The doctor's appointment

How a PRR engineer kept his word on Horseshoe Curve

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Horseshoe Curve, 1940: Freight on track 1, passenger on track 2, smoke from a train climbing on track 3 or 4.
H. W. Pontin
You could not avoid liking my uncle, Matthew McGrail. Matt was a medical doctor in Bradford, Pa., by profession, but he was a full-time rail enthusiast. He befriended many crews of the Erie, Baltimore & Ohio, and Pennsylvania railroads in northern and central Pennsylvania. If the waiting room was full, all you had to do was let the doctor know you worked for the railroad and you were moved to the front of the line.

While visiting relatives in Altoona on a summer evening in 1947, Uncle Matt drove my father and me down to the depot to see the Pennsy’s passenger fleet going west. He had received a call earlier that day from an engineer friend, Walter “Shy” Ronan, who had told Matt he would be called for train 41, the Cincinnati Limited, that night, and that the power would be one of the big T1 duplex-drives. When Mr. Ronan saw Uncle Matt standing at the train gate, he gave Matt a wave to come over and have a closer look. Seconds later, Matt was climbing up into the cab. He stayed there until the highball was given, and didn’t come down until a second signal to get the T1 moving was heard in the cab. As the train rolled out of town for its attack on the Allegheny Mountains, Matt described his tour of the T1. He also advised that Shy was scheduled to come back east the following morning. We would drive up to Horseshoe Curve to see Mr. Ronan in all his glory when he returned to Altoona.

Next morning, we were at the trackside park at Horseshoe Curve with plenty of time to spare. However, a few minutes before Shy was due with train 72, the Juniata, the unspeakable happened—an eastbound, slow-moving freight train appeared on the mountain west of the Curve, on track 1, closest to our viewing area. Matt fretted that if 72 was on time, Shy would pass our vantage point on another track while our view was blocked by freight cars. The freight continued toward the Curve at a glacial pace, but then, smoke from another engine appeared from behind it.

This train was moving a bit faster, but our hopes rose and quickly fell as the engine appeared—another freight, on track 2, the inside eastbound. We had only a few seconds to ponder if the Juniata was running late when we heard unusual, insistent whistling from the top of the Curve. We knew it must be 72 running on the inside westbound track to pass the two eastbound freights. Shy was on the way, and coming fast!

The drama that unfolded was understood only by Shy, Matt, my father, and me. Other observers on the Curve, the crews of the two freights, and the Juniata’s crew and passengers must have thought the engineer had taken leave of his senses. As the two freights rounded the Curve, Shy Ronan and his single K4 Pacific finally pulled ahead. Matt and Shy waved furiously at each other as Shy gave a triumphant blast on the whistle. My father and I held our breaths as the Juniata roared by with the wheel flanges squealing in protest. The cars swayed, but everything stayed on the tracks. Shy never did slow down. In just a few moments train 72 was gone, leaving a smoky trail for the two plodding competitors to follow.

Uncle Matt was ecstatic. Shy promised to whistle and wave as he passed us at the Curve, and had been true to his word. To Matt, that was all that mattered. My dad and I were left to wonder what the passengers must have thought as they were bounced around inside the coaches, dining car, and Pullmans.

To the day Uncle Matt died in 1953, every time we saw each other he would remind me of the great day Shy Ronan passed two freights with a K4 to keep his doctor’s appointment on Horseshoe Curve.


First published in Winter 2005 Classic Trains magazine
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