"The Great People Poop Wreck"
Some know Brooklyn as the home of Fort Hamilton, the place they took their draft physicals and were ushered into the armed forces. Some know Brooklyn as the final bastion of steam switcher service into the 1960's. It is memorialized as home of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field. It is the home of a recognizable accent, and the eastern side of New York's most memorable and historic bridge. For my father, it was none of these. For Dad, it was the location of the biggest railroading nightmare he faced in his 45 years of service to the Long Island Rail Road. The nightmare was called "Bay Ridge Yard".
Bay Ridge faces the southern side of New York Harbor, edging the Atlantic Ocean. The Long Island owns the track, and until the 1950's, Pennsylvania Railroad B3 electric boxcabs sorted freight cars under catenary wire, and loading them onto car floats, to be shoved across to New Jersey and sent on to the rest of America. With the end of Pennsy dominance, Long Island's fleet of electric locomotives was culled, and yard switching was handed over to Baldwin Diesels. The wires still stood but the source of freight became the New Haven Railroad. Trains were lugged down over the Hell Gate bridge, most often behind the blocky, ex-Virginian, EF-4 electrics. These heavy locomotives often caused rails to roll or crack. If that wasn't enough, the local youth vandalism was vicious. Sometimes it was switch locks broken, turn-outs being thrown, and cars on the ground. Sometimes it was kids climbing onto the slowly passing freights, reaching up to grab the wires, and the results catastrophic. Bay Ridge wasn't a fun place to grow up, live, or work.
As the population of Brooklyn grew, the City of New York had to face facts regarding living conditions. Urban renewal meant replacing tenements and management of waste water, which is a nice way of saying, "What do you do with sewerage once you flush." It couldn't be dumped in New York Harbor any longer. Once it had been the practice that when one flushed the toilet, and the waste disappeared, it simply was passed on waves, through a number of subterranean brick and concrete tubes, and dumped, "sploosh", into New York Harbor. With a rising population and the growth of urban properties, this approach was no longer feasible. In fact, New York Harbor had become a dead zone. Where sturgeon historically migrated up the Hudson River, was now occupied only by heartier species of soft shell clams and Horseshoe crabs, feeding on whatever settled into the muck and, in legend, the occasional mortified gangster. Then there was the fact that along the southern shore of Long Island and the Coney Island beaches, evidence of human inhabitation was washing ashore.
The response was built just on the southern side of the Bay Ridge Yard. In the 1950, Owls Head Waste Water Treatment plant was constructed. The sewerage plant was a series of huge tanks, with twelve inch thick walls, built of concrete, reinforced with steel grids. The contractor had built similar tanks in California, and they continued to function without problems. This composition was stronger than concrete alone, stronger than steel alone.
A modernized sewerage system pumped the human effluent into the ten immense tanks where it was screened, settled, digested by bacteria, made less toxic, and eventually separated into liquid that was acceptable for release into the ocean directed current, and solids that could be used to fertilize parks and to cover landfills of incinerator ash and refuse picked up off the streets.
On the railroad side, next door in Bay Ridge Yard, tugboats ferried in empty car floats and left with barges loaded with scores of freight cars. The only connection to the Owls Head Waste Water Plant was the ominous odor of bacterially generated gases carried in the cooling sea breezes as land temperatures rose during the day. The familiar "rotten egg" odor was largely composed of hydrogen sulfide gas, which might have been a possible clue that water absorbed by the concrete walls contained sulfides, and sulfides were coming in contact with the steel wire in the pre-stressed concrete. It hadn't been a source of concern in over 2,500 other tanks built in this manner, so it didn't raise concern or suspicion at the time. And rust never sleeps.
On a night in April, 1961, it became a major source of concern, if you were a brakeman assembling a train, or a conductor working in a New Haven caboose, or an engine crew suffering through that awful odor that seemed to be stronger than ever experienced before.
In the early morning hours, over the thrumming of Diesel engines, a grinding, groaning, cracking, sound emanated from one of the filled-to-the-brim tanks of raw household sewerage. What followed more or less defies human imagination. A deluge in excess of 2,000,000 gallons, of human effluent, comprised of everything that passes down a kitchen sink, the "S" tube of a toilet, a bath, or shower exploded outward. Green "combers", with surfing "bergs" of fractured rubble, overwhelmed the railroad yard. The concrete bowl of the tank scattered itself over the tracks. A steel New Haven caboose simply bowled over, as did loaded refrigerator and hopper cars. The yard was a mire of ...of... yuch! What did not settle into pools between the tracks, simply rushed to the car floats where it remained dripping at daylight.
My father, along with other officials of the track department, got the call in the middle of the night. For whatever reason, he thought to carry along his Argus C3, and what you see in these pictures is, to the best of my knowledge, the only pictorial record of what became known as "The Great People Poop Wreck".
In the twenty-first century, one can only imagine O.S.H.A. handling this with personnel in Haz-Mat suits and self contained breathing apparatus. In 1961, specialized gear called for gum rubber shoe covers for executives, while the work crews wore the usual steel toed boots. No doubt a great deal of laundry was done each night until the scene was cleared of wreckage and the tracks restored. During clean-up, the remaining treatment tanks were drained to half-depth. The un-ending accumulation of waste water was managed by pumping it onto barges and towing it ten miles out to sea, where once again, out of sight meant out of mind. Ocean currents then reinvested the material back on the coastal shoreline.
Whether it was a build-up of waste generated gases, a poor quality of concrete, or rusting through of the wire mesh inside the walls, would be argued out in court well into the summer of 1962. The tanks were eventually drained and plated with steel.
The effect on the rail yard was considerably different. Retired railroaders reported that once the concrete debris was gone, the waters evaporated, and things set to right, a garden blossomed in the yard; vegetables! The plants thrived. It was not unusual to find red tomatoes, firm zucchinis, and other vegetables growing in amongst the ties. Whether they were harvested or not, I am unable to say, but obviously, more than a tree grew in Brooklyn.
Today's Owls Head facility, is sandwiched between the edge of the Belt Parkway, and the retired railroad facility. In 2012, it still elicited odor complaints from neighbors, but has been rebuilt and is an active part of lessening pollution and raising water quality in the Hudson River and off-shore.
Merged into the Penn Central and its successor Conrail, the New Haven Railroad no longer exists. Freight is shipped over tracks of the former New York Central, without touching Brooklyn. At Bay Ridge Yard, the catenary wire has been sold as scrap. The car floats and tugs are a memory. The remaining track is used as a storage facility. Occasionally a Long Island MTA switcher wanders into the yard to pick up or drop off a random car.
The Man Who Made the
Trains Run: Harry Glueck
Harry Glueck and his LIRR Career 1912 - 1988
The railroad was a job to my father, and
not much more than that. It assured him that his wife and kids would have
food, a comfortable home, and a decent standard of living. The job
squeezed every drop of live out of the man from the time he entrained each
morning, to the moment we picked him up at 5:17pm, each night, at the far
end of the Syosset platform. On the other hand, I loved the
railroad. I loved the stories, I loved the locomotives, I loved
pretending to be an engineer, using cardboard boxes as a child, and
graduating from Lionels to H-O gauge, as I grew up. When he brought
home a copy of “Steel Rails to the Sunrise”, I feasted on tons of
information both from history and stuff he knew, but never talked about.
Note: Harry A. Glueck retired from the LIRR after 43 years of service, in 1973.
One story I did not put in the piece was how he put the slow order on the K4s (#5406, my baby) prior to the derailment near Amott. Frank Aikman, who my father deeply disliked, ordered him to take the slow order off the train, but my father told him, "Mr. Aikman, if you want the order taken off, you do it. I will not!" Aikman backed down and the events that followed might well have been worse if the slow order was withdrawn.
Another funny story was at the conclusion of the Floral Park elevation.
Goodfellow wanted to make a big publicity bash about it and called out the news media to document the first train through this modern improvement. An enormous floral wreath had been constructed at great expense over the track where the first train would arrive. Instead, a freight was sent through. An oversize box car hooked the wreath and carried it the rest of the way into Jamaica, with Goodfellow screaming and raving about the loss of the expensive arrangement. I guess some shipper got a thrill out of being recognized with flowers!
Richard D. Glueck 12/16/2007
|Floundering About the LIRR|
Our entire family had passes on the
Long Island Rail Road. It was “one of the perks” that you
got when your father was in management in those days. I’m sure
I didn’t use the pass in those days as much as I would today, but
that is the perspective time gives you.
Richard D. Glueck 01/17/2008
|The Sunnyside of Yesterday|
For those of you too young to remember, the following is a memory or two, set in Sunnyside Yard, taken from glimpses I'd
had riding into Penn Station with my mother. This is set between the age of seven years, up to about fifteen, so that places it between 1957 and 1965. Realize that up until 1958, the accepted way of travel across the Atlantic was by ocean liner, and the back of National Geographic always carried advertising for the Northern Pacific or Great Northern railroads. The Boeing 707 was not yet a "come on", and passenger service was still profitable, along with contracts to haul the mail. Railway Express Agency still thrived.
Sunnyside was huge. There was no other description that could do it justice. The tracks were never empty, always filled with a rainbow of passenger cars. At anytime of day, you could easily identify Union Pacific sleepers in yellow, Atlantic Coast Line Pullmans in purple, stainless steel strings for Seaboard's "Silver Meteor", MoPac cars in blue-gray, and Tuscan coaches, diners, and sleepers for the home road. I'm not talking about fifty active cars, either. I mean, perhaps two-hundred or more.
Steam lines kept the cars alive. Amidst the tracks little B-1 boxcabs raced back and forth, assembling and cutting trains for imminent delivery to the heart of Manhattan. Occasionally, the overhead catenaries would crackle and sparks flew. I have to be honest here, and tell you, I don't remember seeing the big P5 and P5a motors. I think they were relegated to freight service by this time. What I do remember, and vividly so, were the GG1's, in an assortment of colors. You couldn't separate Sunnyside from the GG1 fleet. I recall seeing the big G's in Brunswick green, what appeared as black, with huge keystone's, a few in cat-whisker stripes, some in red, and almost always, one waiting for "The Keystone", painted silver, with a Tuscan red stripe, running hip to hip. When you consider the vast size of the fleet, a high percentage was always waiting, humming, available, at Sunnyside. The assignments could be to tow anything from a Jersey local, a Washington express, or "The Broadway". GG1's handled everything. Here I might make the admission that they were so common too. Each GG1 looked much like another, excepting paint, as I mentioned. When I started seriously taking pictures, I neglected the G's - not entirely, but seriously. Why wasted film on a locomotive that would be around forever? Oh yes, I took pictures of the GG1's, but by the time I started in earnest, they were being defaced with the letters "PC". Who would want a pictures of those? Look, I was a purist! I imagine the same was said of K4's and J2 Hudsons prior to the death of steam.
Of course that was supposed to be aboard the "20th Century Limited", and we were on Pennsy tracks, and besides, Cary Grant wasn't on this train. Who was on this train was the wife and daughter of actor Jose' Ferrer. Molly Ferrer was my age, and we became companions on the trip south. BINGO! First crush. Other than Molly's friendship, I can say the train was the best part of the trip, family dynamics being what they were.
When I was not exploring the train with my new friend, I rode in our compartment, watching the railroad yards, seeing some of the worst sides of towns from New York to Florida, and at one point, seeing strings of wooden refrigerator cars being scrapped. I always looked for steam locomotives, but I saw none. Once I decided to try washing, using the pull down sink in the car. It filled by push-button, and there were tiny bars of soap wrapped in blue Pullman paper. I still have one of those, forty-five years later. The track was not conducive to holding water in a steel sink, and pretty soon our compartment floor looked like the foredeck of the "Titanic". I used a huge number of paper towels to mop up that mess.