Historic Structures

Monongahela Railway Train Repair Shops, Brownsville Pennsylvania

Date added: September 19, 2016 Categories: Pennsylvania Train Station

In the thirty years following its formation in 1900, the Monongahela Railway had grown into one of the nation's largest coal carrying railroads. Its lines by that date covered much of the eastern portion of the Pittsburgh coal bed and its daily operations required the services of 69 locomotives. While its total main track mileage had more than tripled between 1905 and 1930, the value of its assets, in current dollars, had increased by almost ten-fold. This dramatic growth reflected the investment by the Monongahela in not just rail lines and a fleet of locomotives but in extensive yard and shop facilities which supported its operations. These facilities were concentrated at the Monongahela's three principle termini: South Brownsville,Pennsylvania, Osage, West Virginia, and Fairmont, West Virginia. While the shops at Fairmont and Osage included small repair and maintenance facilities, the yard and shops at South Brownsville were by far the most comprehensive.

The original yard and shops of the Monongahela Railroad were a simple arrangement of facilities constructed according to a plan approved by the company's board of directors on July 2, 1903. These facilities, constructed between 1903 and 1906 at South Brownsville, Pennsylvania, stood between the Monongahela's main trackage and the Monongahela River, and included an ash pit and engine house, a car shop, a blacksmith's shop, a sand house, several water stations, and an assortment of small sheds. The purpose of these shops was to service, maintain, and conduct minor repairs on the Monongahela's fleet of coal burning steam locomotives.

Although entirely absent from modern railways, the steam powered locomotive served as the central source of motive power for the nation's railroads through the first half of the twentieth century. When it began operations in 1903 the Monongahela Railroad owned twelve such locomotives, which it had acquired second-hand from its parent roads. There was a rapid growth in the number of locomotives owned by the company between 1905 and 1935, evidence of its multiplied requirements for maintenance and repair facilities.

Steam locomotives were extremely complicated and temperamental sources of motive power, requiring almost continuous care and attention. Once a month each engine's boiler had to be washed clean of all the scale and mud that it had accumulated, the flues of the boiler and smoke box cleaned of soot, and the grates and brick arch of the fire chamber inspected and repaired. Minor "running repairs" were performed on an ongoing basis while every three years the steam locomotive had to be given a complete overhaul. During such general overhauls it was necessary to dismantle the engine, inspect all components, and repair or replace them as necessary. This included removing the asbestos lining from around the boiler, removing and replacing the boiler flue pipes, and re-applying a jacket of asbestos around the boiler. Such operations for a railroad of the Monongahela's size required large numbers of skilled craftsmen as well as unskilled laborers. They also required an array of specialized facilities.

One such facility was the engine house, the building in which minor repairs, boiler maintenance, and wheel work was performed on steam locomotives. The original engine house constructed by the Monongahela at South Brownsville was a simple one-bay shed into which locomotives could be driven for repair. However, it quickly became apparent that this would be inadequate given the railroad's scale of operations. Plans were therefore drawn in 1906 for the construction of a turntable and ten-stall circular engine house. This roundhouse was to be located on property adjacent to the Monongahela's yard that was then owned by the Brownsville Water Company. It was discovered, however, that construction would not be possible without a re-arrangement of water mains, which the company considered economically impractical. As a result, plans for the new roundhouse were abandoned and the pressing need for repair facilities was temporarily met with the addition of a second stall to the existing single-stall engine house at an estimated cost of $5,600.

Within a few years, however, the inadequacy of the two-stall engine house forced the Monongahela's management to address the problem of the water mains. The company's 1909 annual report states that, To procure property upon which to erect a turntable and other terminal facilities, the railroad entered into an agreement December 27, 1909, with the Brownsville Water Company, for an exchange of property in the vicinity of Seventeenth Street, South Brownsville. Once the property constraints had been overcome, construction ofthe roundhouse proceeded quickly and the new facility was in operation by the end of 1910.

The design of the roundhouse at South Brownsville typified the design of engine house facilities constructed in American rail yards during this period. The shop and turntable were located at the extreme end of the yard and approached by several tracks. After taking on coal, sand, and water in the yard, locomotives would proceed onto the turntable were they would usually be reversed before entering one of the stalls of the roundhouse. Each stall in the roundhouse was equipped with a "smokejack" through which the clouds of smoke produced by the coal burning locomotive could escape. These smokejacks were much like large, inverted funnels which conducted the smoke from the engine's stack through the roof of the building into the atmosphere.

The stalls of the roundhouse were also designed to include either engine pits or drop tables, depending on their intended use. At the South Brownsville shop, eight of the stalls contained engine pits while two contained drop tables. Engine pits were long, narrow pits located between the rails which enabled the men to get under the locomotives in order to perform inspections and repairs. These pits were constructed of concrete and had convex floors so as to drain fluids to the sides. The drop tables were specially designed facilities used to drop the wheel trucks from under locomotives when wheel repairs had to be performed. They were deeper than the engine pits and were equipped with an elevator, the platform of which became a section of the track over the pit when raised. By spotting the truck of the locomotive over the drop table and placing jacks to prop up the main body of the engine, the drop table could be lowered so as to drop the truck into the pit. The South Brownsville roundhouse's drop pits were 4'-6" deep and had narrow gauge rails at the bottom which ran transverse to the stall tracks and would be used to move the truck to the side for repairs.

Surrounded by and concentric with the position of the roundhouse was a turntable used to position locomotives for either removal from or entry to the roundhouse stalls. Still extant, the turntable is a long platform which supports a single track. This platform sits in a circular pit and pivots at its center, turning on wheels which run along a track that has been laid along the bottom of the pit. The turntable was used to receive locomotives from one of several yard tracks, reverse the locomotive if necessary, and align the engine with the tracks of the desired stall. The locomotive would then be driven or pulled into the stall for repairs or other attention.

The earliest turntable built at the South Brownsville yard was a 75' unit constructed concurrently with the roundhouse by George Nichols and Brothers of Chicago in 1909-10. This turntable was of a center-bearing design in which the entire load was carried by a central pivot and pedestal. While the resistance to movement was low with this type of structure, the engine had to be "spotted" or balanced carefully so that the table would swing freely. As engines became heavier and longer, however, this type of design became obsolete.

With the purchase of a group of enormous Mikado-class locomotives in the early 1920s, it became clear that the original turntable would have to be replaced by a modern unit of end-bearing design. This type of turntable had both center and end bearings so as to distribute the weight of the load. This eliminated the need to "spot" the engine and allowed the table to handle longer and heavier locomotives. In September, 1924 Bethlehem Steel built and installed such a turntable at the South Brownsville yard.

Originally, the Monongahela's managers had recommended that the original 75' turntable be replaced with a 90' table since "the present 75' table is not of sufficient length to accommodate our Light Mikado locomotives." They further proposed that the old 75' table be moved to and installed at the Maidsville, West Virginia assembly yard since there were at that time no facilities for turning engines at that location. The turning facilities nearest Maidsville were at Gray's Landing, Pennsylvania, sixteen miles to the north. This meant that engines had to be run backwards for this distance in order to turn them, a situation that was thought to be "unsatisfactory." The cost of expanding the existing turntable pit, however, proved prohibitive and the company chose to install a new table of the smaller 75' variety. No mention is made in the records as to the resolution of the Maidsville turning problem.

Attendant to the new turntable was a dead engine hauler that was built onto the table. This hauler was used to move dead engines in to and out of the roundhouse as necessary. Once a dead engine had been pushed onto the turntable from the yard by a locomotive and the turntable aligned with the desired roundhouse stall, a workman pulled the line from the hauler to the end of the stall, ran it through a pulley, then returned it to the locomotive and attached it to the engine's coupler. By engaging the turntable motor and thus activating the hauler, the locomotive was then pulled into the stall. The hauler could be used for all the roundhouse stalls but it was especially useful for those that did not align directly with the incoming yard tracks. The hauler was also used to pull the engines out of the stalls once repairs were completed.

While minor repairs and wheel work could be performed in the engine house, heavy repairs and overhauls of locomotives had to be performed in an integrated machining and repair facility known as an erecting shop. The original yard facilities of the Monongahela Railway did not include such a shop since all overhauls and major repairs were performed for the company by its parent companies. By 1910, however, the scale of the company's operations had made this arrangement impractical and, with the construction of the new roundhouse, the original engine house was converted into an erecting shop. To support this facility, a blacksmiths' shop that was located immediately adjacent to the original engine house was converted into a small-scale machine shop. This proved serviceable until March 28, 1916 when a fire destroyed both the erecting and machine shops.

While causing considerable damage, this fire seems to have provided the Monongahela's managers with a much needed excuse to construct a larger, more adeguately sized erecting and machine shop facility. In 1917 plans for an integrated erecting, machine, and car shop complex, to be built between the river and the roundhouse, were drawn and approved. This new complex included a large, six-bay erecting shop, an adjacent machine shop equipped with an array of machine tools, and a car shop for the repair of passenger cars and cabooses. The new erecting shop was also designed to employ an electric overhead crane of sufficient power to lift and move the new Mikado-class steam locomotives.

The design of the erecting shop was of the "transverse" variety, in which the tracks within the shop were laid out crosswise of the path of the travelling overhead crane. In operations of this design, locomotives were driven or pushed into the shop from the rail yard via a track located at one extreme end of the building. Once positioned inside the building on that access track, the locomotive would be lifted by the overhead crane and moved to one of the parallel repair tracks, each of which was large enough to accommodate a single locomotive. The overhead crane could also be used to lift boilers off of locomotive frames or to move the massive components of the engines around the shop. To facilitate repair work, the bays of the erecting shop were also equipped with engine pits similar to those in the roundhouse.

The entry of the United States into World War I and the seizure of the nation's railroads by the Federal government between 1918 and 1920 prevented the Monongahela from constructing in entirety its planned erecting/machine shop complex. Instead, the project was divided into two phases with immediate needs being met by the construction of a two-stall erecting shop. This steel frame structure was completed on October 24, 1918 and included a Niles 120 ton, 65' span electric crane that was equipped with two 60-ton trolleys and a 10-ton auxiliary electric hoist. While meeting the crisis in heavy repair capabilities, this plan forced the railroad to make do for several years with temporary machining facilities located in the two stalls of the roundhouse furthest from the erecting shop.

The extensive nature of erecting shop repairs and the unstandardized design of steam locomotives meant that a great deal of custom machining had to be performed in repair and fabrication of locomotive components. This made the integrated operation of a machine shop a necessity for the efficient operation of the erecting shop. The wide variety of both specialized and general purpose machine tools utilized in the Monongahela's shops is illustrated in Table 1, which lists the equipment contained in the company's machine shop at the time of the 1916 fire.

In 1924, following the conclusion of both Federal railroad control and the postwar economic recession, the Monongahela moved to complete the pre-war design of its erecting/machine shop complex. Construction initiated in that year expanded the six year old, two-bay erecting shop by adding four repair tracks, car and pattern shops, and an 8,520 square foot machine shop. In this new machine shop, workmen performed both repetitive tasks, such as the replacement of car wheels, and customized work of a job-shop nature. Work flows in the facility generally followed no standard pattern and were largely determined by the shop's machinists and other skilled workers who exercised a great deal of autonomy in employing both their expertise and the shop's machinery in accomplishing assigned tasks.

As noted above, the replacement of worn car wheels was one of the few repetitive tasks performed in the machine shop, and the uncomplicated work flow used in this operation illustrates the limited usefulness of standardized work flows in the Monongahela's repair shops. In this procedure, worn wheels that had been removed from locomotives, revenue cars, and cabooses were placed, still attached to their axles, on the long track bay at the south end of the machine shop. Workmen operating a 400 ton wheel press then removed the wheels from their axles (called journals) and moved these worn pieces across the shop to the boring mill. There, a machinist re-bored the holes in the center of steel wheels or used the machine tool to cut holes in new wheel blanks. From this work station, the wheels were transferred to the wheel lathe where a team of workmen turned the wheels in order to correct any imperfection in their flanges or shape. Once the new or used wheels had been conditioned on the lathe they were moved back to the wheel press for attachment to a journal.

The car and pattern shops included in the new shop complex were used to perform repairs and maintenance on the railroad's cabooses and passenger cars. Originally, the car shop at the South Brownsville yard was also used to construct cabooses, six having been built there in 1911 alone. It does not appear, however, that this practice survived the dismantling of the old car shop in 1924. Since much of the work performed in the new car shop took the form of carpentry these areas primarily contained a variety of wood working equipment. The painting of cars was also performed in the car shop while any required metal shaping was performed in the adjacent machine shop.

Also associated with the Monongahela Railway's repair complex were several smaller shops such as the air brake, flue, and blacksmiths' shops. These performed specialized tasks associated with the repair and maintenance of the road's equipment. The air brake shop, located after June, 1929 in a corner of the new machine shop facility, was equipped to test, repair and overhaul all parts of air brake systems. The flue shop, on the other hand, was used to repair and fabricate the innumerable steam, air, and water pipes that were incorporated in the design of steam locomotives.

It is important to note that, throughout its existence, the Monongahela Railway has never owned the revenue cars used to convey freight on its system. While owning its own locomotives, work cars and cabooses, the company relied on the main line roads with which it connected to provide empty rail cars. For a brief period in its earliest years it is probable that many of the Mon's largest coke producing customers owned their own cars in order to be assured a supply of empties when car supplies became tight. In 1907, however a federal circuit court found that private rolling stock had to foe included in the car allotments made by the railroads among their various customers. This eliminated the advantage to large producers of owning their own rolling stock and, after this decision, most privately owned cars were sold to the railroad companies.

Other than the erecting shop and roundhouse, perhaps the most prominent structure in the South Brownsville yard was the company's coal and sanding station which stood in the midst of the rail yard after being completed on 22 September 1918. Prior to the construction of this station the Monongahela had procured fuel coal from the tipple of the Henderson Coal Company's Umpire Mine at Brownsville Junction. In 1917, however, it appeared that the coal from this mine would be exhausted within a year and, due to the presence of a severe squeeze of the coal seam, mining operations would probably have to cease even sooner. Since there were no other mines in the district which could conveniently supply the railroad with engine coal, it became necessary to construct a coal dock and station in the South Brownsville yard.

At the coaling station, locomotives were supplied with coal and sand, and the ashes from their boilers were removed. Upon approaching the station, a steam locomotive was situated over one of the ash or cinder pits and the ashes were released into six foot long steel buckets which rested on tracks at the bottom of the ash pits. These buckets had large knobs at each end and, when full, were grasped by a winch, hoisted to the top of the station structure, and dumped into an ash holding bin. Coal for the station was delivered in cars which were placed on an inclined track adjacent to the station. When coal was needed to replenish the station, one of these cars would be allowed to roll down the track to a position over a bin and trap doors on the car's bottom would be opened, thereby dumping the contents of the car. The coal would then be hoisted in large steel buckets to the top of the structure and emptied into a storage bin from which locomotives could be supplied.

Sand for the locomotives was delivered in cars to the station and emptied into a hopper through which long steam pipes passed. These pipes would dry the sand as it was loaded into the bin and allow the dried sand to be blown by a stream of air into a hopper at the top of the station. After a locomotive's ashes had been removed, the engine was pulled forward to the station's chutes where coal and sand would be supplied. Once replenished, the engines would move off to receive water and begin their assignments throughout the Monongahela's system.

The yard and shop facilities of South Brownsville by 1992 were a pale reflection of the bustling, smoky operations of the steam era. By 1986, for example, only four stalls of the old roundhouse were still in use as inspection stalls, and in 1991 the structure was completely dismantled. The turntable that served the roundhouse remained in operation in 1992 and was used occasionally to turn locomotives around and to allow access to the two corrugated metal sheds that had been built on a portion of the roundhouse site. In that year less than thirty employees populated the once teeming erecting, machine, and car shops, while the number of maintenance of way workers had fallen below 100.

The locomotive shops operated only one shift during the work week in 1992 and were responsible only for minor maintenance of the company's fleet of eleven General Electric Super 7, 2250 horsepower locomotives. At this date, the railroad still did not own any of the revenue cars used to carry freight on its lines, but by then about 30 percent of those cars were owned by the utilities or mining companies the road served. Because virtually all coal on the Monongahela was now handled in unit trains which required no switching or assembly, the railway no longer maintained yards or yard crews.

Ownership of the railroad had also changed as Conrail, the organizational successor to the bankrupt Pennsylvania and New York Central systems, purchased the one-third interest of the B&O (in 1992 a part of the CSX system), and the P&LE, which appeared to be on the verge of dissolution. Having assumed sole ownership in 1990, Conrail in early 1992 gained I.C.C. approval to absorb the Monongahela into its vast network.