Back Issues


Main Page

Remembering HB Tower

[By Allen Brougham]


[Published as 'Remembering My First Tower' in the September 2000 issue of the Bull Sheet]

In the June 2000 issue of the Bull Sheet, I recounted the experience of 'Sidewire,' my first job on the railroad, and my longing to get the taste of life in a bona fide interlocking tower. It was not until the fourth month into my new employment that I indeed got that chance. I was told to report to HB Tower where I would be posting (training) with Smitty.

Wilbur William Smith, 47 at the time, was the first-shift operator at HB Tower. "You'd better listen to that man!" were the words of advice I heard from one of the train dispatchers I knew from working the Sidewire job.. It seems that Smitty's blend of humor and method of instruction could catch a student operator off guard if he were not fully prepared to learn.

I entered the tower. Smitty was already on duty; the third-shift operator was still there. What I witnessed was the tower's three-sided model board with its numerous track circuit lights, a cacophony of bells, and an incomprehensible jargon from the three speaker phones at the desk. For a greenhorn, it was a scene of bewilderment.

Later I learned of another greenhorn in the same situation, his very first day as a railroader, who took in about half an hour of the identical sort of stuff, and then left with the pretense of having to move his car. He never came back...

Well, I didn't do that; I stuck around, convinced that eventually everything would come together. Anyway, I did have by then at least a little background as a railroader, sequestered in the Sidewire job keeping track of train delays, etc., for the previous three months. And I wanted to be a tower operator.

HB (the call letters nominally drawn from the name Hamburg Street) sat just outside of Camden Station. Its work had earlier been combined with the functions of two former towers (Lee Street and Bailey), the junction of three different subdivisions, territory comprising the main tracks from the west portal of Howard Street Tunnel through Camden Yard and Bailey Wye west toward Carroll (CX) Interlocking, the tracks into Camden Station, and numerous switches to yards on both sides of the main track. Probably 70 percent of the tower's duties involved yard moves. The rule of thumb was to keep the main tracks fluid, and not delay anything (especially passenger trains). It was not uncommon to have four things happening at once. I quickly learned that the train dispatchers relied heavily upon the expertise of the operators at HB and their ability to get things done with little or no supervision.

To this end Smitty was an excellent instructor. I soon learned that his method was to gradually let things fall into place, not answer a bunch of silly questions all at once, and to grill me on what I had learned at appropriate intervals. "Where's the Horn Switch?" he'd ask during a lull in activity, or "What's the starting light used for?" He arranged for me to ride a yard engine around the territory controlled by the tower so I could see things first hand. At one point, he sent me to a block telephone with instructions to call him at the tower. "Mount Airy," answered Smitty when I called him. It was just a joke, as the agent at Mount Airy was no where close to that particular phone circuit, but it was an important reminder to learn the correct ring for the station being called.

I trained with Smitty for about a week, and then I worked the job on my own while he went on three weeks of vacation in Iowa. My first day on the job by myself was a tough one (or so I felt at the time), but I succeeded in getting a good feel on things as time went on. If I hadn't learned all I needed to know while I was posting, I surely learned it my first day by myself. In the due course of time, I began to love the job. "Heaven on Earth" is what I eventually referred to it.

The names of the folks who worked there are still very much remembered after 30 years: Wilbur Smith (first-shift), Johnny Hensen (second-shift), Bill Francis (third-shift), Chic Harrison (relief-turn), Charlie Davidson (rabbit-turn), and Calvin Durner (signal maintainer). A great bunch of folks at a great location!