Travels with Pop
I’ve had more than just a passing interest in trains, railroads and photography since I was a small boy. That interest can be directly attributed to the fact that I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who we all called “Pop”, and was a machinist for the New York Central Railroad in the Harmon Shops, about twenty miles south of our home in Beacon, N.Y. Most Saturday’s were spent with Pop, either taking the train somewhere, or the ferry across the Hudson River to Newburgh. Each trek entailed a walk down to the riverfront. Once there, we would stop at the diner next to the ferry building. It was small and old with a rounded roof and resembled a railroad car. Today it’s the home of the Beacon Sloop Club, but in 1959 it was a regular greasy spoon, run by a little old lady and frequented by a host of local ferry workers and commuters. Once Pop had a fresh cup of very dark and strong coffee, we’d either take the ferry or the train. If it was the ferry, we’d enter the waiting room from a side door and buy our ticket, round trip 50 cents. The ferry ran about every half hour, depending on the day and time. Morning week day rush hour would see two boats running. The boats were double-ended car ferries and burned coal. The last three of these to operate here were the Dutchess, Beacon and the Orange. Little did I know in 1959, that in four short years the world would change greatly. On November 3, 1963, as the new bridge connecting the east and west shores of the Hudson opened, the Newburgh Beacon ferry made its last run. On that Sunday afternoon, local residents took their last ride on the ferry. At the end of the day,after the last run and as the sun was starting to leave long shadows over the waterfront, the captain rang down to the engine room, “finished with engines.” It was the last time that command would be given. With that, the fires were dampened, and 220 years of continual ferryboat service between Beacon and Newburgh came to an end.
In 1959, however, as a ten-year-old boy the ferry was still very much a part of our lives. Standing on the bow of the boat, I would watch as we glided through the water. I’d look for other boats, tugboats and freighters. If I was lucky, we’d see the Alexander Hamilton, one of the last sidewheel excursion boats, as it approached Newburgh Landing. In the distance I could hear the shrill whistle of a train on the New York Central’s West Shore line as it neared one of many grade crossings in Newburgh. Once we docked, the first stop was often Schoonmakers Department Store not far from the ferry. Inside the only interest for me was the toy department. My Dinky Toy collection came from this store as did the big metal fire engine that now sits displayed as an antique. If you were in the store as the train passed, the whole structure would shake as the building was constructed over and around the tracks.
Sometimes our trip to Newburgh was lengthened by a train ride a few miles south to West Point Military Academy, where on Saturday; the Company of Cadets would have a review on the Plain, a large parade ground overlooking the Hudson. It was here that the Continental Army under the command of Polish General Thadius Koskiousko constructed a chain barrier across the river to thwart British forces from New York City moving further up river to link with their troops from Canada. The chain was placed at a strategic spot where the Hudson makes a sharp “S” turn. On the bluffs above the river, small forts or “redoubts” had their cannon pointed at the chain. It would demand that any ship of the era, being sail, would have to tack to maneuver through the pass. It would have been impossible to do without being blown apart by the Yankee guns and the British never tried.
Many of our Saturday trips were on the train on the rivers eastern shore. The main line of the New York Central System, the Water Level Route, ran through Beacon. At the station, Pop would talk with the local shoeshine vendor, who was open six days a week. He had a mange looking, old dog that was always lying next to the station door. The station was a large brick building with huge old wooden benches. There was a small newspaper vendor inside next to the shoeshine stand that was usually closed on the weekend. Our train south was usually a local from Poughkeepsie. At Harmon, we would have to change trains, or the diesel engine would be uncoupled and a waiting electric engine would couple on for the remainder of the trip to Grand Central Terminal. It was here at the Harmon Diesel and Electric Shop that Pop worked for more than thirty years. If we had time, I’d get the tour of Pops domain. We’d walk around the building and my grandfather would show me the engine he had just been working on, now idling on the ready track; and the one he’d be working on come Monday morning. After an hour, we’d walk back to the platform to catch the next train into the final stop, Grand Central Terminal. After 125th Street, we’d enter the tunnel under Park Ave. I'd peer out the window as the train eventually slowed to a crawl and snaked through a labyrinth of steel rails, glistening in the reflecting light from dim over head bulbs encrusted in dust. To lessen the glare, I'd cup my hands on my forehead as I looked out of my window into the tunnels dark caverns. Once the train was at the platform, we’d walk out into the grandeur of one of the world’s great train stations, Grand central Terminal.
Our first stop in New York was at the Baraccini Candy stand in the terminal. Pop always bought a half lb. of black licorice that he’d put in the side pocket of his leather jacket. I’d play a game and try to steal candy from him without his knowing.That brown leather jacket has a story of its own. It was one that he always wore; to work, or at home. I took a photo of Pop, one of my first, wearing the jacket as he posed for me in a cab unit at Harmon. Over the years, the jacket faded and became worn and old; but he still wore his favorite coat whenever it was cold. When Pop passed away, I asked my grandmother if I could have the faded, relic. She said, “of course” and it became my jacket and one that I wore for many years. I hung it over bar stools; left it on the luggage rack of the train; in the car and the coatroom of many restaurants. It wasn’t the most stylish of jackets, but it was Pop's and it helped me think of him. It had two zipper breast pockets that I never used. One day, for a reason that I don’t remember, I opened one of the pockets and felt something inside. It was an envelope .Inside were twelve crisp $100.00 bills!! It was Pop’s emergency stash. I went to my grandmother and told her, “sit down; I have a present for you.”
Our destinations in New York were usually the same; we’d stop at FAO Schwartz Toy Store; Polk’s Hobby Shop, Central Park and then make our way back to Grand Central for the trip home. One day, when Pop was talking to the engineer of our train on the platform, I was asked if I wanted to ride in the cab. What a question. When it was time to leave, I was not only in the cab of the large P2 Electric; but I was in the engineer’s seat staring out at a line of green signals. With the ok from the conductor, the engineer had me push the throttle up a notch and the giant electric motors came to life. We sped out of the tunnel, bursting into the sunlight of a brisk autumn day. After 125th Street, our next stop was Yonkers then Tarrytown. We sped along the river and I would watch as the sun slid over Dunderburg Mountain and the crisp fall sky took on a golden hue. Over the years, I’ve had other cab rides, but the memory of that first experience is one that I cherish over all the rest. As a grown man, I would commute for 25 years into the city to work as a cameraman for wor, nbc, cbs and other, syndicated shows. While other commuters read the Times, or slept, I never tired of looking out of the window. I would loose myself in thought and reminisce about Pop and our trips into the city; or to Newburgh and West Point. It was a long time ago, in a galaxy seemingly far away; but close enough to still grasp images, mental snapshots triggered by the sight of a blurred object as the train speeds on. All thanks to a bald, cigar chomping, German emigrant, who arrived here in 1923 with his wife and small child, my mother and all of their belongings packed into one large Wicker basket.