Photographs & History

Photographs and History

In Memoriam

Donald T. Rittler: 1919 - 2016

It is with a heavy heart that I share the news of the passing of Donald T. Rittler, a former Pennsylvania Railroad train director who lived and worked in the Harrisburg area for most of his life.  In 2012 I had the privilege to meet Mr. Rittler during a private tour of the Harris tower museum, arranged by NRHS Harrisburg Chapter members. When Don arrived he brought this already fantastic interactive site alive with first hand experiences of running one of the most important interlocking towers on the PRR Philadelphia Division. Since to that meeting I had several opportunities to talk with Don about his experiences on the railroad including a very special return visit to Harris that I was so lucky to share with my father and son.

During my visit to Harris in 2012 I had some time to chat with Don while photographing him with the 4x5 view camera. I am lucky to have this image of Don at the train director's desk, a familiar place throughout his 42 years of working in interlocking towers for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central and Conrail.

During my visit to Harris in 2012 I had some time to chat with Don while photographing him with the 4x5 view camera. I am lucky to have this image of Don at the train director's desk, a familiar place throughout his 42 years of working in interlocking towers for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Central and Conrail.

Don Rittler started his career with the Pennsylvania Railroad on October 11th, 1937 as a messenger for the interlocking towers on the PRR Philadelphia Division. The first person to be hired since the 1927 furlough of employees as a result of the Great Depression, Don worked the introductory job spending his days relaying messages and paperwork from tower to tower as needed, gaining a familiarity to the basic operations and chain of command among the many towers on the system.  On December 1st, 1940 Don posted his first position as a block operator and leverman, working the Philadelphia Division extra list, filling in at different towers over the years.

Detail of Don's home away from home, Harris Tower's interlocking machine and train director's desk, a post Don worked for many of his years during his tenure with the PRR which began in 1937.

Detail of Don's home away from home, Harris Tower's interlocking machine and train director's desk, a post Don worked for many of his years during his tenure with the PRR which began in 1937.

In 1944, like many other PRR employees Rittler was summoned to serve his country in World War II. Holding the title of Master Sergeant in the Army’s 775th Railway Grand Division and the 3rd Military Regiment, Don’s deployment centered in the Pacific Theater during the height of the war. Initially working in the Philippines operating the Manila Railway Don’s unit moved to Japan to secure a railhead for military transport inland in the event of land attacks. As a result of the infamous atomic bombs, their services were not needed for this purpose but they did continue to work keeping the Japanese rail systems functional. Returning to the US a short two years later almost exactly to the day, Rittler resumed his tenure with the PRR, holding tower positions as both leverman and eventually train director for State and Harris towers near the Harrisburg passenger station.  Rittler, who’s father was a master machinist for the Pennsy in Enola was always fascinated with the railroad, as it was always apart of his life, with many friends, neighbors and family also employed by the PRR.

Don and his wife Mary built a house in New Cumberland near Lemoyne and lived a wonderful life with their daughter Donna, sharing the family like atmosphere and camaraderie of the many railroaders Don worked with on a daily basis. He continued to work in the Harrisburg area well into the Penn Central era eventually moving to Conrail after the 1976 consolidation. Amtrak was slowly taking over operations on the Keystone Corridor in the mid 1970’s and Don’s choices of where to work were becoming increasingly limited. Don ultimately worked first shift at Lemo tower in Lemoyne, which he described as a welcome break from the busy towers he was accustomed to like Harris, finishing out a spotless 42 year career in railroading in 1979. After retirement, Don was very gracious with his time and experience in the towers, helping the NRHS Harrisburg Chapter develop the interpretive exhibit for the Harris tower project. He would also on occasion visit with small groups at the museum to provide first hand working knowledge of his craft like I was so fortunate to experience. Don’s presence at Harris will be greatly missed but thanks to his generosity, his legacy and knowledge will live on with the Harrisburg Chapter and the Harris tower museum.


May your presence always be felt at Harris tower, rest in peace Don.


For more information about memorial services for Mr. Rittler, please click here