Translation sought of '50s era terms - and Elwood J. Higley

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at
Sun Dec 10 20:40:01 EST 2017

These were station numbers, which in the case of more important points,
were letters.

D is East Radford.  E is Pulaski.  U is Bluefield.  R is Roanoke; N
Norfolk, S Shenandoah, H Hagerstown,  C Crewe, L Lynchburg and if I recall
correctly, Williamson was W.  Glade Spring was G.  Conductors used these
station numbers on their CR-10 wheel reports, handling and delay reports,
and in their Train Books. Station Numbers were issued by the Accounting
Department and probably had their origin in the needs of the Car Record
Office.  You can find them in any edition of the official "List of
Officers, Agents and Stations."

For stations of lesser importance numerals were used, loosely indexed to
the mile posts.  A few I recall were 272 Elliston, 285 Christiansburg, 292
Walton, 302 Dry Branch, 306 Eggleston, 310 Pembroke, 314 Ripplemeade, 321
Pearisburg, 330 Glen Lyn, 337 Oakvale, 345 Blake. On the "main line," the
numbers had no letter prefix, but stations on the Shenandoah Valley carried
an S prefix; on the Roanoke & Southern an O prefix, and on the Bristol Line
a P (for Pulaski) prefix.  For instance, Bassett was O-52, Waynesboro was
S-142, and Wytheville was P-36.

Of course, you will recognize that that the Radford Division station
numbers given above do not exactly correspond with the mile posts.  West of
Roanoke, they are off by about five miles.  I have never determined the
developmental history of this situation, and it would be a good research
project for Senator Aitch Bundy. My guess is that the station numbers
originally corresponded to the mile posts.  But over the years, various
small realignments of the right-of-way shortened the total length of the
railroad.  The mile posts were never adjusted to reflect the shorter
overall distance, but the station numbers were.  (Railroads all over the
country have miles which are both longer and shorter than 5280 feet.  I
know of one case, not far from where I am sitting, where the distance
between two adjacent MP's is just a tad over 2000 feet, due to a

I do not recall the mile post situation west of Walton.  The 1902 move of
the railroad from Schooler Hill to the Low Grade route between Walton and
Bellspring obviously  knocked a few miles off that route, but I do not
recall the situation with MP's versus station numbers for that territory.

And now to "Hig,"  Elwood J. Higley, whose Conductor's Train Book you
have.  There was never a finer man who walked in shoe leather.  Not only
was he a fine and pleasant person, but his work was a genuine credit to the
railroad.  I will tell you a tale about him [and myself,] but first I have
to tell you how we got coal trains out of Bluefield back then.

Every eastbound coal train had a three-track double (i.e. it was on three
tracks and the outbound crew had to double them together from the east end,
at RD.)   The process was as follows... and remember, this was in the days
before radios.

(1)  Let's say the double is Tracks 3 to 4 to 5.  The flagman would ride
the engine down to about 30 car lengths west of RD, and there drop off and
cross over to Track 3.   At a point about 30 car lengths back on the the
first track (Track 3,) he would tie a paper towel on the bleed rod on the
north side of the first car on which he released the hand brakes, and would
work his way back west, knocking off all the other hand brakes on Track 3.

(2) Meanwhile, the head end brakeman would couple the engine onto the first
track being picked up (in this case, Track 3.)  After the air brake system
was charged and tested (the car inspectors made the brake test,) the head
end brakeman would use the switching light signals (controlled from a box
mounted on a pole at RD) to signal the engineman ahead.  If I recall
correctly, the color combinations were Green for ahead,  Flashing Yellow
for back up, Steady Yellow for "steady up, you are getting close"
(generally about 4 car lengths from the coupling,) and Red for stop.  The
first pick up (Track 3) would then be moved east of the interlocking at RD
and stopped with the switching lights.  The head brakeman would then use
wayside telephone to call the Train Dispatcher at Roanoke and advise him of
the progress of the move.  When the DS had the switches and derails set
right, he would give the brakeman permission to back his train up to the
second track (in this case, Track 4,) and the switching lights would be
used to signal the engineman accordingly.

(3)  Once the coupling was made on Track 4 and the air turned in and
charged, the pick up in Track 4 would be brake tested by the car
inspectors, and when they released the track, the head end brakeman would
knock off the 30 hand brakes which had been left applied on the east end of
Track 4.  (All the tracks at RD were kept on "ground air," so the charging,
test and release didn't consume any great amount of time.)  When the head
end man had released all the hand brakes on the east end of the second
track being picked up (Track 4,) he would use the switching lights to
signal the engineman ahead, then stop him when the movement was east of
RD.  (On a dark night, you had to guess when the rear end was east of RD,
because you could not see the last car in the darkness.)  The Train
Dispatcher was again called, he aligned the switches and derails for
movement back to the last track being picked up, Track 5, and the head end
brakeman used the switching signals to bring the train back to the last

(4)  When the coupling to the last track had been made, and the brake test
was completed by the car inspectors, the two brakeman (head end man, and
flagman) would release the hand brakes on the final track.  Generally this
was accomplished by the "paper towel on the bleed rod 30 cars back"
principle.  That is to say, the flagman would begin releasing the hand
brakes on the 31st car, and proceed westward.

(5) When the car inspectors had determined that the air brake system
functioned properly, they notified the Yardmaster at East Yard, and he used
a bull-horn speaker system (speakers on poles at various places throughout
the east end yard, along the Eastbound Main Line.  On the bull-horn, he
would call out, "Brakemen on Track 5, okay to release the handbrakes."  At
this point, the 30 hand brakes were knocked off the east end of Track 5,
and the head end brakeman walked to the engine, and train was ready to
depart.  Generally an eastbound coal train was ready to depart about two
hours after calling time.  (And the head end crew, Engineman/Fireman/Head
End Brakeman, reported 15 minutes ahead of the rear end crew, so they could
get the engine "out of the house" and down to East Yard Office to meet the
Conductor and Flagman.)

(6)  I should add that occasionally a yard engine (two big six axle
engines) would be used to shove the final track down against the first two
tracks which had been coupled together for an eastward coal train.  This
was also how coal "tonnage fill-outs" were added to the rear end of No. 84
and No. 86.

And now you are ready for the "Hig Story."  Well,  Elwood Higley was rather
short of stature and, having short legs, a taller man could, with some
effort, outdistance him.  So one one fine afternoon in the mid-1960s, we
were getting a coal train out of Bluefield, and I was Elwood's flagman.  We
made the three track double.  But because of congestion in the yard, the
rear end of our train hung back west of the East Yard office, a very
unusual situation.   We departed, and as our caboose passed the scale
office (west end of East Yard building,) the old Conductor on that job
cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "Two tied up tight as hell about
40 cars from the rear end ! "  Translation:  The flagman << me>>  missed
releasing two hand brakes !

After we got off the worst part of the grade, somewhere between Ada and
Blake, "Hig" radioed the engineman to stop for inspection.  (Conductors by
this time had a big "pack-set" radio operated by lantern batteries.  It was
normally carried in a rack in the cupola of the caboose, but could be
removed and carried by a shoulder-buster canvas strap.)

I knew I was in for a blistering if "Hig" found two hand brakes tied up on
his train.  So as soon as the caboose stopped, I hit the ballast in a trot,
trying to gain the lead on "Hig."  Which I was able to do... and release
the hand brakes before he caught up to me.  Finding the hand brakes was no
problem, because the two cars were clouded in brake shoe smoke !  Once they
were released, I started back toward the caboose and met Hig.  "What did
you find?"  he asked.  To which I responded, "Oh, nothing, Captain.  Just
two brake chains wound up backwards."  He obviously knew better, but didn't
pursue the matter... likely because he had done the same thing at one time
or another during his own career, and in his mercy thought it best to chalk
up my blunder to "a lesson learned."

I should also add that "Hig" gave me a photocopy of a 1901 Radford Division
Time Table.  Photocopiers of the 1960s were in their infancy and quite
poor.  But I am attaching it as a PDF.

So, Ace Detective Bundy...  Your next assignment is to work out the history
of station numbers, and determine the date at which they were revised to
show true distance from Norfolk after the revisions of alignment, not the
mile post distance.  Think you can have this worked out by
close-of-business on next Friday ???  You will have an unlimited expense
account and overtime is no problem...
    -- abram burnett,
flat-footed old brakesman

                  Sent to You from my Telegraph Key
Successor to the MAGNETIC TELEGRAPH LINE of 1844

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