[N&W] N&W Mailing List - Bluestone Tower
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Tue May 4 22:11:33 EDT 2004
Our buddy Bruce Harper has posted the text of an article on the Bluestone
Tower which ran in the August 1930 issue of the N&W Magazine.
An Interlocking Plant and
The Man in the Tower
by Tag A. Long
HAVE you watched a train worm its way through a network of yard tracks,
apparently "pick" out the right one, and finally go out
on the main line, seemingly with no one around to "throw" the switches?
For, of course, the train really doesn't pick out the right
path to follow. A "tower man" (or perhaps a "tower lady") does that. He, or
she, is the interlocking plant operator--the "pilot," who
keeps the trains on the right tracks and guides them until they have a
clear board ahead.
Ever since I made that trip with the circus,'way back in the summer of
1927, I've had more respect for the "razorbacks" --the men
who load and unload the flat cars. And from that time on, I believe I began
to appreciate more fully the work which is being done
on our railroad by the men behind the scenes. To these men, who rarely come
in contact with the traveling public, belongs a full
share of credit for the part they contribute in the safe and proper
operation of trains.
An interlocking plant, according to the Book of Rules, is an assemblage of
switch, lock and signal appliances, interlocked. That is a
comprehensive statement which covers a multitude of things. The purpose of
the interlocking plant is to place under a unified
control the handling of a large number of switchs and signals which permit
the movement of trains from two or more tracks. The
interlocking minimizes the possibilities of accident and speeds up train
movement over the district controlled by it. The term,
"interlocking," applied to such a device as this means that the action of
each switch, signal and lock is dependent upon the action of
the other switches, signals and locks in the plant. A switch cannot be
moved without affecting other parts of the mechanism.
I know you've met men like E. L. Whitehead, first trick operator at
Bluestone. One of those kindly, jolly fellows with whom you
want to make friends right off the reel. He's one of them. Smokes a pipe
and looks you squarely in the eye, with a merry twitch
around the corners of his mouth most of the time. He's a medium-sized man
and his hair is slightly tinged with gray. When he talks,
you get the impression that he knows what he's talking about. He's not
No, I couldn't help liking him, as soon as Signal Supervisor C. G. Harris,
who accompanied me to his "hang-out," had introduced us.
He was standing in front of an array of levers that looked like the
mechanism of a battleship when I walked in. Mr. Harris told me
he was then lining up the track through the interlocking plant so a train
could pass through.
After Mr. Whitehead had finished I managed to get him to say something.
"These levers and 'gadgets' you see here, Mr. Long," he began, "are hooked
up with four switches, five Cross-over tracks and a
total of 19 signals. These devices are necessary to govern train movements
to and from the east- and westbound main tracks, to
and from the Pocahontas Branch and siding, which jut out from the eastbound
main track here at the tower; the Bluestone Branch,
which branches off of the eastbound main tracks a short distance west of
the tower, and the old eastbound main track and, making
a loop, rejoins the new eastbound main at Ruth.
"Now the two switches and three crossovers, which are located too far west
of the tower to be seen distinctly, are operated and
locked by an electric current from a lever here in this tower. The other
two crossovers and the two remaining switches near the
tower are operated and locked mechanically by these long levers, which must
be moved by the 'armstrong' method. In other words,
when I pull this lever to a certain position it moves the switch. And when
I pull this other lever it locks the switch. You understand
that much, don't you?
"Yes sir, that sinks in," I said.
"But--I cannot move this lever if a train is approaching the switch after I
have given it the signal to proceed, because the switch is
locked. The presence of the train on the rails near that switch and in the
block makes it impossible to unlock it in the usual manner.
The reason for this is the fact that the train shunts out the current
necessary to unlock this lever here in the tpwer. If, for any
reason, the train becomes disabled and cannot move any farther and it is
necessary to move the switch, the electro-mechanical
device, which you see here just above the levers, can be operated and it
will unlock the switch lever. This device works on a
clock-work principle and from one-half to one minute is required for this
device to complete its action. That acts as a safeguard.
For if I should start to wondering whether the Athletics will beat
Washington today with my hand on that time release, I'll have
time to make up my mind before any serious damage can be done.
"As you know," he continued, "our train movement depends very largely upon
our automatic block signals and interlockings. This
plant is fully protected by these signals. Their normal position is at
'stop.' Suppose, for instance, that a train is approaching the
tower on the westbound main track and is supposed to take the Pocahontas
Branch for Pocahontas. If everything is clear on the
eastbound main track (which this train must cross), I move a total of six
levers, three to move the switches and crossovers and
three to lock them up. After I have done so, I move one of the signal arms
to 'clear' position and another to 'proceed with caution,'
and the route is lined up for the train to go to the Pocahontas Branch.
After I have made this arrangment it is impossible for me to
throw any other switches or give any other signals which would conflict
with the movement of this train to the Pocahontas
I happened to look out of the window just at that moment and noticed the
side track which led off of the Pocahontas Branch at the
tower. An impish thought struck me.
"But suppose you would forget to throw the lever which controls the side
track switch? Then the train would run into the siding,
wouldn't it?" I asked.
"Well, in the first place I am not supposed to forget, Mr. Long," he
replied with a twinkle in those gray eyes of his, "and in the
second place if I did forget, the signal which the engineer receives would
indicate to him that he must proceed at slow speed
prepared to stop for any obstruction on on the track. This signal is always
given automatically, when the switches are lined up for
Everybody makes mistakes, but 23 years of experience in an interlocking
plant will make anyone very perfect. Mr, Whitehead
went to work as a telegraph operator on the Pocahontas Division at the age
of 16. After several changes in location he came to
Bluestone Junction as telegraph operator and tower man in 1907, where he
has remained until the present time. He thoroughly
understands his job and, believe me, he gets the trains through his plant
promptly. Occasionally emergencies arise with which he
must deal quickly and intelligently, but a cool head and a clear-thinking
brain enable him to master the most difficult situations.
When he's not working, you can find him over at Pocahontas, where he makes
his home, When the weather is not too cold he's out
of doors caring for his flower garden and lawn, recognized as the most
attractive in Pocahontas. Yes,he's a Veteran. He attended
the first annual meeting at Ocean View and says he had a "swell" time.
To understand how the tower man measures up to his duties, I'll try to give
you a little glimpse of the situation at Bluestone. When
business is normal, just about 150 trains pass through the plant every 24
hours. This doesn't sound so improbable when it is
remembered that the tower controls the movement of trains over the
eastbound and westbound main tracks, two branch line tracks
and the old eastbound main line track. There are 14 regularly scheduled
freight and passenger trains which pass through the plant
every 24 hours. In addition, 22 branch line trains go in and out of the
plant every day. These branch line trains run from Bluestone
to Pocahontas and back again, thence to Boissevain, the terminus of the
Pocahontas Branch, back to Bluestone, and from
Bluestone to Simmons,Matoaka, Wenonah, with side trips up the Goodwill and
Crane Creek Branches.
The misleading feature of these branch line trains is the fact that they
are composed of only two units of equipment. Every time
they reach a certain point, they change numbers and start out again as an
entirely different train.
The passenger and through freight train movement makes up just about half
of the traffic running via Bluestone Junction. The other
half is composed of extra coal trains from the West going to Bluefield and
coal movement from the Bluestone and Pocahontas
Branches, This coal train movement is rather intricate, too. Coal is
assembled from mines along the Bluestone Branch at Clift Yard
and at Simmons. Electric locomotives bring the loads from Clift Yard
through Bluestone Junction to Flat Top Yard, which is
located about three miles east of Bluestone. Here the eastbound coal loads
are assembled into long trains and moved on to
Bluefield. The westbound coal is picked up at Flat Top Yard by westbound
trains. Coal from the Pocahontas Branch is also moved
electrically to Flat Top Yard through Bluestone Junction. However, in order
to facilitate the movement of this coal from the two
branches, a number of trips are made by the electric locomotives back and
forth through Bluestone. All of which increases the
number of trains for which the tower man at Bluestone must be on the
lookout and must handle through this interlocking district.
In addition to being an interlocking tower operator, Mr. Whitehead performs
the regular duties of a telegrapher. He "O. S.'s" trains
to the dispatcher, delivers necessary train orders to the crews, and keeps
a record of each and every train as it passes his office.
As everybody knows, the operator is the dispatcher's "nerve" through which
he keeps in contact with train movement over the line.
In performing this function, Mr. Whitehead is no exception to the general
rule. He sends mes- sages and his office is a general
information bureau for train crews, signal maintainers, section foremen, etc.
I was watching Mr. Whitehead take a train order from the dispatcher when
the ringing of a bell attracted my attention.
"What does that mean, Mr. Whitehead?" I asked.
"That means a train is coming," he replied.
Pointing to a large glass-covered track diagram above his levers, he said:
"See that little light there? Well, that indicates the exact
position of the train that caused the bell to ring. The light burns because
the train has established contact between the two rails in a
certain block. These rails carry an electric current. The bell was rung
from the same source. The purpose of the bell is to call my
attention to the approach of a train, so that I may have time enough to
line up the tracks properly and to give the proper signals. It
mav interest you to know that the absence of the same electrical circuit
which rang the bell and flashed the little light is responsible
for the movement of the signal arm from clear to stop position when a train
is in the block protected by this signal. I say 'absence
of' because the presence of the train on the rails shunts out the current
from what is called a'relay.' This relay prevents the current
from flowing to the signal mechanism and allows the signal arm to fall.
This is why it is impossible for me to change the signal
indication after a train is in the block. Simply because all of the
physical strength in my body cannot force current to flow into the
"Yes, this interlocking tower is just about as 'fool- proof' as it is
possible to make it," Mr. Whitehead continued. "As long as one
follows instructions and the dictates of common sense, the chances of
accident are pretty slim. It is only when the interlocking
mechanism is superseded by a voluntary action on the part of the tower man
or the train crew that any serious error can be made."
Often when one ponders over the intricacies of a machine, the mind forms
questions, which, on the surface, seem perfectly logical,
but which, with a little further thought, fall to pieces and seem idiotic.
Such a question was one of several which I popped to Mr.
Whitehead. This was it:
"Why do you have to pull so many levers when you want to line up the track?
Why wouldn't one do the work ?"
He was patient, however.
"In the majority of cases," he replied, "when I move one switch it is
necessary to move another one, because the position of other
switches between the track from which the train is emerging and its
destination would lead it off of the desired route."
After he had finished explaining he sat silent for a moment. It seemed as
if his attention was being entirely devoted to rings of blue
smoke emanating the bowl of his pipe. But the expression in those gray eyes
told me he had something else to say if given the
"Everybody seems to have something to say to you as they go by, Mr.
Whitehead," I led off. "I suppose you have quite a few
friends in this neck of haven't you?"
"Yeah, I was just fixing to tell you that friends mean a lot to a fellow on
a job like mine. Come to think of it, though, I guess I ought
to have a few friends around here. I've been here long enough. It's worth a
lot to work with fellows who know you and with folks
you know and like."
I agreed with him thoroughly.
N&W Magazine, August 1930, pp. 514-516
You can see the rest of Bruce Harper's site at:
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