Everybody has a story: Growing up in historic railroad town memorable treat

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It seems that much of my childhood was associated with railroads, especially steam locomotives. My father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a machinist. He repaired steam locomotives and much later, diesels.

Dennison, where we lived, was a small town with a big railroad presence. It was located halfway between Pittsburgh and Columbus and therefore a perfect spot for the thirsty steam locomotives to take on water and sometimes coal. The railroad had a roundhouse where repairs were made to the locomotives and a car shop where freight cars were rebuilt.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was a big player in the growth of Dennison. When the people wanted to start a Presbyterian Church in town, the railroad donated money and built a temporary spur track to the building site so that materials could be unloaded there, and also for the delivery of the large pipe organ. The pews of the church were made like railway passenger car seats, with movable backs so that they could face one way for worship service or be reversed for a performance on a stage at the back of the sanctuary. To this day, it is called the Railway Chapel and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I spent almost every Sunday from second grade through high school in one of those pews.

We lived just three blocks from the main line of the railroad. During World War II, there were many trains, day and night. I remember hearing, and sometimes with the larger engines, feeling them, as they rumbled down the grade and into town. The sound of the engine’s steam whistle was somewhat haunting late at night. These trains carried much of the military equipment that was to be shipped overseas to support our troops.

The trains also carried many of the service men and women who were traveling home on leave or back to camp for their next assignment. The local people opened a free canteen that provided coffee, doughnuts, sandwiches and a smile for all military personnel who passed through Dennison.

We lived in the section of town called Thornwood Park, or just “the Park” to most everyone. To get to the uptown section of Dennison, we had to cross the railroad tracks. This led to some long waits, as the freight trains taking on water at the depot often blocked our crossing. It led to much frustration but a good excuse for being late for school, which was uptown.

When I needed lead to cast reinforcements for my toy soldiers, there were two sources. One was an abandoned shooting range where hard summer rains would expose the lead bullets in the embankment behind the targets. The other source was along the railroad tracks, where lead straps from “torpedoes” could be found. Torpedoes were strapped to the rails by the train flagman to warn an oncoming train that there was some problem on the track ahead. The torpedoes made a loud noise when run over by a locomotive.

It was a real thrill for me when my dad took me to the roundhouse one day while he picked up his paycheck. He introduced me as his helper and let me climb up into the cab of one of the engines being worked on. I had watched the engines go by but had never imagined all of the levers and gauges inside the cab. A big day in the memory bank for me.

Being a railroad family, we were able to ride free, and we took advantage of this perk. We went to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, which was probably my first train ride. My mother would take us to Columbus or Pittsburgh for shopping trips, and my father took me to Columbus to see “Snow White” when it first came out. When going to Columbus, we would take a sack lunch but could not eat it until we were over halfway there, usually at Trinway. How we waited for the conductor to call out “Trinway” so we could unwrap our sandwiches and enjoy an apple. We also took the train to New York City as a graduation gift for me. It was a great trip, including going around the Horseshoe Bend in Pennsylvania, and seeing Lena Horne on stage.

A closer association with railroading came the summer between my junior and senior years. I worked that summer on a section gang as a “Gandy Dancer.” (I was not quite 17 but the PRR was not too strict about age.) Our job was to pull out old rotten ties from under the rails and replace them with new ones we called “black bananas.” We tamped rock ballast under the ties to support them, and at the end of the day, we realigned the rails.

My connection with railroads continued while in the Army, traveling to basic training and to engineering school. I rode a Japanese railway from Yokohama to Sasebo, and in Korea from Pusan to Seoul. While in Korea, I was able to visit friends from Dennison who were part of a railway battalion running the trains there.

After being away for over 30 years, we moved back to a small village nearby and became reacquainted with what was left of the railroad. The roundhouse and car shops were gone but the depot was restored and was now the home of the Dennison Depot Museum. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was recently awarded Historic Landmark status. There are exhibits in the building and in several restored railway cars. In one of these is a reference library where I found my employment record from the summer job I quit on my 17th birthday.

The biggest thrill was seeing a photo of my mother along with other World War II canteen workers. What a nice memory of bygone railroading days.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. E-mail is the best way to send materials so we don’t have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.