The "pony" engine "Providence" shown switching the New York Central yards with Auburn State Prison in the background, about 1872

Auburn Citizen, Friday, June 8, 1928
Retired Engineman Tells of Early Days of Old Wood Burners on Auburn Road
Recounting stories of railroading in days of old on the Auburn road,
John R. Burke, native Auburnian now residing in Newark, tells an interesting tale in the New York Central Magazine.
Mr. Burke, who began his career 51 years ago, starting with the New York Central 11 years later came unharmed through the early days of primitive equipment and was retired as engineman on the Syracuse Division early this year. His reminiscences follow:
Born December 11, 1857, at Auburn, N.Y., and brought up there, I entered the service of the New York Central Railroad in November, 1872, on the old Auburn work train.

     There was a gang of 20 to 25 men on the train. I did the same work as the other men, and received the same wages - $1.50 for 12 hours; work. I was not yet 15 years old, and I never was a water boy. I flanged the track in winter with wooden shovels before there was any such thing as a flanger car. I picked and shoveled gravel in Half-Way Gravel Pit before there was any steam shovel, and more than one day I had to sit in a snow bank and eat frozen food when noon-time came.

Dan Shapcott was the engineer and was also the conductor who hired and discharged the men, kept the time of the men and supervised all the work. His engine was the 206. Our working territory was from Syracuse to Geneva. Hank Hall was road maser and he had two brothers - "Ed," section foreman at Cayuga, and "O.J.," conductor of the Canandaigua work train. Commodore Vanderbilt was president and William H. Vanderbilt, his son, was vice president then. James Tillinghast was general superintendent with offices at Syracuse, and from Syracuse to Rochester was a division of on both the main line and the Auburn road.

Twenty-five to 30 cars (with not more than 10 tons of freight in each car) comprised a train in those days, DeWitt freight yard was not yet thought of at that time. Henry Ward was station agent at Auburn in those days, and I succeeded his son, Kilbourne Ward, as yardmaster at Auburn, when he went to the M.D. T. people at Syracuse.(1)

Coupling Cars at Auburn.
In the spring of 1873 I went coupling cars in Auburn yard with the pin and link, crooked link and chain link, and dead blocks, the most dangerous cars that ever were built. At this time thee were passenger car shops in Auburn for building and repairing passenger cars and painting and varnishing them. The foreman's name was William Johnson. There also was a blacksmith shop for mending rails, as the ends of the rails would get battered down, and then would have to be taken out and repaired. No steel rails in those days.

Tom Munsell was boss blacksmith. William B. Munsell, a son, was pensioned two months ago in Buffalo as an engineman. These shops stood where the freight house now stands, from Seymour Street to Chapel Street, and they were built by the old Auburn & Syracuse Railroad when John H. Chedell of Auburn was president. Afterwards consolidation took place and the line was called the New York Central.

Early Passenger Engines.
Who is there now that remembers those passenger engineers of the several entities that ran over the Auburn road in the days when I worked with them? There was Hank Case on engine 194, John Kinney, fireman; Charley Simonds, engine 26; Ed. Morriott, fireman; Bill Pike and Dave Campbell, engines 102 and 535; R. Peters, fireman; Jack Baker, engine 104; Charley Chapman, fireman, and Mace Gibson, engine 68; Tommy Crummy, fireman, who got killed going down around the "Alps" one night. His engine struck a big stone that rolled onto the track, and he got caught in the gang-way when engine and tender came together.

Then there was Engineer Belty, engine 154, who went down in a washout coming into Geneva one Saturday night, going west in March, 1873. Belty and his fireman gt killed. I worked at the wreck the next day.

Some Old-Time Enginemen.
I remember Engineer Shafer on engine 327; Charley Thomas, engine 112; Leander Wright, engine 103; Frank Dana, fireman, and Mike Lynn, extra passenger engineer of Rochester.

Some of the freight engineers that I knew in those days and worked with: Charley Hogan (of 999 fame) then running engine 410; Joe Lipe and John Thompson, engine 493; Bob Shannon, 404; Emps Belden, 405; Tom Baker, 409; Ed McGrale, (Stone Wall) 411; Lute Eldridge, 413; Bill Cone, 415; Jimmy Gould, 330; Johnny Coffee, 323; Dick Pyles, 299; Cale Cherry, 398; Dick Bishop, 121; Harry Watkeys, 331; Jack Mack, fireman; Ben Balbou, 357; Connie Murphy, 184; Billy Pellynze, 302; Al Pugsley, 353; Billy Owens, 377; Johnnie Cool, 363; Curley Simpson, 344; Billy Emels, 324; Engineer Bradley, 225.

The first engine that I coupled cars after was number 107, a wood burner. Billy Godwin was engineer. Afterwards I worked on engines 56, 37 and 130. The road at this time was going from wood to coal in the engines, and wood was being burned in passenger coach stoves.

On Chicago & North Western.
In 1879 I went to the Chicago & North Western as fireman on the Wisconsin Division out of Chicago, running between Chicago and Milwaukee, Fondu Lac, Oshkosh, Harvard Junction and Janesville. I was firing three years and in the Spring of 1882 I was promoted to engineer, and the first engine I ran was the 284 Mogul road engine. On December 30, 1884, I came to the New York, West Shore & Buffalo as engineer, running between Buffalo and Syracuse on through freight. In the Spring of 1885 I as put on through freight between Newark and Frankfort, a 109-mile run.

In the Summer of 1885, I was ordered to take the pusher engine at Oneida Castle, and remained thee about 18 months. I then went drawing through freight between DeWitt and Coeymans Junction on the Mohawk Division. My next run was on a pick-up train between Newark and Syracuse, and after some time I went drawing fast freight and extra passenger between Buffalo and Syracuse. When I left this run I took the yard job at Newark, with passenger relief work, and in 1892 was given a regular passenger train out of Buffalo, but did not take it, as I did not want to live in Buffalo.

Two Sons Also in Service.
In 1914 I was transferred to Lyons where I remained until I was pensioned on Jan. 1. I was railroading 55 years and one month, 45 years as locomotive engineman. My father and three brothers besides myself have worked for the New York Central, and I have two boys who are enginemen at the present time - Earl and Harold Burke, running out of DeWitt and the Syracuse Division. My father worked for the New York Central 35 years, starting in 1848.

Engines Named and Numbered.
In my early days on the Auburn branch of the New York Central quite a number of the engines retained their names as well as their number. I remember the John Wilkinson was no. 100. The General Gould was the 101. The Young America was 53, and the John H. Chedell, 54. The C.C. Dennis was the 26 and the Daniel Drew was No. 11.

I also knew Bill Gould who ran engine 125, and Jim Wood who ran engine 110 on the main line. What two beautiful looking engines they were! The clappers in their bells were "case-hardened" and when the bells were ringing you would be delighted to listen to them. I would like to hear such bells again.

Jim Wood was about the nerviest engineer in his day on the New York Central. It was he who always drew Commodore Vanderbilt and his son, William H. Vanderbilt, when they came over the road on the Western Division. He made the run from Syracuse to Rochester, 81 miles, in 82 minutes one time before the days of air brakes. Nowadays it is consoling to the engineman to know that he has a powerful and quick-acting air brake at his left hand.

The smallest engine I ever saw on the New York Central was No. 12 at Auburn. She was a wood-burner and had only one driving wheel on a side, and she could only handle four or five cars at a time with only 10 tons of freight in each car. Billy Goodwin was the engineer and he had to do his own firing. (2)

And now I come to the half-way posts on the Auburn road of the New York Central. In my early days there were posts erected near the side of the track halfway between stations and they were called the half-way posts with signs on them reading "Half-Way."

The time-card rule in those days said that eastbound trains had the right of road over westbound trains until they were 15 minutes late. Then if a westbound train did not see the eastbound coming, it would pull out against the other without any orders whatever, and the train that got to the half-way post first was the best man.

The other train had to back up to the next station. Of course if the eastbound engineer was running late he would expect the westbound pulling against him, and I have seen the time where both engineers would see the other one coming, but would still keep moving toward the post, and I have seen where one would beat the other by the length of his pilot. I have seen the engineer of the westbound send a brakeman out on the front end of the engine, and hold a coat over the headlight, so that the other engineer would not see him coming until he got near the post. There were no air brakes in those days, all hand brakes, and in a movement of this kind every man was at his post, and I never heard of any accident happening.

Every Man to His Own Engine.
Telegraph offices in those days were not as close as at the present time, and it would be from some station where there was no telegraph office that such movements would take place. In the daytime the engineer would watch for the smoke of the other fellow, and for his headlight at night. Back in those days Skaneateles Junction, Auburn, Cayuga, Geneva and Canandaigua were wood stations brought there by wood contractors.

Back in those days every engineer had a regular engine, and no one ran her but the regular assigned engineer. There were no injectors in those days that you could depend on. Every engine had two pumps, one on each side, to put water in the boiler when the engine was moving. Engineers had to pack their own pistons, valve stems and pumps, also all cocks in the cab, and take care of the headlight.

(1) Merchants Dispatch Transportation Company specialized in the transport of refrigerated perishable goods in refrigerator cars. It was organized in 1871 and essentially was a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad.

(2) This was a 4-2-0, the "Providence," built for the Auburn & Rochester Railroad by Norris Locomotive Works of Philadelphia in 1842. Later New York Central #180. Cylinders 10" x 20" 48' drivers, weight, 20,000 lbs.

The above item was shared with visitors to the Cayuga County NYGenWeb Project  by Richard F. Palmer  (Feb. 2012)

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