwalker of the old Slate Run section gang, down in the wilds of Lycoming county, Pa.

Swen was tramping the rails between Slate Run and Cedar Run on his daily tour of inspection, when he spied at the side of the track a dismembered human arm. He stopped, gazed briefly, shook his head soberly, and proceeded on his tour. A bit further along, he came upon a leg, which brought him to another short pause. A few yards more and he beheld a man’s torso in the rank grass. Then he began to hurry a little and in a minute or so he came upon a man’s head!

--My good gosh! it was the head and features of Ole Ekstrom, a friend and fellow worker!

Swen stood for a long moment, scratching his blond head and mustering his thoughts.

‘Ay tank,’ he murmured slowly, ‘mebbe something she is happened to Ole!’

--A great life, this railroading, even if you do weaken!


Syracuse Post-Standard, Aug. 31, 1947
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande

“Yes Sir - Morse Telegraphy is on the rocks,” mourned a veteran Syracuse telegrapher as we sat on a park bench and exchange views and comment. “It’s not so much the almost complete mechanization of the business, as it is the general quality of the few telegraphers that are left - that I’m referrin’ to,’ he commented.

“I’ve been scoutin’ around a little, havin’ nothing else to do, for the past few months. I’ve been hangin’ around little railroad stations in this section - on the Hojack, on the Lehigh Valley, the D L& W and the NYC main line - and I tell you it’s sickenin‘; that’s what it is.’ ”

“Oh, I don’t know,“ I objected, “there’s some pretty good men still left in the business, you know.”

“You¹re right about that, too,“ agreed the retired veteran, “but they’re gettin’ few and far between, and the ranks are growin’ thinner every day. On the railroads now, the old-timers are retirin’ fast and they’re replacin’ ‘em with a bunch of the dangdest hams you ever saw. In the first place, these men don’t want to telegraph, anyway; they haven’t got the spirit of the thing, the romance, the traditions.

“In the second place, they’re taught wrong and none of ’em has any ambition to get beyond the kindergarten stage. Why, I was listenin’ through the window at a little station not more ’n 40 miles from here, just the other day. The operator was trying to copy a message from the Syracuse Western Union office. The sending was nice stuff - clear, easy and well-spaced. This bird was breakin’ on every word; he was mumblin’ to himself, sweatin’ and wearin’ down his eraser, but he didn’t seem to be gettin’ anywhere. Finally he breaks in on the Syracuse man and spells out, ‘Why don¹t you send Morse?’ That’s when I ought to have walked in and clipped him one on the jaw!’ Probably the sender was going too fast for him,’ I suggested.

“Now look here, you know better than that,“ snapped the old war-boss, “speed has nothing to do with it. If the sender spaces properly, makes his characters clear-cut and avoids combinations, why, the faster he sends the easier it is for the receiver. You know you can’t send too slow or you’ll spoil our rhythm.”

I was in no position to argue with my companion, who had in his time three Delaney medals for fast and accurate sending in country-wide competition, but I venture to suggest, “This fellow you’re talking about probably didn’t have a chance to get much practice: they don’t use Morse to run trains any more, you know.”

“He had the chance all right,” disagreed my commentator, “only he didn’t want to take it. That wire he was on, clicks off some kind of stuff all day long; but this fellow told me later, that “the noise made him nervous,“ so he kept it cut out most of the time - what d’ye know about that? Why that guy has been on the job for two years and he still can’t get his own name unless you send it to him on a postcard!”

“I’ve nosed around like that for more than a year, now, sittin’ in waitin’ rooms and listenin’ through windows at guys murderin’ poor old Sam Morse. I get a kick out of it, too - only sometimes I get mad enough to bite nails.²”

“Don’t you ever run across any good ones?” I asked.

“Yep. But they’re mostly old-timers, about ready to fold up. I suppose I’m just an old grouch soundin’ off to hear myself talk - but when I think of the way it used to be on the railroads and in the commercial offices, I do get plumb disgusted.”

“This new crop of railroaders that’s been comin’ in for the last few years,” ranted the old boy, “seems to have sprung from three different, but closely-related families - the Goslows, the Minfones and the Newmans...lemme explain:

“The Goslows, when they answer a call on the wire, always tell you, go slow before you start; but it don’t make much difference how slow you go - they prob’ly won’t get any of it, anyway.

“Then, there’s the Minifones, who wait until you’re right in the middle of a message you’re tryin’ to send ‘em, and then stop you cold with the words, ‘minute-phone.’ You’ll notice, however, that they never have to answer any phone while they’re stumbling through a message they’re trying to send you.

“The last family is the Newmans. They greet you with this phrase, ‘New man - take it easy.’ I heard a fellow say that to a sender just the other day, down on the Lehigh - and afterwards he told me he’d been working - right there for four years!”

“A funny thing, though - the way those birds act on the wire, you’d think they were the dumbest of the dumb, but when you barge in and talk to ’em, you find ’em a rather intelligent bunch - danged if I can understand it.”

“Well, Joe,” I demurred, “maybe you’re right, but don’t you think you’re treatin’ these boys a bit rough? I dare say you made a few mistakes, yourself, down through the years.”

“You betcha,’ agreed the veteran, “and, by Judas, I profited by ’em, too - that’s where the difference lies.”

“You recall any outstanding errors you’d care to mention?” I wheeled.

“Why yes - come to think of it, the worst mistake I ever made was learnin’ the blasted business in the first place; then I fell down the second time lettin’ old Alex Bell invent the telephone instead of doin’ it myself - and there was a lotta other flukes I pulled, too. Here’s one, I never did live down; one I made when I was just a yearlin‘, as you might say.

“I was workin’ a night message job in the Oswego train dispatchers’ office. One night I got a message from old man Austin, agent at Pulaski, that I copied down like this:



“When old Jimmy Halleran, the trainmaster, found that thing on his desk the next morning he was fit to be tied. He was ready to fire everybody on the division, if somebody didn’t come across with an explanation of the so-called joke. Finally, Jim Doolittle, the dispatcher, got hold of agent Austin and the mystery was explained. But that didn’t do me much good. You see, the message Austin had written was:


“--No, sir, the boys never forgot that one.”

And the old boy shuffled off down East Fayette Street, shaking his head, mournfully, as he pondered the downfall of his favorite profession. Personally, I think he bore down pretty heavily on the modern tyros in the Morse telegraph business. They have never been taught to view it in the same light that we old-timers did. To them, it’s just a small part of their day’s work - to us it was an obsession and a glory; a thing to be cherished in our bosoms.

--And now, that it is in the last throes of dissolution, I must admit that oldsters are partly to be blamed for its untimely end - we killed it with kindness!



Syracuse Post-Standard, January 25, 1948

Just Around the Corner
by Bertrande

In 1905 I was telegraphing for the New York Central in Northern Pennsylvania. This division runs from Lyons down through Corning and enters Pennsylvania at Lawrenceville. At Jersey Shore it branches off to Clearfield on one hand and Willamsport on the other. The section between Wellsboro and Jersey Shore, a distance of some 60 miles, is sparsely settled, a mountainous, rugged and teeming with the virgin ‘wildness’ of nature. I was stationed for some years at a little 14 by 16 telegraph office called Ulceter, about midway between Slate Run and Cammal - both of them lumber towns at the turn of the century. The little office sat on the bank of the river (Pine Creek) and on either side rose the steep mountains. At this point the valley was just wide enough for the river, the railroad, and the narrow, little-used highway. The only dwelling within a half-mile was that of the Callahans, some 300 yards south of the office. Here ‘Uncle’ Dan Callahan owned a few acres of river-flat, and did wisely well with their considerable fertility. Of the four sturdy sons he and ‘Aunt Car’ had raised only one, the youngest, remained at home.

This one, Matt, you would be unlikely to forget, had you known him for any length of time, as I did. He was about 19 when I first met him; broad shouldered, strong, active - and, I really believe, as absolutely fearless as any man I have ever known. He was a rather handsome, good-natured fellow, with but little education; but as quick-witted as they come. His whole idea of life seemed to be centered in ‘having a good time.’ He was a heavy drinker, would fight anyone, anyway where, on the slightest provocation, and withal had a most charming personality which made him highly popular among women and children. He was one of the first acquaintances I made when I came - and we were friends for many years.

It was some little time after midnight in the late autumn of 1905. A gentle wind whispered down the mountain-side and rustled the dead leaves to eerie song. The lanterns on the distant switch targets loomed dimly through the black darkness as I gazed out upon the tracks from the telegraph desk. A northbound coal train had just rumbled by and I was waiting for the clearance from Slate Run, three miles to the north.

In the little patch of light that shone on the rails from the kerosene lamp over my desk, I saw a sudden movement, there was a quick, furtive step on the little wooden platform outside - and as the door swung open with a push, there stood a big bearded man pointing a revolver at me! I was about 20 years old at the time and I was still unused to this wilderness, having been here only three or four weeks; so don’t blame me too much when I tell you that I was literally scared stiff. The round hole in the end of that gun-barrel appeared to be the approximate size of a length of stovepipe and it didn’t waver in the slightest.

The husky brute wasted no time in introduction or explanation; he advanced steadily into the little room and toward my shrinking form. “I’d as soon shoot you as not,” he growled, “pull that chair over into the corner and an’ set down.”

Still holding the menacing gun, the intruder grabbed a fishing rod from the wall, tore off the reel and proceeded to tie me like a cocoon with innumerable loops of the stout line. Now, I was helpless in two ways - from abject fright, and from the constriction of the tight cord.

Then the big man turned his attention to my well-filled lunch pail which I had not touched during the evening. He wolfed the food like a man who was obsessed by hunger - which he undoubtedly was, but he continued to keep a wary eye on my helpless form. In a remarkably short time he had devoured the entire contents of the pail - cold coffee and all.

“Okay, chief, that’s better,“ he grunted, “you got any money?” And he advance upon me, gun in hand. I couldn’t move either legs or arms, tightly-bound as they were, but I managed to nod miserably and quaver, “some in my hip pocket.”

In those days we got paid only once a month, and it had been just the previous day that the pay car had visited us. (O sorrow and alas!) As my unwelcome guest came closer, there was a loud crash as a piece of rock ballast came through the glass of the side window and landed with a heavy thud on the telegraph desk.

My captor wheeled toward the sound, firing a shot as he turned, and in that same split-second the door burst open and through the opening surged Matt Callahan, yelling like a fiend. His rush carried him clear across the shanty and his left shoulder hit my visitor with a stunning force, driving him to the wall, before he had a chance to turn. Matt backed off as his victim hit the wall; he flexed his mighty right arm; his rock-hard fist came up almost from the floor and landed flush on the point of his opponent’s jaw.

I am prepared to make positive declaration that Matt’s haymaker lifted the gent’s feet a full 15 inches from the ground, before he pitched forward - definitely down and out. In the fully approved method of backwoods warfare, Matt kicked his fallen foe three times in token of victory, at the same time emitting a yell which could have easily been heard for three miles. Quickly he unwound me, laughing heartily at my grotesque appearance and all-too-evident terror.

“Cheer up, pal,” he cried, “it’s all over now. We’ll tie up this damned so-in-so with this here same line, an’ if he comes to before I get him ready, I’ll wrap this blankety-blank poker around his neck an’ choke him to death. “Now, you get on the wire an’ tell Slate Run to get Constable Jake Tomb down here quicker ¹n hell.”

My trembling fingers finally managed to tick off the news to telegrapher Ivan Campbell at the Run, while Matt tied his prisoner securely and rolled him onto the cushioned bunk at the rear of the room.

“I see somebody in here with you when I came round the curve,” explained my friend, “an’ I injuned up, soft, to see what it was. Seein’ you all tied up an’ this jasper domineerin’ at you with his cannon, I knowed somethin’ has to be did, so I done it.

“I sneaked up, fired that rock through the winder an’ busted through th’ dam door. An’ frum now on, tell everybody to lay off you, ’cause you’re a friend o’ Matt Callahan’s - an’ I can lick any man in Lycoming county - an’ dang well they know it!”

Finally, Constable Tomb had rounded up half the able-bodied citizens of Slate Run, the posse arrived and the still partly unconscious prisoner was removed. Next day they took him to Jersey Shore and there he was quickly identified as an escaped prisoner from Bellefonte, for whom there already had been a three-day hue-and-cry.

Poor Matt! The last time I saw him was in the summer of 1923, when I returned to the Pine Creek Valley for a visit. He had been overseas in World War I and had been slightly “gassed.” He was a physical wreck, but still tried to carry on with his ready smile and his unconquerable spirit.

Just a few years later he died in a veterans’ hospital near Philadelphia, and they brought him back and buried him in the little private cemetery across the tracks from his old home. He was a ‘tough nut’ - but he was all MAN.


Note: The following was sent to the typist along with the above Snell article. It is not evident who penned these comments:

Misspelled the name. It should be Utceter. It was 1.8 miles south of Slate Run and 2.8 miles from Ross. It was only a manual block station with no passing siding. The stations were about five miles a part. By a 1913 employees timetable, it was no longer a signal station nor was Ross, but both show train times but not stopping.

The timetable has a speed schedule with the fastest being 36 seconds, which would be 100 mph. What is interesting is the size of the building and what was in it. Snell evidently lived in it and was on duty 12 hours a day with the other 12 hours having no one. This would indicate the freights ran unevenly around the clock.

Matt Callahan. He was born in 1888 and died in 1932. The Callahans settled in this valley in the early 1800s.


Syracuse Post-Standard, Jan. 16, 1949

Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande

Down through the years a vast amount of literature has been written about the so-called American product - the hobo. In stark reality, this gent is not an American at all - not even when he infests America! Since the dawn of history, there have always been reports of straggling - but never struggling - bands of ne’er-do-wells wandering about in aimless and always predatory fashion, throughout every land of the globe. They produced nothing, they served no purpose, and they were of no slightest benefit or inspiration either to themselves or the folk upon whom they preyed.

“Feckless men,“ the Scotts called them. In Central Europe they became “Gypsies;” and old-time England was over-run with bands of “Hedge-knights” and “Bandy-nidderers.”

The American Hobo - the true dyed-in-the-wool stiff: as he calls himself - despite false romance and the glamor with which literary dabblers have sought to gild him, is doubtless the most unspeakable and despicable distortion of manhood that can be imagined. He possesses neither talent nor ambition; neither vision or understanding. All he can boast is a fixation, a complex, which he has allowed to feed upon itself until it has grown to an overpowering obsession to be and remain something less than nobody!

My knowledge of this thing is something more than academic. I am not filching from hearsay to glean my facts. In my youthful days as a “boomer” telegrapher on most of the great railroads of the nation, it was my ill-fortune to come into contact with a large and varied number of these “knights of the road,” both singly and in groups. The net result of this first-hand information was an unalterable conclusion that the literary gents who have been, for years trying to glamorize the American Hobo, don’t know what they’re talking about.

All the way from Connecticut to Texas, I have played host to hoboes in isolated railroad stations and telegraph towers all over this land; I have visited them in their “jungles” and I have listened to their warped and degraded philosophy as it came from their own lips - and not ever has one of these produced a single valid or reasonable excuse for their ratlike inhibitions.

Some of the famous apologists for this nondescript clan - notably Jim Tully and Jack London - have made great ado about their experiences as hoboes; but such talk from them is misleading, since they never were real “dyed -in-the-wool-stiffs”- they were merely not-so-innocent bystanders looking for something they didn’t recognize when they found it!

An outstanding hobo legend is the one about the great “A-1,” who was supposed to be in a class by himself as he wandered about the country, chiseling his good-natured victims even has his chiseled moniker on every available box-car, station outhouse, and saloon bar. He was a “gentleman hobo,” so the story went; scrupulously neat in his attire, always clean-shaven and possessed of a “superior” education - a panhandler deluxe!

But as the legend spread among the credulous, the number of “original A-1’s” increased by leaps and bounds, until the bars and the privies from Frisco to Florida became so incrusted with the deep-cut sign manual that the uncanny ubiquitousness of the great “A-1” began to irk even the true believers. During the late 90’s there traveled through this Eastern area a frowsy, old bum, who claimed Hornell as his birthplace. He toted a gripful of pamphlets bearing the title, “Only A Hobo; Or Life Among the Downtrodden,” by Charles F. Dandridge (The Original and Only A-1). “The story of my life,” he would whine, “written by myself. All the secrets of the great hobo clan - only a quarter.”

It was an ill-written diatribe, struck off by some cheap hack for a pittance. It contained no “secrets” and very little of anything else which could arouse a reader’s interest.

Later, during a somewhat extended western trip, I ran across no less than five different editions of this great classic, each one with the name of a different author on the title page! This would seem to substantiate the theory that our true hobo is the victim of split personality. He’s absolutely unreliable. He’s just built that way, and it is a matter of pride with him to distrust even himself (which last tends to show that he does have some small glimmerings of intelligence).

And, in the meantime, he continue to eke out of a useless existence by preying on the indifference, casual good nature and romantic inhibitions of REAL people.

As No. 87 rattled by the little telegraph shack, a dark figure detached himself from the side of a box car and hit the grit with the long, sure stride of experience. It was a pleasant evening in the summer of 1905, and here, in the Pennsylvania mountains I sat in a telegraph office of the New York Central and pondered - or maybe I just sat.

The hobo opened the office door and came in without hesitation - for was he not a “knight of the road?” And was I not just a callow youth, as anyone might note?

“Evenin,” he muttered and advanced to the long window desk. He whipped out a pocket knife and with a few deft strokes he carved deep into the wood the cryptic figure, “A-1.”

“That’s me,” he explained, redundantly, as he returned the knife to his pocket and sat. Me, I was tickled pink. At last I had met the famed “King of the hoboes,” and here he sat at my very side! He didn’t look much like a king at that; and the longer I gazed, the less regal he appeared. But he sure could talk! Not that his conversation amounted to much - it was all about himself!

Right in the middle of this one-man dialog, we (I mean, he) suffered an interruption. A southbound freight rumbled by and disgorged another bum, who lost no time getting inside my little office. This bird gave a mere grunt of greeting; whipped out big jack-knife and advanced to the window desk. With a few deft strokes, he chipped out the mystic moniker, “A-1.” As he finished his artistry and straightened, his bleary eyes fell upon the duplicate insignia at the other end of the desk.

“What stiff cut that?” he grunted.

“I did,” countered the first tramp, “An¹ wot the hell’s it to you?”

Now, as I have told you, I was very young, and didn’t know any too much anyway, so I rose right up between them as they started for each other, and I shouted:

“Do your scrappin” outside, fellers. You can’t muss up this place, I won’t have it.”

Had I been the wise old owl that I try to make you think I am now, I’d have known better than to make a crack like that when I was all alone and those two big loafers - but, mister, you don’t have to be smart to be lucky! At the sound of my rather weak voice, both those dirty bums started for the door, dodged outside, and ran along the tracks in opposite directions as if the real “A-1” was right behind ’em!

I didn’t know it at the time, but no hobo has any guts - else he’d never been a hobo!


Syracuse Post-Standard, Aug. 29, 1948

Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande

“- And this the sorrowful story,
“That’s told as the twilight falls;
"While the monkeys are walking together.
“Holding each others¹ tails!"


I wish I knew what has become of my old friend, Wilfred Henry Passmore. And, if any of you folks, out there, know where he is, show him the above quatrain and he’ll immediately recognize it as our ‘theme song’ during the years we were together.

I first met ‘Passy’ in Ansonia, in 1905. He and I went to work for the old Fall Brook division of the New York Central on the same day in October of that year.. At that time he as about 23 years old, a trifle above six feet in height; a fine figure of a man with no excess flesh - slim-waisted and broad shouldered.

A lover of good literature, he was - and, I hope, still is - a well-read man; a trifle on the reticent side among strangers, but perfect companion among friends. For something like two years, he and I worked together.

Indeed one of the other boys with a rather slim smattering of the classics always referred to Passy and I as “Diamond and Pythagorus!”

Through the years - as too often happens - we drifted apart and I have not set eyes upon him since the summer of 1928, although vague news of him has drifted in to me from time to time. His last address known to me is Lindley, Steuben county, N.Y. - although I know he’s no longer there. And I have heard that he was living in Corning during World War II.

Here’s a bit of a story about my buddy which may help explain why he was always a good guy to take along:

We’d been working on the Fall Brook for only a few weeks when I was assigned to a little telegraph office at Pine, along the banks of Pine Creek. Right out in the wilderness - that was. No highway, no habitations; nothing but trees, mountains, a single-track railroad - and solitude!

On my first night at this job, Passy went along with me. He had no assignment for that day, and he wanted to look over the new territory. It was November. The air was cool, but not too crisp, and traffic was light.

Along about 9:30 p.m. the Corning train dispatcher found that No. 83, the crack southbound fast freight, was losing time and was likely to arrive late at the Newberry Junction terminal. So, he decided to put the northbound passenger train, No. 10, on the siding at Slate Run and let 67 pass them there without stopping. I n those days it was not unusual to side-track a passenger train for the fast freights, which carried perishable goods in refrigerator cars and frequently, had faster schedules than the passenger trains.

So the train dispatcher called me at Pine, and the operator at Cammal, some 30 miles south, sent us the following train order:

“- No. ten (10) eng. 2834 will take siding and meet No. 83 (83) eng. 3216 at Slate Run.” Both telegraphers repeated this order back to the dispatcher and he gave us the okay for delivery. As I finished the order, No. 87 was reported ’n the block: from DI tower, three miles north of me, so I sent my semaphore red, grabbed delivery hoop, inserted the flimsy in the metal clip and ran out to the track to hand the order to the engineer as he passed by at full speed!

During this time, Passmore had been busy at the office stove, fixing up some brandy sauce to garnish a big can of plum pudding with which we were about to regale ourselves. As the freight thundered by, he came over to the telegraph window and watched me deliver the train order to the fireman, who stood in the locomotive gangway and ran his arm through the big wooden hoop, with the order attached.

All this time there had been a vague sense of something wrong lurking in the recesses of Passy’s mind. As he explained later, he “had a hunch.” He had listened as I copied the train order, and he had also heard it repeated by myself and the operator at Cammal. Suddenly as he stood watching the freight cars jolt by the window, the elusive error came to him in a blinding flash - and he knew what to do!

With this partner of mine, to think was to act! With a quick sweep of his long arm he snatched the red lantern from its hook on the wall and burst through the door of the little shack just as No. 87’s caboose was rolling by. With a full, vertical swing and a wild yell, he let go of the burning lantern. It sped true as a wall-shot arrow and crashed through a window of the caboose!

As I stood, scared, speechless and bewildered, Passy spoke sharply:

“Wrong meet! - get in there quick, an’ tell Blackwell tower to put th’ red on ‘em - in case this don’t stop ‘em.”

-And he pushed me toward the door. I managed to stumble to the telegraph desk and followed instructions, while Passy stood outside and watched the disappearing tail lights of the fast freight.

The “rear shack” had scrambled to the caboose deck and was running forward, frantically “swingin” ’em up” with his lantern. At long last we heard the staccato “two short” engine whistle which announced that the engineer had seen the signal. T he little red tail lights grew no fainter - and at last the train stopped.

In the meantime my companion had explained:

“All the time you were completing that order I thought something was wrong about it, but I couldn’t straighten it out in my mind. You see, that damn ham at Cammal repeated the order wrong. He made the meetin’ point Cedar Run instead o’ Slate Run -and those two trains would have come together, sure as hell, somewhere between them two points! Or if I’m wrong about it, you’re in a hell of a pickle, right now!”

He tapped the key on the “block wire” and called Cammal. When he got an answer he asked:

“Where does 83 meet 10?”

And back came the reply, just as Passy figured: “At Cedar Run!”

Then Passy grinned at me and continued:

“You see, boy, I was right! Now here comes the con an’ the rear shack - so you listen to me. YOU noticed that wrong meet; You throwed that lantern through the cab window. YOU, my long-haired friend, are the hero o’ this here great occasion - and don’t you forget it!’

“But,” I gasped, “it wasn't me. You’re the guy that caught the error. I didn’t even notice anything wrong. I won’t -”

“You¹ll do as I say,” interrupted my mentor, “and no back talk, either. I’m not workin’ here tonight; I’m just a caller, and I never did a thing - that’s what I’ll tell the super when he investigates; so don’t make me a liar out o’ yourself for nothing!”

And at this point the crew of No. 87 stormed in, demanding an explanation of the late goings-on.

So that’s the way it was, folks. I became a three-day hero, while Passy lurked in he background, grinned happily and lied himself black in the face to keep me on my unearned pedestal!

Now, that’s just one of the many reason why I’d like to know just how my good old pal, Wilfred Henry Passmore, is doing at the moment. I was a fool to lose track of him in the first place!


Syracuse Post-Standard, Feb. 6, 1949
Just Around the Corner
By Bertrand Snell

It was too many years ago that a bunch of us were loafing in “MO” tower on the Hojack near Richland. It was winter and we were witnessing the complications of delays and hang-ups incidental to winter rail- roading in this area. Conductor Heck Shoen had his drag of empties safely stowed away on the siding and was relaxing in the office.

Al Rose (now retired and living at 367 Hillsdale Ave.), railroad “dick” was there, too, waiting for delayed 103 so he could get home to Watertown. Also there were brakemen Hank Mudge and Seeley Charles, together with a couple of others whose names escape me at the moment. The telegrapher on duty at the time was Mel Fairchild, a lanky, rather hard faced man of 30, who had been in the racket ever since he was 18. He was a fellow of varied experience, having traveled across the continent and back several times as a “boomer.” He surely knew his way around and could spin you a yarn to the king’s taste.

Fairchild’s tour of duty for the day was about finished and his relief man, Backus, was on hand waiting his turn to take over. Somebody got to talking about snakes and, of course, we all had a snake story to tell. Fairchild sat at the telegraph desk and listened as the anecdotes were bandied back and forth and he offered no interruption until he finally concluded that it was his turn. He erased the suspicion of a

sneer from his features and began:

“It’s easy to see that you guys never had much to do with snakes. Take me, now I’m an authority on them critters. I’ve seen a big hoop snake in Dakota stick his tail in his mouth and roll down a hill at 50 miles an hour, and I’ve seen them big Texas snakes - ”

“Them hoop snakes, now,” interrupted Detective Rose, ’be they poisonous?”

“I’ll say they are,” snorted Fairchild. “Why, I seen one roll off the roof of a barn, once, an’ strike a hoe handle standin’ in the corner. in less ’n 10 seconds, that handle was swoll up bigger’n a ax helve!”

“In that there case,” demurred Al, mildly, “I’d think the dang varmint would be mighty leery o’ puttin’ his tail into his own mouth!”

Mell sniffed a little as he paused to block in a train from Camden. Then he resumed:

“Yep, I’ve seen different snakes all over the country, but the rattlesnakes is the smartest o’ the bunch. They got real intellect, them rattlers. I’ll show you what I mean.

“I was workin’ on the Fall Brook down in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1900. It was a little shack right on the bank o’ Pine Creek in Lycoming county. It’s a wild country around there, full o’ rattlers, an’ such, but nobody paid much attention - kinda took ’em fer granted, like. The natives down there don’t bother to kill ‘em onless they get too much in the way; and the dang snakes has kinda learned to behave themselves.

“First day or two I was there, I went across the tracks to throw a switch for a coal-drag comin’ in on the siding - and there was a big rattler coiled right around the bottom o’ the switch stand. I reached for a piece o’ballast to bust him on the head, but he unwrapped hisself quick and slid outa the way. I throwed the switch and stepped over with my rock balanced to throw; but that darn reptile looked at me with such a pleadin’ expression in his eyes that I didn’t have the heart to do it.

“I dropped the ballast and started back to the office. I looked back as I went in - and there was mister rattler follerin; me! Not like he wanted to catch up, but kinda hesitatin’-- like, as he wasn’t sure whether I’d like it or not! I started to shoo him away, but he looked so kinda disconsolate that I didn’t bother, and he come right into the office and curled over back o’ the semaphore levers as polite as ye please.

“When I started to eat my lunch he kinda turned his head the other way, like he didn’t want to ‘introod.’ But I could see by the wigglin’ o’ his tail that he wouldn’t mind j’inin’ me; so I offered him part of a ham sandwich, an’ he stretched out, careful, an’ took it outa my fingers, gentle as a lamb.

“Yes, sir, that rattler sure knew his stuff. After a while, I kinda inducd him to leave, but he was back next day, and that was what you might call the beginnin’ of a beautiful friendship. It wasn’t long before I

noticed that whenever he’d hear the telegraph sounder, he’d elevate that big head o’ his an listen, careful, to ever sound.

“Then, one day, I heard a dang curious sound. The sounders wasn’t workin’ an’ everything was quiet, when all of a sudden, I heard Morse code from over behind the bunk. When I looked, there as my snake practicin’ the alphabet on his rattles! I listened, careful, and the old boy was doin’ pretty good for a ham! He was runnin’ thru everything from A to Z, and then he’d start in on the figures. I got busy, then with the key an’ I rattled off “G. M., Mister Morse.” In a minute them rattles answered me, slow an’ hesitatin’, but readable, “G.M., friend - 73’s.” After that, it wasn’t long before we could carry on a reg’lar conversation - an’ that’s when I learned so much about snakes!”

“O’ course, Mr. Morse never got so he could do any real telegraphin’ on the line. The limitations o’ his bodily makeup was agi’n him, it bein’ an impossibility for him to use a key or a pencil - but he sure was a lotta company. And he was a top-notcher at scarin’ away bums an’ hoboes.

“He was my pal for four-five months and I was busy teachin’ him the Continental code, when a tragedy come up which kinda put a crimp into my spirits.

“Mr. Morse was foragin’ around in the grass along the right-o‘-way one day, when one o’th’ section men, not knowin’ he was there, cut him plumm in half with a scythe. The guy raised a yell an’ I come a-runnin’ - but poor Mr. Morse was a goner!

“-An’ the last memory I had of him was his rattles stickin’ up in up above the grass, vibratin’ in beautiful codes: “30-30. GB, old pal.”

At this moment the Oswego train dispatcher called and narrator Fairchild interrupted himself to copy a train order.

Night Operator Backus looked at Al Rose with tears streaming down his cheek and remarked softly:

“Wasn’t that just awful?”

“The worsest I ever heard,” agreed the railroad dick. “I got half a notion to run him in for corruptin’ the morals o’ decent railroad men!”
Back to Date Published

Syracuse Post-Standard, March 16, 1947

Just Around the Corner

Memory is a wise old gal. She waves a jeweled hand, she smiles a haunting smile – and, lo! She has spun a magic spell which wafts you back to the days of your youth. All she lets you see there is the fun you had and the songs you sun. All the rest – the sorrow and the futility and the dirt and the tears and the sin – are mercifully hidden from your enchanted eyes.

That’s why we old-timers are always mumbling about the “Good Old Times.” There never were any such times and there never will be. What we oldsters talk about is merely the gilt and gold with which memory paints our nostalgic visions of a drab past.


Let’s forget about city life for a moment and try to etch a truthful vignette of how folks existed in a typical little Oneida county hamlet the last few years of the 19th century.

We had, of course, no electricity, no gas, no running water in the house. Our idea of a plumber was the boy who held the plumb-line for the carpenter. The big, old wood-burning range in the kitchen had to be crammed full of hard maple for every meal, winter and summer, alike. If you’ve ever opened the oven door on a sultry morning in August to take out the pies, you’ll know what I mean.

We had no autos, no radios, no telephones, no daily newspapers – our tri-weekly Oswego Times always a day late – there was one small phonograph in the village and Leroy Page, its owner, had just one dozen records which came with the machine. I don’t recall his ever having bought any more. There were no street lights; and on moonless nights, we wandered about bearing big, tin lanterns, fueled with kerosene.

The only canned goods on grocer Zenas White’s shelves were salmon and corn. Oranges, bananas and lemons were available only “in season.” The farmers knew little, and cared less about scientific agriculture. Rotation of crops was unknown – or, at least, unpracticed. Some years the yield was good, sometimes poor; but the market always was vague and uncertain, the price table, sketchy, the transportation poor; and the farmer’s proboscis was always in close proximity to the grinestone.

Travel by rail was just a long drawn-out series of interminable delays; due to the fact that the whole country was smothered in a web of “independent” rail lines, each seeking to phenagle the other, but with not the slightest thought of cooperation for the comfort or safety of the public.

You boarded a travesty of a train on the O.& W. for Oneida. Arriving there having 14 miles in the breath-taking interval of an hour and 30 minutes, you walked a mile to the West Shore station and waited five hours for a train to Utica. Here you walked or rode clear across the city to get to the D.L.& W. depot, where, after another interminable wait, you clambered onto the lone passenger coach which dangled at the end of the “freight and accommodation” train for South Columbia. That’s why it took you all day and part of the evening to travel 50 miles.


In those “Good Old Days” disease ran its sinister course, practically uncontrolled. Many doctors still adhered to the practice of “leeching” or blood-letting, “consumption” was supposed to be incurable and “operations” were 90 percent fatal. If you broke your neck or your back, you were counted dead and no fooling around about it. The dentist pulled your teeth with a “turnkey” and without anesthetic. At 40 a woman was old; and a man was supposed to be just about finished, as far as manual labor was concerned, at 50. He carried no insurance, he knew nothing of “Social Security” and he maintained no burial fund.

(But I seem to recall that he, apparently, didn’t give a hoot).

A man’s “Sunday suit” hung for six days a week in the little dark closet under the stairs and was expected to last for uncounted years. His everyday attire was an old and awe-inspiring conglomeration of odds and ends which he didn’t really wear –they wore him.

There was little variety in his food. Salt pork was his staple meat and cabbage his almost daily vegetable. Tomatoes were just beginning to emerge from the category of ornamental shrubbery with inedible fruit; and stuff like salads, ice cream and chocolate éclairs were just things to be spitefully mentioned when talking about the well-to-do folks on upper Main Street.


In those days, the standard wage for manual laborers other than farmhands was one dollar a day. The farmers paid 75 cents for “day labor,” if you found yourself,” or 50 cents plus dinner.

And the merry farmer sold his butter for 15 cents a pound, his eggs at 12 cents a dozen and his fall-butchered pork for four cents a pound. The only place he could market his milk was at the local cheese factory and he had to accept whatever the cheesemaker offered him. This guy didn’t get more than six or seven cents for his cheese, either.

The hamlet denizen had little in the way of what modern concerns call entertainment and relaxation, either. Semi-occasionally a “medicine show” would wander into town for a one-night stand and the housewives would stock up with Sagwaw. In March came town meeting, when almost all the male citizens would have a few beers, listen to a little oratory and vote Republican.

As my Uncle Noel wrote in the September 12 issue of The Oswego Times in the year 1891:

“The farmer leads no E.Z. life:
“The C.D. sows will rot.
“And when at E.V. rests from strife,
“His bones will A.K. lot.”


So, in this modern era, when some Syracuse citizen who has done pretty well for himself, gets the old nostalgia that harks him back to the “Good Old Days,” eh goes and hunts up a place near his old ancestral home out there in the sticks along Oneida lake. He builds a 3-car garage; he puts in modern plumbing and an electric pump, he installs lights, refrigeration and air conditioning, and three telephone extensions. He hires a native to mow his lawn, grow his flowers, and care for his motor boat.

Then, he sits back and tells the boys at the office what a fine thing it is to get back to nature, to live again just as he did when he was a barefoot boy. It’s bunk; he couldn’t live 24 hours under the conditions that obtained when he was a little shaver – and he knows it.

But that will be all right – he should, at least, sleep good; he lies easy!

Back to Date Published

Just Around the Corner
By Bertrande

Syracuse Post-Standard, May 1, 1949 (Excerpt)

Time was when the very heart and soul of the railroad game was the Morse telegrapher. Without him, trains could not move; without him, communication between the varied branches of the service was impossible, except by mail or messenger. He was at one and the same time the most neglected and the most highly necessary employee on the payroll.

His monthly pay was regulated just below that of any other railroader - with the possible exception of the call-boy. His assignments of work, although having the false promises of a certain regularity, were, in fact, subject to any and every whim of the chief dispatcher, the trainmaster and the division superintendent.

He must be abundantly able to transmute the frenzy of the clicking sounder into an orderly array of instructions, whose connotations carried within their stilted phrases the lives and limbs of train crews and passengers. Whether he labored amid the shrieking turmoil of a great terminal yard, or in a little cabin among the voiceless silences of the wilderness, he must be ever alert, ever competent and ever a railroader.

Today, the Morse telegrapher has almost completely disappeared - gone, vanished down the dim vista of time. His stuttering sounder is replaced by the strident bell on the train dispatcher's phone; and the once flashing contacts of his old "bug" rust to decay on the highest shelf of the office locker. Morse telegraphy is a lost art, and only echo is left to tell the merry tales of a half-forgotten era.

(That is, I should say - only Echo and E)


I never made any pretensions to having been one of the pioneer railroaders; but, honest to goodness, brother, I DID know the man that invented the Rule Book!

When I was a young squirt, starry-eyed, full of inhibitions, and a fresh as a morning dewdrop on a humming-bird's tail, I was a telegraph operator on the old Fall Brook division of the New York Central.

There was an old-timer working the night shift at BX Tower in Middlebury, Pa., and his name was Johnny Jones. One night, we rode No. 10 to Corning, and there Johnny introduced me to his old friend, Division Superintendent G.R. Brown, the Rule Book man.

At the moment old G.R.B. was occupying his favorite spot at the extreme south end of the Dickenson House bar, and when the introductions were over he lost no time in inviting us to join him in a libation, at the same time making motions to the bartender to remember his mission on Earth.

Superintendent Brown was a short, stocky man, full of years and not entirely empty of cheer.

"You will understand, gentlemen," he orated as the refilled glasses were set before us, "that I am unalterably opposed to liquor in any form, shape or substance. I have dedicated no small portion of my life to aiding in its utter end and complete annihilation, and I am never averse to asking of volunteer aid in getting rid of it - barkeep, set up another round!"

Right at this point, I became possessed of an unfortunate urge to be smart. I was well aware of the fact that Mr. Brown was the author and compiler of the standard railroad Rules which was then- as now - in general use on American railroads; and, as he continued, I recalled one of the most controversial and widely quoted paragraphs in his famous volume.

" - But," I butted, "what about your Rule G, Mr. Brown?"

(For the benefit of the uninitiated, I here quote that famous rule: "Employees will not use intoxicating liquors as a beverage and will not frequent places where such beverages are sold.")

Mr. Brown placed an elbow on the bar and slowly turned to face me. His expression at the moment indicated that he sorrowed more than angered, and he prodded my Ascot tie with a stubby and forcible forefinger as he replied:

"Son, a remark like that indicates not only that you have a lot to learn, but likewise that never in God's world will ye learn it! A man who's smart enough to write a book of rules that's now in use on every streak o' rust in the country ought to know how to get around any or all of them same rules himself.

"Now, my festive brass-pounder, you pick up that o' yarn that you just throwed onto the bar and you make tracks through that outside door before I lose my temper and buy you another drink - and that, my sprightly caboose lawyer, is somethin' I know dang well you couldn't stand, nohow!"


The passage of more than half a century since the time of the above episode has added no little rust to the highways of steel and worn no little sheen from the bright panoply of youth - but I guess that's all right, because just so surely as the New grows Old, just so surely will the Old become New, again!

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