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Boyhood Recollections of the O&W
by Philip E. Munson
Here are a few of my recollections of life in the West Monroe depot as I recall them as a boy from about 1920 through 1925, the years my family lived there. They are not in any sequence, just sort of a hodgepodge.
To start with and to put the whole thing in perspective, it may be useful to mention a bit about West Monroe itself. It was really nothing more than a four corners on the highway that extended along the north shore of Oneida Lake, about equidistant from Central Square on the west and Constantia on the east, surrounded mostly by dairy farms. There was a general store at the four corners that handled everything from food to farm supplies, a feed mill across the street, a blacksmith shop, and not far away a post office in an annex to a residence, a church, and a two room schoolhouse. The main road was macadamized, open in summer and closed come the first big snowfall of winter, not to open until spring. In the early years of our residence there were no highway plows. Everything moved either by horse and sleigh or the railroad. Those fortunate enough to have an an automobile drained the radiator and put it up on blocks until spring. Like the depot, the hamlet had no electricity.
Now back to the railroad and our home. The interior of the depot had a small waiting room on the westerly end with an entrance toward the tracks. Inside, along the two of the walls, were varnished hard wood slatted benches, divided into individual seats by heavy, metal arm rests. At most, they probably seated no more than eight people. In the center ofthe room was a pot bellied coal stove used for heating and along the inside wall stood a tall, metal, silver-painted weighing machine with a large glass-enclosed dial where for a penny you could view your weight and next to it hanging on the wainscoated wall was a metal candy machine where for another penny in the proper slot, and by pushing a rod, one could get a small Hershey chocolate bar or a small yellow box containing two Chiclet chewing gum tablets. The remainder of the waiting room was divided by a low wood fence behind which was a table with the telegraph instruments.Though West Monroe was not a telegraph station, my father was able to read code and did use it on occasion. The only other visible item was a small ticket window of opaque glass with a projecting shelf along the same interior wall as the gum and candy machine. It could be raised from a small room entered by a door off the telegraph area where there were racks holding printed tickets and a stamping machine where my father dispensed tickets to any travelers.
Up a couple of stairs, from the ticket room, one entered our downstairs living quarters which was located between the waiting room and the freight section of the building on the easterly end. Entered from a separate entrance on the rear of the depot, this section was a combination kitchen and dining area with a coal fired range. Off this, a stairway led to the second floor where there were two bedrooms over the downstairs area, and a living or family room over the fieight section below. Off this room, completely across the easterly end of the building was a railed balcony below which at ground level was a large enclosed coal storage bin where once a year the local freight would spot a hopper car of anthracite coal and the local section gang would fill it to the brim, enough to last until the next trip. At the same time they also toted a years supply to a bin near their section shanty, as it was called, which sat adjacent to the main track just west ofthe station. I believe the car of coal was one which was shunted from station to station along the line to replenish supplies. To complete the depot description, suffice to say that a wood platform extended across much of the front at freight car door height and adjacent to the siding. Off the platform was the freight section which had a door at each end, one at the platform and another at the rear where there was a roadway. Inside was a two-wheel hand truck and a portable platform scale.
The station at West Monroe was sort of at the center point of huge curve which extended, in railroad terminology, from Constantia, four miles to the south, to Central Square four miles to the north, though geographically it was closer to east and west. With no appreciable grade, the only handicap to train operation, so to speak, was a cut some half mile west of the station which had a habit of plugging up in winter storms ofwhich there were many. The siding at the station extended fiom a short distance east of the milk station to the main line about ten car lengths west of the station, guarded at each end by tall switch stands which required a metal attached ladder to reach the oil warning lights at the top. Between the milk station and the station there was a two or three car space where incoming cars could be unloaded and west of the station beyond another unloading spot, a livestock shute and a small corral. I only recall a couple of instances when it was used to unload dairy cows consigned to nearby farmers. The carload activity that I recall, incoming only, consisted of bags of feed, coal, and farm supplies, all dropped off by the local freight.
The section house or shanty just west of the station was a dirt floor building that housed a four-man hand pump car, assorted tools and track maintenance equipment, as well as a flat top, pot bellied stove. Most of the time there was a four man crew whom I believe, were responsible for track maintenance between Constantia and Central Square, as well as maintenance around the West Monroe station including snow removal in the winter, which was done using long-handled shovels, cleaning switches, putting oil in switch lamps, even cutting weeds. At times, how often I don't know, one of the crew even walked the section with a sledge over his shoulder to drive in loose spikes when necessary. I wasn't often allowed in the section house but I do recall in the winter at lunch time, the men, all of whom carried their food in tin lunch buckets, would toast their sandwiches by placing them on the flat top of the hot stove and after eating would play cards, "pitch" I assume, on a large, oil cloth covered board which they held on their knees while perched on overturned, empty spike kegs. One summer day, I even got to ride with the gang on the pump car while they replaced a tie and was proudly allowed to join in the pumping on the way back. A photo of this machine, which I believe was the same one and also some of the same crew, can be found in the 1990 O&W Railway Historical Society calendar.
In my recollections of trains, I must admit that I knew little then about the technical details of locomotives or types. To me they were large (300's or Mother Hubbards) used on through freights, 4-4-0 types and Mother Hubbards used in passenger service, and six wheelers used mostly on milk train and local freight service. I don't recall specific numbers except in an instance or two, and I may be incorrect even then. In these recollections, I shall use the standard terminology now associated with O&W locomotives though I didn't know that detail in my boyhood. Here then is something I recall about the trains that visited West Monroe on a more or less daily basis cautioning that, as a youngster, what with school and other activities, I wasn't about the station every hour of the day.
Let's start with #1 and #2, since #2 southbound was the first to arrive in the morning at about 8:30AM. As I recall it sometimes had a 4-4-0 of some type or a Mother Hubbard locomotive and usually a consist of an express car, a mail and baggage, and a couple of coaches, one a combine, the other a full coach. The cars were steel. I don't believe it ever delivered mail to West Monroe. There was never much outgoing express shipments though the station had a four wheel American Express truck which my father kept painted with paint furnished periodically by the express company. I believe the body was a bright green and the wheel spokes were red. I recall one isolated occasion when there was much express, so much so, in fact, that #1 in a couple of instances even left an express car on the siding for pick up later. This occurred in the spring of one year when a produce dealer decided to grow head lettuce on some muck lands which he had cleared in the swamp land near Oneida Lake. He packed it in crates and shipped it by express to the New York City market. Evidently it was not profitable for it only occurred that one year.
No.1, which arrived at West Monroe around 6:30 P.M. northbound, didn't stop unless someone wanted to get off or on, which wasn't often. On Sunday nights in the winter, it was a different story. Though my father wasn't obligated to open the station on Sunday, he did so out of courtesy because there were several, sometimes many people who worked during the week in Syracuse who wanted to get to Central Square in order to catch a train on the Watertown Division of the New York Central for Syracuse. He also sold tickets since it would almost be impossible for the conductor on #1 to cover all of the patrons in the four miles between the two stations, which meant collecting money from each as well a giving them an on board punched ticket.
I personally have some nice memories of #l as a train. I recall riding it all the way to Weekawken and New York with my father which was a great thrill for a young boy. I also recall with fondness an engineer on this train. His name was Alden "Bill" Young whose home was in Oswego. His family and mine were friends and to me he was strictly "Mr.Young". In the days when the Saturday Evening Post was a nickel and was filled with colored automobile advertisments; Jordan, Packard and others, which I used to cut out, Mr. Young would have someone, either conducters or trainmen, pick up copies left in the cars and he would bundle them up and quite regularily toss them to me from the cab of the locomotive as he sped through West Monroe. It was he also who once gave me a ride in the locomotive between West Monroe and Central Square. It was a 4-4-0 and in the black of night. I remember the instructions to this day. He perched me on the fireman's seat and said "hang on" which I did. I can still see the headlight shining on the rails and the weaving of the front of the locomotive along the track, which was anything but smooth, as we raced to Central Square in about six minutes. What a thrill!
A deeply religeous man, it was said that he always carried a small copy of the New Testament on top of his head under his engineer's hat. Unfortunately, he was killed in the wreck of #1 on Christmas Night, December 25, 1922 on the Northern Division near Battle Island between Fulton and Oswego. According to a newspaper account, the entire train, consisting of a baggage car, two empty milk cars, and three coaches left the rails while the locomotive, a Mother Hubbard, I believe, tumbled down a bank pinning Mr.Young between the cab and the ground. He was the only fatality. The fireman, Quinn, escaped by jumping. The wreck occurred at about 7:30 P.M., just fifteen minutes before it was due at Oswego. Sadly, I recall my family stating that Mr Young's family was in the Oswego depot awaiting his arrival so that they might celebrate Christmas. The newspaper account went on to say that the wreck had been caused by the spreading of the rails and that several crews were engaged in clearing up the wreckage. In the meantime the company was routing trains over the New York Central via Richland.
One other incident about #1. It occurred one night during one of Oswego County's violent winter storms. Our family were all abed when we heard #1 going north, at the time several hours late. Sometime later there was pounding on the depot door and when my Dad finally got there, he found the brakeman from #1 with the news that the train was hung up in the cut, mentioned before, and was unable to go forward or backward. It actually turned out to be a two day ordeal before plows from Norwich and Oswego along with alot of manpower were able to get them out. By the time they got out the locomotive was out of water and had to be filled somewhat from the well at the milk station using a small hose. There were a few passengers on the train who were fed and housed in a nearby farmhouse.
So much for #1 and #2. Let's now take a look at #9 and #10, the daily milk train. It was normally powered by one of the six wheel moguls, one of those numbered 30 or 40, often as I recall, the same one most of the time. There were usually three or four O&W. milk cars in tow, capped off with an open-end wood combine coach since the train ostensibly still carried passengers. I specifically recall the milk cars because they were dark green and reminded me of refrigerator cars since they had the same kind of doors only the cars were lower and had no ice hatches. Though I have never seen such in later photographs of these cars, the ones I remember had dutch doors at each end.
At any rate, #10, the south bound version would arrive about an hour after #2. Since the usual amount of milk to be loaded involved twenty to forty cans, the crew usually split the train and backed the car to be loaded up the siding to the milk station platform where a steel span was placed between the car door and the platform, whereupon the train crew along with men from the milk plant would load the cans in a matter of minutes. To me, this was a fascinating operation. A crew of about five, standing in line, some in the car and others outside would spin the filled cans on edge, for leverage, from one man to another in a flowing motion that would place them in the car in exact rows, seemingly an effortless exercise. In warm weather they would put chunks of ice from the milk station ice house on top of the cans.
I also recall that each filled can had a square parchment sheet placed over the top opening before the cap was attached. Usually, northbound #9 would leave a supply of empty cans for the following day which had to be washed and steam cleaned before use. On the rare occasions when a milk car might be left at the milk station by #9, I remember that it was always done by a the use of a "flying" switch.
Of all the trains that visited West Monroe, #1 and #42 probably had the most impact of all on the community, for this one carried the U.S. Mail and probably carried the most passengers since it stopped at every station. #41, northbound to Oswego, arrived daily, except Sunday, at about 11:00 A.M. and again as #42 at about 3:00 P.M. on its way back to Norwich. It consisted of a combination U.S. mail and express car plus one vestebuled coach. Both were wood and the locomotive was always a 4-4-0, and as I recall one of the number 70's.
The only time I remember a change was when # 22 would show up occasionally. It always impressed me since, to me, it appeared like a more modern locomotive. I also recall once when one of the wood O&W coaches with six-wheel trucks and oval windows was used on #41. To me, as a kid, that was an event since the only place I had ever seen passenger cars with similar trucks was on the New York Central at Oneida. There was always one , sometimes two sacks of mail for the West Monroe post office as well as mail to go out. It was carried between the train and the post office by an old gentleman whose name was Mr. Lord. In summer, he used a wheelbarrow and in winter, a pull sled. There were two occassions when this mode of transport was not suitable. The arrival in the spring and fall of the Sears & Roebuck catalogs. That occasion required a horse drawn conveyance. Usually the old catalogs wound up in a family's outdoor privy. #42 was the train our family used for our occasional jaunts to Oneida to see a dentist or to shop for something not available locally.
We would return on #1. Outside of the daily through freights, usually pulled by one of the #300 consolidations, the only other regular freight train was the one we called the local freight. It was this one that dropped off the occasional cars of feed and coal, and less than carload fieight shipments from a freight car, called the way car. Never a long train, it was generally pulled by a 2-6-0 mogul. One, I recall, was #42. If there was something to unload at West Monroe, for example, a crated stove from Sears & Roebuck, or some other bulky item like a barrel of molasses, the train usually stopped on the main line with the way car door opposite the freight platform. The crew would then place two, long heavy planks with beveled ends, which always rested on the station I platform, between the car door and the platform, and with the aid of a hand truck unload the item or items to the freight house. Though I recall that the planks often bellied during unloading, I don't believe that one ever broke.
Sometimes the freight crew would have a large bag of cream chocolate drops for my brother and I. In Oswego, I believe, there was a candy company, called Ox-Heart or something like that, who made these candy delights and shipped them in wood firkins and one of these we were told had become damaged in shipment. In retrospect, one wonders if it was accidental. In addition to these regularily scheduled trains, I recall that there were occasional extras such as #26, the inspection locomotive which never stopped but usually caused a flurry of clean up activity to have everything looking ship-shape. My father and mother, who loved flowers, had large flower beds at each end of the station, the one at the eastern end in a plot of green lawn. Monthly came the pay car, the traveling bank, usually pulled by #225, where my father and the section crew got their monthly stipend in cash, and my brother and I, if we were around, a couple of shiny new pennies which the paymaster tossed out of a window to us.
In winter, because of the prevelent snow storms in that area, there was often a plow, pushed by one of the 300's, and trailing a flanger and caboose to battle the drifts. I believe, the only time I ever recall a double header, was on one of these snow plow moves. It also seems to me that one of the storms was so bad that it required a rotary to open the cuts. Outside of the occasional passage of one of the 0-6-0 switchers, which I assume was on its way from Fulton or Oswego to Norwich for maintenance, or an occasional work train, this pretty much covers rail activity at West Monroe.
On one of the work trains which was dumping ballast of some kind between West Monroe ans Constantia, I was allowed to ride back and forth in the cupola of the caboose, one of the four-wheel bobbers. Another great thrill for a youngster was when a gasoline car #801 arrived upon the NYO&W scene. I believe it was first tried out on the Northern Division to replace steam on trains #41 and #42 between Norwich and Oswego.I recall riding it from West Monroe to Oneida, but have no recollection of how long it remained in operation.