Implications of Destiny

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, May 4, 2023

As of this writing, TRAINS, in its June 2023 issue, has appropriately re-published what many regard as one of the redoubtable David P. Morgan’s finest works, The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate and Other Tales.  This originally appeared in the magazine’s September 1956 issue.  It was reprised in hardcover form In Kalmbach’s 1975 book of the same title.  Rather than summarizing and/or describing the article here, I urge you to peruse it for yourself, since it is widely and currently available.

The book performed a noteworthy service by identifying the locomotive engineer associated with the Mohawk (the New York Central railroad’s class-name for its 4-8-2 steam locomotives) in question.  While a photo of him appears in the original article, his name does not.  Subsequent to the publication of the book, however, the world knew that John Hitchko was the individual depicted, and that he by then was retired from the railroad, following 47 years of service.  He was described as “… everything the article stated, a dispatcher’s engineer”. 

I was reminded of this on May 2, 2023, watching Norfolk Southern’s premium intermodal train 27A bearing down on the Main Street grade crossing in Berryville, in the northern part of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  Operating between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, Georgia, it is obvious  that this train is not to be trifled with, as its demeanor in the image above suggests.

The train is also massive, with its largely double-stack container consist towering over the locomotives.  It’s moving rapidly on the high iron of the main line, rather than the siding, which would have slowed it considerably.  This location features a reverse curve, along with significant superelevation on the main, so that 27A’s passage is slowed only modestly.

This definitely isn’t John Hitchko’s over-the-road local that a good engineer was able to run with abandon when, as Morgan described it, “The dispatcher had temporarily lost track of Extra 3005 East, and was attempting to pin down his location and whether or not he had his train in one piece”.  Today, the dispatcher could have called 27A on the radio to ascertain its location at virtually any time.

Contrary to David’s description of Hitchko’s train as a “dead freight”, this schedule caters to demanding customers like UPS (United Parcel Service) and other trucking and intermodal shipping companies that are interested in moving large quantities of freight both quickly and reliably, so that 27A’s containers and trailers mesh as planned within the schedules of their complicated service networks.

“All of the implications of destiny of the Book of Revelation”, to repeat one of Morgan’s more memorable pieces of prose?  It’s certainly somewhat different today, particularly in the visual sense; the smoke produced by NYC Mohawk 3005 certainly isn’t seen here.  Steam is long gone, and even Alco diesels haven’t polished Class One rails on a regular basis in many years.

No, this doesn’t have all the all the aura of Phil Hastings’ photo of NYC 3005 smoking up the sky as it hits the B&O crossing in Shelby, Ohio in 1955.  However the contemporary shot does illustrate the inherent drama of railroading at its best: conveying large amounts of cargo purposefully, and with some urgency.  In common with NYC Extra 3005 East, this is still entrusted to skilled human beings that are permitted to make judgments as to how best to accomplish the task at hand, at least for the present.

I suspect that John Hitchko would have enjoyed being in the right-hand seat of NS 4529 as it canted to the curves at Berryville, and might even have indulged in making the legal speed and “perhaps a notch or two better”, were he given the chance…

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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