Great (railroad) things under the tree

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tony Jaroch was a railroader right out of central casting. Outwardly gruff, he had enough of a twinkle in his eye that you knew it’d be OK to talk to him, especially if you were just a high school kid with innocent questions. I got to know Tony around 1968, on long summer afternoons when I wasn’t stocking grocery-store shelves. To this day I don’t know what his job title was — superintendent? trainmaster? agent? — but he ruled the roost from a tiny office across the tracks from the ornate sandstone depot in my hometown of Niles, Michigan.

I always had a great deal of empathy for Tony, not to mention all the local New York Central railroaders. Barely 15 years earlier they had numbered in the hundreds, running a sprawling freight yard and engine terminal north of town that disappeared in the time it takes to say “Al Perlman.” By 1958, nearly 100 percent of the jobs had moved 22 miles away to Elkhart, Indiana.

All was not lost. Outside Tony’s office, the new Penn Central kept a GP38 around for local switching, and the city was still home to four or five train crews assigned to the passenger trains PC ran between Detroit and Chicago. But around Niles, loyalty to PC was weak. Heck, this was territory where working rails still referred to themselves as “MC men,” for Michigan Central, a pre-World War II reality. Even NYC was a historical footnote to some of them.

But I liked the NYC, and I certainly noticed when I looked up one day and saw that the twin oval New York Central signs had been removed from the railroad’s bridge over the St. Joseph River. The signs had overlooked Front Street, a.k.a. U.S. 31. A few days later I worked up enough courage to go ask Tony if there was any chance I could get one of the signs. He smiled, figuratively patted me on the head, and said, “I doubt it, kid.”

In those days, I was lucky to have a mother who loved antiques and knew how to get them. A few years earlier she’d started a tradition of giving me a railroad gift every year for Christmas. Marie Keefe had good taste. One by one, I built up a decent collection that included a long-neck engineer’s oil can, car inspector’s lamp, bamboo train-order hoop, and several brakeman’s lanterns, all in cherry condition, most marked for NYC, or better yet, “NYCL.” Her gifts were the highlight of every Christmas.

So you can see what’s coming. A few months after my inquiry with Tony, and by then a college kid home for the holidays, I stumbled into the family room on Christmas morning and there it was, a total surprise, that beautiful New York Central sign, sparkling in reflective blue and yellow paint on an aluminum disc, propped up next to the tree.

I learned later that Tony had made a mental note of my interest and tracked down my mom. He’d put aside the sign in a corner of a storage yard and waited for the holidays. Later I profusely thanked Tony, and I think of him every time I look at that oval, possibly the best Christmas gift I ever received.

I asked a few friends about their own favorite railroad Christmas gifts. Not surprisingly, electric trains are often the theme, as well as family. For example, this from Classic Trains contributor Ron Flanary: “Santa Claus delivered my first electric train set on Christmas Day 1953 — an American Flyer outfit, which was my stated preference. Lionel’s three-rail track was clearly not prototypical, so I wanted no part of it. The original set grew through two successive basement layouts with more track, switches, cars and motive power — all steam of course.” 

Ron continues: “By 1956 I wanted to model the transition from steam to diesel, so I passed along some strong hints to my parents. That Christmas, I opened a big box that contained two orange and black Texas & Pacific EMD GP7s. They were beautiful! The new motive power immediately replaced my NYC J-3a Hudson on the passenger train. The 4-6-4 was shoved onto a dead track, and later ‘scrapped.’ Again, just like the real thing — although I regret it to his day.”

Mothers often get into the act, as writer Steve Glischinski relates: “Back in the 1960s I had an HO model train. Back then, about the only road names you could get were Santa Fe and Pennsylvania. No Great Northern, Northern Pacific, or Milwaukee Road, which were roads we saw in the Twin Cities. The GN had just started their Big Sky Blue scheme, but of course no model builders came out with it. My mom knew I liked the colors, so she bought a couple of coaches and an F unit and hand painted them Big Sky Blue with the white stripe, and gave them to me for Christmas! It wasn’t the greatest paint job, but it was the thought that counted. I still cherish those cars.”

Sometimes the best gifts, both rail-related and otherwise, are the ones you didn’t know you needed. My friend George Hamlin explains. “When I was in my early twenties, my brother gave me a black-anodized section of rail, about four inches long. Not something I would have gotten for myself, probably ever, but a wonderful reminder of Christmas, family, and railroads that’s perched atop my desk for over 45 years now. Thus far it’s lived in New York, Texas, Georgia, and Virginia, and may have other travels in our joint existence yet to come.”

I’m guessing most of you have your own version of my NYC oval, that Christmas gift of all Christmas gifts. Please share your stories in the Comments section. And have a wonderful holiday season!

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