Article From the Winter 2004 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


When we last left Hugh Donovan, boy trolley operator, he had grown up, landed a job on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and was looking forward to a rough first trip in a caboose. Hugh hired on in the waning days of World War II, and due to the wartime shortage of available workers, they took him on despite his wearing glasses. With no training or formal indoctrination, he reported to work on the following Monday and soon learned all about coupler slack on a train of empty coal hoppers heading for Salamanca.

The B&O used steam power back then, of course, and often resorted to double-headed 2-8-2 mikados to get the freight trains over the road. Despite his early assignment as a flagman, Hugh soon ended up in the cab as a fireman, where he saw a lot of the local B&O territory over the next ten years.

On the road, it was hard work. Hugh says the big mikes rode well, but he didn’t have much time to sit and enjoy the ride. Warsaw Hill and Bliss Hill were a couple of places that were tough on the southbound runs, and they were especially hard when Hugh drew Emett Williams for engineer. "Emett knocked an engine hard", he says, keeping the cut-off in a position that used up steam fast, but which the engineer claimed "cleaned out all the soot and crud" in the loco. Needless to say, all that extra steam meant extra coal shoveling for Hugh.

Steam locomotives were complex mechanical machines, and you had to have the right tools and know-how to keep things running smoothly. Emett, Hugh remembers, had a bunch of tools he used to adjust the wedges between the journal bearings and their springs. Some "tools" weren’t so official, however. Engineer Orrie Taylor practically ran a restaurant in his locomotive cab, sticking the coal shovel in the firebox for a little while, cleaning it with cotton waste, and making great toasted cheese sandwiches fried right on the hot shovel. Orrie always brought a big lunch pail and was happy to share. In summer, he’d make iced tea, starting with tea bags in a glass jug "on the pipes" in the cab. One time a brakeman gave a quick stop signal, and there was brewed tea and broken glass all over the deck!

    NYC’s K-3 4-6-2 has traffic blocked on East Avenue in Brighton,
  &nb; spderailed due to ice at the crossing. Hugh Donovan took this picture
    in his younger days when he lived in the area, and the experience
    didn’t dissuade him from a career in steam.

Hugh often drew the "dock job", switching hopper cars of coal onto car-carrying ferry boats at Charlotte. It was a pretty good detail, as he could expect to sleep in his own bed instead of being out on the road. Another advantage was the fellows he worked with on the dock job. Engineer Frank Hayden loved to sing, and he’d often get the head end crew singing in 3-part harmony.

It wasn’t all fun, though. Moving a train up the steep grade by Boxart Street meant getting a lot of steam up and shoveling a lot of coal into the firebox. One time an engineer loosened the packing gland where the throttle went into the boiler. The 175 psi steam blew out into the cab, and continued to exhaust all night. With all the steam in the cab, Hugh couldn’t get in to drop the fire, so he had to stay with his engine and keep the water level up as the fire slowly burned itself out. The good news is no one got hurt, and Hugh got paid for the time he babysat the loco.

Seems that steam and air pressure were a constant problem for Hugh. One time on the dock job, he had a spare can of valve oil and decided to add it to the lubricator on the locomotive. In this system, steam pressure forced the oil to all the needed locations on the engine. Unfortunately, the oil reservoir was under pressure when he opened it. Out came a mass of dark brown, hot, smelly lubricant. Clean-up time…"and did that stuff stink".

Sometimes it was the lack of pressure that was the problem. One night Hugh was firing on a southbound road job, and they had just cut off some cars at Ashford, NY (junction of the lines from Rochester and Buffalo) and were approaching the yard at Salamanca. The brakeman had forgotten to open the angle cock when he recoupled the train, so there was no air for braking in the rear half of the train! His engineer laid on the whistle, sparks flying from the wheels where the brakes were working, as the freight train rolled fast into the yard. The engine and cars rocked and rolled through the switches over to the destination track, finally coming to a stop at the far end of the yard…fortunately still on the rails.

    We think this unidentified shot was made by Hugh as a teenager
    during a cab visit with a NYC Auburn Road crew switching the
    connection with the Rochester Subway. He’d probably have been
    too busy for photos firing on the B&O!

After ten years of this kind of excitement, Hugh made a career change and became a custodian in the Rochester school system. His experience on the B&O was helpful, as one of his new responsibilities was keeping the school steam boilers working properly. Hugh and his wife, Anne, now spend their winters in a condo in Tucson, Arizona. Summers, they go to Lake Lamoka, familiar to many of us as the source of a couple of NYMT’s trolley cars.