Riding the Sharks 

by Jay Winn, edited by Rudy Garbely

all photos by Jay Winn

As a result of painting the shark models, I had the pleasure of meeting D&H Chief Road Foreman of Engines Marv Davis and President & CEO Bruce Sterzing. One day a few months later, in the summer of 1975, I was chasing the sharks and found that they were working the “Sayre Job,” a local freight from Binghamton, NY to Sayre, PA and return. Two of my friends and I went to Sayre and waited for them to arrive there, and they finally showed up and with a fairly substantial train. The locomotives were cut off to prepare for the run back to Binghamton.

As I followed them to a point near the south end of the station, to my surprise, who popped out of the engineer’s cab window but Marv Davis. After a short conversation, he invited me up into the cab for a look around. Once inside, I took pictures of everything; the interior details of #1205’s cab, the front view out the windshield, Marv, and anything else that looked interesting, as I was indeed quite excited and I wanted to be sure to memorialize this event on film.

As they were preparing to head back to Binghamton and I was about to get off, Marv mentioned that when they got back to Binghamton, he and the sharks were tentatively scheduled for pusher duty up Belden Hill, and that I was welcome to ride along with him. Without hesitation, I assured him that I would surely like that. As I drove back to Binghamton, I could think of nothing else. I considered how I could record this experience, and was really glad that I taken my tape recorder along (audio only, as not many could afford video those days, especially me). This was in addition to my constant companion, a 35mm Honeywell SP500, on this trip.

My friends and I went to D&H’s Bevier Street yard and waited for the return of the sharks from their trip to Sayre. After what seemed to be forever, they came trundling up the runner and stopped right in front of the yard office in bright afternoon sunlight (as rare for Binghamton, NY then as it still is today). After we took pictures, I set up the tape recording equipment to capture the Baldwins’ slow RPM idle, that along with the chirps, burbles, wheezes, and thumps, unmistakably identified the two silver and blue warbonnet diesels as progeny of Eddystone. Once you have experienced the beat of the Baldwin 608A prime mover, especially up this close, you will never forget it. After we took all the pictures we could afford, my friend Dave and I prepared to board the lead unit, #1205. The third person in our party, Doug, elected to chase the train by car and pick us up after we cut off the train at or near the tunnel at the top of the grade.

We boarded the #1205 and looked around the cab. As I studied the spartan controls, I thought about the history and heritage of this well-worn and much-traveled unit. This unit started out life as New York Central #3805 in 1951, worked the New York Central System out of Dewitt, NY for a number of years, and then was transferred to Beech Grove, Indiana for the remainder of its service on the NYC. She was renumbered to NYC #1205 prior to the PC merger and then deadlined in 1966, nearly two years before the actual merger. Then in late 1967, it was reincarnated (along with ten sister units) when they were sold to the power-starved Monongahela Railway (nine for operations, and two for parts) where they retained their 1200-series numbers. The Monongahela used them, as the NYC before it, on slow speed heavy haul drag freights and coal trains. Predictably, over the next few years, one by one they succumbed to ailments from which there is no economical return. Typically, crankcase and crankshaft problems led the assault.

By late 1972, only #1205 and #1216 remained serviceable, but remained largely unused until the whole lot of Monongahela sharks was sold to a scrapper in early 1974. In mid-1974, the D&H made a deal for these last two operable ones - the #1216 (former NYC #3812) and the #1205 (NYC #3805), the one we were standing in. Neither was perfect, and they both were well past their prime (actually, #1205 had a cracked crankcase, a condition that proved to be a continuous nagging problem). But all that aside, here we were inside a living dinosaur, literally the last of her kind, save her sister (#1216) coupled on behind. The cab was dark, somewhat gloomy, and very noisy. A mere few feet behind where we were standing, the #1205’s 608A heart was beating away, just like the day it was built over 24 years previously, and it was making quite a racket. It seemed decibels louder now that we were actually inside the beast and also experiencing the accompanying vibrations.

The crew, which consisted of Marv and at least two others, were carrying on a conversation at “shout” volume, but otherwise seemed quite nonplussed by the din. The radio chatter and discussions about signals, train orders, form Ds and such, just added to what already seemed like controlled chaos, and it was all picked up by my trusty tape recorder sitting on the cab floor. The recorder was caught up in the chaos, vibrating in tune with the rumbling prime mover in the back. I became concerned that the vibrations and high noise level were going to have a negative effect on the quality of my audio recordings (an accurate and well-founded fear, as it turned out). So, my solution to this problem was to cut out the condenser mics and plug in a wind mic I had brought along for just such an eventuality. As for just how the recording was doing, I had no way to tell. I was in effect flying blind, since I had finite battery life (no spares) and didn’t want to waste any power trying to rewind and listen to what I was taping. I also didn’t think to bring a headset with me for monitoring as I taped, so I just crossed my fingers and taped away.

As we sat there waiting for clearance to shove to the train up Belden Hill, I did experiment a bit and discovered that if I leaned out the fireman’s door, I could hand-hold the mic right next to the main engine exhaust on the roof. This, I reasoned, would result in great sound, especially while shoving up the grade. After some discussion, I was allowed to stand in the door opening (as long as the safety chain was in place) and I agreed to keep my right shoulder inside and wedged in the doorway. The doorway is a real headbanger (short), so this was easy to do. Then we just sat and waited (I shut off the recorder from time to time to conserve battery life). As we sat and chatted (shouted), Marv explained the workings of the controls. To say that the control panel was “spartan” would be a massive understatement. Actually, it looked like a piece of sheet steel that had holes cut in it for gauges - and that was it.

Suddenly, without warning, the din of the engine idling dramatically increased in volume (what seemed to be at least five fold). Then, just as quickly as it came, it decreased again to the former (just plain loud) level. Someone had just entered the cab from #1205’s engine compartment and then slammed the door behind him. It was none other than George Hockaday, and he was shouting something to the effect that #1205 had “used a whole glass of oil going to Sayre and back.” It reminded us of the fact that #1205 had a cracked crankcase that had been welded numerous times in an attempt to keep it oil-tight. It was made of cast steel, and while welding was not a perfect solution, it was apparently the only one available at the time. I only assume that he had refilled the oil or done whatever was required, as no one made any effort to take the engine out of service. I was relieved, as I had initially feared that my once-in-a-lifetime trip was in danger of being derailed by a cranky shark with a leaky crankcase - or, more appropriately, a dinosaur with heart trouble.

As quickly as he had appeared, George whirled and dove back into the #1205’s innards, with the accompanying cacophony of extra sound that quickly diminished when the engine room door slammed shut once again. Only then did I realize how noisy Baldwin’s standard prime mover, the 608A, really was, and this was merely at idle. The 608A was Baldwin’s last iteration of their much-used 8-cylinder, 1,600-rated horsepower prime mover. It was a behemoth; the eight, in-line cylinders were each over 12 inches in diameter, and at top speed, they rumbled along at 625 RPM. Although it was a much-modified 1930s design, it was respected by many as tough, reliable, and underrated. It was said to have actually produced 1,750 horsepower.

After what seemed like about three more forevers, we watched as the power of the northbound grain train pulled slowly alongside us with a long string of identical 100-ton covered hoppers. The power consisted of four big U-boats (two U33Cs and two U30Cs). Soon, we were given permission to pull ahead, clear the switch, and back down the lead so that we could cut in behind the grain train. I took my post in the doorway with the mic near the stack as we drifted back down the runner at slightly above idle. Marv struggled to see the dwarf signal, muttering “these are the worst damn engines to make a backup move that I have ever been on.” Eventually, we tucked in behind the 8,000 ton train’s caboose (an International Car Company bay window), cut in the air, and we were ready to go.

I repositioned myself in the doorway with mic next to the stack in anticipation of the start. When it came, I was not disappointed, and the low speed idle rolled right up to a steady “thruup, thruup thruup.” It was much slower than a 2 cycle EMD and even slower than an ALCO 244. I stayed in position in the fireman’s doorway, all the past Nolan Road (much to the chagrin of the other railfans, who must have been dismayed to find their pictures contaminated by a guy hanging out the door of the lead helper unit with his arm in the air). After a while, and a few hard miles, my arm got tired (and I did want to save some battery for the cut off at Tunnel), so I moved inside shut off the recorder and listened to Marv discuss the virtues and drawbacks of these Baldwin locomotives.

Part way through a dissertation on their low speed lugging power, Marv said, “watch this!” Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he gently, almost imperceptibly, eased the throttle forward until the ammeter was well into the red. He said, “now listen for the radio.” Sure enough, just a few moments later, the radio crackled:

“Head end to Marv.”

”Go ahead.”

“Hey Marv, what is going on back there? We have slack at the engines!”

Marv just said “okay” and eased the throttle back. We had actually been pushing the entire 8,000+ ton train with the two old Baldwin sharks up a major grade, and they didn’t seem to even be breathing hard. It was quite a demonstration, and as Marv said later, there was no further illustration of the legendary Baldwin “lugging power” required. I spent the rest of the trip up the hill alternating between taking pictures from every angle imaginable and taping the sound. I think at one point we were close to or at the advertised 625 RPM, as the old Baldwins soldiered on up the hill with nary a complaint.

As we neared the top, we were told that the plan was to cut off on the fly, so I fired up the tape recorder again for the last couple of miles. As we neared the highway crossing at the south portal, I watched as the rear end brakeman appeared on the deck of the caboose. He cut the air to the pushers and pulled the pin on the rear coupler of the caboose. At the same time, Marv eased back on the throttle, and the train parted and pulled away from the now-slowing sharks. We drifted to a stop just south of the highway grade crossing, with the #1216 and #1205 burbling away contentedly as if they hadn’t a care in the world. The incredible and unlikely combination of sharks and sunshine had conspired to bring out the railfans in droves. I continued to tape the engine idle as the head end brakeman went to the lineside phone to find out from the dispatcher if we were going to go through the tunnel and wait for a southbound to push up from Nineveh or just returning back to Binghamton.

The verdict was “back to Binghamton,” so with a couple of quick toots on the old-time “blaat” air horn, we rapidly accelerated a few hundred feet north towards the tunnel. There, we would cross over so that we could proceed southbound back to Binghamton. I taped our crossover move from inside the cab and then got off the units to take pictures and sound recordings from the ground. We thanked Marv for the opportunity to ride the sharks and then watched as the rare pair drifted downgrade towards Binghamton with just a hint of exhaust and no sound. We then rode back to Binghamton with Doug in the car, a welcome respite from the constant din that had been our accompanist for the last hour or so. My head was ringing for nearly another hour. It was a great adventure for me, but clearly it was just the everyday grind for Marv and the D&H crew. I think I would be much less enthused if I had to do that on a daily basis!

I saw the sharks on a few more occasions after that, but never had the opportunity to see Marv again before he retired. He was certainly Mr. D&H, and the consummate gentleman. I, of course, have my memories of that day some decades ago.

Lest we forget, the audio tapes! As it happened, the tape recorder batteries only lasted about 10 more minutes after I got off the locomotives at tunnel - just enough to tape them returning down the hill. Talk about timing! The recordings that I made that day were of mixed quality; the outside idle in Binghamton was really good, and the cab floor stuff was noisy but still reasonably discernible, including the voices of Marv and George. The hand-held stuff taken in the cab was better, and the out-the-door stuff was quite good. I listen to them often to relive the adventure again and again. I have edited the approximately hour and a half of raw tape down into a concentrated (30-minute) tape that is now part of the railroad audio collection I market. I also took dozens of slides from the cab, and all are quite presentable. So, not only did I have the ride of a lifetime, I managed to preserve much of it on film and audio tape, all through the good graces of Marv Davis and the D&H sharks. It was indeed my lucky day. 

In 1977, a government-sponsored shakeup in the management of the D&H resulted in the termination of all programs with outdated or “orphan” motive power, and the sharks were sold to the Castolite Corporation in Michigan. From there, they went to the Escabana & Lake Superior Railway, and once again entered revenue service sometime in late 1977 or early 1978. Soon after, the #1205 suffered a potentially catastrophic crankshaft failure and was sidelined. #1216 soldiered on for a number of years, making her last run in Feb #1982, when she was stored serviceable alongside the #1205 (which was still waiting for the engine overhaul that never came). Both remain in storage at Wells, Michigan to this day.

- Jay Winn