[N&W] N&W Mailing List - Wreck Master replies

nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue May 4 22:14:14 EDT 2004

Here are the replies I've received concerning the Wreck Master inquiry.

First from Bob Mckell <rmckell at bright.net>
Hi Art,

I have lived all my 75 years in Chillicothe, Ohio, which was a division
point on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between Cumberland and St.
Louis.  When I was young, a wreck train was always parked on a track in
the railroad yards directly across from Union Depot.  The most important
piece of rolling stock in that train was an enormous (from my young
point of view) steam-powered crane, capable of lifting locomotives and
cars involved in wrecks.  This train, consisting of the crane, a coal
tender, and four or five cars equipped with supplies and equipment, was
always ready to go on a moment's notice.  The crane, referred to as "The
Big Hook", was continually under steam.

When a wreck occurred on our Ohio Division, the railroad's shop whistle
blew a long, never-ending blast or series of blasts.  Everyone in this
railroad town knew what that meant.  Railroad employees hurried to the
train, an available locomotive was coupled on the head end, and off it
went.  It seemed half the town would have arrived by that time to see it
depart.  Many were concerned, for this was a crew-change point, and who
knew who's husband, son, or father was involved in the wreck?  And I
can't think of anything more dramatic or spine-tingling for a young
railfan like me than the sound of that shop whistle signaling a wreck.

I'm not a railroader, but I'm sure someone in a position such as your
grandfather's was in charge of that train and all the work that lay
ahead of it.  The Norfolk & Western Railway's Portsmouth to Columbus
line crossed the B&O in Chillicothe, and sometimes an N&W wreck train,
with an even more tremendous crane, would arrive at the scene of the
wreck.  Occasionally it switched to the B&O in Chillicothe, but usually
it took a different route, I think, so it would be in a position to work
from the opposite end of the wreck scene from the B&O hook.  To actually
lift a heavy locomotive completely off the ground, I would guess two
cranes were needed.  You'll probably hear from some railroaders who can
tell you.
I've seen a single crane lift a locomotive one end at a time, or slowly
"roll" a locomotive up an embankment to the tracks, but I don't remember
seeing a crane lift a steam engine completely off the ground by itself.
On your grandfather's Virginian there were some mighty big steam and
electric locomotives.

Today the wreck train, the yard and shops, and the B&O tracks themselves
are long gone from Chillicothe.  And these days, the railroads make use
of private contractors, with Diesel-powered cranes, to do much of the
clean-up work after an accident happens.

I hope this is helpful.

Bob McKell (rmckell at bright.net)

Ed King had this contribution:
Ron -

I don't know specific information about the gentleman in question, but on 
most railroads the Wreckmaster was a Motive Power Department supervisor, 
usually in the Car Department.  At Shaffers Crossing in the 1960s on the 
N&W he was a car department Gang Foreman named Donald Dean.

I'd be willing to bet that at Victoria, the Wreckmaster was also the local 
Car Foreman - they had to have something to do between wrecks.  I doubt if 
he was the highest ranking official for the railroad in Victoria, although 
he might very well have been the highest ranking MOTIVE POWER official in 
town, although he might have to vie with the Roundhouse Foreman even for 
that title.  Victoria was, after all, a division point with at least a 
Trainmaster located there, as well as being the location of the Norfolk 
Division Dispatcher's office.

And, yes, they cleaned up after a train left the tracks.

Their activities would be coordinated with the operating department and 
would be under the general direction of the ranking operating department 
official at the scene.  Railroading lore is rich with tales of operating 
officials who got lots of egg on their faces trying to tell a wreckmaster 
how to do his job . . .

Hope this helps . . .

EdK <theboomer at ozline.net>

Bob Loehne added:

Hi Art ... wrecks are an interesting and most colorful aspect of railroading,
for sure.

I am fortunate to have been closely acquainted with two men who were regularly
involved with the recovery of N&W wrecks. Bud Roberts recently died and his
resume included several years as General Foreman for the N&W and NS on the
Pocy in charge of track, trestles and tunnels. Clyde Taylor is still with us.
He retired a few years ago as NS General Foreman here in Winston-Salem and he
continues to share his experiences. The each retired with close to 40 years on
the RR (N&W or NS).

In 1956, both men were called within minutes to the infamous wreck of the 611
and Bud oversaw construction of the temporary track, the righting of the 611
and then towing it back up to the mainline. Their descriptions of that night,
early moring and following days were the first wreck recovery stories I'd
heard. Their sharing of their wreck experiences made it clear to me that wreck
recovery is more than just a matter of muscle. There is a lot of planning,
coordination, intelligence, management and skill involved.

Many of their recoveries were on neighboring roads as it proved beneficial to
help each other rather than insisting on always totally handling one's own RR
wrecks. For instance, a wreck on the Southern (in SW Virginia) might have a
Southern derrick on one end and an N&W or Clinchfield crane on the other end.
In particular, Clyde helped recover wrecks on the Southern, Interstate,
Virginian and Clinchfield as well as the N&W and probably more.

As much as they worked together, the lingo often differed between railroads.
For instance, on the Clinchfield they called it the "derrick train" while I
had presumed they were all "wreck trains." Some called the prime equipment a
crane, a derrick or the big hook.

When the wreck bell or whistle sounded (five long blasts) virtually everybody
nearby on the railroad was a "volunteer" because opening the mainline was
always imperative and the top priority. Whoever was nearest the wreck site
often got the call.  However, once things were underway and regular wreck
crewmembers arrived, the designated employees who regularly worked the wrecks
took over. Clyde's mechanical department often was decimated the first few
days of a big wreck and there were two or three engineers per location who
generally drew the wreck loco assignments (one loco per crane and another to
haul off righted equipment).

As for the Wreck Master ... well, he was a busy man! Keep in mind that
Virginian or N&W wrecks were often in the mountains which only made wreck
recoveries and the wreck master's job even more difficult. He had to keep a
careful eye on his crew, especially the derrick or crane operator. Running the
hook was no simple task and an operator had to display a number of skills and
understandings ... physics, steam dynamics and crew capabilities among them.

Even when you were paying rapt attention, dumping (tilt over) the derrick or
losing your load was easy to do. Dragging a half-million pound locomotive up a
steep grade involved unimaginable forces and the job was as dangerous as it
was difficult. Running the wreck crane was exhausting both mentally and
physically ... it was important for the wreck master to know when to rest his
operators. Many, perhaps most, wreck masters took a turn in the crane ...
often because they were the only other qualified crane operator "still
breathing" at the site.

While the wreck master was busting his butt (well ... most did) with the
wreck, he also had to step back and seel how it was going. His job was clear
... open the line just as soon as possible ... and he continually reevaluated
(or at least he should have) his plan in light of his progress. An early
opening of the line often led to bonuses, promotions or at least a big plus on
the next job review. A late reopening was not well received. A good wreck
master was hard to find ... good ones were money in the bank for the railroad.

There will be a story in the March 99 issue of TRAINS (early Feb newstand)
about Clyde Taylor; however, there is little information therein regarding
wreck recoveries. Clyde was a major Mr. Fixit for the N&W and the story
recounts several of his best fixes, including his call to the 611 wreck.
Interestingly, Clyde was one of a very few who took photos of the wreck.

If you want to know more about train wreck recoveries, come to Winston-Salem,
NC. Clyde loves to tell the tales and he is a virtual encyclopedia of RR wreck

Later ... Bob

Bob Loehne <oezbob at aol.com>

Thank you fellas for the replies. Anyone else?

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