Memories of a Bustleton Kid who loved trains

(William Thorn, Author. Photos courtesy of Pat Stopper are 1905 Bustleton Station along Reading's NY Short Line, which was used until 1935 and 1905 picture at 90ft Bridge over the Pennypack Creek. {Forwarded by Harvey Cantor})

 

                Our family house at 1708 Welsh Road looked out on the Reading Shortline and the Bustleton Station, still standing until I was about seven.  The railroad was several hundred yards away, but there was lower ground between and nothing blocking the view except trees, which left plenty of gaps through which to see the trains.  Later I discovered I could even see the color of the northbound signal light from m bedroom at night and thus tell when a train was coming.  When I was little, a train was almost always coming.  During the war, it seemed that at least one went by - northbound or southbound, passenger or freight - about every 15 minutes around the clock.  In the late 40s traffic did not appear to decline very much.  Thus, the chugging of a locomotive was the background for almost everything that happened while I was growing up.

Station

 

                From the time I was a toddler, my father and others used to take me up to the station as often as I could persuade them to do so.  No passenger trains stopped there anymore, but the station was still manned.  Margaret, a teenage girl who used to help my mother, may have taken a liking to the station man - so I was told later - and that could explain why I got to spend so much time watching trains up close at such an early age.  The locomotives as they thundered by seemed to shake the earth and blast the sky with power and sound.  The crosshead and shiny piston rod sliding back and forth and the row of glowing coals on the edge of the grate were close to my eye level.  It all frightened and fascinated me at the same time, an irresistible combination that I have never really gotten over.

 

                The station burned down about 1942 or 1943.  I vividly remember watching the fire in the night from a bedroom window.  The next day, or very soon after, I went up there and say nothing left except hole in the ground.  This was the cellar, and most of it was a coal bin still full of coal.  I was much impressed that everything had burned except the coal.  After the main station was gone, the attendant or operator was still there for years, into the early 50s, I believe.  He moved to the "other side" or southbound platform (towards Krewstown Road), which was still intact and had an enclosed room (like the old southbound platform at Torresdale.)  The station pump and station outhouse, amenities that went with every small Reading Station, also remained for many years.

 

                There were two sidings in use here in the 40s and 50s (existing into the 70s, I think) plus the siding into Kennedy's Coal Yard.  Local freights would frequently set out cars, an operation I watched as often as I could.  They frequently did this in the night also and I could listen in bed to the long whistle blasts calling in the brakeman (because they had to leave cars sitting on the main line.)

 

                Although no passenger trains stopped, there were plenty of them going through, day and night.  They swept through very fast, well over 60 mph it seemed to me, whether upgrade (northbound) or downgrade.  All those I can remember were B&O, with the capitol dome on the boiler front.  I don't know whether any Reading passenger trains used the Shortline in my time or not.  As far s I know the Crusader and Wall Street always used the other line, making a stop at Jenkintown.  The premier train on "our line" was the Royal Blue, and for some reason, almost every time it went through, my grandfather would pull out his watch and say, "There she goes!"

 

                Freight trains, it seemed, were either going by or heard in the distance most of the time, especially during the war.  In wartime you often saw tanks or half-tracks on flatcars, and boxcars marked "EXPLOSIVES.  DO NOT HUMP."  I liked the count cars, which I could do even from home.  When I counted them "up at the railroad," holding up my hand, sometimes a hobo would wave back from his seat in the end of a hopper car.  The typical through freight, during and after the war, had about 100 cars give or take a few, and this didn't seem to vary much for loaded or empty, upgrade or down.  What varied was the speed.  A heavy train on the upgrade could get down to a kid's easy walking speed, with the engine blasting and struggling mightily.  During the way they sometimes used decrepit old engines, leaking steam around the cylinders and just able to keep moving.  Most freight, however, maintained at least a jobbing speed with powerful but rapid exhausts.

 

                Helper engines on the rear were commonly used on the upgrade past our house.  I never saw a double header.  At the tope of the grade, somewhere up the line, the pusher would be cut off, and then would come clattering back down in reverse. You could always tell without looking when an engine was running light because it made no sound except the clanking of the rods.

               

                The great majority of freight engines were 2-8-2 mikados.  I seem to remember some consolidations but probably from there I could really tell wheel arrangements.  I do very clearly remember seeing camelbacks, chiefly on local freights that would sometimes stop and set out cars.  I was pretty young, and the first couple of times I saw a camelback, I thought it was a short stubby 1946.  At the other end of the locomotive spectrum, I later saw some of the giant T-1 northerns on this line, just as you said in your article.  This as toward the end of steam and they were relegated to the same local freight service once done by camelbacks.  To watch one of these monsters trying to switch cars was a strange experience.  The 4-8-4 would creep slowly, slowly toward the cars, barely moving  - then, WHAAM - the couplers would smash together as if to telescope the car.  Just not built for switch engine work!

 

                Jersey Central freight locomotives, with the Status of Liberty on the tender, probably appeared more often than Reading engines on this line, at least in the later days.  However, I am sure the T-1s were always marked Reading.  I never saw any B&O locomotives in freight service.

 

90Bridge

                Passenger service on the short line was completely dieselized by about the end of 1948, I estimate.  Probably in the next year diesel freights began to appear.  At first, when diesel freight went upgrade in the middle of the night, upgrade, it always woke me up.  It made a continuous loud buzzing noise, completely unlike the "ordinary" railroad sounds I had grown up with.  In passenger service diesels, when passing, didn't sound much different from steam.  Both just went through with a "whoosh."  In the distance, you could hear any diesel humming, but a high-speed steam passenger would sneak up on you, seen long before it was heard.  By the time I went away to college in 1953, or by 1954 at the latest, all steam was gone from "our" railroad.  Trains of any kind were gradually becoming fewer. 

 

                Of other train watching spots around Bustleton, the most spectacular, of course, was Ninety-Foot Bridge.  We often used to go swimming - or rather wading - among the rocks near the bridge, usually a little too close to see the trains really well.  Viewed from the right position, a hard working steam locomotive crossing 90 Foot was perhaps the most awe-inspiring sight in my world.

 

                On Krewstown Road opposite the entrance to Ryerss' Infirmary, the Vaders family lived in a very old farmhouse with a barn that backed up fairly close to the railroad.  Artie Vaders and I used to sit on the flat roofed part of his barn and watch the trains go by.  Each locomotive made a delightful patter of cinders all around us on the tin roof.

 

                At the upper end of town, Red Lion Road Bridge, which had a wooden deck with steel plates, offered a lot of excitement.  You could stand on one side and watch an engine come charging right under you, its deafening exhaust cut off at the last second, then if it was a freight, you could run to the other side and see it burst out like a volcano, without getting smoke in your face (much.)

 

                The most beautiful of all railroad sights to me was an engine chugging up the grade on a very cold, sunny winter day.  The great boiling, billowing clouds of steam, crowding out the stack and expanding across the sky, would sometimes be pure white, as white as any snow, and gleaming in the sunlight.  Then I guess the fireman would throw a few shovelfuls on, and it would all suddenly turn black, then gradually clear to perfect white again, drifting over the town.