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Growing up in the bustling railroad town of Norfolk, Virginia, and joining his conductor grandfather on overnight runs, future Fortune journalist Rush Loving was enchanted with railroads at an early age. In this extraordinary inside look at eight decades of the railroad industry and some of its greatest leaders, Loving reminisces about his colorful people and fascinating anecdotes. Chatting with brakemen, engineers, and executives, Loving shares stories he collected in locomotive cabs, business cars, executive suites and even the White House. They paint a compelling, intimate portrait of the railroad industry and its leaders, both inept and visionary. Above all, Loving tells stories of the dedicated men and women who truly love trains and know the industry from the rails up.
About the Author
Rush Loving Jr. is former associate editor of Fortune and former business editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He is author of The Men Who Loved Trains (IUP, 2006). Loving served as assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter and worked as a consultant specializing in transportation economics, issues before Congress, and corporate communication problems.
Read an Excerpt
The Well-Dressed Hobo
The Many Wondrous Adventures of a Man Who Loves Trains
By Rush Loving Jr.
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Rush Loving, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Rumbling up the Horseshoe
ONE FIRST–CLASS PASSAGE
THE TWO BIG BLACK LOCOMOTIVES, WHITE HORSES emblazoned on their noses, sat there growling as they idled. We were in the cab of the lead locomotive, NS9345, a 4,000-horsepower General Electric diesel.
Fred Putt, a road foreman who was riding with us, bent over a little as he opened the mike.
"Everybody cleared, Outbound 21," he told Rutherford Tower.
"Roger," came the response.
"Ready to depart," said Fred.
"Have a good trip. Rutherford out," said the man in the tower, and 9345 broke into a roar and began edging Norfolk Southern's train number 21E ever so slowly toward the throat of Harrisburg's Rutherford Yard. It was 9:40 on a cloudy October morning.
Steve Ostroha, a thin man of medium height who was the train's conductor, was in his seat in front of the cabin's front door, watching the track ahead, listening to the radio, and waiting for the dispatcher to clear us for the main line. "OK!" he suddenly announced. "We got railroad!"
Our engineer, Greg Hite, shoved the throttle into Number 2 position. By 9:56 he had 9345 through the last of the switches at 15 miles per hour, and half the train was now on the main. We rolled along past the city's venerable red brick passenger station with its red wrought-iron steps and began slowing to switch into the fuel depot just down the tracks.
No sooner had the tanks been topped than the locomotive's bell was clanging and we were rumbling off again, up the main line that goes to Buffalo and Pittsburgh. After a mile or so, 9435 began the turn into the "Y" that leads onto the Rockville Bridge, one of the most impressive structures in American railroading.
Across the Susquehanna we headed up past the town of Duncannon and then west up the Juniata River, the valley splendorous in its fall livery of gold and orange. Hite blew for a crossing, slowed for a tight curve, and then opened up 9345, and we were roaring along at 59 miles an hour, blowing once or twice as we passed waving canoeists and fishermen.
We were riding one of Norfolk Southern's hotshot trains, carrying eighteen cars loaded with highway trailers. The rigs all belonged to the railroad industry's largest customer, United Parcel Service. Number 21E was an intermodal train, meaning it was part of two or even three different modes of transportation. Those rigs came off the highway. When they reached their destination trucks would take them back onto the highway, and if any were bound overseas they would travel on a third mode of transportation, a container ship.
This train had left the Delaware Valley that morning and would arrive at the UPS depot in Chicago the next day. A sister train, 21W, was trailing an hour behind us with forty-five carloads bound for the West. Once on the outskirts of Chicago the train would go directly to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal yard for quick transfer to a California-bound hotshot train.
All of us would ride to Pittsburgh's suburbs, where another crew would take over.
Almost four hours after we pulled out of Rutherford Yard, 21E was rolling past the locomotive shops in Altoona and then began rumbling up a 1.9 percent grade that led into Horseshoe Curve, which wound along the sides of two mountains. Down below, off to our left, lay a long glen that seemed nearly filled by three large reservoirs. The steel wheels began squealing against the steel rails as we started around the long curve. I looked back across the glen, watching the middle of the train follow around the curve. Finally, as we climbed further up the opposite side, the last of the eighteen cars appeared, slowly coming along behind us.
An hour or so later we were rolling through Johnstown past rows of abandoned steel mills, where the orange glow of blast furnaces used to greet me when I came through on the Pennsy's crack Broadway Limited late at night. It was a sad bit of poetry. Those mills were the past. Number 21E and the eastbound intermodal trains going the other way, which we now were passing one after the other about every four miles, were the future of railroads.
Hite had both locomotives racing down the tracks, their throttles in the Number 8 position. In railroad lingo, that's highballing it, or pressing the pedal to the metal. He had been driving trains from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh for thirty years. Hite had started back in those bleak days when Penn Central was broke. It was the biggest bankruptcy in history back then, and Penn Central had been the symbol of the railroad industry's descent from riches to penury. Now Hite was working for Norfolk Southern, one of Penn Central's successors. I asked him how he liked it. Was it better than its predecessors, Conrail and Penn Central? He had a note of pride in his voice when he answered. He missed Conrail and the camaraderie its management engendered, but now, he said, there was plenty of money to buy new locomotives and whatever else they needed.
Norfolk was piling up profits, running on well-maintained tracks with quieter, more efficient locomotives that were more comfortable to ride on and work in, and instead of slow freights they were pulling high-speed intermodal trains like 21E. We no longer were in the 1970s but in the twenty-first century, and many of us still did not realize that we were in the start of a dramatic change. The railroad industry had begun a grand renaissance.
This particular railroad line over the Alleghenies typified the entire industry. A century before it had been the main line of one of the country's richest roads. Railroads were king then. They had created the United States by linking farm towns to big cities and coupling the East and Midwest to the West Coast. Covered wagons or pack mules could never have achieved the same. Railroads also had transformed the nation into the world's most important industrial economy, carrying raw materials to factories and mills and delivering finished products to the marketplace.
Now many of the factories, like those mills at Johnstown, had been shuttered. But they were being replaced by these intermodal trains. That day in October 2003, Norfolk Southern ran twenty intermodal trains besides 21E between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. All together, 21E and the others comprised 639 loaded intermodal flat cars, carrying 79,649 tons of freight. If coupled together they would stretch for more than 24 miles. And they were not the only traffic on that railroad. We passed trains of mixed freight, new cars, coal and — another reminder of the past — three Amtrak passenger trains.
The renaissance had been slow in coming. Some railroaders did not know how to deal with the modern market, and others had lost faith in the industry's future. It had required a quiet meeting between a railroader and a trucker to make the difference. Now the railroads were returning to the glory I had known when I was growing up in the 1930s.
I became enchanted with railroads when I was two or three. It should not have been surprising, because transportation was in my blood. One of my great-grandfathers, John Newton Borden, had owned and captained sailing ships. A cousin once told me that Captain Newt had established a name for himself in Nova Scotian folklore because of his ability to take a ship through the narrowest channels in the stormiest of weather. Two other Borden relatives, taking advantage of the fact there was no direct rail line between New York and Boston, founded a steamboat company in 1846 that connected with a special train from Boston and took its passengers overnight from Fall River, Massachusetts, to New York. It was one of the first intermodal passenger operations in America — and it would last ninety years.
So it wasn't hard for me to fall in love with trains. Making it even easier, I was born in a railroad town — Norfolk, Virginia. Then, when I was six, my father, who was a Baptist minister, moved us to Richmond — home to five roads — to preside over a church where a number of railroad families were in the congregation.
Once while we were living in Norfolk, my father took me down to the Norfolk and Western freight pier, where the stevedores were unloading nets loaded with crates filled with bananas. The bananas were being taken into a Norfolk and Western freight house, where they were loaded into boxcars and shipped to food distributors in places like Petersburg, Bluefield, and Cincinnati. The cargo was coming off a freighter that was captained by one of my grandmother's Nova Scotia cousins, and we had gone down to take him home for a visit. He gave us a tour of the boat. I remember going up on the ship's bridge and turning the spokes of the wooden wheel that was twice my height.
Norfolk was a web of railroad tracks, and I was transfixed watching trains coming and going. Many of the tracks led to the coal piers, tall steel skeletons that stood over the water. We could watch the hopper cars being pulled up to the top, where they were turned upside down to dump out their coal, and then they were set loose on another set of tracks, on which they seemed to zoom back down to earth. There was more railroading out in the countryside. The two highways to Richmond lay next to main lines of the Norfolk and Western and the Chesapeake and Ohio, and I would sit in the back seat of my father's Pontiac looking for trains, which invariably came along. I remember wondering why some of the coal cars had two bays and others had three. I didn't understand the economics of it, but the railroads were trying to make each train more efficient by using larger hoppers.
This infatuation with trains was solidified when I was about four years old and my grandfather gave me a rare treat. Benjamin H. Loving was a passenger conductor on the Southern, working the 139-mile line that Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government had ridden just sixty years before to escape Richmond at the end of the Civil War. My grandfather and his crew manned Number 7, an afternoon train to Danville, where he spent the night and returned to Richmond on the morning train, Number 14. My grandfather took me on one of his overnight runs.
Back then the Norfolk and Western had black steam locomotives that looked all business. Whenever we saw anyone off on the train in Norfolk my father always took me up to the head-end to greet the engineer and — if I was lucky — to watch the fireman take his oil can with its three-foot-long spout and lubricate the big driving rods.
When my grandfather and I arrived at the Southern station at the foot of South Richmond's Hull Street, I asked to see the locomotive. When we went up the engineer and fireman gave me a cordial welcome, but I was sorely disappointed. Rather than being big and black and looking tough like those of the N&W, the Southern's locomotive was painted lime green. I never said anything to my grandfather — didn't want to hurt his feelings — but I never forgot that disappointment. Now I love those old green locomotives, but back then, although I'd never heard the word "effeminate" and did not know an appropriate adjective, that word would have summed up my feelings about that locomotive.
As we rode along toward Danville, one thing that particularly impressed me was a man who walked up and down the aisle with a strap around his neck that supported a tray filled with sandwiches and candy. He served as the train's dining car, and he even sold newspapers. The man supplied me with my first Fig Newton.
It was an incredible trip. Railroad conductors were regarded as men of special distinction. I knew this old man with a white mustache as "Granddaddy," but all the people who worked on that train and all the passengers who rode it kowtowed to him. To them he was "Cap'n Ben," the king of the railroad. And my view of him suddenly soared.
Sensing my growing interest, my parents gave me a Lionel model train set that Christmas. Thanks to their undiminished generosity I expanded the layout over the following years with such accessories as a drawbridge, a log loader, and a mammoth mountain with a tunnel that my father built for me one Christmas eve.
Railroads were a constant presence in the daily lives of little boys like me. If you resided in town you constantly saw the classification yards. If you lived out in the country almost invariably there was a track not far away. The railroads not only were the key to the nation's prosperity and its industrial might, they also were the way we all moved about. The railroads carried most intercity passengers, nearly 80 percent of the nation's freight, and virtually all the Post Office's intercity mail. Automobiles were for short trips, like 100 miles. Many families had no car, and those that did owned only one, so trains were essential, and they were spectacular. Out West aluminum-clad streamliners streaked across the prairies and through the mountains connecting the Midwest with the Pacific. At precisely 6 PM every evening in the East the Pennsy's Broadway Limited and the New York Central's Twentieth Century Limited started rolling slowly away from the boarding platforms of Penn Station and Grand Central, beginning an overnight race across four states to Chicago, hauling sleeping cars and plush diners and bar cars filled with passengers. The Twentieth Century even housed a barbershop so that every executive could arrive the next morning in full tonsorial splendor.
"Baldy" Baldwin's family lived by the timetable of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And it was a dependable schedule. Baldy, known officially as H. Furlong Baldwin, was two years older than I was. When I finally met him he was a tall, lean, muscular man with a face chiseled by the wind and cold from countless winter days in duck blinds along the Chesapeake Bay. After my book, The Men Who Loved Trains, was published, I got a call one day. "This is Furlong Baldwin," said a deep voice that rumbled like a volcano on the verge of eruption. "I've read your book and would like to meet you." I knew who he was. Baldwin had been chairman of Baltimore's Mercantile Bank and Trust Co., which had controlled the Atlantic Coast Line, the Louisville and Nashville, and later the Seaboard Coast Line. He also had served on the boards of two other roads. We had lunch at the Maryland Club in Baltimore and found that we had a mutual love of trains.
Baldwin told me that when he was little his family depended on the trains that rolled past Eyre Hall, a plantation near the village of Cheriton on Virginia's Eastern Shore that had belonged to his mother's family since the seventeenth century. He added, with undisguised pride, that his granddaughter was the seventh generation of his family to live at Eyre.
In the 1930s Baldwin's father had a shucking house on the creek that the plantation bordered, and every day workers would pack oysters taken that morning from the creek's sandy bottom. "The whole thing in life was the train, which left Cape Charles for New York at 4 o'clock. It would go by our place," he said. The train stopped at Cobb Station, which was just up the road from Eyre Hall.
"We had barrels of oysters in the shell coopered up with a little ice on them. We had gallons of shucked oysters, which we had coopered up, and we did that with clams. The whole of life was to get that 4 o'clock train," he said.
The shellfish were headed for Chicago's prestigious Pump Room, and had to be there by dinnertime the next evening. Each night's train ride was a test of the Pennsylvania Railroad's reputation for punctuality. The train, Number 450, would pull out of Cape Charles once the railroad's afternoon passenger ferry from Norfolk and Old Point Comfort had arrived. Fifteen minutes later, Number 450 pulled up at the little station at Cobb, where the barrels and tubs were lifted into the express car at Cobb Station. Pulled by one of the Pennsy's legendary K-4 locomotives, the train steamed north, stopping at every town along the way, places like Bird's Nest, Nassawadox, and Pocomoke.
Excerpted from The Well-Dressed Hobo by Rush Loving Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Rush Loving, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A Mix of Love and Luck
1. Rumbling up the Horseshoe
2. Averell Harriman and His Streamliner
3. Sin and the Aspiring Reporter
4. Al Perlman Buys a Hill
5. The Country Boy Who Was King of Florida
6. Wooing Bankers With A Railway Car
7. The Locomotive That Sashayed
8. The ‘Token Yokel’ Meanders North
9. The Biggest Railroad Story of Them All
10. ‘The Greatest Thing Since Sex and Watermelon’
11. The Merger That Worked
12. The Dinner Debate With Graham Claytor
13. The Steadfast Colonel And the Unsteady Rock
14. ‘Who Knows Hays Watkins?’
15. A Modern Annie Oakley Takes on Lou Menk
16. The Lawyers’s Son from Buffalo
17. ‘Hays Must Not Know’
18. J. B. Hunt Takes a Ride On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe
19. Two Empty Limousines
20. ‘They Nod off Regularly on the Job’
21. Déjà vu Once More
22. Their Greatest Task
What People are Saying About This
Rush Loving never ran a railroad, but he sure knows how to write about them. Climb aboard this lively blend of memoir and history, which chugs along like a Burlington Northern diesel locomotive barreling down the Continental Divide, and prepare to be entertained and informed by a man whose passion for one of America's great industries shines through every page.
Loving’s sweeping and grand epic on the renaissance of American railroading during the last 40 years and the characters, both wise and foolish, who helped make it a reality should be on the bookshelf of anyone who loves railroading as much as its author.
Master storyteller Rush Loving takes us on a journey through the complex railroad industrythe saints and the knaves, the booms and the bustsfrom the 1930s to the present day. Through it all we have an insider's front row seat as railroading evolves. Only a journalist of Loving's stature could pull off this tour de force so well.
In The Well-Dressed Hobo, Rush Loving tells the story about getting the story and describes his personal love of trains. As a journalist, he answered a call and perfected an art. This is a book to be read on a train, plane or in a cozy corner with a martini or gimlet.
Rush Loving is America’s greatest chronicler of the romance and business of railroads and treats readers to a moveable feast of landmark events and locomotive-powered personalities including Averell Harriman and Ed Ball. Jump onto the hobo’s boxcar for a rollicking journey!