"Remember The RW&O"
Railroad Magazine, July, 1940, P. 128
Who remembers the old Rome, Watertown &
Ogdensburg (now a part of the New York Central)? I spent the winter
of 1880 at the RW&O station in Mexico, N.Y., near Oswego and I'd
like to hear from readers who were acquainted with this 400-mile
The RW&O was rather primitive. With the
exception of a stretch of four miles, iron rails were still in use
in 1880. These rails, which had been brought over from Wales, were
of the 56-pound type. No fishplates were used on them, the joint
coming on a tie. A chair, made of boiler iron, about six inches
square, with a lug turned up on the two opposite sides to keep the
"chair" in place, was used to prevent low joints The ends of these
rails often became battered and a low joint was almost inevitable.
In such a case "shims," or broad, flat wedges of wood, were used to
correct the low spots.
Bridges, usually of wood, were often too frail
to support two engines at once. In case of a double-header, the
leading engine was cut off before the train crossed.
In 1880 the RW&O had about fifty serviceable
engines. A dozen or more of them were ancient and very light. Not an
engine on the line was equipped with air, while very few had
I vividly recall a time when one of the
injector-less engines was stalled in a long deep cut, behind a
snowplow. Before the gang could shovel her out, the water was low.
To meet this emergency, they set men filling the tank with snow,
jacked her free from the rails and let her drivers spin, thus
keeping her alive.
Of the other engines, I remember two of the
inside connected vintage. Steam chests, cylinder, guides and
crossheads, etc., were under the boiler and back of the smoke arch.
Main rods connected with cranks in the driving shaft instead of with
a crank pin in the driver, as the present.
Perhaps a dozen of the locomotives were wood-
burners, with balloon stacks. Firemen became very expert in handling
the blocks of wood, often standing well back of the tender, hurling
the blocks end-over-end and seldom missing the firebox door.
Long woodsheds were not rare along the line,
but the majority of the engines were soft-coal burners, with diamond
stacks. It was at about this time that straight stacks with
red-banded tops began to make an appearance.
Our train orders were anything but simple.
There was no such thing as a "standard" order. Semaphores were
unknown on the line. In most cases, operators used a flag, stuck in
a crack on the platform, or wedged against the rails. The simplest
orders were entangled in endless red tape, a change of meeting-place
between two trains requiring as many as nine separate and distinct
messages, answers verifications and Okays.
In spite of all this, or possibly because of
it, timetables had often not the faintest connection with actual
running schedules. An extra train, called a wildcat, was enough to
throw the line into a frenzy of orders and counter orders. To
illustrate: An original order would be sent out, "Welch and Welch
(conductor and engineer). Wildcat, London to Liverpool, this day."
At this point, the dispatcher stepped in with orders. He first
designated a meeting-point, ignoring the timetable. The operator at
the designated point was then given the following order, "Flag and
hold Train One until Train Two arrives, this day." The operator was
required to repeat this order and receive an okay before the next
step could be taken. The next order went to the wildcat, "Run to M
(the point designated) regardless of Train One." Next, Train One
(assuming there had been no mix-up in this storm of orders) was held
at the designated point. This state of affairs was reported by the
operator to the dispatcher. The dispatcher then Okayed the
statement. The op returned to Train One with the okayed statement
and his order book. Conductor and engineer were then required to
okay this already okayed statement and the whole thing was once more
relayed to the dispatcher. When, or if, the second train arrived at
the meeting-point, the whole procedure was gone through once more.
An additional complication was that separate copies of each order
had to be given to conductors and engineers involved and carbon
paper was not used.
In January 1881, I was given a position as
operator with the Lackawanna in the freight and coal yards at
Syracuse. This line was far more modern than the RW&O. The two
divisions of the Lackawanna reaching Syracuse were both laid with
steel rail. For some years, the Northern Division had operated a
clumsy and costly system of trackage. It consisted of standard and
broad gauge on the same ties. This made a specially designed
drawhead necessary, Couplings had to be made at an angle, and links
of an unusual shape were carried on the tank of every engine.
"Foreign" cars sometimes proved puzzles. Just when the third rail
was taken up, I don't know, but I well remember that the marks were
still on the ties.
At that time most of the engines on the roads I
saw, in contrast to the Rome line, were equipped with air for train
use, but had no power brakes on drivers and trucks. A hand brake on
the tank and the reverse lever had to serve the purpose when the
engine ran light. I believe injectors were in universal use on these
Vast quantities of anthracite were carried, not
only for home consumption but also for shipment by water to Canada,
through the port of Oswego. Most coal was handled in jimmies,
four-wheeled, boxlike affairs, each carrying about six tons. The
jimmy was equipped with a bib hook for drawhead, a three-link
coupling and a cruel dead-block. This type of coupling left some
inches of slack between any two cars and what happened to the
caboose riders when the engine took up the slack, I leave to the
reader's imagination. The brake on these jimmies consisted of a long
lever and ratchet, operated from the running board side of the car.
All boxcars, flats, gondolas, and jimmies were
equipped with the bloody dead-block. As far as I can learn, not
another man of ll. Those who were working on the line from 1880 to
1884 are now living. If, however, I were wrong and any of the number
read this letter, I would be most happy to hear from him. - L.S.
Boyd, Geneva, N.Y.