Several people have allowed us to share their railroad tower stories. An interlocking tower is more than just moving levers and watching trains roll by - its a human experience. Thanks to everyone who have shared their memories with us. We will continue to add more stories as time permits. If you would like to share your railroad tower story, you can submit your story to the webmaster.
Submitted by Steve Hubbard
My uncle told of the time he had a visitor - an assistant trainmaster that
was not exactly well liked. He wanted to know why there was a request
for indoor plumbing when there was a perfectly good outhouse outside. He
then said the request was denied. The assistant trainmaster proceeded to
the outhouse to do what everyone else used it for. Uncle Herb turned to
the signal maintainer and said, "You know, Ed, I don't remember if i told him about
the huge hornets nest under the seat."
My uncle Herb said that two things happened that day - the section
crew, the signalmaintainer, the crew of the local, and Uncle Herb watched
as the assistant stood a few feet in front of the outhouse his pants
down at his ankels swatting at the wasps that were having a fieldday
stabbing his backside. At the end of his shift, word was recived that
indoor plumbing was ordered for the tower.
Submitted by Randall Gustafson
I began college in Jamestown, NY in 1974 - which at that time was on the Erie-Lackawanna main line. The college was close enough I could hear, but not see, about 20 trains a day passing nearby. There was a lot of railroad action here, unlike my home town.
Exploring the area led to a discovery - there was an interlocking tower, a real one, not far away. Little "DV" (named for the crossing of the Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley & Pittsburgh line; DAV&P) controlled a set of double crossovers and the interlocking at Waterboro for the secondary main line up to Buffalo, NY.
I'd visit the tower that fall, keeping a respectful distance, and photographing trains. One day the operator leaned out the window and yelled at me "Westbound coming in five minutes, want to come up and take your picture from here?" I nearly fell over getting inside and climbing the wooden stairs in the stone ex-Erie tower.
Erie-Lackawanna's DV Tower near Jamestown, New York. This was literally 15 minutes before this story happened. Ward's VW bug is there, and this is looking west toward Jamestown.
Photo by Randall Gustafson
It was a classic tower, and all the interlocking levers were still in place along with the model board. There was a true dispatchers OS sheet with lots of entries, and a ancient scissors phone. The manual levers went to an electrical relay interlocking in the ground floor, but that was the extent of modernization. I got my pictures by leaning out the windows, and got the next invitation. "Want to line up the next route?"
The operator showed me the pistol grip and said, "Watch my hands", and leaned into the high lever with both arms smoothly latching the switch over with a loud 'KA-THUNK', and pointed to the model board and and showed the change in signals. He moved it back...." Here, you do it". I was all of 19 at the time. I followed his lead, hit the grip - leaned into it, and nearly pulled my arms out of the socket. He shook his head condescendingly.... "No, son, really lean into it! Kids these days...". This time I REALLY pulled it, and absolutely nothing budged at all. He clucked his tongue. "Here, watch again, it's all in the wrist".. and ONE HANDED, threw the lever over, and pushed it back. "Try it again....!" ....as I reached for it he started laughing.... "Oh, did I tell you about the foot pedal?" He'd made sure to distract me to watch his hands so that I never noticed where he was stepping to release the pedal lever lock!
I'd been thoroughly had, but he was a great teacher. From that point on, I skipped every free class period I could get, and hung out at the DV Tower. I recognized Ward's Volkswagen bug, and knew it was safe when only his car was there. He showed me lineup sheets, how to tie on orders and hoop them up, and all the tower names across the Mahoning Division. He showed me what to watch for on a passing train - flat wheels, dragging equipment - sticking brakes. It rapidly became my college Railroading 101 course, and the sound of the clanking annunciator could increase my pulse.
Conrail came in 1976, of course, and the PC DAV&P diamond was immediately torn up. Traffic dropped within weeks, and the tower was only manned one shift. Ward was reassigned. I met other operators, and even wrote some articles about the tower. Finally, by 1987, the now-Conrail line went 'dark', the tower was closed, and it was to be demolished. Before it came down, I got one last look upstairs with the Trainmaster. Somebody had removed and saved the model board, but those huge levers were still there. I got to 'hit the pedal' one more time and throw the levers, even though nothing was connected anymore. A day later it was rubble.
I work in railroading now, and no computer CTC screen can ever replace the feel of those levers, and the definitive power they conveyed. That sense, and that direct massive sound and feel of steel moving trains under your control, needs saved. It's as much a part of railroading as any locomotive, or any "all aboard" call, or all the dusty photographs. Just remember to release the floor pedal...
Submitted by Tim Wills
Working in the railroad industry was my career goal from the time I was in high school, and was something I achieved when I graduated from college. The company that gave me my first big break was the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, and, yes, I was an operator at Grasselli!
I have to admit that Grasselli was not among my favorite towers. Compared to the fast pace of busier towers like Calumet, Dolton, and State Line, the only real action (other than north and southbound trains) at Grasselli was letting yard jobs in and out of the East Chicago Belt to service Union Tank Car and other industries, and the DuPont plant on the other side of Kennedy Avenue.
Grasselli and State Line were the only two IHB towers that still had pipeline-controlled switches. Sometimes lining up the desired route was a challenge; there were times that I had to try five or six times to get an individual switch to line properly, but most of the time I was successful after the first try or two. The secret was to get enough momentum going early in the throw to help the switch slam into place.
I was very fortunate to have had the chance to work in these towers before they were taken out of service. State Line unfortunately is gone, but I really hope that Grasselli will be preserved as an example of what made the railroads “tick” before the computer age.
The Soo Line's Spring Hill Tower was located in Terre Haute, Indiana. This is where Bob Kremer worked and our tower story takes place.
Photo by David Honan
Submitted by Bob Kremer of
Terre Haute, Indiana
Retired Soo Line Train Dispatcher
I had the good fortune to work the Soo Line Springhill tower in Terre Haute, Indiana for a couple of years before it's demise in 1999. We controlled Northward and Southward single main CSXT traffic across the Soo diamond there, as well as Soo traffic. About a mile or two north of Springhill was the CSXT Haley tower which controlled the aforementioned North/South traffic, as well as East/West CSXT traffic running through the plant between Indianapolis and St. Louis.
I worked second trick, and my counterpart at Haley was a seasoned rail by the name of Steve. He was at the mercy of two different train dispatchers, each of which didn't give a particular rip about the other, but Steve did a remarkable job of keeping things moving with minimal delays. He was constantly on the radio, inquiring about train locations with "whereyagittintabe." The first time I heard Steve I didn't, for the life of me, know what he was saying. After hearing a couple of train crews responding with their location the true nature of Steve's utterance became clear.
So one day the CSXT Woodland Sub dispatcher threw up a request for a Northward signal on my board, just about the time I had a Soo Line train 15 minutes or so from the diamond. I called out to the Northward CSXT train approaching Springhill for a location. After a pause I hear something like, "Soo Line...you calling Q120 (or whatever the train ID was)?" "Yes," I replied. "What is your present location?" After a pause it was, "Come again, Soo Line?" "Where is your head end, presently?" Still another pause and then, "Try that again Soo Line." With that I took a deep, deep breath, and with every ounce of energy I could muster I bellowed, "WHEREYAGITTINTABE Q120?" "Ohhhh....we're going through Youngs..."
I thanked the crew, lined them up, called the Soo Line train and told them to pinch em down just a little...and everything turned out just peachy. "Whereyagittintabe" became SOP for me henceforth.