“Women got angry on Mondays when the train came past their houses,” recalled Joe Benner, former train engineer. “That was laundry day. The soot from the smoke, especially if we were going uphill and had to add more [coal] to the fire, did not make them happy.”
Once a resident of Vera Cruz, Benner spoke at the Upper Milford Historical Society July 28 about his 38-year career on the Reading Railroad. He saw many changes from his 1948 hiring to his 1986 retirement.
He began his career as a fireman, whose job was to shovel coal into the firebox and ensure that the boiler maintained sufficient steam pressure. The fireman also served as an assistant to the engineer, or engineman, as they were called. At that time, Benner said, he was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Eventually, Benner became a permanent engineer operating on many of the Reading Lines throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He was also one of six enginemen qualified to serve as instructor for individuals learning to become an engineer.
The Perkiomen branch of the railroad went from Perkiomen Junction (between Perkiomenville and Valley Forge) to Collegeville in 1862; was completed in 1875 and the branch was completed to Emmaus Junction the same year.
Benner said the Reading operated both freight and passenger trains over the Perkiomen Branch until 1955. The morning train, he said, was known as the “milk train” because it picked up milk from farmers along the route and delivered it to Philadelphia.
In 1974, Benner said, the Reading Railroad ended all service to Philadelphia and put up barricades at Pennsburg. He recalled an incident that occurred after the barricades were placed on the track—when he was the engineman.
“We had a freight car of grain to be delivered to Agway at Green Lane, but the track was out of service,” he said. “I contacted the dispatcher, who was aware of the barricades. We were ordered to remove the barricades and deliver the car.”
Benner became a bit emotional as he recalled some of the accidents that happened during his tenure with the railroad:
- On Dec. 30, 1957 a father of 12 was killed at the Topton crossing.
- A 13-year-old girl was killed Jan. 9, 1972 when a car she was riding in was hit by the train.
- On Oct. 6, 1973, a 62-year-old man was killed at Klines Lane in Emmaus.
“People go around the gates and ignore the lights, thinking they can beat the train. Sometimes we traveled at 40-45 mph, and with all the weight, you can’t stop in time,” he said.