Webmaster Note: I often repeat my request for people to write down their recollections of "yesteryear" and this is a response received from one person in Arizona. My thanks go out and I ask other viewers to please search out and share as John has done. Email welcome at WEBMASTER
My Huck Finn Days in Scio N.Y.
My favorite early childhood recollections begin in 1940 & continue for a decade which center around my annual summer vacation at my Grandfather's house in Scio New York. My parents lived in Stratford Connecticut, not far from Bridgeport Ct. where I would travel with my mother & sometimes my father (when he could get time off from a war time production job) on the New York New Haven & Hartford R.R. to New York City's Grand Central Station which was the first leg of the trip to Scio.
The trip was made most of the time, for a late evening departure so as to arrive Wellsville close to noon the next day. The first leg to Grand Central Station took about one hour. On arrival at Grand Central (a huge cathedral like edifice that was awesome) & we would choose a Red Cap to relieve us of our baggage & take us to the taxis outside of the terminal. From there we would take a short ride to Rockefeller Center Plaza to get a motor coach (bus) to The Chambers Street Ferry that the Erie R.R. operated across the Hudson River to Jersey City R.R. Station for the Erie overnight departure on the Pullman sleeper. It was train #7 that left at about 1:00am.
In those days the Erie made the Pullman cars available for boarding about 10:00PM so if one planned their arrival early enough you could go to bed at a normal time in the evening.There was upper & lower births available. The upper birth had no window & was less convenient, so it cost less than the lower birth. Two people could fit in the upper, but usually only one person would take the upper. When it was time to get into the upper birth (it folded down just over the lower birth) a porter would bring a ladder so one could climb up & get in which had a heavy curtain to be drawn for privacy. My parents used the lower, while I had the upper to myself. Since Pullman train travel was so interesting to me I usually got the porter (you had a buzzer bell to call the porter) to get the ladder early for me around daybreak so I would not miss much of the action. It was the custom for men to leave their shoes in the isle after retiring for the night and the porter would give them a shine while most passengers were asleep. In the morning after going to the wash & bath room, men at one end of the car & women at the other, the porter would put up the upper birth, & fold the bedding away in the lower birth so two opposing seats, seating four people, could socialize & watch the scenery go by. Then the porter would come through the car, three different times, announcing first call for breakfast then second & finally third & last call advising how many cars forward or to the rear of the train the dining car was located. The passenger cars had enclosed vestibules to keep the passengers free from the elements & the soot of a steam engine.
While this routine was going on I used to follow the conductor around asking questions when I thought he might answer without being annoyed at me. I discovered the conductor knew exactly where we were & if we were on time just by looking out the window. The telephone poles he would time the intervals between, so he could tell how fast we were traveling. He knew where all the landmarks were in the countryside, which every so often I would ask about. The conductor was the captain of the train and his word was final. His pocket watch was frequently consulted. The conductor would give me jobs to do, sorting tickets, making sure there were enough timetables in display racks for passengers. When he felt it time to announce the fact we were nearing a station stop, he would allow me to make the call in my parents car such as... "Elmira,.... Elmira... next stop in five minutes". I also got to punch tickets after much instruction, & on one trip after doing a satisfactory job was given a ticket punch which I still have to this day. Those were the days for an aspiring railroad worker.
The Porters, & Waiters on the Pullman cars were always African American, the only Caucasian was the Dining Car Steward who handled the seating & checks. The Conductor's were Caucasian as well. The Pullman Car Company trained the staff with attention to detail not seen today in any service industry I have ever seen. The trip to the dining car was a pleasure...eating while watching the country side going by. The food & service was outstanding.
Close to noon we arrived in Wellsville. The station was well kept with varnished wooden waiting room benches. I understand it is on the historic registry & hope it is restored to it's original condition.
Scio, offered a wide variety of things to do on a summer vacation. My Grandfather had a two story house with a big peaked roof attic. The house had the usual ginger-bread trim & large front porch. The windows were the old wavy glass & had wide wooden flooring of varying widths. The doors on the interior were wooden, heavy & thick like you would expect on a front door today. It had a mud room, huge pantry & kitchen. There was a Parlor off the living room which had two heavy pocket doors to insure privacy. The house was next to Vandermark Creek & the Highway 19 bridge that went over the creek into downtown Scio. Within 40 yards of the house the creek offered a great swimming hole that sported a large fallen tree that allowed several places to provide a diving platform. Skinny dipping was the order of the day until someone would yell "girls coming". After a swim a short trip to our back yard, which had a crab apple tree and a swing... this I used to dry off on. I can still recall how good the crab apple pie was.
Back of the farm, a lease road led to the oil fields where drilling & shooting oil wells provided many things to do. I used to stand by the entrance to the lease road and hitch a ride on the explosives truck which would bring "nitro" to the roughnecks who were ready to bring in an oil well. There was never any reluctance to give someone a lift even if it was a truck marked "danger explosives". As a kid I learned to be respectful & polite offering to run any errand for the workmen. This allowed close observation of the operations & the opportunity to learn interesting things outside a childs world.
There was a central power house that was used to provide power to producing oil wells. From the power house 8 foot long connected steel rods radiated out like a giant spider to the wells. Some of the connecting rods went up to a 1/2 mile long in distance which were from 5 to 6 feet above the ground. We used to grab a rod & on the power stroke & travel 5 feet or so up the hill, then let go on the exhaust stroke if we were close to the ground...if we were over a ravine it was hand over hand on the exhaust stroke. When there was no truck to hitch a ride on to get up the hill to the oil wells we used the connecting rods to ride up the hill. The amusements & thrills were never ending.
When it was safe during the drilling of the well we would get within inches of the well head & watch the core samples taken from various depths to see how close they were to the oil. After a while you got to know what to look for in the samples to see how close the well was to coming into production. A core sample box was kept close to the well head. We used to go from one drill site to the next & check the core sample boxes to see which well might be blown next. It was kind of like a preview of coming attractions at the movies. Often a well was blown & turned into a gusher which was a big deal to watch. It was quite a spectacle and we tried not to miss out on the event.
My Grandfathers house was about 100 feet from highway #19 leading to Wellsville or Scio depending on what direction you were going and another 100 feet away was the Erie R.R. single track mainline. About another 20 feet away was the Genesee River which was joined by Vandermark Creek. Then from the rails to the river was about a 25 foot drop to the river which eroded the Erie R.R. right of way. This meant it had to be shored up from time to time. The Erie chose to send a maintenance of way or work train to repair the damage the river was causing. One morning I awoke to see the train composed of a long wooden sleeping/ dining car caboose, a wooden freight box car, a flat car fitted with a steam operated crane, two steel gondola cars loaded with 20 foot long concrete slabs powered by a 2-8-0 Consolidation steam engine & coal tender. I got my breakfast down fast as I knew there was going to be some interesting action as the crew was already dropping the slabs into the river.
I met the brakeman at the rear of the train, wondering if he was going to object to my presence, but instead greeted me & explained what they were doing. From there it went to an invite to inspect the living quarters in the caboose. Then the air whistle on the rear platform with explanation of the use of signals & lanterns.
The next stop was an introduction to the steam crane operator who was told I was interested in being a railroader. The steam crane was coal fired & had a boiler with gauges, levers, clutches & many other handles which were somewhat intimidating. The operator sat outside the boiler on a tractor like metal seat with many levers & clutches to operate the crane. A large metal cable had to be attached around the slabs in a sling like fashion before the crane operator hoisted them into position to be dropped into the water & embankment. I saw that I could be of use in assisting the crane operator attaching the cable to the slabs. For this I was rewarded with an invite to sit in front of the operator while he guided my hands & feet to the right levers & clutches. You had to jerk the cable sling to get the slab to fall. If your judgement was not on target you wasted the correct positioning of the slabs. I got fairly proficient at this with much patience & guidance from the crane operator. The satisfaction I felt when a big splash was made in the right spot is hard to describe.
I was having a field day!
The next step was to see if the engineer would allow me in the cab for a look see. When I was introduced to the engineer he pulled out his pocket watch studied it & said, yeah we got time before we have to take the siding for an express. The engineer said you got to learn to fire first so do what the fireman tells you to do. I could not say "Yes Sir" fast enough. The fireman explained the water & steam gauges, the injector which feeds water to the boiler & what to watch for. He then asked me if I was ready to open the fire box door. I nodded yes & he told me to put my foot on the steam pedal on the floor which opened the butterfly fire box doors. It made a hissing sound then a blast of heat hit me in the face with a bright light intensity that made me take my foot off the steam pedal which keeps the door open...the door clanked shut while the fireman & engineer had an exchange of amusement by facial expression. I was told to keep one foot on the steam pedal while I held a #7 coal shovel upside down to act as a shield to keep the heat & bright fire from my face while I inspected the fire. This helped & I was then instructed about how to keep the fire even, look for dark spots, clinkers, & how to keep the fire up & even. There was some more amusement when with one foot on the steam pedal and the other towards the coal tender I tried to throw coal into the boiler. Several times I missed getting all the coal in the fire box and it made a mess on the cab floor. I was advised to take less in the shovel & to make sure it all got into the fire box. The engineer liked a clean neat cab. I really worked on that so as win the approval of the engineer!
It was time to signal the crew to quit work so that they had to get in the hole (track siding) & clear the main for a passenger express. I took this to mean I had to leave the cab...not true as the engineer said it was O.K. for me to take a ride with them to the Scio depot siding about a mile down the main. I was in seventh heaven! When they got to the siding a switch had to be thrown. I climbed down from the cab & the brakeman produced a key & showed me how to unlock the padlock on the switch stand & throw the switch. This took about all my strength but I managed. The engineer was signaled the switch was thrown O.K. & to take the siding. After the train backed down the siding & cleared the main, I reset the switch for the main, locked it & I got back into the cab & observed what I could of the way the crew worked together. Very little was said...almost all signals were made by hand or steam whistle. We eased down the siding to the water plug & the fireman showed me where the tender was to be spotted so as to fill the tender tank with as little effort as possible. We then moved forward & stopped by the depot. I climbed down with the engineer & went inside the depot where the station agent & telegrapher was so we could get orders after the express went through. There was only one man on duty which was normal & "Vince' had worked as station agent for years & most town folks knew him. Vince winked to the engineer & asked how his new helper was doing, in reference to me. The engineer said O.K. & told me to do as Vince asked. I said "yes sir" & was told to see if the station semaphore Vince operated was showing clear & in the up position. I did so by going outside & checking it, then reporting back to Vince. After the express went through the signal semaphore was changed to stop & I was told to pick up the mail bag which was thrown off the railway mail express car. Then Vince got on the telegraph & got the orders from dispatch to allow the "work extra" to take the main for it's allotted time. Vice typed the orders on a flimsy & we repeated the process opening & closing the switch taking the work extra back to the work site. As the days passed I fell into the routine perfecting my duties to the satisfaction of the crew. The high point of one of my days was blowing the engine whistle & waving to my family on my Grandfathers front porch as we went to the depot to take the siding. The engineer let me sit in his seat with my hand on the throttle, the other blowing the whistle. What more could a young kid ask for?
Looking back on those days are a fond memory for me at the age of 75. What with the litigious society we have today a kid would have been told to get off railroad property & stay off. Fortunately I grew up in a kinder more compassionate world, where a kid could learn respect for others & have fun doing it. Scio had many other interesting moments, such as taking a farmers bull to another pasture for breeding. I think we called it a "circus" if you get my meaning. Walking the bull round trip depending on the distance was worth .75 cents to a buck. That was a lot of pocket money for a kid. Five cents would get you a scoop on ice cream at "Flint's" filling station & lunch counter. As I recall the station had at least 10 different brands of gasoline for sale. Some of the pumps had glass tubes so you could see the gasoline being pumped into your car. One day while walking to my Granddads's car I found a five dollar bill on the ground next to the pumps. I was told by Granddad to take it into Mr. Flint and see if anyone was missing the bill. It turned out no one claimed the money so it was tacked up on a sign by the cash register to see if anyone would claim it. At the end of the week Mr. Flint rang us up (three rings on a party line hand crank phone) and told me to pick up my money! After my Granddad passed away (he was born in the same room he died in) my parents put up the house & farm for sale. I recall a big roll top oak desk we sold to a neighbor for $ 20.00. It had many compartments & small drawers. Today it would fetch many hundreds of dollars. When we went to close up the house we never could find the front door key. It was one of those old fancy hardware door locks. Over the years when we would leave the house for vacation we left all the doors unlocked so neighbors could look in on things to see if all was O.K. In fact we would announce it in the weekly news paper we were going on a visit or vacation. So we never needed the door key to lock up the house. Scio was a town where everyone knew each other & I never recall a crime being committed there. Times sure have changed, but not for the better in many ways, when I look back on my golden days of innocence. Regards to those who have tolerated my musings.
Sincerely, John W. Ebelhare
Copyright ©2012 John W. Ebelhare. All rights reserved.