Moving Coal by Prayer
by Mark Smith (Retired LIRR Locomotive Engineer) 


The L.I.R.R. was not a big coal hauler as to operating unit coal trains as many large roads did.  We did haul a lot of coal in lots to three state hospitals by local freight jobs that worked the lines the hospitals were located on.  We did not have heavy, long grades but many places did have short, steep grades requiring careful handling to get over the road. These coal docks were all up on trestle where cars could be unloaded by opening the hoppers.  One dock at Kings Park was at the bottom of a steep grade and was a scary move for all concerned every time it was switched.

Our coal was floated into Long Island City as was most of our interchange freight.  A float of solid coal hoppers was handled with kid gloves.  One side would be pulled half way off, then cut off the engine, go to the other side of the float, pull that track off, couple to center track, cut the engine off, return to first cut and pull it off, couple to the remaining cars and strip the float.  At times the corner of the float would be under water during this move.  The results of just coupling up and pulling a cut of cars right off the float could create a big problem.  The float could just flip over, drop all remaining cars in the river, then flip back with all clear tracks.  This was frowned on by the company.  A large floating derrick would have to be hired to salvage what they could from the bottom of the river. 

LI City Float Docks 1-71
Photo & Collection: Dave Keller

          Another problem could be hitting the bumping block on the end of a float.  This did not always mean that the cars would go in the river at that point.  If it was hit solid, the lines holding the float to the dock could snap allowing the float to move out into the river.  Anything at the point where the lines snapped would drop into the river, again requiring a call for the large floating derrick. 

          The largest car float operation during this era was the float interchange between the Pennsy at Greenville, N.J. and the New Haven at Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.  The yard work was handled at Bay Ridge for the New Haven by L.I.R.R. men and locomotives.  For many years these were A.C. electric switchers.  Most of the freight was for New England points on the New Haven.  In its hey day this yard was known as the “Nuthouse” due to the seemingly different operations compared to the other yards operated by the L.I.R.R.  Float operations at Long Island City were handled by steam until the ‘40s when the diesels arrived. 

          Getting back to moving coal by prayer:  For a number of years we did operate a coal train for the Long Island Lighting Company plant at Island Park.  Although only a relative short distance, let’s check it out.  Pick up your engine at Morris Park to run light to Yard “A”, Long Island City, approximately 9 miles.  Short train of ten or fifteen cars to Fresh Pond over Mt. Olivet (past Tower “OLIVET”, formerly “MV”) which was about all the locomotive could handle over this short, steep grade, fill out the train to about 45 cars brought up from Long Island City in hauling jobs. 

H10s #113 Morris Park c. 1940
Collection: Dave Keller

Tower "MV" Maspeth 1925
Collection: Dave Keller

         Leave Fresh Pond eastbound to Jamaica.  With automatic speed control you could only proceed at 15 mph thru the short steep grade into the station and likewise leaving the station onto the Atlantic Branch.  If the speed control caught you it could tie up the station for a time and delay passenger trains.  Before Jamaica you operated on basically a freight-only branch. After Jamaica, passenger trains were on your back as soon as you fell down at all.  After Valley Stream, the trains were on an hourly basis.  This means that you had to pull past the crossover at the coal siding, back your train in, cut off the hack, pull out and shove your train away, pick up the hack, place it on the westbound empties, pull out and run around the train on the main between regular trains.  This required some fancy operation by the crews. 

         While on this assignment on one occasion we had arrived at Fresh Pond and doubled out train over when I decided to call the dispatcher as I felt our locomotive was about to give up.  When I called him his remark was “We had that engine on there two days ago, with the same amount of cars and in fact the same conductor!  And that engineer did not have a bit of trouble.”  My reply was, “This happens to be the same engineer and today we got trouble!”  After a moment’s silence he replied “Do you know any prayers?”  I asked “Is that the way we are going to operate?”

Tower "DF" Fresh Pond 1925
Collection: Dave Keller

Tower-Valley-ValleyStrm-1967.jpeg (71773 bytes)
Tower "Valley" Valley Stream 1967
Photo & Collection: Dave Keller

So much for the trip going east.  Now for the trip west.

         As I have said these jobs were “The quicker you did the job, the faster you got back on the list for the next job.” That day we left Island Park after shoving the loads in the power company and picking up the empties to go west.  We were in good shape. West thru Valley, St..Albans and Jamaica non-stop avoiding any delays and started down the Montauk branch for Long Island City .

         At  Forest Park a BLACK CAT ran across in front of the train. At Fresh Pond we were flagged to stop, a report of something dragging in the train. I think it was a sticking brake, but it was corrected fast and we were on our way. The fireman started to get upset as he felt this is going to spoil our early quit. We come around to Bliss and the drill is working Van Iderstine sidings and has both tracks to do so as no room in sidings. We were delayed quite a few minutes and of course the Fireman is really upset and says “damn that BLACK CAT.”  I said, “Take it easy and anyway that cat was not all black, I saw some white under his chin when it went on my side of the locomotive.” Well, then he really went bananas.

         The outcome was that we were back on the list and both fell for a good job the next day: Friday evening train to Montauk and return. Roughly two days pay in about ten hours. So you never know how it’s going to work out.