Railroading in Finger Lakes country with Two Veteran Engineers
Trains don’t grab the public’s attention like they did a generation or two ago. Steam locomotives are gone; that lonesome whistle in the night is no longer. Passenger trains are far fewer, as are branch lines and small-town stations. Double-stacked shipping containers aren’t nearly as interesting to look at as box cars displaying 100 different railroad names. Sitting waiting at a grade crossing is more frustrating than fascinating for most of us these days; we’re all in too much of a hurry, and usually there’s not even a caboose to wave at.
So who wants to grow up to be a locomotive engineer any more?
Around the Finger Lakes area there are several short lines, “spun-off” remnants of the mainline railroads, which have actually done rather well providing far more personalized service than could ever be managed by a mega-merged, Florida-to-Canada operation like CSX or Norfolk Southern. The Livonia, Avon & Lakeville connects Lakeville’s sweetener plant with the world, runs the old “Champagne Trail” line between Bath and Hammondsport, and now has revived a segment of the original Erie Railroad Southern Tier mainline. Finger Lakes Central lives up to its name around Canandaigua, Geneva, Auburn, Watkins Glen (and preserves predecessor New York Central’s old paint scheme). The Owego & Harford Railway perpetuates part of the Lehigh Valley’s old Auburn branch, and over its rails runs the Tioga Scenic, a very aptly-named passenger excursion operation. All of these lines preserve a human element that’s very much missed today when that thundering, mile-long, caboose-less mainline container freight train goes powering by.
And none of these have had any trouble finding locomotive engineers.
After talking to Elwood Belknap and Gordon Brinthaupt, we think we’ve found out why. Being a locomotive engineer still does something it always did; it gets in the blood. Elwood runs the Tioga Scenic passenger train (Owego to Newark Valley), Gordy runs mostly freight (further on to Harford) for the Owego & Harford. Is it in the blood? Here’s what you need to know: these gentlemen are ages 75 and 84 respectively. Elwood, always a railroad fan, went with former operator Tioga Central as a painter in 1988; Gordy is a career railroader, having hired on with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1941. They don’t do it for salary any more, nor can they; they do it because this is what they do.
Elwood Belknap answered some questions for us about how it’s done. Tioga Scenic No. 40, at 600 horsepower — a pint-sized engine as diesels go, is also no youngster: it will turn 50 years old next year. But it’s adequate to the task, is in good shape, and gives the railroad good service. About an hour and a half before departure time on your average summer Saturday or Sunday (or other times when the train has been chartered), Elwood is up in the cab, has checked oil, water, and the engine’s compressor, and has the little GM diesel turning over steadily. Next is a required checklist to identify any potential problems. A burned-out headlight, for example, requires immediate attention and is so noted. The checklist notes when the problem was found, when it was fixed and by whom. The brake test is critical. With locomotive and train coupled together, is air getting through the line to every car, so the brakes will act equally everywhere? If any car is found to be offending, unless it’s a sticky valve or some other simple fix, that car won’t run that day. Whether you run 125 mph, as Amtrak does on the Northeast Corridor, or 15 mph, as Tioga Scenic does on the run to Newark Valley, that requirement is in common, and is equally important for freight.
You won’t hear a lot of horn-blowing at departure time. Tioga Scenic “flags” its highway crossings in Owego, meaning that one crew member gets on the ground and signals the train through the crossing. When all is ready and the “highball” is given – the old-fashioned “all aboard” wave from the conductor – Elwood kicks off the brake, gets the bell to ringing, latches out the throttle, and another passenger excursion is under way. Throttles on most diesels today “notch” all the way out. Not this one: the throttle on this EMD SW-1 (see sidebar on page 12) has just one notch and slides the rest of the way. That provides smooth control at slow speeds in railyards, where this engine was designed to spend most of its life.
The maximum track speed is federally mandated for the age and weight of the rail and the type of service. For Tioga Scenic it’s 15 mph up to Newark Valley. Owego & Harford freight trains, over the same rails and beyond to Harford, run at 10 mph. Don’t forget, this is an old branch line. It has fought to stay in existence over the years, and the traffic level hasn’t justified main-line maintenance. Fifteen miles per hour is just fine for a leisurely, sight-seeing passenger operation. And 10 mph is acceptable for the mainly bulk commodities, such as gas, salt, and scrap metal, that Owego & Harford carries. With the little GM diesel rocking along, and people in the cars behind enjoying themselves, it’s an hour up to Newark Valley, and an hour back. Upon return the starting process is more or less reversed. If it’s Saturday, there might be both a lunch and a dinner train. Considering time spent in setting up and taking down, and time in between runs, that can make for a good, long, old-fashioned work day on the railroad.
Elwood Belknap first brought his talents to what was then the Tioga Central as a painter, in 1988. He has a commercial for you: SOS pads do a great job of taking accumulated rust and grime off a diesel locomotive that’s getting ready to be painted. He painted their locomotives and all but two of their cars. Eventually he made it to the locomotive cab, but there are a series of steps before qualifying to run solo, including a rules class; he and Gordon took that at the same time. Elwood remembers the exact day he qualified to run solo: Thanksgiving Day 1990. Until comparatively recently you were qualified by individual railroad management; today you also need a license. Elwood’s and Gordon’s blue cards are both signed by Mike McCarthy, road foreman of engines for the Owego & Harford. Small railroad, same official title as on the big lines.
Elwood the railroad fan hung out with J.J. Young, the photographer who has done the most over the years to chronicle railroading in the Southern Tier and particularly around Binghamton, a railroad town if ever there was one. Elwood the collector maintains a collection of railroad air horns and steam whistles which would fill a room.
Gordon Brinthaupt dropped off the Owego & Harford freight north of Owego, and rode a company highway vehicle into town to make time for an interview. And the stories began. Gordy signed on with the old Pennsylvania Railroad in 1941, when that railroad didn’t have a diesel on its books, and when railroads were still the dominant form of both passenger and freight transportation. He began work as a car inspector, then became a hostler’s helper, moving steam engines around roundhouse areas for servicing. War interrupted, and he earned his engine rating in Germany with the 718th Railway Operating Battalion. Back in the U.S., he spent 20 years as the engineer for the wreck derrick out of the PRR’s old Southport Yard in Elmira, retiring in August 1978. That year, he joined what was then the Tioga Central, and spent his first six months spreading ballast as the line’s roadbed was reconditioned for service.
The stories abound. The Pennsylvania’s steam freight engines tended to be nothing fancy; in fact, this enormous railroad at one time stabled over 500 of a waddling, plodding behemoth of a locomotive type which crews called “Hippos,” and which Gordon says were “rough-riding and miserable to work on, but, boy, could they ever pull.” One of their regular assignments was coal trains over the old Northern Central between Elmira and Watkins Glen and the coal loading dock at Sodus Point on Lake Ontario. Once or twice a week, the nearby New York Central would also drop down into Southport Yard for a train of coal which it would take up through Geneva to connect with its main line at Lyons. At Watkins Glen, a Pennsylvania locomotive would give the NYC train a push up out of town until it regained its own rails at Himrod. One day, says Gordy, the automomatic stoker quit on the NYC locomotive. Trying to hand-shovel coal to the firebox on a large locomotive, the NYC crew was on its third attempt to get moving out of Watkins Glen when the air brakes went into emergency, a sign that a connection had broken somewhere in the train. The culprit was an old 40-foot coal hopper car which had essentially collapsed in between its end sills. “That Hippo was shoving so hard from behind that the force had sandwiched the thing.”
That sort of thing doesn’t happen pulling salt, scrap and gas with a diesel on the Owego & Harford, but the fascination is still there. Every once in a while, Gordy says, his wife will ask, “Why don’t you do something around the house?” After about two days of that, she’ll say, “Why don’t you go down to the railroad and get back at it?”
At the close of our interview, Gordy had gotten up into the cab of Tioga Scenic No. 40 for a photograph. At that precise moment, a locomotive bell was heard from north of the Owego depot: O&H No. 1811, in from Harford and ready to move the day’s freight into the line’s small interchange yard for pickup by Norfolk Southern. While No. 1811 coupled up to move Tioga Scenic’s two luxury dining cars to an adjacent track, the O&H’s young regular engineer, freshly on duty, cranked up Tioga Scenic No. 40 for the switching assignment, and asked Gordy if he was going to hang around for awhile. It would be easier in the yard with one man in the cab and one on the ground, connected by radio. Gordon, age 84, readily acquiesced. After all, it’s in the blood.
Nothing could be finer than dinner in the diner
Take it from an old train rider, dinner in a good railroad dining car was a great travel experience. The Tioga Scenic advertises that experience, even at 15 mph. In fact, its two diners – one with kitchen, one with bar – are its two newest cars. As with all Tioga Scenic cars, as well as engine No. 40, they carry the names of women, young and older, who are family to the Tioga Scenic. “Capri Ashley” and “Tiffany Marie” are typical streamlined, smooth-sided examples of the last big late-1940s car-buying splurge, when railroads gambled that money could still be made hauling postwar passengers.
These cars weren’t much to look at when Tioga Scenic got them, though. They needed to be torn right down and put back together pretty. This job was given to Deborah Roane, a marketing professional from Endwell who has been employed to carry the message in many ways for this railroad. When not handling assignments such as depot color schemes, she designed a new interior décor for the two diners, and contributed considerable elbow grease to their teardown and reincarnation as well. Today the cars are a handsome reminder of civilized travel in early postwar times. They serve a lunch menu and a more elaborate dinner menu (led off by “The Engineer,” roast prime rib), prepared in the onboard kitchen in the old manner. The leisurely track speed notwithstanding, if you’re old enough you might be reminded a little bit of dining aboard the Lehigh Valley’s “Black Diamond.” It ran to Buffalo, via Ithaca and Geneva – right through the heart of Finger Lakes country.
Tioga Scenic No. 40 and Owego & Harford No. 1811 neatly bracket what’s commonly called the “first generation” of commercially successful diesel-electric locomotives – the diesels that displaced steam power on America’s railroads between 1940 and 1960. No. 40, while among the last of its model to be built (in 1953), actually dates back in design to the Winton-engined switcher that first put General Motors in your average railroad yard in the early 1940s. It’s a 600-horsepower SW-1, built by GM’s Electro-Motive Division (EMD) as Boston & Maine No. 1126. Its electrical generator is actually larger than the little V-type, two-cycle diesel engine that powers it, an engine design that Gordon Brinthaupt says was also found in submarines during World War II.
If that won’t bring the railroad enthusiasts to the property, Owego & Harford No. 1811 will. Numbered to represent its horsepower range (1800 hp) by original owner Canadian Pacific, it’s a late-1950s product of Montreal Locomotive Works, built to designs of the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) of Schenectady. Its use on the old Owego-Auburn line has a nice symmetry, because the diesel engines inside ALCO locomotives were for the most part manufactured in – yes – Auburn. ALCO left the locomotive business in 1969, Montreal Locomotive quit in 1985, and the remaining ALCOs out there today are prize finds for railfans. They’re often called “honorary steam locomotives” for their propensity to smoke excessively upon initial acceleration, due to an overly rich mixture as the turbocharger catches up with engine speed.
Elwood Belknap and Gordon Brinthaupt both love ALCOs. They’re great low-speed “haulers”; fewer but heavier pistons in their slower-running four-cycle engines make for more weight on the axles, resulting in an ability to really dig in. Their builder’s demise notwithstanding, parts can still be had, and a bunch of ALCOs are concentrated on short lines in the Finger Lakes area, from Lakeville to Lockport to Utica to Owego. Gordy related the best quote this writer had ever heard on the subject: “The EMD’s were the railroads’ racehorses; the ALCOs were the draft horses.” His comment on the previous day’s performance by Owego & Harford No. 1811 was illustrative: “It walked right out of here yesterday with 14 cars of gas and 15 cars of everything else.”
by Bruce Beardsley
Bruce Beardsley is a railroad enthusiast who resides in Rochester, New York.