The Erie Years: a railroad memoir (Branch 4)

Sharon Mountford (Branch 4) writes:

Both my grandfather, Sheridan Gorton Latta, and his brother Frank Fremont Latta were railroad men for many years. When I went to Granddad's book to look up the Soo line information, I became interested in transcribing the book and have typed a portion of it. It may have more value to other people outside the family than I had thought.

Granddad was so full of the names and dates for all of the important, and not- so-important, episodes in his life, that when I finish transcribing it, I will index it and at least donate it to a genealogy library. I will attach a portion of the book dealing with his years with the Erie railroad to see if you would like to excerpt any of it for newsletters, or just to read for your own amusement (and amazement at the details remembered).

I remember Granddad sitting at his venerable typewriter, in the tiny room that he rented in a house three short blocks from our home in Glendale (after my Grandmother passed away.) Of course he was dressed in his suit and vest, without the coat, if it was hot out. Hot days are the ones I remember best. When I was 10-12 I would walk over to "his" house and shoot baskets on the driveway court outside his window. If no one showed up for a game, I would go in and visit with Granddad and then, after he had put away his work, he would put on his suit coat and hat, and we would walk to our house for dinner. I can see the shiny dark grey back of the buttoned vest, the white shirt sleeves, the rotary fan in the corner to move the warm air around, and Granddad typing on his black Remington, or was it a Royal? I seem to hear flies buzzing as well. He would always stop and visit with me, so I didn't actually watch him in the writing process, but to the best of my knowledge, he did not have a diary to consult, but had stored away all of the names, places, and dates in his incredible bald head.

He knew that he wanted several copies of the book he was writing, so there were multiple thin sheets of paper interleaved with carbon. He made few typing errors. Important ones were corrected after the page had been finished, by typing replacement lines, trimming them, and carefully gluing them over the imperfect line-on all copies. When the work was finished, he bound each one in red leatherette and gave them to his four descendants, two children and two grandchildren.

I know that I did not appreciate his work then as I do now. But I did appreciate him and missed him greatly when he died while I was in college.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

On April 1, 1887, I began working as Baggage Master on the New York Lake Eire and Western Railroad, at Friendship, NY, under George W. Fries, Station Agent. I had improved in Telegraphy but not enough to hold down a job on the old Erie.

August 1, 1887, I resigned this position to accept one of Telegraph Operator and Assistant Agent on the Lackawanna and Pittsburgh Railroad, at Friendship, under Charles H. Hammond, Station Agent. The station had burned down and we were located in the wing of a family residence. one small room was ticket office, telegraph office, freight office and general waiting room - using a box car for baggage and freight storage. I still have the original copy of the first train order that I ever received as a real telegraph operator, and it is a very unusual one at that. It reads, "Look out for freight car on main track at Higgins." Higgins was a small settlement about three miles East of Friendship that had no switch. This railroad was accommodating by attaching a car of lumber to the rear of the caboose and leaving it on the main track while the train went on the Angelica. and picking up the empty car on their return trip several hours later. This being the only train on the road, there was little danger. The passenger train laid over at Friendship and left a little after 5 a.m. and I had to be on the job before this to sell tickets, get the train, telegraph orders, etc.

In the adjoining room to our temporary quarters lived a couple of Italian trackmen that became an interesting study for me. They were as different as two people of the same nationality could be. One was a decided blond coming from a part of Italy that sends out very few immigrants. The other was a very dark and well educated man, Frank Marino, who had not been in this country long and was working hard to learn English. No matter how early I came to work, he was at his Italian-English book and as after the early train had gone I had plenty of time to spare, I became interested in him, and sometimes he would get stuck in his translations and I would help him with what I could. He gave me his history and showed me papers that showed that he would have been of some importance had he stayed in Italy. Instead of coming here broke, as most newcomers did, his father gave him five hundred dollars and if he did not like America to come back home. He very soon showed his ability to grasp opportunity. This narrow gauge railroad was in financial difficulty and each pay day became farther apart. As most of the trackmen became short, Frank would advance them the amount of their wages (less a good discount) and when pay days did come around, he would collect about all of the checks. I left the L. & P. on July 31, 1888, when they went bankrupt and closed down. They soon reorganized and the new company paid off the oldest unpaid payroll and the current one at the same time. Under this system I drew my back salary for either six or seven months, one at a time.

December 15, 1888, I went to Bolivar, NY, as Relief Agent for Barney Dun, who was the Station Agent on the Bradford, Eldred, & Cuba Railroad, as he went back east to spend Christmas with his folks. Fred Reid, one of my telegraph students, who became a first class telegraph operator, took me over there with their family horse and sleigh.

If anyone ever had a busy first day on a new job it was I. I arrived there in the P.M., only a short time before Mr. Dun's train came, so that I did not get very complete instructions - being in a strange village, knowing none, a railroad that I had never even been on, knowing none of the telegraph calls, the forms used, or the required procedure. The express company had an old fashioned large safe that required a special form key to be inserted before the combination could be worked and Mr. Dun had lost the key, so there was no safe to use. On this same train a money shipment of three thousand dollars arrived for the bank and it being after banking hours surely put me in a spot. To my great relief the cashier of the bank stepped up and introduced himself saying they had expected the money and he had kept their bank safe unlocked to take care of it.

I locked the depot and climbed on a truck and went directly to the bank, got the proper receipt and believe me, it was a great relief.

However, the fun was not over yet; the depot had burned down and they were using a temporary building. In a fairly good sized room, they had put up a thin board partition separating it into a waiting room and the all around office.

Against this partition set the ticket case, sitting on a narrow shelf, but not fastened at all. The waiting room was used for baggage as well, and, as this train was the last one for the day, I put the uncalled for trunks in there, and in some way I rolled a heavy sample trunk against this partition hard enough to knock the ticket case off the shelf, which landed on its face spilling the tickets all over the floor. In those days they used printed tickets to every station on the road, as well as for many other points. Each of those tickets had a serial number arranged in the case to draw the lowest number from the bottom of its particular slot. You can imagine the job I had in getting all those tickets back in the proper place.

I stayed there until January 1, 1889, when Mr. Dun returned and he later sent me a very nice letter thanking me for the way I had done the work, especially for doing some of his office records that he had been a little behind on. I still have that letter.

Soon after this, I received a letter from Brother Frank who was still Station Agent at Verndale, Minn., on the Northern Pacific RR, that if I wanted a job as night car checker at Winnipeg Junction, Minn., to come at once. I immediately left for the job, stopping off in Verndale long enough to say hello to Frank, then on to Winnipeg Junction, arriving one afternoon when in the morning it was 40 degrees below zero. And was I surprised at dinner times; they served ice cream for dessert.

Winnipeg Junction was just what its name suggests. It is 25 miles east of Fargo, ND, a point from which a branch Northern Pacific RR runs to Winnipeg, Canada. This place consisted of a General Store, a Liquor Store, a Depot, a RR Round House, and a rather large Hotel owned and operated by the Railroad. I expected to go to work that night, so early in the p.m. I thought that I would go to bed for a few hours and be in better shape to make the all night shift. Before I got to sleep there was a crash outside that ended my contemplated sleep. This branch line goes directly north and there was quite a grade at the beginning and it was common for Winnipeg trains to back down on the main line to make a run up the grade. In doing this this time, someone failed to lock the switch and it flew open, ditching some cars and scattering various goods all over the place. Instead of checking cars my first day I checked mixed up merchandise. Here again was an experience of extreme cold weather as the old habit of sticking a lead pencil on the tongue to make it write better did not work that way here. The moisture placed on the lead simply froze and the pencil would not even make a mark until cut off or warmed up. After we got this job done, the man working the day trick opposite me informed me that he would do the night shift and that I could go on in the morning, saying that he was soon to move to California and would rather have the day time to do his personal work. This made it so that I did no night work while I was there. We did a lot of car checking for the N.P. - built another long branch up in Canada, and all the material for it went through Winnipeg Junction. All the switches were full of cars, steel rails, and ties, coming in faster than the branch could handle them and the company required that the cars on hand the longest must go out first. So it made a lot of work to make up the correct switch list.

Winnipeg Junction was a great station for new agents. When I first went there a young man named George Plank, who put in too much time in the saloon, was replaced by Mr. Comstolk. He was shortly promoted to a better station and Charley Horbeck, a former train dispatcher who had the misfortune of running two trains together on the branch, took his place. One of the new Telegraph Operators, Frank Fox, who had quit the Burlington RR because of a strike, was there only a short rime when he was made Station Agent at East Grand Forks, Minn. - just across the Red River of the North from Grand Forks, ND. The Minnesota side of the river was very wet and most of the business places were saloons, while the other side of the River was dry, so the traffic over the several bridges was rather heavy. Frank Fox wired me that if I wanted a better paying job to come up there and go to work for the North Dakota Elevator Co. The supt. was a fine man, etc. As I was glad to get out of Winnipeg Junction, I went to East Grand Forks and started in a much different line of business.

The company had about twenty-five grain elevators covering a wide territory. The wheat came to the elevators mostly in tank tricks direct from the thrashing machines. We first put the truck on the scales, dumped the wheat into a large hopper - every so often taking out an official measured sample - weighing the empty truck, and yelled to the blind horse to go ahead, elevating the wheat to its proper bin. All the elevators had blind horses working on the "sweeps" as they will work without any attendants, whereas a horse that can see will go around a few times and stop. This place was in a great wheat producing section and from the elevator one day I counted the smoke from 24 thrashing machines.

One of the waiting rooms in the Depot was not used and the night telegraph operator and I had just fixed it up for a bedroom, when I received a telegram from John Costigan, from Friendship, saying that Will Hasley was quitting at such a date and asking if I would come back and take the job. Being so greatly interested in the future Mrs. Latta, I was not long in answering, and was soon on my way back East. I again stopped at Verndale for a final visit with Frank. I do not recall the exact date, but it was the latter part of 1889.

The old Erie Station had been greatly changed since my first job there. They had taken one corner of the large combined freight and baggage room for an office for the track supervisor, made two small waiting rooms into one, done away with the Station Agent's living quarters making the living room the freight office, and tearing down the whole east end which gave the waiting room windows on the end as well as on the sides. The biggest change, however, was that John J. Costigan had replaced George W. Fries as Station Agent. I was baggage and freight agent, helping with the express business and carried the US Mail to and from the Post Office to the Mail trains. Frank Pettibone and Fred Reid worked the opposite trick as ticket agent and telegraph operators and the four of us, all about the same age, made a very friendly working crew, and we stayed the best of friends to the end. Sad to relate, I am the only one left to tell the story.

I stayed on this job until Nov. 1891 - during the time on May 20, 1890 I was married to Helen Mar Graham, one of the best and finest woman ever to be found, and we lived very happily for the long period of 53 years. On Sept. 22, 1943, she took the long trip ahead of me and one of these days I hope to catch up with her and renew the long loving companionship. We were married in Mother Graham's residence by the Rev. Palmiter, the Universalist minister at Friendship, with Miss Jennie Lambert and Miss Vina Collins as signers of our wedding certificate. This ceremony took place at nine a.m., and after the wedding breakfast we had intended to take train #3 for Buffalo, but we got word from the station that the train was nearly an hour late. Brother George was then a locomotive fireman on the Cuba Pusher engine and had driven his much-thought-of horse to attend the ceremony. So instead of taking the train, where a bunch of our friends were laying for us as usual, I drove George's outfit to Cuba and we took the train there. Meanwhile all of those attending the wedding went over to the depot as if they expected us, completely fooling the gang laying for us.

We went to Jamestown for dinner and into Buffalo for the night, taking in the sights the next day. We took a steamship for Cleveland, Ohio, where we took in the dedication of the James A. Garfield Monument in which President Harrison, Secretary of War Sherman, and other big wigs took part. From Cleveland, we went to Youngstown, Ohio, where we visited Helen's old school mate and friend, May Thompson - then Mrs. Warren Williamson.

This brings to mind another old incident. During the time that I was working at the Scott Drug Store, May Thompson was visiting Helen in Friendship, and I thought that she was pretty nice, so I got Helen's brother Frank, who was then a clerk in this same store, to make a date for a buggy ride one Sunday afternoon. At this time Father had some cattle pasturing over in what they called the Honeyoye, and on this day he had me go over there and bring back a large bull. I rode there with Fred McKee, whose wife's folks lived there, and I walked back leading the bull. It was a very hot day and too much for Mr. Bull who laid down in the middle of the road. It was hours before I could get him on his feet, so when the time came for my much desired ride to start, I was many miles away with a tuckered out bull on my hands. It was nearly midnight when I got home and that was one sad story to relate.

The Erie Railroad had just completed a cut off running from Cuba to Hunts, on the Buffalo Division, which avoided the two heavy summits known as "Tip Top" Summit and Cuba Summit. This new line joined the Allegany Division about a mile west of the Cuba Station and they moved the telegraph office to that point and handled all the train orders and the general railroad work from there. This still left the town with a secondary telegraph office. The regular operator, Chet Marvin, of course went to the new office and the Cuba station agent wanted a clerk as well as someone to handle the telegraph part of the station. I, being able to handle all the clerical work and now well on the way to handle telegraph work as well, was transferred by the company from Friendship station to Cuba, NY. On November 1, 1891, I began working in the Cuba station of the Erie RR under Mr. A. L. Coffin. Shortly after this date we moved from Friendship to an apartment over a millinery store run by a Mrs. Rice, a widow with three daughters. The day that our household goods arrived, I came near leaving them in the freight house until the next day, but fortunately I secured a drayman and hauled them to the apartment. I had a banjo that I had paid $40 for (which was a lot of money in those days) which I left in the ticket office. Then when we were eating supper the fire alarm sounded and the old Erie Station was a thing of the past. I hated to lose that banjo, but was very grateful that we did not lose all of our household goods.

About this time the Allegany Division (formerly Western Division) put in a block system its entire length from Hornelsville (now Hornell) to Salamanca. Their block stations were located about the same distance apart, two stories high, with all windows on three sides. At Friendship there was a very long passing-siding running East from the Station, and here the blocks were closer together than usual. They put one just west of depot at west end of siding at Friendship Tower and another one at the other end of the switch about one mile east of the depot.

I had become capable to handle a telegraph job. The freight agent paid $37.50 a month, and an operator paid $40 and one had to work only twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Half of that time was at night. All the block stations operated on split tricks, one operator working from noon to midnight, the other from midnight to noon. The morning trick was considered the best as it allowed one to take in any show or other attractions that always take place in the evening. The operator that has been the longest on the job had his choice. In this case, I being the youngest, went to work at noon until midnight. The operator who has been the one opposite me, a Richard Enright, many nights would stick me by not showing up on time - sometimes several hours late. I finally had to report him which caused me more trouble as he tried to make it as hard for me as he could. He turned out to be an unusual character. At this time my wife's mother was operating a boarding house, and he was one of the boarders. One morning one of the girls working there discovered that her pocket book was missing, and strangely enough when Enright went off duty the next noon, he had prepared a notice of the loss already made to post in the Post Office. The question was how did he know of the loss while he was away from midnight to noon? It was no question for me, for among the ashes from the stove in the tower, I discovered the metal frame of the lost purse. He was transferred to Olean, NY, and while there delivered a political speech before a Democratic meeting that got a lot of praise, but instead of his own production, he had committed to memory one of Dave Hill's speeches. (a leading New York politician) Later he secured a position as telegrapher in the New York City Police Department and in some way got into the good graces of Mayor Hylan, who appointed him Police Commissioner of the city. He became one of the big Taminy Hall Politicians.

I began as telegraph operator at S. P. Tower, one mile east of the Friendship depot on November 1, 1892. The only thing out of the ordinary that happened during my stay at this point was one night about 9 p.m. passenger train #1 going west, was about due and I had given them a clear block, when I heard a big smash and realized that something serious had happened. I immediately dropped the semaphore and grabbed the red lantern and stopped the train just in time to save a lot of trouble.

As I stated before, this passing siding was very long and a freight train going east took this switch at its west end, but in coming down the grade from Cuba Summit, the train had broken in two, without the train crew knowing it. The front end came to the end of the switch and made the proper stop, but when the rear end of the train struck, the force was so great that it smashed several cars, throwing them into the main track. One of these was a large gasoline tank car, spilling gasoline over the track only a short distance from the passenger engine. It also ran down the bank and nearly surrounded a residence. There was a lot of hustling to prevent a fire getting started. At this exciting accident I made a simple mistake that any telegraph operator would enjoy. The train master was there in charge of clearing up the wreck, and his office sent him a message (which I will always remember) "Look for Post on 84." I took this over to him and he said "what the ---" and went back to my office to find out what it was. The message should have been Look out for HOSE instead of POST. 84 was an east bound freight train that threw off a length of hose to use in handling the spilled gasoline. In the Morse Code the letter H has four dots, letter P has five dots. The letter T is a short dash, the letter E a short dot. The other letters being the same it is easy to see how this happened.

On this division the two mentions Tip Top and Cuba Summits, with their heavy grades, compelled the running of two sets of Engine pushers. This made an unusual number of train orders to be issued, making a lot more telegraph work along the territory of these summits. In the days of my first station work as baggage master, they used only brass checks on leather straps for all local services. Each station having its own name. Each station as soon as receiving so many checks, sent them into Division headquarters, and they were distributed to the other stations. Thus each station being supplied.

Early in 1893, I got leave of absence to attend the Chicago World's Fair. Mrs. Latta, her mother Mrs. Graham, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Robinson, and I made a jolly trip, taking large lunch baskets, as traffic was very heavy. Sleepers and dining cars were out of the question unless you had reservations. While in Chicago, we stopped at Mrs. Graham's brother's widow, Mrs. Lucian Scott. I think that we were there about ten days.

When we got back to Friendship they were, or had, made a big change in the block towers. They moved the S. P. Tower up just east of the depot and had done away entirely with the F. R. Tower. I was in hopes of getting one of the F. R. tricks, but both Ed Handy and Elmer Wilkins were older in the service than I. They gave me White House Tower located between Cuba and Hinsdale, about half way. This was certainly a secluded spot - woods close on the back side, highway crossing about a quarter of a mile west, the front facing way below the old abandoned Genesee Valley Canal, just part of one farm house visible from the tower. The only person I saw was the track walker once in a while. The operator working opposite me lived in Cuba and I and my wife boarded in Hinsdale with Dr. and Mrs. Henry Vincent, Mrs. Vincent being my wife's cousin. I worked the day trick, which because of its location they could not work the usual half and half. The Cuba man would come to work on train #1, due about 9:30 P.m., which slacked up enough for him to get off and for me to get on for Hinsdale. In the morning we would reverse the act - I going from Hinsdale on train #6 at 8:30 a.m. They would slack off enough for me to get off and the other operator to get on for Cuba. We never saw each other only to say hello as we always met in the rush of the change. While here, I had a good chance for nature study. Right back of the tower at the edge of the woods was an open space that was the general meeting place of Crows. Several times I witnessed them go through the same performance that has always been a mystery to me. They would form a large, almost perfect, circle, and one crow would hop around in the center cawing, and them some of the others would make a reply, or even several at a time. It seemed as if they were playing a game, or holding a meeting. I have often wondered what they were really doing, but it is beyond me. Another interesting act to me was one day I heard the baying of foxhounds in the distance, heading toward me. Right in front of the tower, only a short distance away, coming out of the woods into the open, was a big fine looking fox who, coming up to a crooked rail fence, jumped up on the fence and ran back along it for some distance. Pretty soon he jumped off the fence and ran back in the same direction that the dogs were coming. Did that fox know enough to fool the dogs?

I was not at White House Tower many months when a Mr. Salisbury, and old time operator on the Erie working at H. R. Tower, 1-1/2 miles east of Olean Station, died and I was now old enough in the service to get this vacancy. We immediately moved our goods to Olean and again began housekeeping. We rented a good house in Boardmanville, just across the small river from Olean (and now a part of Olean proper). This location being nearer to the tower yet still over a mile away. Louie Johnson, the other operator, lived in East Olean, still much farther away. This made it so difficult to make the usual half day and night change, that we worked days and nights. I was lucky enough to get the day shift. H. R. Tower was nearly a mile and a half east of the Olean station at the west end of a long siding and was much larger than the other towers. The company had intended to put in an interlocking system making this the main railroad yard, but because the New York and Pennsylvania crossed the Erie just west of the station - making it necessary for all trains to stop there - they abandoned this plan. We had to go quite a ways to get water from a farm house, so I personally drove a water well close to the tower. I had a hard time in doing this, as I had to go through a bed of quicksand, but I finally got a good well.

For the information of those not familiar with some of the Tower workings, I will explain some of it. At each east and west side is a signal bell with a push button, never placed together or where it could be reached from the desk. As a train approaches from either direction, the operator from that direction rings a signal asking for a clear block. If we give him a clear block, we immediately drop the semaphore headed from the opposite direction, which protects the oncoming train. As soon as the train enters the clear block, the operator signals me that he has done so, and before it reaches me I get a clear from the operator in the next tower. I then pull down the semaphore which gives the train the go-ahead signal, ringing the train in the next block and ringing the back operator that the train has passed that block. I then report by telegraph to the train dispatcher the number of the train and the time it passed. So one has to go to each end of the tower twice for every one that passes. Because of all the trains having to stop at the RR crossing, they did not stop at H. R. Tower, so that we did not get many train orders or other usual business. This was the easiest job on the division.

During the time that Johnson and I were at H. R. we both tried a Civil Service examination for Railway Mail Clerk and Local Mail Carrier. I passed the highest mark ever passed in that office, 99 plus, which was only good for one year at the end of which I again headed the list, but during this entire time there was not a single vacancy or nay increase in the force. The point counting the most in these examinations was the reading of fifty cards with names and addresses, which were given us bottom side up. Time and accuracy were what counted. To prepare for this we went to the Olean House (the leading hotel in the city) where in the basement we found a big stack of old hotel registers. We were allowed to take them to the tower for study, and for variety of signatures and addresses they could not be equaled anywhere. This study enabled us both to make remarkable showings in this test.

Johnson secured a temporary position weighing the mail on the Erie between New York City and Salamanca, NY, and some time later became a regular mail clerk on this same run. By the way, that system was a big fraud on the government. For thirty days all mails are weighed both on and off the mail trains. Upon the results of this weight, a five year contract was made for carrying the mail. All along the route they had big sacks of newspapers, magazines, etc., that were never taken to the Post Office but piled upon the baggage trunks and again put on a train and reweighed over and over again, thus securing contracts for many times more than they should have.

A couple of years or so after moving to Olean, one of our good family friends and neighbor, the Elsworths, moved away from Olean and we rented their house in which we lived until leaving that city.

At one time while in H. R. Mother Graham, at Friendship, was sick for some time and Helen went there to help take care of her. I went there for meals and lodging, part of the time going to Olean on #1 at 9 p.m. working at H. R. twenty-four hours, then back to Friendship on #12.

The one and only great event happening during my long sojourn at H. R. Tower was that on October 22, 1897, we had born to us a charming and beautiful daughter, Romayne Dorothy Latta, who has been all these years a most wonderful and appreciative daughter that could not be surpassed.

On February 1, 1898, I resigned from the old reliable Erie RR, after ten years of service without receiving a reprimand of any kind or form.