The Philadelphia & Erie Railroad
The Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad
Don Speice remembers the Pennsy docks in Erie:
And the steam powered coal loader
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
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
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
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?
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(This page last updated July 23, 2008)