LIRR Steam Days at Southampton


Jules P. Krzenski



     The year was 1946 and it was nearing the end of summer.  It was a lazy afternoon in Southampton...just 27 miles, by railroad, from Montauk, Long Island’s easternmost village.  The point itself, with its famous lighthouse, is a few miles farther east, but the railroad terminates at the village.  I had been loafing around my home, considering the approach of the new school season.  I was 14 years old and such thoughts did not exactly put me in a happy mood!


     We had always lived within hearing distance of the railroad station at Southampton, and that meant absolutely nothing to me at the time.  I had no more interest in the railroad than the average person...and I didn’t know anyone who did.  As on many other days, I could hear a faint “chuff, chuff, chuff, cheep” from the direction of the station.  I knew it was an engine moving around...but so what!  But...on this particular day...ANYTHING would be better than just hanging around, waiting for school to reopen!  I decided to ride my bike down to the station and see what the heck they were doing with that engine.


     I sat on a 4-wheel baggage truck on the platform for almost an hour, watching the engine moving around.  They were spotting freight cars at the freight house, on the team track, and then they moved east, past the station, to a point where they could reverse and shove a boxcar onto the lumber yard spur.  All this activity was accompanied by much hand and arm signaling by the brakemen, who were constantly swinging on and off the moving cars and engine.  It slowly began to occur to me that maybe I’d been something interesting on all those past summer afternoons...when I’d heard that faint “chuff, chuff, chuff, cheep.”


     The engine eventually backed up to where the rest of the train, of about 6 or 7 cars, had been left standing, just west of the block signals at the west end of the platform.  One of the brakemen had disappeared between the tender and the first car to couple the air.  When he reappeared, he perched himself on top of the wooden fence, that ran along the rear edge of the cinder portion of the platform.  I sat on my baggage truck, looking at the engine, and listening to the pump building up the brakeline pressure.  I didn’t know what that throbbing sound meant then though!  About that time, I decided that if I heard that chuffing sound again, in the future, I’d come back and watch the activities once more.   They would be going back westbound the next day.  I eventually learned that this train was a local freight, called L70 and L71, that worked 6 days a week, between Patchogue and Montauk.


     About that time, two men came out of the station office.  Both appeared to be in their upper fifties.  One of them had what looked to be about a three week stubble covering the lower portion of his face.  The stubble caught my attention because of it’s was snow white!  The other man, a little shorter than the first...but much heavier...had a real jolly looking face.  What a Santa Claus he’d make!  Both wore the same type of blue denim overalls, and two-toned, blue and white, striped hats, with solid blue visors.  As they walked past me, on their way towards the engine, the man with the white stubble gave me a smile and a, “How ya Doing?”  The short fat man, with the Santa Claus face, glanced up from a slip of paper he had been reading, and gave me a smile that would have matched perfectly with a red and white costume!


     When they reached the engine, ‘Jolly Face’ pulled himself easily up the side and disappeared into the cab, followed by the brakeman who had been sitting on the fence.  The younger man, who had been running the engine earlier, and had been leaning on the armrest in the cab window, talking with the fence-sitting brakeman, also disappeared into the cab.  He was replaced by ‘Jolly Face’, who looked down and said something to ‘White Stubble’, who had remained on the ground below the cab.  Jolly Face then pulled off four LONG and LOUD blasts on that shrill banshee whistle...that nearly cracked my eardrums!  Shortly after, two short ‘peeps’ from the whistle barely made it past the ringing in my eardrums!


     The train had begun to move.  Out of the stack came a short “chuff, chuff’, followed by an even softer “chuff. chuff.”  The next four chuffs were much louder, and then, suddenly, they became solid resounding barks, with the smoke shooting straight up into the sky.  After all the times I’d seen trains leaving the station, I realized, now, that the exhaust had a definite 4-beat rhythm to it.  As the caboose on the rear end of the short train rolled past White Stubble, he easily swung aboard the rear platform.  At that point, the exhaust quickened...and became MUCH louder!  As the engine thundered past my baggage cart, Jolly Face looked down and gave me that smile and raised his gloved right hand in a quiet wave...while his left hand jolted my eardrums again with two short...and LOUD... blasts on the banshee whistle. that instant...the bedlam of sound passing by me became the greatest mixture of noise I had ever heard.  It totally entered my being and the experience of it sent a tingling through me, and made my heart pound so hard that a lump seemed to come up into my throat!


     I caught a glimpse of the younger man, who I now realized was the fireman, sitting over on the other side of the cab.  He was leaning out of his window, looking up at the black exhaust, and seemed to be adjusting something among the knobs and handles with his right hand.  The brakeman, who had followed Jolly Face up into the cab, was standing behind the fireman, holding onto the tops of the handrails between the engine and tender, and looking back along that side of the train.  At that exact moment...with the ground trembling beneath my baggage cart...I hired out firing on the Long Island Rail Road!


     Trouble was, though, I was going to have to wait four long years before I could inform the Long Island Rail Road of that fact!  I had aged very suddenly, mentally, but I was still 14 years old, physically!  But regardless of that fact, I felt it in my bones...THAT was my world going by!  It was the ONLY reason I had been put on this earth!


     The friendly wave and the yelled, “Take it easy!”, from White Stubble, as he stood on the rear platform of the gently swaying caboose as it rattled by, seemed like the period at the end of an incredible story!  As I quickly returned his wave, the happy thought crossed my mind that, someday, four years from then, he would be waving to some other kid...and I would be up ahead in the middle of all that sound and furor...on the engine...sitting on the lefthand seatbox.  Back then, you only had to be 18 and a high school graduate to start as a locomotive fireman on the Long Island Railroad.


     In the months to come, I devoted myself to studying and learning as much as possible about the Long Island Rail Road...and railroad operation in general.  I came into possession of a LIRR rulebook and an employee’s timetable.  I practically memorized the special instructions in the latter!  By the time I was 16, I probably could have passed the rules exam!  One of my favorite texts, at that time, was Peter Josserand’s classic, ‘Rights of Trains’.  How many railroad-minded readers can remember that book!?  I eventually became a long-time subscriber to “Trains,” starting during the time when it was being published in the small format.  And “Railroad Magazine” gained a new long-time subscriber, way back when it was about the size of ‘National Geographic’, but was printed on pulp paper.  In life was focused on the railroad industry as a way of life!


     I became good friends with Jolly Face, better known as “Tanky Bell.  The fireman, George Bohne became a tutor to me.  I learned how to control and adjust the stoker for the best fire, with minimum smoke.  The conductor, White Stubble, better known as Russ Jacobs, always welcomed me aboard the hack.  (On the LIRR, the caboose was usually called the “hack”).  Occasionally, somebody in the crew would get “bumped” by someone with more seniority.  Thus, I got to know other enginemen, like George Eichorn and Cliff Prince (“Princey”).  I knew Walter Krantz, a conductor, Rich Bishop, a brakeman...and a hulking brakeman known as “Polock.”  Another brakeman stands out in my memories.  They called him “Rebel.”  Eventually, the reason I remember him so well will become obvious to the reader.  Incidentally, the Pennsylvania Railroad...owner of the LIRR at that time...classified locomotive engineers as “enginemen.”  That was the standard in the rulebook, the employee’s timetable, and all printed matter.  However, on the LIRR a term the guys themselves used was “runner”.  There were several other brakemen and another fireman I was acquainted with back then.  But after all these years, I don’t recall their names.


     Up until the time I turned 16, I spent many Saturday afternoons riding the cab between Southampton and Montauk. WAS against the rules!  But, during the 1940’s, out on the east end of Long Island, things were pretty informal!  Besides, I was NOT “playing” on the railroad...I was learning my future job!  I think most of those guys really sensed that fact!  As previously mentioned, the LIRR was, at that time, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the great Pennsylvania RR...and the company had 19 ex-PRR H10s Consolidations, numbered 101 through 119.  That was the type of engine that grabbed my heart and soul, on that afternoon in 1946.  I eventually spent time in the cabs of all of them. 


One incident comes to mind, when the crew showed how much confidence they had in my knowledge and ability.  I think it also indicated how much respect they had for my serious attitude towards railroad safety.  I forget the exact location now, but it was at one of the stations between Southampton and Montauk.  I had used the station restroom while they were finishing the setouts.  As I came out of the restroom, Rich Bishop, a brakeman, asked, “All set?”  Then he added, “He’ll pick us up here.”  Princey already had the train moving towards us.  Without a word being said I knew what to do, and I stood alongside the track.  Bishop continued maybe another 30 feet toward the slowly approaching train, and then stopped and waited.  the exhaust went silent as Princey closed the throttle, letting the engine drift at about the speed of  a (now) fast jogging pace.  Bishop glanced over his shoulder at me and then swung aboard the engine as it passed him.  He pulled himself up the side and into the cab. As the engine approached me, Princey gave me a “thumbs up” and nodded.

     Concentrating on my timing, I reached out and up with my right hand and grabbed the engine handrail as it went by.  At the same time, I lifted my left foot, letting the momentum swing me around and up, and planted that foot on the bottom step...and at the same time, grabbing the tender handrail with my left hand.  The act of grabbing the engine handrail, as it went by, caused all these movements to easily flow together.  As soon as I was off the ground, and had started pulling myself up to the cab, the exhaust came loudly back to life as Princey hauled back on the throttle.  Leaning out at arm’s length, I pulled myself up into the cab.  Rich looked at me as I stepped onto the deck and gave me a wink. I felt completely accepted!


     Besides the H10s Consolidations, the Long Island naturally used other Pennsy designed engines.  The engines that handled the heavy equipment passenger trains between Jamaica and Montauk...complete with baggage and RPO cars...and carried the gold lettering of PENNSYLVANIA on their tenders, were the fabulous K4s Pacifics.  In my non-neutral opinion, the K4s was far and away the best looking steam locomotive ever designed!  I was incredibly lucky enough, one Sunday afternoon, to be invited to ride the cab of the 5406 from Montauk to Southampton.  My mom, dad, and I had taken a Sunday drive out to Montauk Point.  On the way back, we had made the “must” stop at the station to see what engines were laying over on that weekend.  My dad had recognized the engineman on the 5406, which was almost ready to leave with a long string of heavy-weight, Tuscan-red coaches.  When he saw us approaching on foot, the engineman had dropped down from the cab and met us.  After some small talk with my dad, he asked me how I would prefer to go back to the family car, or on the engine with him and his fireman!!  This engineman’s name was Stewart Bishop...”Stewy” to his friends.  His dad was a retired Long Island engineman, and Rich Bishop, the brakeman, was his younger brother.  The family hailed from Southampton.

     Bishop did something that afternoon that would be totally unthinkable nowadays!  As if doing 65 miles per hour through the Promised Land between Montauk and Amagansett on a Pennsy K4s was not enough of an experience for a 15 year old, he later got up from his right-hand seatbox and crossed the cab to where I was sitting, on the fireman’s seatbox (on the front edge of the seat...the fireman was sitting sideways behind me).  Cupping his hand to my ear, he asked if I was familiar with a whistle post, and if I knew the signal for a grade crossing.  NATURALLY!  This was while we were approaching Bridgehampton, where we would not be stopping.  There is a road between Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor, which, at that time crossed the railroad at grade (maybe it still does) and was protected.  Stewy yelled for me to go over and sit on his side.  He stood alongside me and, leaning down and over behind me, so that he could see ahead, he yelled, “When we pass the post let them know we’re coming!”

     As we hit the whistle post, I grabbed the cord, draped above my head, and started with the ‘two longs’ and one ‘short’, followed by another ‘long’.  I spaced them out so that I could taper off the final ‘long’ as we hit the crossing.  What a sound that deep K4s whistle had!  Bishop, with a big grin, tapped my left shoulder and yelled, “I’ll give you a grade A on that!”  He then added, “OK, back where you were!” 

Some cars had been lined up on my side of the crossing, and I often wondered about the reactions of the people in them. Maybe...”That engineer looked like a kid!”  Luckily, the Road Foreman of Engines, from Jamaica, had not been in one of those cars.  Stewy Bishop would have had some real scrambling to do to answer that inevitable question!  He DID take one heck of a chance!  At the same time, he created a lifelong memory for a teenager!!


     The engines that really stole my heart, though, were the graceful speed-demons that flashed through Southampton each summer with the “Fisherman’s Special,” between Jamaica and the Montauk charter and party boats...with only one stop at the Shinnecock Canal for the boats that operated from that point.  Anyone who has ever experienced, and can still remember, the hurtling blur of a Pennsylvania RR E6s Atlantic, at speed, with a string of coaches, can easily understand what is impossible to put into words!  Usually on the westbound (return) trip, the engineman would close the throttle when approaching the Southampton station.  Jim Osborne, the block operator, (and as far as I was concerned, my second father!) would be out on the platform, holding up the hoop, containing a “19” order and/or a clearance card, paper-clipped to the string.  The fireman would be down on the deck behind his seatbox, leaning down and out, right hand on the handrail and left arm outstretched, ready to hook the string off the hoop. 


   If I was not at the station (rarely!), I would be out in front of my home, about three quarters of a mile west of the station.  The track was across the street and behind our neighbors’ homes.  Luckily, there was no house directly across the street from us.  I would be out there, waiting to hear the rapid exhaust approaching from the east.  Then the grade crossing warning signal on that high-pitched whistle...followed shortly after by the exhaust suddenly going silent.  I could easily tell when the fireman’s arm took the string off the hoop.  That rapid exhaust would suddenly come back to life, as the engineman hauled the throttle back to its original position.  When that E6s went past my home that exhaust was an almost continuous staccato again...the 4-beat rhythm blending into one never-ending sound!  The fireman would either be standing beside the engineman, waiting to see the paperwork, or he would be braced on the deck...swinging the scoop.  The E6s was a hand-fired bomber.  Memories...Memories!!


     Over time, I learned that the Long Island also used other PRR designed power.  The big-boilered G5s Ten-Wheeler, which excelled in commuter service because of its almost unbelievable acceleration ability, was really the symbol of the LIRR.  But I don’t ever recall seeing a G5s in Southampton.  They had, undoubtedly, worked runs to Montauk but that was probably before I discovered the railroad in 1946.  They were the LIRR’s prime commuter power outside of the electric 3rd rail territory.  Steam commuter runs on the Montauk Branch, at that time, terminated at Speonk, well west of Southampton.  The other branches, like Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson, also used the big Ten-Wheeler on their commuter runs.  The Main Line to Greenport saw the G5s on the daily commuter trains, that operated only as far east as the mid-island “pine barrens” of those days.  But, for me, during the 1940’s, the Main Line and those branches were beyond my reach.  I was only in my early teens.


     I learned of the existence of the PRR designed L1s Mikes, that were used in freight transfer service between the Long Island City and Bay Ridge car float ramps and Holban Yard, in Hollis.  They were not seen out on the east end because of weight restrictions.  I remember a couple of the older H6sb Consolidations at Riverhead and Patchogue.  These smaller boilered ancestors of the H10s were used mainly on work extras.  I also remember seeing 0-8-0 yard engines working at Holban Yard, as we went through Hollis, to and from my grandmother’s home in Brooklyn.  Those “other” engine classes always remained distant for me, however.  I heard of them, saw photos of them and read about them...but being an isolated teenager, out on the far east end of the island, prevented me from becoming really acquainted with them.  The “railfan world,” back then, was not even remotely as well “connected” as it is today!  The “Big Three” of my memories will always be the H10s, the K4s and the E6s.  If only I had learned as much about photography in the 1940’s as I did in the 1960’s!  The opportunities for photographs would have been mind boggling!  What a file of negatives I would now have! least I DO have some vivid memories!


     Although fate decreed that I would be employed in a field other than railroading, I will always be thankful that I was lucky enough to be able to spend many happy...and soul-satisfying hours in those H10s cabs with Tanky Bell, and his fellow enginemen and firemen.....not to mention that spectacular 27-mile ride on the 5406 with Stewy Bishop, on the Long Island Railroad of the mid to late 1940’s.  Those memories will be with me for ever.