Saturday, December 8, 2018

David's Tower

A couple years ago I posted here an obituary -- "Death of a Railroading Man" -- for my old Chicago buddy, Dave Van Pelt the Fifth.  He was always very particular about that "the Fifth".  Then a couple weeks ago another of my old Chicago buddies, Chris Madsen, found -- completely by accident -- a documentary on YouTube ( about the 75th Street Chicago B&O railroad switching yard where Dave worked for most of his life.  There are plenty of shots of the trains coming in and going out on various rail-lines, and how their direction changes with a throw of the switches in the "tower".  The tower, shown in the opening shot, was simply a house-shaped two-story wooden building that contained the manual gears and switches for the entire switch-yard.  75th Street Yard was the last -- and the biggest -- of the all-mechanical railroad switching yards in the country, if not in the world.  There are several shots showing the solid rods and gears spreading out from the tower to all the tracks in the yard -- hundreds of yards of them.  The yard was a gigantic clockwork, with its drive-spring contained in that building, which was Dave's domain.

There are also plenty of scenes of the inside of the tower, and Dave throwing the main switches by hand, himself.  It was startling to see Dave again, doing what he loved best, almost dancing amid the big manual switches that controlled the whole yard.  He looked a bit different from the last time I'd seen him in life;  his beard was shorter, his beer-belly was smaller, and he'd cut his beautiful mane of long black hair.  Still, the sight brought back memories.  I'd visited that tower many a time, bringing Dave his lunch, watching him work.  On a couple of occasions he let me throw a switch or two -- if I could;  those switches were heavy.  And we'd watch the trains roll by, big and heavy as dinosaurs, moving as smoothly as swans on water, almost within touching distance of the tower's windows.  That's where I was inspired to write my song, "The Grain Train".  The regular train to General Mills was an economic lesson in itself: "Every train a hundred cars, Every car a hundred tons, Every ton a hundred sacks, Every sack ten thousand grains -- And that's what cities get from trains".  And there's the constant sound of the trains rolling, ringing and clattering over the joints in the steel rails.  There's no other sound quite like it.  Fond memories, indeed!  And did I mention that Dave was my lover, for a few years, way back then?

Looking back, I wonder: what if I'd stayed in Chicago -- never went out to California, never linked up with Off Centaur, never got into the Sci-Fi convention scene.  Well, I would never have made all those albums, would never have met C.J. Cherryh and never have published my first Sci-Fi story, or novel, would never have met so many of my now-solid friends, including Rasty.  My old band, back in Chicago, wasn't making it in the local folkmusic scene.  The old union, the IWW, was surviving well but not growing much.  I'd made one professional writing sale, a short story in a pulp crime magazine, which folded soon afterward.  I would have had a very different life, and career.  But still I sometimes wonder...

David's tower was built in 1894, deliberately over-engineered, meant to last for a century -- which it did.  The B&O railroad retired Dave and tore down the tower in 1997.  For my  part, I think that was a crime against science.  Seeing how it worked, I realize now that the entire 75th Street Switch-yard was a computer.  Complete with its daily trains, that yard was the biggest mechanical computer ever built.  The Babbage Society would have been happy to buy the gears and switches in that tower, and a good length of the tracks they controlled, just to keep in a technology museum. So much of technological history was contained in that small plain building! 

At least, Dave always kept the blueprints -- for the entire yard -- in a cabinet in that tower.  I'm sure he didn't let the B&O railroad just throw those away!  I hope those wound up with the Babbage Society, at least, and aren't just moldering in the B&O company archives somewhere.

But for now, that documentary is a fine and fitting memorial to Dave and his domain.  Watch it, and think long about what you're seeing.

--Leslie <;)))>< 



Paradoctor said...

Thanks for the link! It has no voce-over, but doesn't need one.

Part of the charisma of trains is that those boxcars could be carrying anything. Bottom line; go into a store and look around; all that stuff was on a train. The train is Industry's spirit animal.

David's Tower was a signal-transmission system. All the computing was done by a human. The innovation was to move those big hand-pulled track switches from the trainyard to the Tower; this was done by mechanical linkages; a triumph of 19th century technology. But the linkages were exposed to the elements; they were greasy and needed constant re-greasing; and nobody makes replacement parts anymore.

So this won't be replicated now. Nowadays they'll use electric motors for the switches, controlled remotely or by wires by a desktop computer. Cheaper, more reliable, less labor... but of course less glamourous than a roomful of hand-pulled switches.

I think some moviemaker should copy that roomful of switches and put it in some steampunk sorcerer's magical lair.

Paradoctor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paradoctor said...

And thank you for showing off two old loves; trains and David.

Unknown said...

A beautiful tribute, Leslie.
Being rather enamored of megastructural mechanical marvels, myself (Alliteration Addicts Anonymous, please help me), I wish I could have had the opportunity to go and personally see such a system in service. David seems like an interesting man with many weird and wild stories, and I am glad you were able to spend the time with him that you did, and make the memories that you have. Love and Light.

Leslie Fish said...

Thanks, Unk. Yes, I still miss Dave, and my other old Chicago buddies. If those blueprints survive (where?), the whole yard could be recreated -- in miniature, for a model-train layout, at least.

Alchemystudiosink said...

With 3d printers could probally even start printing out the trains to use. I did notice a new cakemold at the grocery store today of trains.