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16 minutes at Tower 50

This section features 16 minutes at Tower 50, a New York Central interlocking that served as a junction between the Central's east/west main line and their Niagara Branch to Niagara Falls. It's December 23, 1949.

In order to fully understand the complexity of the train movements featured in this recording, you may want to refer to the map of the area. Please note that in order to display the map at the highest detail possible, it was necessary to make it quite large (192k, 1218 x 528) -- downloading the map will take a few moments to complete. In fact it's loading even as you read this. Also, the map will scroll sideways on your browser. You'll find the link to the map at the bottom of this page.

The New York Central's Tower 50 interlocking tower was located almost underneath the Seneca Street overpass bridge. John Prophet didn't spend as much time at this tower as he did at one located a short distance away - 49-A. The train movements that Tower 50 controlled were not as glamorous. However, this tower was still an important factor in getting trains off the Niagara branch and onto the main line. The tower also handled traffic coming off of the tracks from the New York Central's Carroll Street freight station and the Pensylvania's Alabama Street Yard.

The photograph below show the area in which Tower 50 was located. The bridge in the foreground is the Louisiana Street overpass, which at the time of this photograph in April of 1998, was under reconstruction. The other bridge in the back of the photograph is the Seneca Street overpass. You can just make out a small gray shack sitting underneath the bridge which houses the elctronics for the switches that still exist for Conrail. This shack replaced Tower 50.

The tower sat between the four tracks coming from the Niagara Branch and the two tracks coming from the Chicago Branch. The complexity of this entire track configuration is that once at Tower 50 six sets of tracks, each with short slip-switches between them to allow trains to cross from one track to another, made train movements very difficult as you will hear in this recording.

The first train in this series is New York Central #32, a Mail and Express running from Chicago to New York. Pulled by Hudson #5439, the train is having a very hard time crossing over from the Chicago Branch to the main line - it has to cross several of those slip-switches -- and the tight curvatures of the switches causes the engine to slip its driving wheels several times. While the Hudson struggles to pull over to the main line, a Fairbanks-Morse diesel locomotive pulling a New York Central "Pacemaker" freight train overtakes the Mail and Express. Below is a photograph of NYC Hudson #5234 at Central Terminal after uncoupling from its train.

As Train #32 finally gets on its way, the sound of an early "prop" plane is heard overhead. John Prophet hated when this happened. He always felt that his recordings were ruined when the sound of an airplane got into the mix. I feel it adds to the character of the recording. Sort of like "a look at the future of transportation". Once the airplane fades away, train #366, a Michigan Central local operating from St. Thomas, Ontario, is coming from Black Rock on the Niagara Branch. After crossing Exchange Street, it will pass Tower 50 and stop at Central Terminal.

Next in the recording is a rare treat. Sam Herrington, the tower operator, was a very close friend of Prophet's. Sam was able to get Prophet into all of the towers where he worked (which included towers 49-A and BV) and loved the fact that Prophet was making these recordings. Sam often pointed out good subjects that otherwise would have been missed - including this tidbit.

The communication between each and every tower was a closed-wire system meaning that all the operator had to do was open his microphone and talk. The problem was that everyone else on the system heard whatever was said. Sam knew this and told Prophet to roll "wire" to record what came out next.

The tower operator at 49-A on the evening of December 23 was Tom Dillon, a man with a very overpowering voice. So overpowering that whenever he got on the microphone, he nearly blew out the system. He always had little buzzwords for the trains and often talked about things not related to railroad operations. For this, he was often made the blunt of jokes by the other guys on the line. Sam Herrington knew that this would be the case when he told Prophet to start recording. Dillon is calling Central Terminal. Operator Bill Dalton answers him.

"49-A calling the west end of the depot. 49-A calling the west end of the depot"

"Why, good evening Tommy"

"Why, good evening, Mr. Dalton. Greetings and salutations and a happy December the twenty-third to you, boy. And by the way, Will, if you ain't doing nothing Sunday I'd like you to have you have Christmas dinner with me at the White Light Mission."

This part of the conversation is unintelligible since they both talk at the same time. However, Dillon is so much louder that he can be understood.

"Now Bill, here is first 571, The "Flatwheel" Limited. One engine, ten cars, and he's one half hour late."

"That's very nice information. Thanks very much."

"Why, anytime, Will. Anytime."

At this point, several unknown voices come booming through the loudspeaker with "raspberries"! I asked John about this and he said that since Tom Dillon was such a "B. S." artist, not many of the men had respect for him. It shows in this recording.

John Prophet then turned his microphone back toward the outside to record New York Central Train X-20, a Mail and Express from Cleveland to Buffalo, on it's way to the Railway Express Agency terminal at the Curtiss Street yard.

Once this train passes, the sound of four blasts of a whistle are heard. This is Train 571. It's a Pennsylvania train pulled by K-4 #612. This train was the Philadelphia-Washington to Buffalo day express. In fact, it was shown on the timetable as "The Buffalo Day Express" and not "The Flatwheel Limited" as Mr. Dillon so called it earlier.

The K-4 is calling for a signal from Tower 49-A so that the train can pull off of the PRR tracks and on to the Central's tracks and then back into Central Terminal. After the impatient locomotive engineer sounds the four whistles again (the train is running late), some time will pass before he gets the "all clear" signal. The engine will then sound three blasts of the whistle acknowledging the signal. You will hear it slowly pull past Tower 50, stop, then back up onto the main line once a switch is thrown from the tower. The photograph below shows Train #571 pulling off the PRR tracks and onto the NYC tracks. The picture was taken from in front of Tower 49-A.

As the K-4 backs past the tower and heads toward Central Terminal, another successful movement has been completed. This situation occurred hourly at these interlocking towers and is demonstrated nicely through this recording. It's interesting to know that once the Pennsy train arrived at the Terminal, it was taken from the train and backed out to the Pennsy's Ebenezer Engine facilities near West Seneca, New York. There, all the PRR locomotives were cleaned, watered and coaled -- ready for another trip. Also, the engines were turned on the facility's turntable, then run backwards again for the return trip to the Central Terminal. Once coupled on to the front end of the train, the whole process would start over again where the train would have to back out of the Terminal, and so on.

Below is a shot of Train #570, heading for Philadelphia and Washington, as it backs out of Central Terminal.

To see a map of this area, click here.

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