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

 

Philadelphia Division: Royalton

Plate drawing of Roy Interlocking circa 1957. By this date this facility was a remote interlocking under the control of the operator at State Tower in Harrisburg.  Note the jump over that positions the freight main on the proper side of the passenger mainline to diverge south along the Susquehanna to make connection with the York Haven line at Shock Mills. Plate drawing collection of  The Broad Way . 

Plate drawing of Roy Interlocking circa 1957. By this date this facility was a remote interlocking under the control of the operator at State Tower in Harrisburg.  Note the jump over that positions the freight main on the proper side of the passenger mainline to diverge south along the Susquehanna to make connection with the York Haven line at Shock Mills. Plate drawing collection of The Broad Way

Straddling the towns of Middletown and Royalton in Dauphin County, Royalton interlocking was a strategic point where most freight and passenger traffic separated for the trip east to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Approximately 10 miles east from State Interlocking the mainline and Columbia branch (today Norfolk Southern's Royalton branch) ran along side each other with the freight operating on tracks furthest to the north. The Columbia branch, which drops south along the Susquehanna diverted freight trains away from the main at Royalton requiring traffic to cross into the path of the busy passenger main. To avoid this potential traffic disruption the PRR applied a proven technique of building a fly-over to allow all tracks/trains to gain proper position without the need to physically cross or intersect the other route.

View of current interlocking looking west at Roy. In the distance one can see the eastbound home signals and Amtrak's Middletown station, the overhead bridge is Burd Street. Note the older style relay hut and air plant on the right side of the tracks, this was the site of the original 2 story frame tower that controlled the interlocking prior to the late 1950’s project which moved control of this interlocking to State. Norfolk Southern operates the line diverging to the left as the Royalton Branch, which connects to the Enola and Port Road branches at Shocks Mill. This was the former PRR Columbia branch and at one time was a double track electrified artery that linked the mainline with the low-grade line to points east.

View of current interlocking looking west at Roy. In the distance one can see the eastbound home signals and Amtrak's Middletown station, the overhead bridge is Burd Street. Note the older style relay hut and air plant on the right side of the tracks, this was the site of the original 2 story frame tower that controlled the interlocking prior to the late 1950’s project which moved control of this interlocking to State. Norfolk Southern operates the line diverging to the left as the Royalton Branch, which connects to the Enola and Port Road branches at Shocks Mill. This was the former PRR Columbia branch and at one time was a double track electrified artery that linked the mainline with the low-grade line to points east.

Prior to the late 1950's Royalton interlocking was controlled by a two story frame tower that sat on the eastern side of the tracks (railroad was oriented north - south here). The early interlocking plant was of an older design using a mechanical armstrong complex to control the switches and signals between the mainline and Columbia branch. The Columbia branch served as a back road connection from the mainline and freight yards in Harrisburg  to the low-grade route via Shocks Mill allowing freight from all directions to bypass congestion in Enola when necessary. In the late 1950’s Royalton interlocking was made a remote facility named Roy with control given to the operator at State Tower in Harrisburg. Evidence of this project survives in the form of a single story relay house that rests on the foundation of the former tower. As part of Amtrak’s Keystone Line rehab, Roy was rebuilt once again providing Amtrak with a set of crossovers for operational flexibility (the line is now governed by Rule 261-allowing bi-directional traffic flow) while maintaining the connection to the Royalton branch.

The single story brick building next to the westbound home signal protecting the Columbia Branch was a small yard office and maintainers building. The structure survives today to serve Amtrak C&S crews, having recently received new windows and an extension, evident by the different color brick on the left side of the structure.

The single story brick building next to the westbound home signal protecting the Columbia Branch was a small yard office and maintainers building. The structure survives today to serve Amtrak C&S crews, having recently received new windows and an extension, evident by the different color brick on the left side of the structure.

Special thanks to Mr. Don Rittler, who's input on operations at Royalton provided some insight on this relatively obscure facility on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Don worked as a tower operator for the PRR and its successors in the Harrisburg region from 1937-1979.

Mainline Model for Historic Preservation: Harris Tower

Harris Tower avoided a fate most towers ultimately succumbed to after being decommissioned. Today as a result of dedicated volunteers from the Harrisburg Chapter of the NRHS, the 1930 built switch tower functions as a unique museum experience, providing visitors with a hands on understanding of tower operations and traffic management in golden age of railroading.

Harris Tower avoided a fate most towers ultimately succumbed to after being decommissioned. Today as a result of dedicated volunteers from the Harrisburg Chapter of the NRHS, the 1930 built switch tower functions as a unique museum experience, providing visitors with a hands on understanding of tower operations and traffic management in golden age of railroading.

In 1991 when Harris’s remaining functions were transferred over to State Tower, the Harrisburg Chapter of the NRHS realized the significance of this building and set out to preserve the facility in place. The initial state of affairs in the old tower was pretty sad: damaged windows, a dated electrical systems, leaky roof, a defunct heating system and an interlocking machine and board that was in rough shape made just stabilizing the building a monumental task. Under the direction of Fred Wertz former Chapter President, countless volunteer hours from members of the Harrisburg Chapter (see the complete honor roll below) were logged to bring the structure back to its original as built appearance. As work progressed on the building itself, volunteers Dan Rapak and Jeff Vinton worked to restore the Union Switch and Signal interlocking machine and its accompanying model board. Rapak and Vinton worked to free the seized electro-mechanical levers while John Smith took on the restoration of the model board. A computer-controlled system was developed to operate the magnets on the interlocking machine allowing the levers and locks on the unit to once again function properly. The concept of running virtual trains was developed to make the interlocking machine a hands on exhibit which, by way of computer simulation, a given visitor can direct trains through the “interlocking” during a typical 1943 shift. The block lines, phones, teletype and indicator bell all work as if a neighboring tower was relaying train info, complete with scripts developed and read by former tower operators, announce oncoming trains as was done in typical tower operations. The Harris Tower museum is a one of kind experience for the historian, train buff and curious observer alike. Where else can you go and have a hands on history lesson on how to manage trains and control traffic in what was one of the busier towers on the PRR system?

Detail of the restored interlocking machine and interior of Harris Tower. The operator and train director's desk in the foreground features a restored lamp and key control panel that provided the tower communications with dispatchers, line-side phone boxes and other interlocking towers. In the rear is the carefully restored Union Switch and Signal Model 14 Interlocking Machine and Model Board, the device by which switches and signals were controlled to route trains through the busy Harrisburg Station. Note the complexity of the track work through this junction, which was needed to route the many passenger and freight trains in addition to the countless light engine and switch moves that took place during the height of the PRR era.

Detail of the restored interlocking machine and interior of Harris Tower. The operator and train director's desk in the foreground features a restored lamp and key control panel that provided the tower communications with dispatchers, line-side phone boxes and other interlocking towers. In the rear is the carefully restored Union Switch and Signal Model 14 Interlocking Machine and Model Board, the device by which switches and signals were controlled to route trains through the busy Harrisburg Station. Note the complexity of the track work through this junction, which was needed to route the many passenger and freight trains in addition to the countless light engine and switch moves that took place during the height of the PRR era.

While we visited Harris Tower volunteer William Kcenich provided a great interpretive lesson on operations and the restoration. We were also joined by Chapter member Don Rittler who provided first hand knowledge of operations at Harris from his time as a block operator here. 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 Don worked such posts as Norris, State, Harris, Cork and many others.

Don Rittler who used to work at Harris as both train director and lever man, shared many great stories and insight on the daily operation of a busy tower like Harris. Don worked for the PRR for 42 years enjoying a flawless career and the camaraderie of the many people he worked with. Rittler, now 93 is still as sharp as ever and is never shy about sharing a great story or two about his experiences on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Don Rittler who used to work at Harris as both train director and lever man, shared many great stories and insight on the daily operation of a busy tower like Harris. Don worked for the PRR for 42 years enjoying a flawless career and the camaraderie of the many people he worked with. Rittler, now 93 is still as sharp as ever and is never shy about sharing a great story or two about his experiences on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1944, like many other PRR employees Rittler was summoned to serve his Country in World War II. He would be part of an Army Unit known as the 775th Railway Grand Division, centered in the Pacific Theater during the height of the War. Initially working in the Philippines operating the Manila Railway the 775th would move on to Japan to be the first front if land attacks were made to secure a rail head for military transport inland. 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 returned to work for 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 built a house in New Cumberland near Lemoyne and lived a great life with their daughter Donna, sharing the family like atmosphere and camaraderie of the many railroaders Don worked with on a daily basis. Don continued to work out of 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 worked day trick at Lemo Tower, 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. Since retirement  Don has been very gracious with his time and experience in the towers, helping the NRHS Harrisburg Chapter with the Harris reconstruction and developing the interpretive exhibit. He also on occasion visits with small groups at Harris to provide first hand working knowledge of a craft that has largely disappeared from the railroad landscape.

I wish to thank Don for sharing his time and knowledge during our visit and subsequent phone conversation, for somebody who never experienced the PRR first hand, I feel very lucky to spend time with such a warm and welcoming gentleman. Special thanks to Mr. William Seigford who accompanied us to Harris and helped facilitate our visit, and of course to Mr. Kcenich who took time out of his schedule to accommodate our group from Amtrak and John Bowie Associates. In respect to the many people and countless hours bringing Harris to life again as key museum piece in the interpretive history of railroad operations I  would like to acknowledge NRHS Harrisburg Chapter members and their contributions. A very special congratulations and thanks to everyone, you have raised the bar on historic preservation and interactive exhibits all the while saving a part of the great Pennsylvania Railroad for future generations. Bravo!

Abe Burnette: Secured parts for model board and interlocking machine, including a reproduction machine builder's plate.Ed Burns:  Interior scrapping and painting (walls and ceilings).Richard Crow: Outdoor grounds keepingTerry Gardner:  Floor tile scrapping, cleaning.  Personally purchased and replaced all broken and/or smashed floor tile out of his own pocket. Joseph Heffron: Handled some of the interior painting of window trim and other interior painting.Charles High: Secured jacks and headed the moving of interior racks.Bill Kcenich: Responsible for assigning, training, and scheduling all Chapter members who volunteer as, and are, Harris Tower docents.Matthew Loser: Handled the initial negotiations with Amtrak to secure ownership of Harris Tower for the Harrisburg Chapter, NRHS; also handled the registration process to have Harris placed on the National Register of Historic Places; had a Harris reproduction sign made for the Walnut Street side.Robert Lyter: Responsible for the main front door restoration and maintenance.John Pari: Scrapping, painting of woodwork and window trim.Daniel Rapak: Interlocking machine restoration and development of the simulation systems, restoration of original ceiling lighting fixtures,  all interior electronics, including the securing and installation of the Seth Thomas #2 wall clock reproduction.  restoration of the original dispatcher's desk and accompanying furniture.John Smith: Responsible for model board graphic restoration, the elimination of oil heat and re-installation of city supplied steam heat (as original when Harris was constructed), the removal of  brick chimney (was added when oil heating conversion was done.) and personally involved with exterior renovation, i.e. power washing, new roofing, new gutters and new downspouts.Jeff Vinton: Assisted in restoring the interlocking machine and developing the simulation systems.Fred Wertz: Former Chapter President who has been instrumental since day one, overseeing building management, parts allocations and organizing monthly work sessions.Allen Wolfinger: Responsible for the removal of all interior wiring.Gary Yanko: Responsible for all building electrical upgrades, outdoor lighting, alarm system, and building insulation.

Currently the Harris Tower Museum is open to the public every Saturday from now through the end of October 10 AM-3 PM.  To learn more about the Harrisburg NRHS Chapter and Harris Tower, please visit their website, http://harristower.org/