Tonight: Hop on for a history tour of railroads with the Westmoreland County Historical Society
March 14, 2013 8:00 PM
Photo courtesy of Dick Flock
A switching tower in Youngwood during the 1940s.
Dan Majors The Pittsburgh Press
Tonight you are welcome to make tracks to Greensburg as the Westmoreland County Historical Society presents an examination of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Southwest Secondary.
You'll probably have to drive a car to get there, but once you arrive it will be "all aboard" for a chug on the rails that run right along Memory Lane.
"We've done a number of different programs on railroads, and they always fill up," said Dick Flock, who serves as treasurer for the historical society. "There's a tremendous interest in railroads. We do about a program a month on a variety of subjects, but the railroad ones are always popular."
Mr. Flock, 77, a retired clergyman and employee of Westinghouse, presents the program with fellow railroad aficionado Roy Ward. Each man spends a half-hour displaying photographs and maps detailing the history of trains in the region. Their talk is followed by a question-and-answer session and refreshments.
"It's a way of sharing the information that we possess," Mr. Flock said. "Roy and I have thousands of slides. We did this about a year ago, and we turned about 20 people away. So we thought we'd do it again. We can take about 60 to 70 people."
For all their memories and expertise, however, one of the questions that they can't answer definitively is why people have such a fascination with trains.
"They ran a steam engine from Conway to Harrisburg a while back," Mr. Flock said. "It was chartered by the folks at Norfolk Southern, and anywhere you went, when that train was moving, there were people taking photographs. There was a slew of people all along the way."
Maybe it's because it was trains that tied this country together. So much of our heritage -- our forefathers and the jobs that supported their families -- were connected to those rails.
And, of course, there are model trains.
"It's been a hobby of mine since I was 3," Mr. Flock said. "My dad bought me a model train, and I've always had trains in the house and around the Christmas tree.
"There was a period when all of us in the hobby were gray. Then there was 'Thomas the Train,' " he said in reference to the "Thomas the Tank Engine" books and TV show, "and that show got young people excited again."
The hobby has expanded and there's much more involved in it.
But does the hobby stir the interest in real trains, or is it the other way around?
Around 1960, Mr. Flock started photographing real trains. The kind that were the lifeblood of this region 130 or more years ago.
"This was called the Pennsylvania Secondary or the Pennsylvania Branch, running from Radebaugh down into the Uniontown area," Mr. Flock said. "The Connellsville area sits on top of the premiere coking coal in the world, and that's what the steel mills in the late 1800s and early 1900s went after.
"Youngwood was the major rail facility for all the coal fields and became the major consolidation from all these other little towns. All this coal came out of there and either shipped [west] to Pittsburgh or the steel mills in the east. More coal was shipped out of Youngwood than in any other part of the country."
In its heyday, there was a four-track main line with so many trains going through the roundhouse that the railroad built a "fly-under" tunnel for empty hopper cars coming back, just to keep the main tracks clear.
Now, all that's left is a few tracks, but there's still train activity.
"Not too long ago, the fracking sand was coming in heavily into Youngwood," Mr. Flock said. "And there's still lumber, tank cars transporting ethanol, paper, chemicals for foam roofing, refrigerated vegetables. There's a lot of viable businesses."
Mr. Ward was an electrician for U.S. Steel and a model railroader and avid photographer as well.
"In fact, he started taking a lot more pictures in this area before I did," Mr. Flock said. "I tended to take more pictures when I traveled all over the country and not when I was right here at home. I came to regret that, and I kick myself to this day."
The historical society meets in the Calvin E. Pollins Library at 362 Sand Hill Road, Suite 1. The program begins at 7 p.m. and is free to society members and $5 for non-members. Some of the proceeds will be earmarked for a history education center to be built at Hannastown.
If you're not sure you can make it, just keep saying to yourself: "I think I can, I think I can ..."
If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/