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I've Been Working on the Railroad

I've Been Working on the Railroad
By Jeff Jargosch (c) 2013

Louis Rego, section man, 1939. Typical of men hired on the RVRR along with men named Vitale, Serpi, and Scaramazzino.
Collection of Patty Clark Gilbride.

In the old days, guys like Louis Rego were the muscle that kept the track and road bed in shape. With pry bars and ballast rakes, spike mauls and joint bar wrenches, men like Louie could straighten kinks and fill washouts in the roadbed. Anybody who felt an eighty pound track jack was no big deal, would soon change their mind after a twelve hour day using it. The Rahway Valley had a maintenance of way gang of usually four or five men. In the old days, they were mostly Italians, as noted in the old pay rolls. You weren't going to get rich driving spikes and heaving rails and ties, but the work was steady.

In addition to track work, the gang was responsible to keep up drainage ditches and culverts, as well as the cribbing on the lines bridges. Carl Nees would often give guidance and help on the more technical jobs. Later on George Davis took over as crew chief.

The same crew had other things to keep them busy as well. Weeds and overhanging branches had to be cut, and the right of way kept open. In winter the track gang was responsible for clearing snow from track switches, and with their combination broom/chippers, would clear flange ways at road crossings. In the "steam era" that wooden coal bunker in Kenilworth didn't fill itself. George Clark supposedly bought the best coal he could get for his engines, which arrived from the CNJ in hoppers or gondolas. The track gang would report with shovels and scoops to unload the 50 ton hopper by hand into the bunker. Six days a week the first chore for this tireless crew was to fill the tenders of the locomotives. By eight o'clock start time, an average of eight tons of soft coal would do the trick.

Then it was off to work, perhaps first loading ten or so ties on a trailer, with spikes and fish plates in kegs, and your tools. Don't forget joint bars and bolts! Then you get to pump this load over the line by handcar.

To replace even a single tie, you had to dig out the cinder/gravel ballast far enough to slide the old tie out, and have room enough to slip in the new one. Then holding the tie up against the 70 pound rail with pry bars, the guys with the spike mauls could pound in the spikes. (70 pound rail means 70 pound to the yard. Rail lengths were 39 feet long, you do the math!) Then using the bars and rakes, ballast was backfilled and tamped. You wonder why you never see fat guys on the track gangs?

Gary A. Cole started during the 70's as summer help on the track gang. Later he worked his way into train service as a brakeman. Seen giving a rail tour in March of 1988.
Photo taken by Jeff Jargosch.

Add on maybe a second trip for more ties or a replacement length of rail, hopefully using a motor car, instead of a pump car.

Throw in some light construction on buildings or some painting on bridges, and clearing debris from bridge piers, you get a fairly good look at the work of the track gang. Now picture doing this work in 90 degree summer heat, or spring rain, or worse case in bitter winter cold . . . still want to work on the railroad?

Even so, later in the Rahway Valley's story - teenagers were hired as summer fill-ins for a dwindling crew of full-timers. These kids were overseen by George Davis, who could show you a thing or two about doing a days work. According to Gary A. Cole , a 70's era trackman, his first work under George Davis was on the high grade above Morris Ave. on the Maplewood Branch. Gary was a big kid, 6'2", 175 lbs., and was swinging a spike maul over his shoulders, and making a great effort. As Davis watched his technique he said, "You won't last the day swinging like that." Davis then proceeded to show the youth to swing, using a rolling motion, working with the weight of the maul. "It proved to be a lot easier," reported Mr. Cole.

Now you have an idea what it took to keep the trains rolling smoothly. But when they didn't, the good old track gang would load up their jacks and blocks and a re-rail frog or two, and lend a hand getting any cars back on the tracks.

"Hey Louie! Wanna work out? Grab your water bottles."

The RVRR Gang Car, heading out for a day's work.
Photo taken by Richard Dunbar. Collection of Frank Reilly.

Head Back to the Station!