The Philadelphia & Erie Railroad

The Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad

Erie, PA

Looking Back...

Don Speice remembers the Pennsy docks in Erie:

Erie, Pa Coal Dock And the steam powered coal loader circa 1930-1960

As a kid in the mid 1940's, I would occasionally accompany my father (George Speice) to his work as a "stationary engineer" ( the man who made steam ) at the Erie coal dock.

The coal dock was used to load or transfer Pennsylvania coal from the railroad freight cars to shipping freighters that moved the coal up the lake and seaway to many points in Canada.

On a slow day at the dock or in between freighters, my Dad would invite me to do some fishing with him off the end of the coal dock. The fishing was fun and my Dad got to relax a little while at work. But the big deal for me was to get to see up close the workings of this wondrous, huge, steam powered muscle machine that could incredibly lift a fully loaded railroad car straight up about 20 or 30 feet and then roll the car over about 120 degrees to dump the load of coal down a chute and into a freighter docked along side the loading machine.

I was just so amazed at the power and efficiency of the steam. And of course MY DAD "made" all this steam!

The boilers were huge, 3 or 4 as I remember. In the early years my Dad would shovel the coal from a large bin into the red hot fire boxes. Later, screw augers were added to deliver the coal to him right at the fire box doors.

There were numerous gages, dials and valves that he would control and adjust to make sure the incoming water became high pressure outgoing steam. The steam was then piped over to the engine room where it pressurized against large pistons that pushed a crank and turned a large cable drum. There were (4) of these engines, one under each corner of the "cradle" that would raise and lower the rail car.

The engine room was so fascinating. Those large puffing pistons, gears and drums turning, large diameter cables moving up and down.

To start the loading process, a string of coal cars were moved up to the base of the machine, with the lead car straddling a pit. This car would be uncoupled and a steam powered "pig" would come up out of the pit and latch onto the rear coupler. This pig would then push the car up a ramp and onto the cradle at the center of the machine.

A brakeman would ride along on top of the car and apply the handwheel brake to keep the car on the cradle. He would then hop off the car and enter his little protection shanty, where he would operate controls that would latch the car down to the cradle. He would then send the cradle and car up and over to dump the load into a chute. Now the chute had an operator out on its end (in a protection shanty too) and he would guide the chute so as to evenly load the hold in the freighter.

To assist in lifting the loaded car up, there were (4) large concrete counterweights attached to the cradle by cables. These counter- weights rode on wheels and tracks on the sides of the A-frame machine structure. ( 2 on each side )

After the cradle and car came down, the latches were released. The brakeman would then use a pinch bar under a car wheel to start it rolling off the cradle and onto a down ramp leading off the machine. Once the car started rolling, he would hop back on the car and ride it down the ramp towards the "kickback".

The kickback was an uphill ramp sitting right at the end of the dock. The momentum of the car would send it part way up the kickback where it would stop by gravity. The car would then roll down the kickback and thru a switch to a track that led past the machine ( and past the lunch shanty ) and down to the string of empty cars.

The brakeman would ride the car the whole way back and begin applying the brake as the car approached the string. I was always impressed with the special knack these brakemen had at getting the car down to just the right speed to make it couple up without breaking the coupling. He would always hop off the moving car before the hit and be walking back when the cars banged together.

Dad started out as a brakeman before studying and testing for his stationary engineers license.

Pardon my digressing here, but Dad used to tell about how at the age of 16 he was working as a brakeman at an iron ore dock. He was braking a car one day and he hopped off early as usual. But the car was on a trestle when he jumped, and he jumped right off the trestle! It was quite a fall down, but he landed in a pile of soft ore to save the day. ( and me, my kids, and grandkids! )

And the lunch shanty was fun too. It had the long wooden tables, an old pot belly stove, and windows all around. When a returning car came by the shanty, it would sound a warning horn. Those cars were so quiet, just a little "clickty- click" was all you could hear.

I remember Dad talking about the many safety awards the company gave out. But over the years there were accidents. He told of one poor hard-of-hearing fellow who was run over by a returning car, and another who lost his hand between the engaging car couplings.

An incident involving my Dad was a frightening one. He was in the boiler room one day standing near the entry way on the freighter side of the machine, when he heard this tremendous "bang". He stepped outside to see what that was all about when he was suddenly and surprisingly buried in coal up to his neck!

Apparently a corner lifting cable had snapped as the car was about to be dumped. That corner of the cradle dropped snapping another cable, bringing down the turned over car. Cradle and all! When the car hit bottom it spewed its load of coal out of the machine and directly onto my Dad's path.

He said it was a mad scramble to get out of there and he wasn't seriously hurt. Just a little blacker than usual!

On another occasion, Dad was involved in the winter maintenance of flue cleaning. He was inside a boiler flue when he heard steam coming down the flue. He backed his way out, just beating the steam to the cleanout doors. Apparently someone had opened a steam valve by mistake.

The crew worked 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the winter maintenance months, but during the spring, summer and fall it was the swing shift for everyone. When a freighter was in, it was a 24/7 operation.

Sadly, the coal dock ceased operation on or about 1960. After 30 years of employment, Dad was out of work with no pension. He wasn't ready to retire yet, and he continued his working life of "making steam" and retired from the industrial Coyne Laundry.

The Erie docks have all changed or are gone today. On a recent visit to Erie I noticed that the old "kickback" concrete structure is still standing out there at the end of that dock.

I wonder, can a guy still fish out there behind that kickback?

Don Speice


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(This page last updated July 23, 2008)