Article From the Spring 2004 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
Our museum may not be up to its eyeballs in volunteers (we can always use more help) but we can be thankful for the ones we have, and in awe over the depth and breadth of their skills and experience. Such is the case with a man who’s long overdue to step into the "spotlight", James Johnson.
Have we ever reported on a volunteer who doesn’t trace his interest in large things with wheels on them back to his childhood, and who more than likely had a relative or two who worked on the rails? Well, Jim is no exception. He tells us he was born in Rochester in 1948 and that his first visit to his aunt and uncle, when he was only 6 months old, included a trip to the nearby Pixley Road crossing of the mighty New York Central. That’s some uncle, and some crossing! Central veteran Dan Cosgrove says the four-track Water Level Route back then saw 10 to 12 trains an hour. It sure made an impression on little Jimmy, and the love of trains has stayed with him. Just to make sure of that, though, at times he was given the chance to visit his grandparents in Wellsville, NY who lived half a block from the Erie Railroad mainline. Jim also remembers a grade school train ride in the 1950’s on the NYC Auburn Road from Canandaigua, NY to Rochester, and he tells us the family connections to the industry include a great-grandfather who was the Railway Express Agency man in Canandaigua in the early 1900s, and a distant uncle—Roy Gunnison—who was a motorman/conductor on the Buffalo, Lockport & Rochester.
Jim grew up in Irondequoit, and except for time in the service has lived his whole life in the family home. After graduating from East Ridge High School in 1966, he joined Rochester Telephone Corporation doing "everything" in maintenance on the central office mainframe on Stone Street in the city. This large (15 feet tall, 150 feet long) electromechanical apparatus handled calls fed from satellite offices around the area, and the work there appealed to Jim and his life-long interest in electricity. He soon became an installer, working at both residential and business sites, soon putting him in Rochester Tel’s largest customer, Kodak, in 1967 where he handled installations and removals throughout Kodak Park.
The U.S. Army draft notice came March 1, 1968, but Jim had joined the Air Force just the week before. He spent four years as a ground traffic control dispatcher, responsible for passengers and cargo entering and leaving Wheelas Air Base in Libya for 15 months, followed by similar work at the Torrejon Air Base near Madrid, Spain.
Rochester Telephone held his job for him, and Jim returned to run equipment in offices in the city and in Fairport, taking trouble calls from customers, fixing wiring problems, working with field installers on multi-plex lines, etc. A 1975 strike, during which Jim (not a union member) went back to work after 3 months (ran out of money!), led to some ugly reprisals, so he started looking around for a better work environment. A neighbor suggested he interview Kodak, and in 1976 Jim began work in Building 31, Utilities, at Kodak Park. The second largest industrial facility in the United States, containing over 150 buildings on 1,300 acres, this "city within a city" boasted its own fire department and 17 mile railroad, and relied on the Utilities Division for electricity and steam. Jim started as an apprentice in the co-generation powerhouse that produced both. The steam, at 260 psi, was piped throughout the Park for heating as well as air conditioning and refrigeration. Before Jim’s time, the steam was also used to charge "fireless cooker" steam locomotives. Conventional steamers were out of the question with so many flammable chemicals and film bases around.
One especially interesting aspect of Jim’s work involved changing the brushes on the slip rings that supply excitation for the generators. Since the need for steam was continuous, at both power houses (KP Buildings 31 and 321) this had to be done "on the fly" without shutting down the turbines. If the 250 volt, 400 ampere DC power isn’t dangerous enough, Jim tells us there’s a huge fan rotating at 3600 rpm to watch out for too! He must know what he’s doing, as he’s still keeping the juice flowing at Kodak Park, over 28 years now.
While all this technical stuff was going on in Jim’s life, he found time to pursue his interest in quite a different field—music. Back in 4th grade, the band director had come around seeking kids for the band. Jim was chosen for trombone based on his "smile teeth", and he quickly grew to like the instrument. The trombone must have liked him too, as he got into Big Band music and eventually landed a spot in the high school jazz band the summer before he started school there. Over the years, he played in many local music groups, such as the Irondequoit Concert Band, Webster Village Band, the Chick Edman Orchestra (for over 20 years), the Penfield Rotary Band (15 years), and the Gates Swingers, started by Ben Gramatico, the father of nationally known singer Lou Gram. At times, Jim found himself playing in 4 or 5 different bands per week! The frantic pace gradually slowed, but then sadly stopped when Jim contracted Bell’s Palsey in 1997, putting an end to his playing, at least for now.
Jim originally started his involvement at the museum soon after he began his Kodak career…1977 or 78 he thinks…but the hook wasn’t in. In 1990, he found an outlet for his experience with our friends at RGVRRM, where he continues to do electrical installations, upgrade service to safe standards, wire signals, and, yes, does maintenance on diesel electric generators while they’re running.
He came back to NYMT around 1997 as trolley activity was starting to heat up. With two operable trolleys on the property and poles and wire going up on the rail line, it was clear there’d be a need for his expertise. Jim started by metering and labeling our electric panels, and soon found himself in the middle of a major effort to provide power for a demonstration run with P&W 168. Working with a host of Chapter members, Jim did wiring and checkout work on the diesel generator that brought our electric operations to reality.
Today, working alongside Charlie Harshbarger, Dick Holbert, Bill Chapin, Dan Waterstraat Ted Strang, and others, Jim coordinates the layout of the substation that is rapidly coming to reality at NYMT. He’s actively involved in the construction and he has no trouble visualizing the whole thing, completed and ready to run. Jim wants to keep involved "as long as I can walk and see", and we’re glad to have him. He looks forward to trolley operations, eventually linking the two museums with an authentic interurban ride for our visitors. With the talents and dedication Jim Johnson has demonstrated so far, we can be sure that vision can be attained!