Switchtenders at Roanoke

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Mon Mar 23 15:29:49 EDT 2020

Abram, Do you happen to know the history/origin of the three-story Signal Department building nicely shown in your Park St. photo? Unique architecture.      John Garner, Newport VA


From: NW Mailing List [mailto:nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org] 
Sent: Monday, March 23, 2020 10:36 AM
To: N&W Mailing List <nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org>
Subject: Switchtenders at Roanoke


Pursuant to my recent post asking about track changes around the Roanoke passenger station coincident with the new interlocking at Randolph Street, 1949-1950... 


There is one factor that is often forgotten when thinking about the interlocking at Randolph Street, viz. that the maze of trackage at both ends of the station was earlier on controlled by a rank of switchtenders.  


The last one of these was at the Henry St O.H. Bridge.  I can remember, as a small child in the early 1950s, my father pointing out the small shanty where the Henry Street Switch Tender sheltered.  If you copy-and-paste these coordinates into the Google Maps search box, you shall immediately be transported there:  37.273466 -79.942300 .  N&W negative no. 26768, dated 5-31-1939, of which I do not have an image, shows this structure very clearly. 


There were obviously other locations around the station handled by switchtenders, but I do not know where they were.  My guess is that there was at least one at the east end of the station, and one at the west end. 


The switchtenders had their own seniority roster and even their own labor union:  the Switchmens Union of North America (in today's acronym-crazed world, **SUNA."**)  As switchtender jobs were phased out, the switchmen's roster was merged into the Trainmen's rosters on the N&W.  This was done in either 1955 or 1957.  


At the time I hired, 1964, the following locations at Roanoke were still being handled by Switchtenders:  


1)  The Radford Division Pull In, a.k.a. the Stock Pen Switchtender, a.k.a. **672**, which was the telephone number for the location.   Old heads referred to this location as **the Stock Pen** because that is where the Stock Pens had been located before the yard was extended westward in the 1950s.  At the time I hired, this Switchtender and the Pull In Yardmaster were housed in an old wooden box car set up on blocks.  A metal structure was built at this location about 1970 or shortly thereafter.  Coordinates:  37.270955 -79.998338 


(2)  30th Street Switchtender, located at the west end of the Motive Power Lead.  Principally handled the movement of inbound and outbound engines to and from the Round House trackage.  Also lined up switches for westward trains arriving in the Empty Side Yard.  Coordinates:  37.277281 -79.985901 


(3)  The Tower Switchtender, located at the east end of the Receiving Yard.  The word **Tower** was a reference to old UN Tower which had been nearby.  Coordinates:  37.278054 -79.979510 


(4)  The Park Street Switchtender, who handled the switches at the east end of the Departure Yard and east end of the Pull Up Yard (a.k.a.  **Park Street Yard.**)  Coordinates:  37.273578 -79.948720 


Earlier on, there had been a switchtender at 24th Street, located on the north side of the Westbound Main Line.  He handled the switches and crossovers which connected the west end of the Freight Running Track with the Westbound Main Line and the leads to the Empty Side Yard and the Motive Power Ladder.  His principal work was probably crossing over to the Westbound Main Lines trains which had come up from the Pull Up at 16th Street, via the Freight Running Track.  My guess is that this job was done away with around 1958, when **DO** Telegraph was moved from 16th Street to the second floor of the Hump Building (called the **Scale Office** by Mr. Blackstock and other men a year or two ahead of me.)  I think the 24th Street location may have been remoted to DO at that time.  Mr. Tommy Duncan would know because he worked as the Operator at DO.  At any rate, the unoccupied 24th Street Switchtender's shanty was still standing at the time I hired in 1964, but it did not last long.  Coordinates (approximate):  37.280333 -79.978156   


Vocabulary Items:  In my time, the term **switchtender** and  **switchman** were used interchangeably.  The word **switchbox** referred to the shanty provided for the shelter of the switchtender.  Each had a telephone and a couple of them sported an electric light. 


First attached photo shows the Tower Switchbox in the mid-1970s, view looking eastwardly.  Attorney jerome Sandermann (sometimes known just as Jeff Sanders) informs me the structure met its demise when a bulkhead flat loaded with lumber turned over on the little structure and reduced it to splinters and termites.  This image is a scan of a print, as I cannot find my negative. 


Second attached photo is an Ebay grab, taken from Park Street Bridge looking eastwardly, 1959.  The Park Street Switchbox is the small white shanty at far right, almost obscured by the poles.  The two-story brick building was the Park Street Yard Office, constructed in the 1940s.  It was demolished sometime around 1961, when a run away draught of cars ran torough a derail and hit the structure.  Interestingly, the Seth Thomas regulator clock which was in use in the building now lives in Columbus, Ohio. 


Third attached photo is a night shot taken from vicinity of Park Street Switchbox, looking westwardly, 1973.  Another print scan since I cannot find the negative. 


-- abram burnett, 

derailed old brakezmun 


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