LIMA — On a pleasant early Sunday evening in June 1905, Lima residents lined the tracks and crowded the platform of the Pennsylvania Railroad station waiting for a passenger train that wasn’t going to stop in Lima.
Trains were big news in 1905, and the Pennsylvania “Special” that passed through Lima June 11, 1905, was making news as it wound its way east on its inaugural 18-hour run between Chicago and New York, pulling four coaches and carrying passengers who paid an additional $10 for the ride as well as a handful of reporters who filed dispatches on its progress. The “Special” rumbled past the Pennsylvania station four minutes ahead of its scheduled 6:27 p.m. arrival time and made it to New York in under 18 hours.
However, it turned out that the real show took place around 5 a.m. the following day as the westbound “Special” raced toward Chicago in the dark hours just before dawn. Among the few awake to witness it was a railroad employee in the AY tower on the western edge of Lima.
Running late because of a locomotive breakdown east of Mansfield, the “Special” was flying on arrow-straight rails and had hit speeds of well over 100 miles per hour east of Lima. And then, The Lima News noted in a June 12, 1953, story commemorating the event, “With 80-inch drivers singing, Engine No. 7002 roared down the west-bound main and over the Cable Road crossing, just west of Lima’s city limits. Dawn was breaking as No. 7002 and its four luxury cars flashed past AY tower where an excited operator clicked a Morse code message to division headquarters at Fort Wayne. It was a simple message — just the word ‘Now’” as the train passed.
Eighty-five seconds later, an operator at the Elida station sent a similar message to Fort Wayne. It was later calculated the “Special” was traveling more than 127 miles per hour when it passed the AY tower, long considered a record speed for steam-powered passenger trains. The “Special,” predecessor of the Broadway Limited, made it to Chicago two minutes early.
Interlocking towers, like Lima’s AY tower, were once a vital part of the country’s railroad network. The towers centralized a group of signals at a busy site — such as a junction or crossover — into one location with an operator who would set signals ordering trains to stop, slow or use caution. As the 20th century wore on, improved technologies allowed controls to be more centralized and made the towers obsolete.
The AY tower was obsolete long before most. “As this is the third tower within a distance of four miles, it was deemed unnecessary, and its junctions were assigned to the towers at Sugar Street and at the Pennsylvania Station,” the News wrote April 6, 1921. The tower was razed in the 1930s.
The SJ tower, which looked over the crossing of the Erie and D.T. & I. railroads, was nearly razed Dec. 21, 1932, when a westbound Erie Flyer passenger train packed with holiday travelers derailed at the crossing. The locomotive barreled into the tower, killing the towerman as well as the train’s engineer and fireman and injuring several passengers..
The following February, the Interstate Commerce Commission placed the blame on the train’s engineer who failed to slow the train as it approached a crossover at the SJ tower. The body of the engineer, “who went to his death when the engine, roaring through the night at a break-neck pace, jumped the switch, was not found until after an 18-hour search,” the News wrote Feb. 26, 1933. “It was recovered from under the 175-ton locomotive.” The SJ tower was rebuilt and served several more decades.
In an eerie echo of the tragedy, a railroad fireman, a native of Huntington, Indiana, like the engineer of the ill-fated Erie Flyer, was injured at the same railroad junction on another late December day when he jumped from a moving train. The man told workers at Lima Memorial Hospital “he jumped because he believed the engine was going to leave the rails,” the News reported Dec. 19, 1945.
Lima had need of the mostly two-story towers. At the end of 1953, which was three decades after the heyday of the passenger trains, the News gave a tally of the trains passing through. “In addition to 26 regular freights, the Pennsylvania has 23 passenger trains operating through Lima daily. Seventeen of these make passenger stops here. Nickel Plate has 20 trains passing through Lima each day, 10 operating in each direction,” the newspaper reported Dec. 31, 1953. “B&O operates an average of 15 trains each day through here; Erie schedules three passengers each way on the Chicago-New York route and eight freights each day; Detroit, Toledo & Ironton sends four freights each way on its north-south runs daily.”
A particularly busy spot was the junction of Pennsylvania and B & O railroads in downtown Lima. “Pennsylvania towermen at the B & O crossing estimate that more than 100 passenger and freights pass the intersection on the two Pennsy tracks and one B & O track during a 24-hour period,” the News reported in 1954.
What became known as the NS tower was ordered into existence by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in 1924. “The new signal will be hailed with joy by Lima motorists as it will eliminate waiting at railroad crossings and provision will be made so that if one crossing is blocked the one at the next street will be open,” the News explained Aug. 6, 1925. “Arrangements will be made so that the trains from various roads arriving at the same time will not hold up traffic until they are ready to start again. Quite often it is said, nearly every street in the main part of the city was blocked with trains from each railroad as they wait to come into the station. The new system will give the engineer a sign to wait indicating that a train from another railroad is already at the station … The signal building will be two stories high and not less than 30 by 40 feet and the equipment will involve a sum of more than $40,000.”
Construction of the NS Tower led to the shelving of a far more ambitious plan to alleviate tie-ups caused by train traffic in Lima. On Oct. 2, 1924, the News reported that plans discussed prior to World War I called for the elevation of the Pennsylvania tracks through the city. The plans, the newspaper wrote, “not only provide underpasses on principal streets but also eliminate uphill pulls in two directions from town. Freight trains especially have a hard pull to get out of town, whether the direction be east or west.”
The NS tower survived almost into the 21st century. It was demolished in 1999.
In a Dec. 31, 1954, story, the News gave a glimpse into the job of the men in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tower on Sugar Street at the junction of the Pennsylvania and D.T. & I railroads. As in 1924, a major concern for the towermen, known as “block operators,” was keeping long trains from snarling traffic.
“Consequently, if the towerman anticipates a delay for a northbound D.T. & I. train, the signalman usually tries to notify the engineer south of East Market Street so that the train can be halted there without blocking automobile traffic at Market, High, North and Wayne streets.”
The towerman also delivered messages to passing trains. “The towerman rolls the paper orders he is to give to the trainmen, puts them on a string which is tied between two ends of a forked stick called a message hoop,” the News explained. “The signalman climbs down the tower steps to a platform near the tracks and holds up the stick with the paper message for the trainmen to grab as they pass.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]