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Bill Wilcox and the #116
by John Taibi
NYO&W NW-2 No. 116
E-mail from O&WRHS Member Jack Norris:
Today (Sat 6/6/09) Star & I went up to Arkville, NY to ride the Delaware & Ulster excursion train and to visit with O&W 116 in its new home. The locomotive looks good and is accessible for photos. The railroad is planning to return it to service for special occassions. Exterior work on the O&W bobber caboose is almost finished. The interior restoration is next. Attached are 6 pix. Maybe you can put some of these on the website and pass this email around to interested parties. Thanks, Jack Norris & Starlene Van Dunk
This was sent to us by Dan Myers:
Flash news from former O&W Signalman Bill Phelps. Bill was in Binghamton this weekend and found crews preparing the 116 for its ride to Arkville. The engine was lifted off its trucks today and put on a special 2 gooseneck trailer for the trip. The trucks went on a separate trailer. You can see the markings on the truck to indicate where it belongs under the engine. I understand that the engine will be unloaded somewhere around Roxbury.
[Editor's note: All photos are located in the gallery at the end of this article.]
This is an article from the Northern Division Bridge & Building Department by John Taibi located in our "Members Only" Area.
Bill Wilcox and the #116
It wasn't long after I purchased the Munns depot in November 1989 that I developed an interest in the history of the Ontario & Western's Northern Division. This desire to acquire more knowledge led to many hours of research at libraries, universities, and historical societies. I've sat in the drivers seat of a microfilm machine for more hours than I care to think about. The only good thing about reading newspapers on microfilm is that it makes you appreciate reading the real "hard copy" when they are available. In either case, perusing old newspapers is a very tedious task where hours of searching may be rewarded by only a short scrap of information. At universities and historical societies collections may be housed that are much more interesting to go through, though more often than not, what you'd like to find is not located there.
I've found over the years that the most enjoyable means of researching the O&W is by talking to people who actually remember the railroad when it was in operation. Most of the time these folks remember seeing the trains or the depots because, well, it was just a part of the community at that time. Even though they didn't dwell on its' existence then, they enjoy recalling their experiences and remembrances now. Then there are another group of people who remember the O&W that had some "railroad buff" blood in them. These are the guys (and gals, too!) who I hate and envy all at the same time. They took particular interest in the specifics of the railroad. They knew the train names, the different types of locomotives, hung around the depot, and maybe even went on a speeder ride with a section crew. Generally these "buffs" recall their memories with much more accuracy and detail than the former folks who sometimes don't remember events well at all, and may even mix in a little wishful thinking.
I've had the pleasure of meeting several individuals that fall into the latter category. There's Francis "Gus" Kervin of Clinton, who worked for the railroad for a few years in the 1950's. He can spin a wonderfully truthful tale about the O&W as well as anyone. Probably better than most. When Gus talks (which is often and non-stop) I listen. Sam Reeder is another gent who grew up as the O&W was growing old. He's called Munnsville his home for his entire life and has recounted on numerous occasions how he "would sit on the depot freight dock and watch the trains go by". I sit on the freight dock now and all I see is the grass growing. Damn! You're beginning to see why I hate these people. Clyde Conrow of Sidney is another lifelong O&W railroad man. His "Pop" worked long and hard for the O&W and somewhere along the line his love for the road rubbed off on Clyde. Much like Gus, get Clyde started talking about the O&W and you're in for a long, but enjoyable, night. Another lifelong O&W devotee is Milford Morris of Clark Mills. He witnessed the passing railroad scene in his hometown just like Sam did in Munnsville. The first thing Milford likes to tell people is how he almost inadvertently decorated the front end of an O&W locomotive while crossing the tracks one day. I suppose even if you weren't a buff you'd remember something like that.
Of all the people that I have had the pleasure of talking to about the O&W, Bill Wilcox, of Hamilton, tops the list. His accounts of riding the trains, learning telegraphy in the depot, and "shootin' the breeze" with the railroaders are enjoyable, informative, accurate, and entertaining. How did he acquire such an interest in the railroad? He was lucky. An interest in the Ontario & Western was a Wilcox family affair that began with his Grandfather who witnessed the construction of the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad. Grandfather William Wilcox instilled a love for the O&W in his son Sheldon who in turn passed along to his son, Bill, a similar devotion to the O&W. But Bill's interest in the railroad was not only nurtured by the men in the family. Grandmother Rhoda, and mom, Mary (Mae), also got into the act as you'll soon see. Because of his entire family's interest in the railroad, Bill was introduced to the O&W at an early age. As a child, the O&W was Bill's playground, and the engineers and agents were his teachers. We should all have been so well schooled!
Grandfather William Wilcox was six years old when the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad was being built. The family farm was at Wilbers, near Smyrna, where in later years the Ontario & Western would locate a train order office. While an accurate account of William's memories of the NY&OM have unfortunately been lost to the passage of time, it's certain that he was one of many boys who were fascinated by the arrival of the iron horse. William moved the family to Massachussetts and it was there that his son Sheldon was born on September 4, 1898.
When "Shel" was old enough to work, he gained employment with an express company who did business with the Boston & Albany Railroad in the heart of the Berkshire hills at Chester, Mass. However, in 1920 Shel moved his mother and father back to New York State where they settled down in Hamilton. Shel went to work for the Hamilton National Bank and began to investigate the Ontario & Western railroad all at the same time. Just one other ingredient was needed for Shel's interest in the O&W to peak. That ingredient came about because of his first cousin Lewis Harrington.
First cousin Lew owned a horse farm which was located just to the north of the O&W's Lyon Brook Bridge. Besides breeding racehorses he also rented out stables for other horses to be boarded. One of these horses belonged to an O&W Northern Division official (possibly W.A. Wood) whose office was located in the Norwich station. Because Lew knew of Shel's interest in the railroad it was only natural that he would eventually introduce Shel to the railroad official. Apparently, once this happened, the rail "fan" (I like this term better than "buff") and the railroader got along quite well. So well in fact that the railroader let it be known that whenever Shel was ridin' the O&W he could do so in the locomotive or caboose, whichever he desired. You can bet your boots that Shel took advantage of this courtesy, and in so doing made many friendships with engineers, conductors, and trainmen.
On July 19, 1938 Mary (Mae) Wilcox, Shel's wife, gave birth to their son whom they named William after Shel's father. The proud father did not wait long to introduce Bill to the O&W. Shel would carry him the short distance from their Lebanon Street home to the depot where he could show off the baby to his railroading friends. After a few years of introducing Bill to the railroad environment Shel thought he was ready for bigger and better things. So, for Bill's 3rd birthday present, Shel made arrangements with engineer Fred Rowe to give Bill his first cab ride. Thus it happened that on July 19, 1941 father took son over to the Randallsville depot to await the arrival of engineer Rowe who was piloting southbound milk train #10.
Since Bill was only 3 years old Shel was concerned to some degree about his son's safety in the cab of a locomotive, especially since he would not be going along. But, he figured having a seat in an end cab locomotive would be fine for the boy. What he hadn't figured on was engineer Rowe having a camelback engine this day! So when #10 stopped at "RW" that day and Shel saw that the #277 was on the head end he was prepared to call off the birthday present. Fred would hear none of it. "Hand him up to me and we'll be just fine!" To which Shel retorted as he lifted Bill up to the cab window, "if he gives you any trouble I'll pick him up at Earlville, otherwise I get him at Norwich". Shel needn't have worried. Bill loved the ride, and to this day is still pleased that he got his first cab ride astride the boiler! This ride was just the beginning of Bill's adventures on his O&W playground.
As the years wore on, many more trips on #10 ensued. As a matter of fact almost every weekend Sheldon planned some type of O&W activity. The milk trains were their regular "ride" since #10 was scheduled to take passengers to Sidney. At that point the train continued on to Walton and although this was a non-passenger scheduled part of the trip the boys rode the engine. The highlight of these excursions was the trip through Northfield tunnel. Bill remembers that when they passed Merrickville southbound, the engineer would make a run to gain as much speed as possible so he could shut off steam and drift through the bore. Northbound it was a much different story as the engineer had to work steam all the way through the tunnel. When they passed Northfield depot they'd put a wet rag over their nose and mouth and breathe through it while lying on the deck as they transited the tunnel. You can well imagine the sounds and smells as the engine's exhaust was deflected back down by the tunnel roof. It was quite an experience for Bill, one that he still remembers fondly.
There's other remembrances, too. Like the time they rode the Oneida pusher as it helped a southbound train upgrade through the Stockbridge Valley and then cut off on the fly at Whites Corners. Another grade where their locomotive worked to its utmost capacity was southbound on the Utica Branch between Solsville and the summit at Bouckville. Here the engine really produced some interesting "stack talk", especially if some cars from Eastern Rock Products in Oriskany Falls were in the consist. There were so many times that Shel wanted to take Bill out on the O&W that Bill got tired of doing all the railroading! "Could I just go over to Grandma's instead?", he'd ask his father.
Sometimes though, even Grandma Rhoda got into the railroading act. On Saturday mornings she might take Bill over to Oriskany Falls to do some shopping or go to the bakery. Afterwards, since they had to pass the depot to go home anyway, she would stop to see if the Branch train (the remnant of the old milk trains #11-12) had gone south yet. If they hadn't missed it, they'd wait for engineer George King to bring the train into town and then Bill would ride back to Hamilton with him. No wonder there's times when kids like to be with their grandparents! The other lady in the family, mom Mae, was pretty good at finding her way around the O&W also. The boys counted on her to drop them off to pick up a train and maybe pick them up someplace else later on. Bill says she got to be a pretty good train chaser. Heck, there was even one time when she knew more about the O&W's passenger schedule than the boys did.
It seems that on one weekend father and son had planned on riding the O&W all the way into Weehawken. They took #10 down to Walton where they picked up the regular train to continue south. Everything was going along quite well until Shel stepped up to the ticket window in Weehawken terminal to purchase the return tickets. He asked for "two to Walton". A surprised ticket agent looked at him and said "the train only goes as far as Roscoe". Then he added, "You must be Mr. Wilcox. Your wife called and said she'd pick you up at Roscoe!" Somehow the boys didn't know that the passenger service was being cut back from Walton to Roscoe the day after their ride down, and somehow Mae did. She wouldn't let them forget about it for awhile either!
Not all of Bill's memories of the O&W are of train riding. Because he spent a lot of time down at the depot he became good friends with Agent Harry Lewis, and Harry enjoyed having the boy around too. He even tutored him on the telegraph. That's why on the night of the Wreck of the Flying Diesel Corps Harry wouldn't let the police chase Bill out of the depot. Bill had to listen in on "the wire" while Harry telephoned Norwich to let them know they had better send the wreck train to Hamilton. "I adopted Harry as my honorary grandfather" Bill is pleased to say today. Now you can see why I envy guys like Bill. I would have liked to meet Harry, too.
Another non-train memory for Bill was the evening he and his Dad happened to meet up with Tom Natoli at the depot. Tom was the O&W's Trainmaster who worked out of Norwich, and he was in town because he heard that some engineers were breaking the 40MPH speed limit through Hamilton. "Shel, tell me. How fast are these boys going through town?", asked Natoli. "Gee, Tom. I'd say not much more than 30" was Shel's reply. He didn't add unless engineer Jack Fitch on ON-2 wanted to get into Norwich before dark to tend to his garden! After a little more conversation Shel told Tom he had an errand to take care of and took Bill back up to the house. Once there they hopped into the family sedan and beat it up to the Eaton Road crossing on the north side of town. Shel then made a sign out of cardboard and Bill's crayons that read "Natoli at HI". As ON-2 came by Shel held up the sign and that night Fitch was late getting to his garden. Several weeks later Natoli and Shel met again. "Say Shel. Did you go up and warn Fitch?" asked the trainmaster. Straight faced, all Shel could reply was a simple "No". That was all Natoli needed to hear to get his Italian temper flared. "You lyin' *&%$#@, he was going so slow I could have chased him with a pogo stick!" Tom was a well liked person, despite his occasional use of foul language.
Next to engineer Fred Rowe, Frank Sherman was Bill's favorite engineer. Frank held down the regular local freight between Norwich and Oneida and his locomotive was just about always NW-2 #116. Bill knew that Frank's train left Norwich behind the Rome local so it was an easy matter for him to meet up with Frank for a ride if he wanted to. At Randallsville the Rome local would head up the Utica Branch, and when Sherman's #116 came by it ran via the old mainline over Eaton Summit. (However, the southbound run went via the Pecksport Loop and the Branch to get to Randallsville.) When Bill saw the Rome local heading north through Hamilton he'd hop on his bike and pedal over to Randallsville, along the way listening for the #116's horn blast so he'd know he didn't miss the train. If the bike and the train arrived at Randallsville when they were supposed to, Bill (and the bike) would ride the cab of the NW-2 to Oneida and then back to Hamilton. Many trips in the #116's cab were made in this fashion and it didn't take long before engineer Sherman, conductor Hitchcock, Bill, and the #116 all became close friends.
When Bill traded in his bike for Shel's auto, he would drive up to Pecksport to see if either ON-2, Sherman & his #116, or the returning Rome local had gotten stabbed by the 10-minute rule. This rule stated in effect that when the Rome local arrived at Pecksport he would have to wait for the other two trains if they were more than 10-minutes out of Oneida. If they weren't, the Rome local could proceed through the Utica Branch-Pecksport Loop junction. When the local's caboose passed the switch for the Loop the conductor would throw off a 10-minute fusee. In so doing, ON-2 or the Oneida-Norwich local would know that the Rome train had preceded them. Naturally, when Bill arrived at the junction if there were any trains waiting he'd help them pass the time by engaging the crew in conversation. By this time all the crews knew Bill, and vice versa, so shootin' the breeze at Pecksport was a pleasant affair for everyone concerned.
A little earlier in this story I mentioned the Wreck of the Flying Diesel Corps. I suppose I should mention that this was the wreck at Hamilton where FT set #803 (at the headend of ON-2) crashed through the Leland Coal & Oil Company's shed and then flew through the air for about 100 feet before returning to terra firma. This is a well documented wreck so I won't go into the details here, but I do want to mention that Bill was thought to be the culprit who turned the siding switch that sent ON-2 into the coal shed. He was the prime suspect when the investigation ensued the following day, but the O&W's chief of detectives (Dozack), the State Troopers (Scoville and Stritter), and an FBI G-man (who wouldn't divulge his name, "You're not here to gather our names" he scolded Bill) quickly realized they had put the collar on the wrong man. Bill loved the railroad and railroaders and it was beyond any doubt that he would have done anything to harm them. To this day no one has been brought to justice for causing the wreck but Bill still enjoys telling anyone in earshot the entire story. (For an accurate account of the wreck, see TRAINS Magazine's February 1998 issue, Paul Lubliner's The O&W in Color, or an early O&WRy. His. Soc. "Observer" entitled The Wreck of the Flying Diesel Corps by Alice Muller & Ken Hojnacki.)
It wasn't too long after this most notable O&W wreck occurred (on Sept. 27, 1955) that Bill noted in his scrapbook that "it's beginning to look pretty bad for the O&W". He was right too. The railroad was indeed Old & Weary and in desperate need of cash to keep running. Banker Sheldon Wilcox was approached by a committee of shippers who hoped that Shel's bank might be willing to make a loan to the O&W. Even though Shel was sympathetic of the O&W's financial condition he could not recommend to his superiors that a loan to the O&W would be in the depositors best interests. On Shel's behalf, I should note that the Reorganization Court had stipulated the O&W needed a $250,000 cash reserve to stave off abandonment. Many banks were approached in an effort to raise the funds, and though some did make loans, many more didn't. The amount set by the court was never achieved. The New York, Ontario & Western Railway was the first Class 1 railroad to abandon its operations, doing so on March 29, 1957.
For the Wilcox's, the milk train trips, bicycling over to Randallsville to meet up with Frank Sherman and the #116, shootin' the breeze at Pecksport, and visiting with Harry Lewis in the old depot were all over. Frank and Harry retired, and the #116 was sold as were all the other NW-2s. What had been enjoyable pastimes were now pleasant memories. But oh what memories they were. Shel may have been remiss regarding the "loan", but until he passed away on September 26, 1978 he enjoyed thinking of what the O&W had been.
Bill continued to carry his family's torch for the O&W. For forty-two years after the abandonment he would continue to relate how friendly the railroaders were and how the O&W had operated the trains through the Hamilton area. These were years where the O&W had become only a distant memory not to be refreshed by any new developments pertaining to the old road. As the years passed Bill's interest in the O&W never wavered and that may be why he was rewarded in 1999. That was the year he would meet up with an old friend.
The Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad began operations as a tourist line during the summer of 1999. The ex.-Delaware & Hudson branch from Cooperstown Junction to Milford and on to Cooperstown (Home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) had recently been acquired by the Leatherstocking Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. The northern portion of the line from Milford to Cooperstown had been rehabilitated and ex. D.L.& W. passenger cars were acquired to carry the passengers. For the motive power, the CACV leased from the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad an NW-2 locomotive that had passed through several owners. You guessed it! One of the owners was the NYO&W Ry. and the engine number just happened to be #116. News of the lease of the #116 was sent along to the Ontario & Western Railway Historical Society who in turn printed the information in their "Mountaineer Newsletter".
Since Bill Wilcox is a member of the O&WRHS, he was quite pleased, and excited, to see this information about his old friend. So, he hopped into his car and drove over to Milford to become reacquainted with the #116. When Bill arrived at the CACV engine house at Milford the #116 was sitting there waiting for him. It had just been delivered by the Susie-Q's Chief Mechanical Officer Jerry Robinson who shut the engine down before leaving Milford. Shortly thereafter, Bill arrived, asked permission to go up into the cab, and then after climbing the steps he began to relive all those memories of rides and friends of so long ago. He doesn't mind admitting that a few tears were shed during the process.
After a little time Bill was joined in the cab by Chris Whiteman who noticed that Bill seemed to be quite familiar with the locomotives controls. "Do you know how to run an engine?" he asked Bill. That was easy for Bill to answer. He had been trained on the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, was a licensed engineer there, and was also NORAC rules qualified. Astonished by Bill's qualifications, Chris left to get CACV General Manager Jim Loudon who also quizzed Bill in the cab. Once satisfied with Bill's ability, Jim hired him (on a volunteer basis) to be the lines first qualified engineer and asked him to help train other engineers.
One of the first things Bill helped them do that afternoon was to get the #116 started, and then he and CACV Mechanical Officer Chris Lord took the engine over the line to Cooperstown to become familiar with the characteristics of the road. When they got back to Milford, both men "qualified" each other and the following day Bill sat at the controls, just as his friend Frank Sherman had done years earlier, and made his first revenue trip over the road. For the rest of the Summer and Fall engineer Bill Wilcox could be found in the cab of his #116 every Thursday and Saturday. In a few short months the CACV will reopen for another season and it looks as though Bill Wilcox and the #116 will be a team again as well.
What a wonderful way for a Wilcox to be rewarded for the family's years of devotion, and understanding, of the Ontario & Western. Since both Bill and his #116 aren't exactly as young as they once were, the human being and the diesel locomotive may eventually have to part paths once again. Until that time comes you won't see Bill without a smile on his face and he'll always be ready with stories to tell of riding O&W trains and making friends with the road's employees. After all, you don't forget an old friend just because they've passed on. Do you?
Editor's Note 5/3/02
Hi.... Bill Wilcox here.... Have to report that my dear good and old friend NW2 #ll6 has to go back To NYS&W by May 20th. I had a real good run on her last Sunday on a charter run and got quite emotional when I shut her down probably for the last time as I honestly don't think I can handle taking her down to the CP D&H interchange. I can't help but wonder if O&W Engineer Frank Sherman felt the same way on 3-29-57 when he ran from Oneida to Norwich for the last time. I would like to think he did as I knew him very well and how he felt about the 116. I can only hope that I have in some way kept the O&W spirit alive for the past three years in my own little way and have been able to share with some of you who came up and rode with me just how much a genuine O&W locomotive still running should mean to all of us and I hope that the feeling that I have can rub off on all of you. All my best and if you care to you can send a copy of this to everyone. All my best again.... Bill Wilcox
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