The PC’s Collinwood YMCA Dorm and Others

By Chip Syme

The date was June 27, 1969. I had just hired out two weeks before. The Penn Central’s Collinwood YMCA dorm in Cleveland was my home away from home till I could bid to Minerva, where I lived. I was on the yard fireman’s extra board that covered mostly yard jobs, relay jobs with shuttled engine jobs from Collinwood to out laying points and road jobs if the road fireman’s board was out of men, it also protected puller jobs also called transferred runs on some railroads. After each job, I got a room and paid the dollar deposit for the towel, a small bar of soap and was given the key to my four by six-foot room. When I checked out of the room, I returned the used towel and the key and was given my dollar back. The rooms were furnished with a light, a chair and a small bed. Every room had an orangish/pink wool blanket that had NYCRR or the Pullman Company printed on it. You never locked the door when you went to sleep because the call boy would open your door and say your last name, then tell you what job you’re called for and the time you’re called. All the call boys who came to your room were old black gentlemen. They always told you the job very quietly, so not to disturb anybody else sleeping in the rooms close to you. The YMCA ran the sleeping and the concessions in the building. The dorm was nothing more than a very large house from the outside with a large front porch on it with several chairs. On the north side of the Y was the parking lot and another 25 yards was the main tracks and the yard. Between the parking lot and the main was a wye track for engines to be turned. The wye was on the east side of the building. They always had the bell ringing as to watch out for people walking. Just try to go to sleep and hear a loco bell ringing the whole time it was being turned.

The inside had a counter where you got your room key, wash cloth and a small bar of soap and where you could buy Saddler's Time Books, tobacco products and candy. If you walked straight into the building from the street you would see the crew room with a counter running the length of the room with the dispatcher’s line for giving him the mark up and the regular block line plus the dial phone for calling over to the Big Brick. The Brick was the yard office for getting your way bills or calling the Car Dept. to see if the air had been worked on the train or calling the westbound yardmaster to see where you would be getting your train today. The Brick also housed the trainmasters and lots of billing clerks running IBM machines with punch cards. The other side of the room had the bulletins, and general notices hanging on the wall along with the register sheet when reporting for duty. In the front, facing East 152nd St, was the trainman’s crew dispatcher office which had a large blackboard with the crew’s names on them and the time called. The restaurant was to the right when you walked in the front door. It was not uncommon to see a small mouse running around behind the counter. The black ladies in the cafeteria always took care of us railroaders. The restaurant was open to the public also. Ernestine, Betty and the rest always gave us big portions and made sure we had a good sandwich for our 16 hour runs. Once, they hired a new male cook in the kitchen and one of the ladies saw him spit in someone’s food and he got fired on the spot.  One of the Collinwood favorites was the hamburger steak. One of my old Minerva engineers, Ray Gotschall, always patted Ernestine’s hand and slipped her a whopping $2.00 tip for the extra-large portions and the extra slice of roast beef in his sandwich. That made a believer out of me about tipping and taking care of people and they will take care of you.

  Sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s the NYC added an annex on the rear of the building for new showers and lockers. The side porch was removed when I hired out, but the front porch remained. The dorm housed the trainmen from Buffalo, only because the engine crew at the time only went as far as Erie, Pa.  Engine and train crews from Toledo, Youngstown and Minerva crews also stayed here. The building was always clean and well maintained. While sitting around the TV room or at the lunch counter, a lot of the old guys would ask what terminal you’re out of. I would explain that I’m from Minerva and they would say “Oh, you’re part of the leaky roof outfit”. This was a term that started early on because Minerva was isolated from the NYC and had to use trackage rights to take the train to Cleveland and with Minerva being a branch line and off the beaten path it seemed whatever Minerva got, it was outdated and old. Several times even in the 80’s and 90’s, somebody from Toledo or Cleveland would ask where I was from, and I’d say Minerva and they’d say the same thing, are you part of the leaky roof outfit?  The last time I heard this line was 2007 in Toledo at the Old Airline Jct Yard, now NS’s Mega Yard, where I'd pick up the UPS truck train on the eastbound 20K mail train. My conductor and I walked into the yard office to get the paperwork when the old head conductor on the yard job, whom I had worked with many years before, told his engineer “see that guy he’s part of the leaky roof outfit”. I don’t think I’ll ever hear that phrase again from a railroader since almost all NYC guys are gone.

The staff for the YMCA was almost all black. All were very good people and treated us railroaders with great respect. I had just bought myself a new railroad approved Accutron wristwatch because I wanted to comply with rule 2 in the book of rules for having a reliable grade of railroad watch. While washing up after a third trick yard job and getting ready to hit the sack, I had taken my watch off my wrist and laid it on the shelf above the sink. I headed to my room and then came a knock on the door. It was a very short and skinny black man that cleaned the rooms, he asked if I had left my watch in the wash room. I bolted back and retrieved it and was never dumb enough again to take it off while washing up. I handed the old man $5 and thanked him. I later realized he was afraid to touch it for fear of being accused of stealing it. From then on, we were friends.

 Every other Friday was payday so you could figure you’d see the guys playing a serious game of poker in the card room. It always had a heavy blue haze of cigar and cigarette smoke in the room. I was surrounded with 1941 and 1942 guys whooping and hollering in this room like 5-year-old kids playing a card game of Old Maid. Most of the guys were a little cranky with a young, dumb guy like me as I was only 19 at the time. 

    June 27, 1969, around 2:45am, on this day my door opened up and the call boy said JE Syme. I said yes and he said you’re called for a BC7 to Bellefontaine at 4:45am with engineer WH Hoecker. I got up and had a good breakfast and walked over to the P1A shed just west of the 152nd Street bridge. The P1A shed was where the NYC had the engine crew dispatcher’s office and crew board. This building was also where the NYC serviced the Cleveland Union Terminal electrics. The engineer was already looking over the bulletins which had slow orders in them.  I told him right up front this was only my second road job and explaining I was called off the yard fireman’s extra list to fill this job. He didn’t seem too worried about the fact I didn’t know anything and only being on the railroad for two weeks. We walked outside and into a waiting PC green short bus. We stopped at the YMCA and got the brakeman, flagman and conductor. This is where the trainmen reported for duty and headed for the Dilly Road fuel pad. When we got off the short bus at the fuel pad, we waited about an hour on the train to arrive. We then climbed aboard the BC 7, NYC 3052, EMD 13 which was a loaner and PC 2271.

All photos are from Chip Syme unless otherwise indicated.

Collinwood YMCA Dorm

Collinwood YMCA Dorm

Collinwood YMCA Dorm 1969. W. Kinsey photo.

NYC blanket Collinwood YMCA 1969.

Pullman blanket Collinwood YMCA 1969.

The new Penn Central Inn was nice, it had a shared bath room between two sleeping rooms. Much better than the old Y when you had to go down the hall to use the bathroom. The Y caught fire in 1971. We were then moved to the Luxenberg Hotel on Euclid Ave till the new Penn Central Inn was built.

Collinwood YMCA Dorm 1971 fire

Collinwood YMCA Dorm after the fire

Penn Central Inn Collinwood 1972. Jim Roberts photo. Note wye track at rear.

Penn Central Inn at Collinwood. Jim Roberts photo.

Big Brick yard office at Collinwood 1972. Jim Roberts photo.

On the PRR side during the PC era I was in Conway and Crestline Y’s.

The Conway Y was built in 1953-1954 while the yard was being built. It was a cafeteria style restaurant. You picked up a tray and silverware and slid your tray along the rails in front of the counter. A glass front separated you and the food being dished out. A stainless steel 6” shelf was above where the cooks placed your food. After you told the lady what you wanted you took your extra change for a tip and laid it on the counter. The cooks hearing coinage hitting the stainless-steel shelf would give you an extra big scoop of potatoes or a second slice of meat. The ladies’ ears were always tuned to how many quarters, dimes, nickels were meant for them.

The sleeping quarters to me were nothing like I had ever saw. The rooms were like bathroom stalls. Metal walls and door. The walls were about two feet off the floor and at the top of the room. This was done for proper circulation for heating and AC. Each room had a bed and a chair. No room for anything else.

The lobby had two TV’s and maybe ten tables for writing or for playing games.

The food at Conway was excellent, one of the real favorites was the roast beef sandwich with potatoes and what the railroaders called tank car gravy. It was dark brown, salty and was real artery clogging food. Although somewhat different, Conway had the large candy counter out front also.

Conway Free Coffee hand out at every time you checked into a room.

Conway Conrail YMCA key

Crestline also had a Y with good food. You always had towns folks eating at the counter. The sleeping area was an old PRR carry over. Just a large room with cloth curtains between you and the guy next to you. When he passed gas, burped, coughed or talked in his sleep you knew it. I was lucky I never had to stay in Crestline.

Crestline YMCA

During the Conrail era, I made two trips to Enola and the Y was mostly like Conway. I was shocked to see wooden boxes maybe 2x2 foot with a hasp and lock on them. It was some men’s personal cooking supplies like pans, a plate and silverware. A small kitchen was provided as it had no lunch counter but did have a 24-hour restaurant next door.

I won’t even get into the Altoona stories, about going to Sanitary John’s to drink but was told by a guy who hired in the 50’s about being in the old Altoona bunk house and at the lunch counter on a hot summers day with no AC in the building. He ordered a hamburg and kept hearing this small quick hissing noise. Then he tumbled to the fact that a rather large black lady was having beads of sweat from her head hitting the grill. I was hungry but maybe not now after hearing that.

In Dec. 2009, the CSX Buffalo Terminal was the only restaurant on CSX property that was still open. The lodging for NS and CSX had been moved off the property. Getting a tip from a good friend Devan Lawton that the restaurant was going to close very soon I made a trip to Buffalo to photograph the restaurant. We enjoyed a good sandwich and fries and got lots of good pictures. We were also invited back to the kitchen for pictures. Behind, everything was spotless and a proud team kept it like that.

Buffalo CSX restaurant kitchen 12/29/2009.

Buffalo CSX restaurant 12/29/2009.

Buffalo CSX restaurant Chip Syme, Devan Lawton 12/29/2009.

Buffalo CSX yard office crew room restaurant 12/29/2009.

Buffalo railroad restaurant 12/29/2009.

 It should be noted, even though the YMCA had moved out years ago the buildings are still referred to as the Y.  

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