This fall, the Strasburg Railroad’s Facebook page has been filled with pictures of the Norfolk and Western’s locomotive 611. This glorious engine, in service in the 1950’s and the last of its kind, has been in temporary residence at Strasburg for several weeks and has generated much excitement among rail-fans along with some truly spectacular photography. If my Dad were alive, he would have been camped there for the duration. Seeing the almost daily posts brought back fond memories of my years working at Strasburg.
My father was obsessed with trains, so when I was looking for a summer job in college (one stint as a restaurant dishwasher was enough) he got me a job at Strasburg. I started as the “information desk girl” handing out brochures and giving directions to tourists in those pre-Google maps days, but eventually became the railroad’s first female ticket agent. I learned to sell tickets efficiently, count money, and deal with people on vacation. I loved it all and stayed for twenty years.
In those days, most of our transactions were in cash. If I worked the late shift, I often walked to my car carrying bags containing five-figure amounts of money which I dropped off at the night depository at the bank on the square. One of my co-workers, a crusty old codger named Harry Myers, would always sit on his front stoop in the evening, smoking a cigarette, waiting for my car to go by so he knew I had gotten the money safely to the bank. Of course, Harry was also famous for telling little boys who anxiously rushed to the ticket window in search of the bathroom, “Here, kid, put a rubber band around it.”
Many of my co-workers were teachers and other professionals, some of whom came from miles away, just to work around steam trains on the weekend. We called ourselves the most highly educated minimum wage work force in Lancaster County. Although I did not share my father’s passion for trains, I could appreciate it. At one time, the lockbox holding the change bags for the weekend was located in a hidden corner of the engine house. Walking in there in the early morning quiet and hearing the locomotive that had been running the day before gradually cooling down was almost like being around a live creature resting in its stall, a gentle giant made of steel and powered by a heart of coal.
The men I worked with were characters. One of them frequently told kids fascinated by the fly-encrusted strips hanging in the station that that’s what was used to make shoo-fly pies. A gentleman who worked as a brakeman well into his 90’s, would come off the train, and with a deadpan expression say, “You know, it’s snowing hard down in Paradise.” One of the conductors would linger by the ticket window and glance at people’s wallets and driver’s licenses as they paid. Then he’d get them on the train and “guess” their name and where they were from. Occasionally after a customer had left the window, one of my fellow ticket agents would sniff the air with a pained look on his face, shake his head in disgust and say, “Campers.”
After my dad retired, he volunteered at the State Railroad Museum across the street. He would come over to the grill for lunch and always stopped by the ticket window just to say hello, or if we were swamped, he’d bring me food. He loved that we were both working together around steam trains.
These days I’m sure very little cash changes hands since most tickets are probably purchased online. A new generation of train crew, ticket agents, and administrative staff keeps the trains running on time. But the wooden station is still there as I suspect are the pot-bellied stove and hanging fly strips. The same locomotives that were in service when I was there are still making those daily 45-minute round trips because no digital experience can ever replicate the wide-eyed wonder of a small child staring up at a locomotive for the first time. No amusement park thrill ride can touch scrambling up the coach steps clutching your grandpa’s hand, plopping down on the velvet seats and sticking your head out the window, breathing in the coal smoke and listening for the sound of the whistle on the road to Paradise.