Article From the Fall 2003 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
A LOOK BACK
The summer issue of HEADEND mentioned a local man who donated a number of photos and artifacts to our archives. During our visit with him, he had a lot to tell about "the old days". Here’s a summary of our conversation.
Hugh Donovan was born in 1926 and lived in Rochester near the East Avenue grade crossing of the New York Central’s Auburn Branch. This area, now the "Can of Worms" interchange of I-490 and I-590, has been of transportation importance since before European settlers first arrived, and it was certainly a busy place in Hugh’s youth too. He has childhood memories of watching the big Rochester & Syracuse interurban trolleys come downhill toward the University Avenue extension, off the long viaduct that carried them over the New York Central mainline. He regrets that he could never convince his dad to take him for a ride on one of those big, luxurious Pullman-green cars.
Like so many young people back then, Hugh took the subway to attend high school in the city. He boarded at the East Avenue stop, on the curve east of Winton Road Station, and usually rode up front with the motorman in the front vestibule of one of the old 3000-series cars. He says the cars were all polished mahogany inside—"really beautiful". Hugh recalled hanging around the subway to watch the cars, and he’s given us some nice photos of those days. He described how a kid one day made a mixture of some common chemicals (he thinks it was tri-sodium phosphate and sulfur, but isn’t sure)(don’t try this at home, anyway!). The mixture was placed in lead toothpaste tubes. These things acted like railroad torpedoes, and when a number of them were placed on the rail at intervals, it sounded like a machine gun!
Besides interurbans and the subway, Hugh and his friends got a lot of entertainment from the streetcar system. By the mid-1930s, Rochester was starting to convert lines to buses, and the streetcar "grave yard" on Blossom Road started to fill up. Some of the cars got sold—in fact Hugh remembers several on Atlantic Avenue near the New York Central underpass that were diners. The old wooden cars had sway-backed roofs and didn’t offer a very classy dining experience.
Over at the grave yard, Hugh and his friends would sneak in and play. They learned how to put the trolley poles on the live wire, and enjoyed pretending they were streetcar motormen, operating the doors and even moving the cars a few feet. Some kids "from over on Halstead Street" would unscrew the brass handles from the walk-over seat backs and sell them for scrap. Oh, what a few museums would give to find a box or two of those handles hidden in someone’s attic. Hugh recounted a time when he and his buddies had come to play with the cars, and the one they got into had its air pressure gauge removed. He stuck a stick into the open hole to retain air pressure in order to operate the doors and brakes. When a watchman was sighted running toward them with a big club, the rest of the kids took off, but Hugh had to hold onto the stick. Just didn’t want to lose that air! He doesn’t say what happened next…
His memories of actual streetcar rides are still vivid and mostly involve the big 1200-series Peter Witt "submarine" cars. They bounced and swayed as they rolled along the increasingly deteriorated tracks. People in the rear of the cars had it especially bad. In addition to the magnified bouncing and swaying, the overhang of the cars turned curves into something like an amusement park ride. More than once he witnessed riders getting dizzy or carsick in the back of a Peter Witt taking the Vick Park curves on Park Avenue! "It was quite a ride", says Hugh. "A slow motion roller coaster…and it only cost a nickel!"
Hugh befriended the watchman in the crossing shanty at the Auburn Branch East Avenue grade crossing. Harry Piso had lost an arm as a teenager, and crossing watchman was typical assignment for such people. In the winter, coal to keep the shanty heated was dropped off by passing steam locomotives. The first time Hugh ever tasted pepperoni was when Harry put some slices on a shovel and placed it in the coal stove. With the hot sausage placed on bread, it made a great lunch, he says. Harry also had to maintain kerosene switch lanterns within his jurisdiction, but he still had plenty of time to fill. Hugh tells us the brakemen on the local switcher would sometimes stop in for a few games of checkers and to warm up in the winter. It always amazed him how so many people could fit into that little shanty.
Railroading had a special appeal, and Hugh eventually moved on to the Central’s Atlantic Avenue engine house, and enjoyed spending weekends climbing on steam locomotives that were stored there awaiting scrapping. After playing all day on these old yard switch engines, Hugh usually came home filthy. The bug had bitten, and he eventually hired out on the Baltimore & Ohio at age 19, at the end of World War II. Hugh showed up for work and was immediately assigned to a Salamanca freight as a flagman. His training: "Get in the caboose and hang on!" We’ll have tales from Hugh Donovan’s B&O days in a future issue.