Pufferbellies

November 20, 2009

Two of my granddaughters are becoming violinists. I’m very happy to see their interest in music and do what I can to encourage it.

Recently Rachel began singing a little tune and seemed rather shocked when I joined in. “See the little pufferbellies all in a row.”

Not surprisingly, my twelve-year-old granddaughter had no idea what a pufferbelly was. I gave her a brief explanation, but our visit to Paducah, Kentucky provided me with a perfect pictorial example.

A not-so-little pufferbelly

As with so many things I run across nowadays, seeing the steam locomotive brought back more than a few memories.

For example, I recall my parents taking us to see Rook Station near Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Besides having a fairly large rail yard, Rook Station had a round house where the pufferbellies could be turned around and maintained.

A similar turn-table in Savannah, Georgia

I also remember a time when I was about Rachel’s age that I went on a field trip to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in downtown Pittsburgh. Part of the tour included an animated film telling us about the future of railroading. They were getting ready to introduce diesel locomotives which would spell the end of most pufferbellies.

The "new" locomotive on the Branson Scenic Railway

A few scenic railways still use the steam engines, but they are becoming harder and harder to find. I believe the one that runs out of Bryson City, North Carolina is still using a pufferbelly.

A few years back I discovered how intense true railroad buffs are. I was working at a lumber yard in Texas when a load of old railroad ties was delivered. Almost immediately there were swarms of men intently searching for nails stuck in the wood. But these weren’t ordinary nails; they had two digit dates embossed in the heads. Those dates indicated the year the tie was put into place and were used to help the workers determine when to replace the tie. To my surprise, the nails were seen as valuable collectors’ items. I managed to obtain one and passed it on to Andy Sarge.

I mention Andy’s name because I’m hoping he can answer a question of two. While we were watching the Veteran’s Day parade in Branson, there were two machines working on the tracks of the scenic railway. The first machine was the one shown below:

A machine with steel teeth biting into the ground.

A closer look at the teeth

The teeth seemed to be used to loosen the dirt and gravel along side the track. Another interesting feature of this machine was the flimsy looking device being pushed ahead of the machine.

Unknown gizmo being pushed ahead

This thing seemed to be about twenty or thirty feet in front of the first machine. After this machine passed by, it was followed by a second machine.

The second machine

This machine would periodically drop the gray device in front and kick up a bunch of dust. I assume there were brushes cleaning the rails or redistributing the gravel loosened by the first machine.

Hopefully, Andy or some other railroad buffs will enlighten me.

In the meantime, let’s return to pufferbellies. Back in the late forties or early fifties, the Four Preps took that children’s song and produced the following recording.

And that is why I was able to sing along with my granddaughter.

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Recycling – Pittsburgh Style

September 25, 2008

WW II Submarine at Science Center

WW II Submarine at Science Center

Pittsburgh has been recycling for years. When I was a child, Pittsburgh was definitely a blue collar town; the largest employers were the steel mills and related factories. Today, most of the jobs are of the white collar variety. The mills are long gone, but the spirit of the city lives on.

The submarine shown in the above picture is a WW II vintage vessel. It now serves as part of a science exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center. The USS Requin holds the distinction of being the Navy’s first Radar Picket submarine; but that’s just the beginning of her story.

Rook Station near Carnegie

Rook Station near Carnegie

I grew up within miles of the above structure. It was a roundhouse for the steam locomotives and known as Rook Station. I only saw it in operation once or twice. Back then, such things were taken for granted and my parents saw no need to take me there to see things first-hand. Today, most of the structure is gone, but the terminal building serves as office space for various companies.

I apologize for only showing the top of the building. When I went to take the photograph, a work crew had dug a large hole in the front of the building and their equipment blocked my view.

St. Car Barn - Ascension R.C. Church

St. Car Barn - Ascension R.C. Church

Another vestige of the bygone days was the streetcar, or trolley. As a child, I rode trolleys as often as I rode buses. It all depended on the final destination. Unfortunately, the powers-that-were decided to replace all the trolleys with buses, and they removed the tracks and sold the right-of-ways that made it possible for the trolleys to travel their routes much faster than the buses… that had to contend with rush hour traffic. Some might suggest that General Motors made contributions to various candidates, but such allegations would be difficult to prove.

In any case, when the trolleys disappeared, there was no longer a need for car barns – the buildings used to maintain the trolleys. Many of them were sold off and demolished to make room for other construction. One exception was the building shown in the above photo. People around the area still refer to it as Saint Car Barn, but the Diocese of Pittsburgh calls it Ascension.

It’s interesting to note that over the last twenty years the Port Authority of Allegheny County has laid new tracks and opened old right-of-ways to accommodate what they call their “light rail” system.

While we’re on the subject of rail systems… when I was a child, what is now Point State Park was railroad yards and warehouses. The Wabash Building was the center of attention back then as people crossed either the Point Bridge or Manchester Bridge on their way into downtown. A bridge just up river from the Point Bridge carried trains across the Monongahela River and through a tunnel under Mt. Washington.

The bridge is long gone, but the piers are still there… as is the tunnel. However, the rails inside the tunnel have been removed and replaced by a concrete roadway. The tunnel is now used by express buses that travel along the path of the old railroad tracks. I recently rode one of those buses to the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport on my way back to Georgia.

P & LE RR Station

P & LE RR Station

Another symbol of the old railroads that has been recycled is the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroad station on Pittsburgh’s South Side. It is now known as Station Square and is the center of a complex of hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and an indoor shopping mall.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture for my last item on Pittsburgh-style recycling. But I can send you to a website. A friend of mine – former fellow employee at IBM – is now selling pens made from recycled materials. In the words of Bill Poliziani – “I am a native of Western Pennsylvania and a self taught woodworker who enjoys creating things for others.  I try to use recyclable materials whenever possible, such as old furniture, counter tops and even corn cobs.  Each pen is made individually.  There is no mass production … that would take all the fun out of it.”   To see some of Bill’s work and learn more about it, please visit his website at http://www.writingstix.com/.

I still have lots of photos from my recent trip to Pittsburgh, but I may move on to other topics for a while, It will give us all a break!