By Bill Histed
Railroad Watching In A Small Town In The 1960s and 1970s
I want to go back for a moment in that magical place and time that will never be again. As long as I have a memory, it will always be real. One of the least written about items in railroading is the adventure of growing up in a very small town that was a railroad division point of a major railroad during one of the greatest periods of change. Not all division points were big cities as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Boston, Jacksonville and other major league towns. Small town Ohio, where I grew up, had a rare advantage when the "big" east to west railroads were laid down in the 1800s. What was called the "hundred mile" day was basically in effect. Due to the high maintenance and service needs of steam locomotives, division points were created every 100 or more miles. Often, it was more than 100 miles when locomotives were taken off of trains and serviced in roundhouses, but you get the idea. Some younger people today may not be aware of this, but steam locomotives required far more servicing than today's modern electric diesel locomotives. Back in the engine house, fire boxes needed to be cleaned out, things had to be checked, oiled and greased, etc. Usually the service of the steam locomotive required refilling and checking of water, sand, coal, oil and more.
Ohio was strategically located for this requirement in operating a successful railroad between New York City and Chicago. And several railroads had very similar, and competitive routes. Several very small towns in Ohio were fortunate enough to be geographically located at the right place to be a railroad division point with offices, shops and the stops of nearly all passenger trains where crews were changed and steam locomotives were switched out. Crestline, Ohio, where I was born and raised to a railroad family of a century of service, was on the mainline of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Pittsburgh and Chicago via Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Today, that line has been severely downgraded from Crestline west toward Chicago. A Genesee and Wyoming subsidiary, Chicago, Ft. Wayne and Eastern has mostly irregular freight service on this segment. Crestline, Ohio, was a "railroad town" of the Standard Railroad of The World, The great Pennsylvania between New York and Chicago. Galion, Ohio, until the early 1920s, and then Marion, Ohio, hometown of President Warren G. Harding, was the division point and had shops for the Erie Railroad between New York City (Hoboken, N.U.) and Chicago. Bellevue, Ohio, was a division point and had shops of the Nickle Plate Railroad between Buffalo, New York, and Chicago. Willard, Ohio, was a division point for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between the east and Chicago. The above are all towns, most under 10,000 population, but they had major railroad facilities at one time.
I Was A PRR Kid
My family's involvement with the PRR began in the 1870s when my great-grandfather got a job as a stationary boiler engineer in the roundhouse in Crestline. He had come from Germany, as many of the mechanical people on the railroad did. Friends from his hometown in Germany had already come far inland to Crestline and wrote back about the great opportunities on the railroad. It were not only the Germans, but the Italians and Irish came, hearing about jobs available in Crestline. The U.S. was still a largely agrarian country at that time and jobs were hard to get for many people. If you had a good job with a steady employer, you kept it if you could, often for the rest of your life.
For a very small town, Crestline was very diversified. Blacks found work on the railroad, too, better jobs than were afforded to them in some other industries. They may not have been the locomotive engineers or conductors in those years, but the check was good and they worked for a good company. Crestline even had some Jewish store owners, something that many small towns did not have. With excellent passenger service, and many railroad employees had "passes," one could step up on a train in Crestline and be in Chicago and back in a day's time. You could get on over a dozen passenger trains in Crestline per day, 7 days a week, counting the "Big Four" line of the New York Central that went from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati and St. Louis. Crestline over the year hosted a number of U.S. presidents who stopped there as engines and crews changed. Right before Amtrak took over all of Crestline's passenger trains, I distinctly remember ten passenger trains a day as late as 1969 when I was in high school. You could get on and go east to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, New York, or Washington.
I remember when Dad was a locomotive engineer in the Crestline yards, Mom would sometimes drive us out to the edge of town to take Dad a sack lunch. Every now and then he let us up on his locomotive and we hoped certain people were not watching. We waited on many train crossings in Crestline, but Mom told us kids not to complain as the railroads put the food on the table. Sometimes I would go with Dad in his pick-up truck to pick up his check he got every two weeks. It was an office in the old roundhouse which was still standing then. Part of the roundhouse had been taken over by a smelly fertilizer bagging plant that cooked mature and which stunk up the entire town of Crestline some days. The company was owned by nationally syndicated newspaper columnist named Drew Pearson. The company had the sterile name of "General Products Of Ohio, but the cooked mature sold in plastic bags was called, "Drew Pearson's Best." I remember one year in the 1960s seeing Dad's W2 form for his wages that year. $8,800 as a railroad engineer, full-time. Talk about inflation!
These small Ohio towns that were railroad division points had the world by the tail. It would like today having a regular commercial airport in your small town. My great uncle, Henry Mayer, was a yard engineer in Crestline, beginning as a fireman. He had almost 40 years of service. My father, Robert B. Histed, Sr., retired in 1982 with 43 years on the Pennsylvania Railroad and its successor companies. He was given credit for his time in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps in World War I in Germany and Belgium. Dad was too young to hold down a locomotive engineer's job on a Class I U.S. Railroad, but he was old enough to be an engineer of steam trains in Germany where he hauled munitions, troops and even prisoners of war for the U.S. Army. Dad did not like to talk about his railroad experience in the Army in Europe. He only would say he "had a job to do and did it and didn't know if he would come back home." There was none of this self-proclaimed "hero stuff" back then. Most service people were proud to serve their countrymen.
Dad actually began, as many other teenage men did in Crestline, working in the Great Depression on the railroad track gangs in the summer. The high school football coach, the local legend Merle Hutson, required boys on the football team to work on the section crews in the summer. He felt this was the best "conditioning" they could get, and they would be paid for it! It was no accident that Dad and his team members from Crestline won the state championship tournament in 1939. Dad's generation grew up in the Great Depression, jumping from that ordeal into the largest war our nation has fought since then. But that was not the only family involvement we had in Crestline on the railroad. My grandfather, Clement Mayer, was a successful barber for 35 years, having a shop with his brothers in the hotel along the railroad tracks, the Gibson House Hotel. He cut many heads of hair of railroaders, including those on "layover" in Crestline. He also gave a lot of shaves.
Even though the Great Depression was in full swing, Grandpa's barber shop still had money coming. While railroad freight and passenger traffic was way down, there was still some work and some railroaders still killed layover time in Crestline by getting a haircut and a shave. The thrifty son of German immigrants, he saved his money, bought and fixed up some rental houses and soon became president for two years and on the board of directors of a savings bank for 30 years. But as the TV infomercials say today, "Wait, That's Not All." Two of my uncles, Tom Mayer and Bill Mayer, operated the Mayer Inn alongside the railroad tracks next to the "union station" in Crestline. They boarded many railroaders over the years. They sold many beers and ham sandwiches and bean soup to railroaders and town folks alike. Often, people in Crestline would get the latest information from passenger conductors who rode from Pittsburgh to Crestline, often bringing copies of the Pittsburgh daily papers. I grew up in Crestline during great changes, not all of them good, on major railroads. I saw more and more job leave, and this was long after the steam locomotive shops had closed.
We were a PRR town when I was growing up. I was there in 1970 when Amtrak came in and ten passenger trains a day in Crestline got down to one each way, the Broadway Limited, which in time was diverted to other tracks in other cities. The Penn Central bankruptcy was an ugly mess and it came during a time of track and equipment deterioration. "Slow orders" had been placed all through town and there were several derailments, even at slow speeds. Some railroaders wondered if their checks would bounce or if they would even have a job soon. It was the era when some claimed the railroads were overburdened financially by too many government regulations and outdated union work rules going back to the steam engine days when more labor was needed. Freight crews often were of five or six men then. Railroads across the country were crying that "feather bedding" as they called it, high real estate taxes and stifling federal regulations were economically killing them. They wanted freed of all of it, which would come, at least in good measure, later through acts of Congress and changes in labor contracts.
Memories In A Railroad Town
Different times, family members used Dad's "annual pass" to go to Pittsburgh, New York City, Ft. Wayne and Chicago. Dad just showed his pass to the conductor and that was it. We didn't even make reservations, though I understood the pass was not good on the crack Broadway Limited. One of Crestline's proud moments was when a volunteer snack shed was created by the citizens to feed hungry World War II service people who came through Crestline on the train. Some never came back to the U.S. when they reached their destinations. Today, not one passenger train goes through Crestline any more. The brick roundhouse has largely been torn down for the steel scrap. The union station, built in 1864 during the Civil War, is long gone. The "tower" was torn down a few year ago. There is really not much left of Crestline and the railroad these days except some freight trains still go through on their way to other places. Growing up in the railroad town of Crestline will never happen to anyone again. In a way, those of us who grew up in some of these small, but vital railroad towns, were blessed.