Railfan Recollections at LIRR  “PD” Tower Patchogue, NY
by Dave Keller

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PD Tower 03/18/1930 
Archive: Dave Keller

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Winter 1970 at PD Tower with Alco RS-3 #1559 Westbound


Posted right column is an article appearing in the Patchogue Advance from December 15, 1945 covering an interview with Thomas Gafney, 1st trick block operator for many years at “PD” tower, Patchogue. Click article to enlarge. 

Below is a copy of one of operator Gafney’s Form 19 train orders from February, 1945, made complete at 7:07 am, shortly after the start of Mr. Gafney’s 1st trick and addressed to the conductor and engineer of the Sperry Rail Service car #120 as it passed through Patchogue eastbound headed for “SK” at Speonk during its annual track inspection.  The order also identifies westbound Speonk train #21 as being pulled by leased PRR E6s class (4-4-2) locomotive #1600.  

All material: Archive Dave Keller



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I started seriously photographing the LIRR in 1966 at age 14.  I saved all my money and purchased a Yashica twin-lens reflex camera which used 127 size film and proceeded to self-teach myself how to take photos with a manually adjustable camera.  My parents’ camera experiences were with Kodak Brownie box cameras. The square format did not lend itself to taking railroad photos, but what did I know?  I had no one to ask.  However, I made do with what I had.
I was determined to take photos of LIRR structures only, but railfans will attest to the fact that you can’t take just one type of rail photo.  Structures led to motive power, train crews, etc., etc. My father would take me around Long Island, photographing the LIRR a different branch at a time.

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DF Tower, Fresh Pond  c.1925
Photo:  James V. Osborne
Collection of Dave Keller

I lived 5 miles from Patchogue in a town called Holtsville.  We had our own railroad station, but unfortunately it was razed before I had a chance to photograph it.

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Holtsville Station 5-13-1912
Dave Keller Collection

Patchogue had a beautiful old wood and brick railroad station that I still remember vividly which was unfortunately torn down in 1963, prior to my being able to photograph it.

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Patchogue Station Engraving - 1888

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Patchogue Station c.1905
Dave Keller Collection

I was able, however, to photograph “PD” tower, the only remnant left of the old Patchogue locomotive terminal facility in 1966. I photographed it from every different angle.  In 1968, a friendly block operator who will remain anonymous, allowed me into the tower to take interior photographs.

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 PD Tower 01/72

In 1970, I decided to pedal my bicycle 5 miles into Patchogue with my camera slung around my neck to see if I could re-gain entry into the tower.  I managed to befriend the block operator there, and the rest became history. (His name and trick will also remain anonymous as I would never want any kindness he afforded me to jeopardize his pension, etc. should he still be alive.)

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Dave Keller at block operator's desk - "PD" tower - 12/71

I  found out from past experience with other railroaders that photographs opened doors.  If someone allowed me to photograph themselves and their facility, I promised them copies of the photos I took.  Of course, they figured it was just talk.  However, when I returned within a week or two with photos which I gave them, then I was usually invited back.

I hung out at “PD” for short stretches at first, usually over vacation periods from school and later between semesters at college, taking photos of the interior of the tower, of the operator at work, of trains, both passenger and freight from the tower and any track cars performing trackwork.

Being invited back, and being assured that I wasn’t being a royal pain in the butt to the operator (they really hated railfans who were pesty and obnoxious. I tried to be neither) I lengthened my stay at the tower a bit longer and longer.

Before long, I was spending almost the entire trick with the operator, talking about all sorts of things, giving him companionship during the long periods of inactivity, helping him hook Form 19s onto the old “Y’ train order sticks. I hung out in both winter and summer, in heat and snow.  I would go out for coffee and we would take turns picking up the tab.  I would bring a can of soup from home and heat it up on the tower stove along with his and we would both have lunch together.

Train Order No. 32                                 April 6, 1906

For:  PG               To: C/E            Of: No. 504
                             C&E                   Eng. 224

Nr. 503 five hundred three will met No. 504 five hundred four and extra west Eng 224 two twenty-four at Islip.


Rec'd: 1:45 pm     Made: Complete  1:47 pm   Rec'd by:  Webb, Opr.

Engine #224 would be a D-16b (4-4-0)

I became such a regular feature at the tower that no one of importance took any notice of me there.  For all they knew, I was another railroad guy, killing time with the operator until my train left for my job assignment.

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Block operator handing orders up to engineer of RS-3  #1559 on the "Scoot" westbound at "PD" - 8/71

LIRR MP15ac #172 is pulling a freight train westbound past “PD” tower in Patchogue and a member of the crew is about to snag their orders on the fly.  c.1989. Thomas Collins photo, Dave Keller archive





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Form 19 - 1906

I was allowed to try the Armstrong levers which moved the double crossover switches on occasion when nothing was coming through (what a butt-breaking job that was: you had to release the lever lock first so the lever would spring out. Then, in one continuous move, throw your body weight against the lever and push or tug towards you to move the darned thing!), and was even allowed once to copy an actual train order from the dispatcher when the operator was temporarily indisposed but was close-by to hear me repeat the order back.  It was made complete by the operator, so everything was still “official” as far as he was concerned.

Block operator at PD throwing levers after tower interior
          refurbishing - 1971 (Notice train order boards and
          lantern hanging up. Chair behind operator in corner
          of tower is approx. location of the manual gate lever
          box prior to auto. lights and gates installation
          c. 1970)



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PD operator 1971

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Armstrong levers which moved the double crossover switches

At first they had manually-operated crossing gates.  The operator would flip a switch which set the crossing lights flashing and bells ringing, and then levers were turned, lowering the gates.  I remember one operator on an earlier tower jaunt who would turn on the bells and lights every time he saw some dummy stop his car in traffic across the Right of Way.  You never saw such contortions as the driver would attempt to get off the tracks, thinking a train was coming!                WestAveShanty-Patchogue-1968.jpg (16336 bytes)
                                                                                                           West Ave Shanty looking NE '68

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Ryder Ave Shanty looking N '68

I even lowered and raised the gates a time or two. Then they were replaced by automated lights and gates (9/70) and another bit of history went by the wayside. 

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PD Tower c.late 1966
Photo: Steve Hoskins


I took all kinds of photos, ones of the tower interior before renovation, after renovation, hanging out various windows getting trains, Sperry Rail Service cars, track cars, hundreds of shots of the Patchogue-Babylon “Scoot” in action, Montauk-bound and returning parlor car trains, Speonk-bound and returning coach trains, special trains, inspection trains and many freights.

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Sperry Rail Service at PD 1972

I took shots of Engineers and Conductors catching train orders in the crooks of their arms, and shots of the old lantern-style train order notification light with icicles hanging from it during the winter, before the automatic train order light was installed on the block signal tower pole.

One engineer called in from further on along the route angry and irate, demanding to know who the guy was who took his picture and demanding it be destroyed.(!!)  His name will remain anonymous as well.  That was the only bad experience I ever had at the tower.(P.S.  I still have the negative.)

A nice experience was when the Conductor of the regular Bridgehampton-bound freight asked the operator one day if the “kid would like to go for a ride with them.”

There was a no-brainer question for a railfan!  


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TOS - Train Order Signal 1972

I took two separate trips with them, riding in the old cupola-topped cabooses of the C-90 numbered series.  It was great fun, except when we stopped for a layover at the Eastport Duck Farm.  Van Iderstine’s in Long Island City had nothing on the Eastport Duck Farm when it came to stench in the August heat!  And, coincidentally, our layover coincided with lunch-time!  Needless to day, I wasn’t too hungry that day.

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Meet at PD with LIRR 1553 view from Caboose -1972

Another time, the freight Conductor was getting ready to step off the bottom step of the moving caboose at Bridgehampton to position himself to throw the switch and he forgot he was already on the bottom step.  He thought he was stepping down one step, but he stepped off into air and rolled quite a ways along the roadbed thanks to our momentum before he came to a stop.  He was not a kid, and I was very surprised when we stopped and ran back to him that he was just dirty and sore!

For three summers I worked on the LIRR as first a ticket clerk and later as Special Services Attendant while attending college.  It was a special program they had.  This time I would legitimately wait in the tower while waiting for my train into Jamaica for my walk through third-rail territory to Richmond Hill yard (it was safer walking along the tracks then walking along Sutphin Blvd., Archer Avenue or Jamaica Avenue!) or the Jamaica Commissary, under the tracks on the East side of Sutphin Blvd. from where the Special Services Attendants worked. (There also was a Commissary at track level, below the staircase along one of the tracks at Penn Station  I can’t remember which track, however.)

I took quite a few photos at that time as well.  

I still think of “PD” tower on frequent occasions.  It played a prominent part in my railroading hobby.  I occasionally have dreams that it, too, has been razed and I wake up feeling bad.  Fortunately I visited Long Island again in June/July 2001, returning to L.I. for the first time since 1990, and was very pleased to see the tower was still standing, albeit leaning ever a bit further to port (or is it starboard?)  

Best in Railroading,     
Dave Keller

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PD Tower 10/01- Photo: Steve Lynch