Pennsylvania Memories is a special series marking the turn of the millennium featuring readers' memories of events, experiences, incidents, individuals, innovations or inventions that profoundly affected them or gave them a deep appreciation of personal history.

1953 brought on a lot of changes for the Monongahela Railway Company, a small but busy coal-hauling railroad in southwestern Pennsylvania, which operated from South Brownsville, Fayette County, to Fairmont, West Virginia, a distance of about seventy-three miles.

Twenty-seven brand new Baldwin diesel electric road­-switching locomotives arrived at the South Brownsville shops in 1953. They replaced about twenty-seven faithful steam locomo­tives made up of USRA Mikados and Atlantics. I began work as a machinist helper in 1942, when I was eighteen years old, doing running repairs in the round­house and spent ten years working on steam locomotives. Although the new diesels were cleaner, more efficient, and much easier to maintain, they didn’t fascinate as the steam engine did. I can still smell the distinctive odor of burnt grease, hot oil, and smoke from the exhaust stack, and hear the whine of the steam-driven electric generator on top of the boiler. Oh, I have to mention also the throbbing panting of the steam-driven air compressors. Those sounds and smells are gone forever, except when I visit a railroad museum or an excursion train ride. The diesels reminded me of a street car just quietly parked with no place to go, but the steam engine seemed to be alive with its noises, exposed running gear, smoke and steam trails, Large driving wheels, and rods and linkage that I could see and touch. Yes, I remember the occasional boiler pop valve on an engine going off in the roundhouse. Gee, it was loud.

I remember dancing out of the way when the hostler (a worker who moved equipment around the shop) was moving an engine out of the house onto the turntable and the cylinder cocks had to be opened. I’ve had more than a few wet pant legs.

Working around the drop pit in the roundhouse was hard, heavy work. Removing and replacing driving wheels had to be done carefully. Using the air-operated jack to lower and lift the drivers took a lot of care and concentration.

At eleven o’clock on the morning of Armistice Day, the shop workers all climbed into separate cabs on the engines and pulled the steam whistle cords. It was deafening! Maybe eight or ten whistles sounding at the same time in an enclosed building. It lasted about five minutes and didn’t make the master mechanic and the engine watcher happy at all.

Diesels are about as exciting as a pair of brown shoes, but they’re here to stay. They’ll not dim my memories of the steam engine. Finding someone who recalls the burnt grease and hot oil smells of the roundhouse is hard to come by. I’d like to be nineteen years old again and do it all over again.


Charles B. Snider worked on railroads his entire life, first with steam engines and, beginning in 1953, with diesel locomotives. He resides in Brownsville, Fayette County, with his wife Agnes, also a native of Brownsville, whom he married in 1957. The author is interested in corresponding or speaking with individuals who worked in railroad shops.