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Recalling D&H’s champion, Bruce Sterzing

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Bruce Sterzing (right) chats with a passenger and the conductor of a D&H inspection train in November 1972, the year he assumed the road's presidency. J. David Ingles
The death last week of former Delaware & Hudson President Carl “Bruce” Sterzing is an occasion to remember a man who was definitely a maverick, an executive who believed in his railroad and never passed up a chance to say so.

Sterzing passed away October 9 at age 88 at home in Virginia Beach, surrounded by family and, one hopes, secure in the knowledge that he’d had a good career. Certainly, his long and varied résumé — which, in addition to railroading, includes Texas A&M, the Marine Corps, and Harvard Law — speaks for itself.

In the railfan community, we mostly remember Sterzing for the way he put D&H in the spotlight in the mid-1970s, operating the Montreal–New York Adirondack almost as the anti-Amtrak passenger train, despite his partnership with the national carrier; running gorgeous Alco PA diesels on the same train, as well as on excursions and company specials; hosting Reading T-1 No. 2102 in the guise of a D&H 4-8-4, complete with flush headlight and elephant ears; even putting Baldwin RF16 “Sharknoses” in freight service. For a while there, D&H must have seemed like Camelot.

D&H PA No. 18 compares noses with Amtrak E8 415 at the Albany-Rensselaer station in September 1976. The Alco is on the Adirondack — D&H's 'anti-Amtrak train.' Robert P. Schmidt
But the spiffy varnish and those vintage diesels seem beside the point. Bruce Sterzing was, above all else, a railroad executive who wanted the D&H to stand out as an independent railroad, even as it was surrounded by the sweeping changes in Northeast railroading that led to the establishment of Conrail in 1976. He wasn’t a fan of what he was witnessing.

This quote from the October 1976 issue of Trains, taken from a D&H employee newsletter, makes it clear: “Our Free Enterprise System is under attack by many misguided citizens who believe in something for nothing. I am proud to say that most all of the men and women of D&H hear a ‘different drummer’; and so long as that attitude prevails, there will always be an America, and a D&H.”

That independence went beyond PAs and steam. Sterzing took over as D&H president in 1972, having been dispatched there by Dereco, Inc., the Norfolk & Western holding company that at the time also owned Erie Lackawanna. He was sent there by his mentor, N&W Chairman John P. Fishwick, ostensibly to see what could be done with a small 900-mile property that sat square at the crux of just about every railroad in the Northeast. He quickly made D&H briefly profitable, then presided over its expansion to a 1,400-mile system via various trackage rights.

When the D&H turned 150 years old in 1973, Sterzing endorsed a celebration highlighted by a two-day excursion using a Reading 4-8-4 cosmetically altered to resemble long-scrapped D&H 302. Jim Shaughnessy
Rudy Garbely, author and publisher of the upcoming book Delaware & Hudson: The Final Years, 1968-1991, due in May 2022, sees Sterzing almost in heroic terms.

“Mr. Sterzing’s influence on the history of the Delaware & Hudson cannot be overstated. It is rare that in just five short years, a single individual will have the opportunity to preside over so many course-altering events as occurred at the D&H between 1972 and 1977,” says Garbely. 

“His tenacity and ambition often put him at odds with government officials as he pursued both the D&H’s survival and a revitalization of its public image, in a time that many Northeastern railroads were shirking public visibility in favor of their bottom line. He was a thoughtful leader, well-liked by his peers and coworkers, and his legacy is perhaps best remembered today every time a Norfolk Southern or CP Rail train rolls over the rails he fought so voraciously to keep from the scrapper's torch.”

He was, indeed, often at odds. In 1977, Sterzing left D&H, reportedly having been pushed out by the United States Railroad Association, charged with organizing Conrail out of the Northeast mess. However, at least one former USRA official rejects that narrative.

In 1976 D&H's route map grew by 500 miles of trackage rights on Conrail to provide competitive balance for the new giant. As part of the deal, D&H got a quantity of former Lehigh Valley and Reading GPs, three of which lead a D&H freight on Conrail at Rockville, Pa., in August 1976. Bob Wilt
“USRA didn’t force Bruce out,” says Ed King, veteran railroader and former Trains columnist. “Bruce had the true conservative antipathy toward big government. USRA sent me to [D&H headquarters in] Albany as an emissary because they knew I had been acquainted with him for several years. We got along well — we always did — but his feelings about USRA and big government were unshakable. I don’t know who started the idea that USRA forced him out; he was never in.”

At any rate, Sterzing wasn’t finished with railroading. Hardly. After D&H he moved on to the bankrupt Rock Island as general manager and chief operating officer just before that railroad’s liquidation in 1980. After the Rock, he worked for a Chicago-based steel company, later returned to his native Texas to work in the oil industry, then came back to railroading in 1983 at Norfolk Southern, working in transportation planning, personnel, and labor relations. He retired from NS in 2000.

One person who looks back fondly on those D&H years is Sterzing’s son, Carl Sterzing, an electrical engineer who lives in Virginia Beach. He remembers having to leave the family’s home in Roanoke as a boy and head north for Albany, a circumstance familiar to all railroad families. In the end, it worked out well.

Enjoying one of the perks of the presidency, Sterzing puffs on a pipe while running one of the D&H's celebrated Alco PA diesels in March 1974. George H. Drury
“We rode trains a lot. The amount of passenger rail availability in Albany was huge after my dad got there,” Sterzing recalls. “We loved to taking the Adirondack up to Montreal and considered ourselves lucky kids. If it had anything to do with a train, we did it.” 

Bruce Sterzing’s love of the railroad business never faded, says his son. Late in life, he still felt the pull of being trackside.

“A few years ago, my wife and I took him up to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, toured the museum and kind of got the VIP treatment. Later we rode the Strasburg Rail Road. It was a lot of fun,” he recalls. “Later we continued up to Hershey, but Dad wanted to be put back on the Amtrak train for home. That was his deal — riding the train.”

In researching Sterzing for today, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find much information about this David vs. Goliath railroad executive beyond the obvious pizzazz of PA diesels and the Adirondack. Back in the 1970s, Trains Editor David P. Morgan had little to say about Sterzing’s strategy in running the D&H, and Indiana University Press’s authoritative Encyclopedia of North American Railroads barely mentions him.

That’s why I’m looking forward to Rudy Garbely’s book. Let’s give Bruce Sterzing his due. 

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