Monday, March 10, 2003

Railroad club restores historic tower

By William A. Weathers
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In its heyday, Tower A at Union Terminal was the nerve center of passenger railroad operations in Cincinnati.

Passenger trains rumbled through the historic art deco terminal from 1933 to 1972. During World War II, terminal traffic peaked in 1944 with 34,000 people filing through each day.

From their fifth-floor perch in Tower A, the train director and two assistants could handle 216 trains a day -108 in and 108 out.

"Every passenger train that entered and left was controlled by the Tower A," said Sheridan Yelliott, a member and historian of the Cincinnati Railroad Club. "The engineer had no control. He had no idea which track he would be on. All the engineer would do was slow the train down."

Tower A went dark after the last passenger train - Amtrak's overnighter to Washington, D.C. - left on Oct. 28, 1972. (Amtrak opened its new station on River Road the following day. One Amtrak train - the Cardinal, which provides service between Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and Chicago - currently serves the Queen City.)

The tower was mothballed for nearly 20 years until the Cincinnati Railroad Club came to the rescue.

The renovated Tower A has become the railroad club's official headquarters, containing railroad artifacts and a 4,000-plus book railroad library.

  The railroad club opens Tower A to the public from 8 to 11 p.m. on Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays; and from noon to 4 p.m. every first and third Sunday.
  The Cincinnati Railroad Club, a nonprofit organization formed in 1938, has more than 300 members. Membership is open to anyone age 18 or older.
  For information, or call (513) 651-RAIL (7245) or write c/o P.O Box 14157, Cincinnati, OH 45250-0157,
Today, Tower A provides a panoramic look at the Norfolk-Southern Gest Street Yard and CSX's Queensgate Yards, where commercial train traffic continues. From here, a railroad enthusiast can imagine what a work day was like for train directors of old and their crews.

"It was as quiet as a mouse up here," said the 82-year-old Yelliott, a retired warehouse manager who resides in Mount Healthy. "It was more or less closed to the public."

The train director and his crew monitored the trains' movements 24 hours a day on a gigantic illuminated track diagram board mounted high on a wall. They sent switching orders to four lever men - employees who physically pulled the levers that directed trains onto a particular track, said railroad club members Gibson R. Yungblut and Willie Davis.

Tower A employees "never had any accidents due to human error," Yelliott said.By 1972, the railroad activity at Union Terminal had dwindled to one train, making it financially unfeasible to continue.

The railroad club, which had been holding meetings in various rooms inside Union Terminal, was asked in 1990 if it was interested in acquiring the Tower A space for its permanent headquarters.

The club readily accepted.

"Members of the railroad club fell in love with it," Yelliott said.

"We were the only tenant (after a shopping mall at Union Terminal called it quits) before the Museum Center," said 70-year-old Yungblut, a Mariemont resident.

After years of broken windows and neglect, Tower A was a mess. "The bats and birds had a field day," Yelliott said

The club raised the $130,000 needed for renovations by sponsoring steam engine passenger train excursions to Indianapolis, Portsmouth, Ohio, Muncie, Ind., Danville, Ky., and Knoxville, Tenn.

In August 1991, railroad club officials moved into Tower A. The original track diagram board, the train director's "candlestick"-type telephones, caboose lamps and brakeman's lanterns are among the artifacts on display.


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