Mayfly Memories

Posted by John Hankey
on Tuesday, May 29, 2018

This is a fine time to reminisce about mayflies at Brunswick, an old B&O division point in the Potomac River Valley. They will have just made their annual appearance, as they have for a very, very long time.

I am sure there are lots of stories about railroads and mayflies, as there are tales about railroading and other critters. I recall hearing tales from western railroaders about encounters with rattlesnakes while out flagging or changing broken knuckles.

Mayflies are benign, elegant, delicate creatures. They are related to dragonflies and damselflies, and are one of our more ancient insect species. They have been around in essentially the same form for tens of millions of years and thrive around the world.

They don’t sting. They have no malice towards anyone in the way that mosquitoes, black flies or yellow jackets seem to. As adults, they do not even have mouth parts. They couldn’t bite if they wanted to. They spend years as aquatic insects, living in fresh water and preparing for their very brief adulthood. Fish of many species find them delicious and nutritious. If you enjoy fresh water fish, you should appreciate mayflies

When they eventually break the surface of the water and fly away, their single objective is to mate with another mayfly. After a day or two of furious flirting and whatever passes for mayfly sex, they die, and the next cycle begins. They remind me of cicadas. It seems to be a very old story, and it works for them.

I remember my first spring at Brunswick. It was then a busy railroad town and division point (the west end of the Baltimore Division and east end of the Cumberland Division). The B&O got there about 1838. My Great Grandfather and Grandfather were born there and that is where they started on the railroad.

No one told me about the mayflies.

Being low down on the Engineer and Fireman’s seniority list, it was my habit to work as a Hostler on the Matinee or Cat Eye trick at Brunswick partly because I was a night owl, and partly because I genuinely enjoyed the—shall we say—“interesting” people who populated Brunswick Terminal in those hours. They were good railroaders, but the experience was like something out of the old Railroad Magazine fiction features.

That first night in late May or early June, I got to work as usual and went about the business of moving and helping to service locomotives and Budd cars. It was a routine evening. Until the bugs came.

After dusk and through the night, they arrived by the hundreds of thousands—harmless, innocent, rather cute little creatures intently focused on one another, and attracted by the lights.

Keep in mind that the turntable at Brunswick—the heart of the locomotive shop—was perhaps 300 feet from the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and another hundred feet from the Potomac River. Both were excellent freshwater mayfly habitat.

The lights at the shop were a mishmash of incandescent, mercury vapor, and sodium vapor lamps. It must have seemed like an irresistible Mayfly Disco. If you could get out of the water and fly anywhere along a several-mile long stretch of the Potomac, Brunswick was the place to go for a little action.

The trouble for us was that it was like a blizzard of mayflies. For a few nights each year, the air was thick with flying insects with something else on their tiny, tiny minds. Sometimes, it looked very much like a heavy snowfall.

The little critters would get tired and land on any surface available. That included rails, grab irons, locomotives, walkways, and anyone walking around. It looked like a sudden frost had coated anything near a bright light. They couldn’t hurt you, bit they would tickle like Hell.

Sometimes you had to use sand just to make a light locomotive move. Like frost or autumn leaves, a coating of mayflies on the rails made them slick in unpredictable ways. That could be a source of embarrassment moving equipment on or off the turntable, or when coupling. The “mayfly defense” was an appropriate excuse for a bit of sloppy railroading for one week out of the year. But it didn’t work for the other 51.

When you went outside, you buttoned your collar and wore a bandanna over your mouth in the same way the old timers did keep from inhaling cinders. A hat of some sort was essential. The little fellows meant no harm—but they would get tangled up in your hair, which could be unpleasant.

Nobody local made a big deal of it. The mayflies had been there for a very long time, and the B&O had been there for only the last 150 years. Mayflies were part of the weather, and you dressed accordingly. Our work was essentially outside, and the mayflies owned that world—we merely shared it with them.

Still, it was always amusing when an extra man or someone from Baltimore showed up during mayfly time. Some gamely understood the mild challenges and adjusted. Others were completely weirded out and couldn’t wait for the shift to end so they could get out of there.

At Riverside Shop at the other end of the division, you didn’t hear thousands of “peepers”—tiny, vocal frogs—calling to each other in early Spring. Fishing, serious gardening,  and hunting were hobbies, but not ways of life.

No Baltimore Terminal shop or yard that I was aware of celebrated one weekend a year when Ramps—a kind of Appalachian wild onion—were in high season. Almost everyone who worked at Brunswick Shop either brought something to make an immense, self-renewing pot of Ramp Stew, or had the good fortune to share in it. Brunswick now is suburban D.C. Forty or fifty years ago, it was another world, in another time.

Sharing a few nights with a flurry of harmless flying creatures each year was a small price to pay to be a traditional railroader in Brunswick.

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