Fw: N&W pre-1959 depot / tower telephone

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Tue Nov 26 09:08:47 EST 2019

Greetings fellow railroad buddies, These emails explain railroad operations back in the day. The N&WHS is so fortunate to have two men participate in our Mailing List Conversations such as Abram and Frank. They are first class and I thank them both!
Eat a turnip for Thanksgiving in honor of Abram. I’m sure he will appreciate it!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Norris Deyerle
Blue Ridge Chapter, National Railway Historical Society Chairman of Virginia's Rail Heritage Region Partners
Info: www.blueridgenrhs.org
744 Chinook Place
Lynchburg, Virginia 24502-4908
Cell: 434-851-0151
From: NW-Mailing-List <nw-mailing-list-bounces at nwhs.org> on behalf of NW Mailing List <nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org>
Sent: Monday, November 25, 2019 11:48:24 AM
To: NW Mailing List <nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org>
Subject: Re: N&W pre-1959 depot / tower telephone

Dear Abram;

please don't apologize for loquaciousness.  You are one of the few sources for this information, and some of us appreciate the time and effort.  If someone isn't interested they can use the delete button or just move on to the next message.  Thanks for your assistance, and your assistance to my good friend Dr. Frank.  Have a healthy and peaceful Thanksgiving.

Yes; I still hope you'll let the turnips sit for a few days and make it to a convention.  Cleveland is lovely in June.  (subtle, hunh?)

Frank Bongiovanni

On Mon, Nov 25, 2019 at 10:01 AM NW Mailing List <nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org<mailto:nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org>> wrote:
Dr. Scheer
Railway Mail Service Library
"DK" Telegraph Office
N&W Depot
Boyce, Va.


Caveat to all which ye followeth:  I was never an Operator or Train Dispatcher, I was only a Brakesman, so there will be far better answers from people who actually did the job.

The ranks of men who can answer this question from personal experience are growing quite thin.  I would suggest you ask Mr. Dommy Duncan of Austinville, an old time N&W Opr/DS, and who reads this List, about the topic.  He grew up in North Carolina Branch depots in the 1940s and hired in the 1950s.   Take a run down to Austinville some morning and help him with the milking, and he will probably tell you all about it...

(1)  During my days of  swinging a lantern, the line with the most Train Order offices remaining open was the Roanoke & Southern, the Punkin Vine.  I distinctly remember the jack boxes there being marked DS, MSG and BLK.

(2)  On a big, busy railroad, where trains were blocked by telegraph, the BLOCK Wire did not extend the entire length of the dispatching district, it only extended betweens the block stations.  E.g. if the block stations were A, B, C and D, one dedicated block circuit would extend between A and B, another separate dedicated circuit between B and C, another between C and D, and so forth.  The reason being that the only men who needed access to the Block Wires were the men at each end of the block.

(3)  On the N&W, at the time I worked there (1964-1979,) Operators were not manually blocking trains.  Automatic Block Signals were blocking the trains, even though we were still running on the classical old system of Timetable and Train Order, plus Right, Class and Direction.  So the status of the Block Wire had been truncated from something very vital (the blocking of trains for protection,) to that of just a **third available circuit.**

It is my reasoning that at some time after the Automatic Block Signals were installed, all the Block Wires between the individual offices were spliced together into one continuous wire extending the length of the Division.  This was probably done to eliminate the necessity of maintaining primary acid + Copper + Zinc batteries at each station to power all the short Block Wires.  Remember that some remote areas of Virginia and West Virginia did not get commercial electricity until the 1940s, so if a railroad wanted power to run a telegraph or telephone circuit in these areas, or operate a track circuit or crossing protection, the only way to do it was with **primary** batteries consisting of a glass jar filled with acid and Copper and Zinc electrodes.  Each cell produced somewhere around 1.2 volts, so if you needed 12 volts, you needed 10 cells wired together in series.  So, every depot or Train Order office had to maintain its own sets of stinky, smelly, unhealthy open-top acid cells.

(4)  This lack of commercial power in remote areas was one reason that all large railroads (and I include the N&W in that category) strung a heavy gauge pair of wires for **power** on their pole lines quite early on, say beginning sometime around 1910.  Voltages ranged from 220 to 440 to 660, and upwards.  The Pennsylvania  even used an incredible 6600 volts in places.  If the railroads could not get commercial power in an area, they built their own power houses and generated their own electricity by a coal fired boiler and dynamo.  I have heard that Phoebe and Zuni on the Norfolk Division had N&W power plants.  Early accounts in the trade magazines mention that these newfangled power lines would also be used to put into depots the revolutionary miracle of the incandescent electric lamp.  Hopefully someone will get inspired to research and write the history of the N&W power houses and electric power on pole lines.

I do not want to get too deeply into this subject for a number of reasons:  I am no expert, and it will bore the readers, and it is certainly far afield as an answer to your original question.  But the invention of Lee de Forest's Audion Tube (vacuum tube) in 1906 revolutionized the entire world, including the way railroads conducted their business.

With the invention of the rectifying vacuum tube, the railroads were relieved from doing everything with primary batteries at each location.

(1)  In 1912, Western Electric Co. introduced a vacuum tube based telephone amplifier and about 1913 or so came out with a package especially for  railroad train dispatching by telephone.  (Prior to the possibility of amplifying telephone voice signals, train dispatching over long railroad Divisions by telephone was not practicable, so railroads used the trusty Telegraph.)

(2)  On the signal side of the business, rectifiers enabled railroads get away from primary, wet cell batteries, install storage batteries and charge them with AC voltage run through a rectifier.  This, in itself, was a huge revolution in the way railroads did things. And just to let you know that this is not all discourse from the Days of the Dinosaurs, I know of one smaller railroad, not far from where I sit, which was still operating some of its branch line crossing circuits out in remote country with primary batteries using acid +Copper + Zinc into the 1950s !

Forgive my loquaciousness.  You asked me for the time, and I told you how to build a watch !

-- abram burnett,
derailed old brakesman,
now large-scale turnip arbitrageur

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

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