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It was a dark and stormy night

A Chicago freight-train crew finds out what happens when a 19-year-old asks, “Why not?”

Flashbulbs highlight the snowflakes swirling around B&O 4-8-2 709 and caboose C1406 at B&OCT’s 14th Street Tower in Chicago on a stormy night in 1958.
Edward J. Prendergast
It truly was a dark and stormy night in Chicago in 1958, and I was a 19-year-old college student. Nineteen is an awkward age for a male—you’re old enough to be restless but not old enough to drink legally. What do you do on a Friday night when you feel you’ve earned a break from a week of engineering classes? If you were a railfan and had a friend working third trick at the 14th Street Tower of the Baltimore & Ohio Chicago Terminal, the answer was easy—you piled into a car with some friends and went to visit him at work.

To appreciate what happened next you have to understand two things: the neighborhood around the tower and the mentality of a 19-year-old college male.

The tower was in a somewhat secluded industrial area on the city’s near west side. One reached it by driving down a street which dead-ended at the railroad embankment, then climbing up and crossing the tracks to the tower. At night it was quiet . . . and perhaps a bit spooky. It was not exactly the best place to take pictures. As to a 19-year-old’s mentality, suffice to say that most are somewhat uninhibited. If someone offers a suggestion, the typical reply is, “Why not?”

There is one more important point: Those were the last days of steam. One had to seize every opportunity.

So it came to pass that a bit after mid­night on that dark, stormy, cold night, several of us were in the tower enjoying ourselves. It was not our practice to stay more than an hour or so, just long enough to down a pizza. On this night, my B&OCT employee friend said there would be a freight train coming out of the Robey Street Yard east of the tower that usually had steam for power. “Wanna take a picture?” “Why not?”

To keep from getting my friend into hot water, I walked about 100 yards down the track. Back then we used flashbulbs, and Kodachrome 25 was considered a fairly fast color film. I loaded the flashgun and waited. It started to snow. Sure enough, here it came, a B&O 4-8-2. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be at trackside in the dark with a working steam engine coming at you. It’s great! I raised my camera and . . . POW—I lit up the front of that engine like a searchlight. I ejected the flashbulb, popped in another one, and advanced the film.

As the caboose passed, the rear brakeman was leaning out to give the fireman a highball with his lantern. POW! He got his picture taken. I walked back to the tower through the thickening snow.

A few minutes later the tower’s telephone rang. I don’t know who was on the line, but he wanted to know what the hell was going on at 14th Street. My friend matter-of-factly said he thought there might be some kids around taking pictures. It then occurred to us that discretion might be the better part of valor. We departed.

The next summer, I went to work for the Milwaukee Road as a relief tower operator. It never occurred to me to take pictures at the towers where I worked . . . but of course, the Milwaukee no longer ran steam.

First published in Fall 2006 Classic Trains magazine.

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Three stories written and photographed by Jim Shaughnessy.


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