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April 1992

This page includes excerpts from the JD Tower issue of the Bull Sheet

JD Tower Closes

JD Tower closed on March 5. It had been my railroad home for the past six and one-half years. The feature portion of this issue is devoted to the legacy, the life and times of JD Tower. It is to its people, past and present, who comprised its legacy, that this issue is dedicated.

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JD Name Lives on

The name of "JD" lives on as the new timetable name for Melrose Avenue in Hyattsville. The former JD interlocking is now known as "Riverdale."

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Farewell to JD Tower

By Allen Brougham . . .

It's Been Fun!

Yes, it has been fun. I doubt that anyone who served here wouldn't agree that duty at this place was a genuine pleasure. Sure, it had its share of hectic moments - all towers do - but in the final analysis, the sense of achievement made everything worthwhile.

The final couple of weeks at JD were marked with a pair of contrasts... Beginning with the elimination of the tower's control functions on February 21, the office gave witness to a flurry of activity as trains moved through direct traffic control blocks and hand-operated switches. It was a real nerve center.

Then, on February 28, the cutover was completed, and with dispatcher control of switches and signals attained, the tower settled into a calm and peaceful serenity. Indeed, operators did little more than watch the trains pass by.

Finally, on March 5, the tower closed.

There was a brief ceremony to close the place, and this is covered later. But first let us put everything into perspective and examine the personality, the legacy, and the life and times of the place... starting at the beginning:

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Its History

FIRST TOWER.. Alexandria Junction Tower was opened in March of 1894. This was some 59 years after the B&O had completed its then-Washington Branch to this location from Baltimore, and nearly 21 years after it had built its junction with the newer Alexandria Branch. Its first installation was an eight-lever machine. In 1906 a second 16-lever machine was installed. A photo of the first tower appears below:

Photo of the first tower, in service beginning March of 1894. Photo taken c-1910, from Smithsonian Institution collection

SECOND TOWER.. In August of 1912 a new plan was developed incorporating the rearrangement of tracks and signals to be operated by a 40-lever machine. With the need of a larger facility, a new tower was opened 62 feet east of the earlier location. This structure followed a standard plan for towers being built for that period which were variously sized depending upon the amount of workspace that was needed. A number of these towers survive today. A noticeable architectural feature of this plan is the shingled extension beneath the top floor windows of the building, although a number of the surviving towers from this plan have had this extension removed in favor of later siding modifications.

Tragedy struck the tower on August 11, 1917, when an engine which was switching outside in the fog ran into a standing cut of cars derailing four of the cars into the building. A conductor, Frank Willie of Laurel, Maryland, was killed. The operator, P. H. Lynn, who was in the tower, was injured. He was saved from more extensive injury, or perhaps death, by a locker which fell in such a way as to shield him from falling debris. By all accounts, the tower was demolished.

Plan for the second tower built 1912, and the third tower built to replace the second one in 1917. Drawing from Mike Welsh collection

THIRD TOWER.. In just over seven weeks, on October 3, 1917, Alexandria Junction Tower was rebuilt and restored to service. By then the B&O did have a new standard design for towers which comprehended brick construction. However, with time being of the essence, the expediency of frame construction using its previous design was employed in the rebuilding of the tower in order to restore the office to service as quickly as possible.

On September 19, 1918, the railroad's valuation department took inventory of the furniture and fixtures in place at the tower, and determined a value of such items at $72.36. Included in this inventory were, among other things, three tin basins, two corn brooms, one coal bucket, one Bentwood chair, two pokers, one scoop bucket, and 19 window shades.

On June 19, 1919, an Interstate Commerce Commission valuation was conducted at the tower. In its report, the tower's outhouse was said to be 15 years old. But the report also said that the tower itself was 10 years old. This would be at odds with the age of the structure based upon its 1917 rebuilding. Perhaps the 10-year figure was a rough estimate based upon the age of the tower from 1912, if any of the then-current structure had been rebuilt from its original material, but it is more likely that the listing was merely an arbitrary guess by the investigator who did not bother to inquire.

In 1943 there were a number of switch and signal additions to the interlocking, and the tower's most recent hanging model board and table interlocker both date from then.

In 1949 the modern convenience of an inside john was added to the building's second floor, and the tower's entry door was moved from the west side of the building to its east side, and new steps were constructed at that location because the new lavatory and partitions were situated where the west-side door had been.

Then, in 1978, the tower's armstrong levers and pipeline were retired, and along with some interlocking changes electric operation of all switches was implemented. The tower's most recent desk model board, showing the switches and signals within the most immediate interlocking, dates from then.

This, therefore, traces some of the tower's history up to its final days.

Much appreciation goes to railroad historian Mike Welsh who has been conducting ongoing research about B&O interlocking towers over the past several months using records available to him from the National Archives Record Center, the B&O Railroad Museum, various libraries and other sources. Without Mike's diligent work, much of this history would have been unavailable for this report.

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Table Interlocker: The 14-lever table machine at JD was put into service on January 5, 1943, as additions to the interlocking plant covering signaling of the Alexandria Branch from the west leg of the wye at Hyattsville to Chesapeake Junction. It was configured with two switch levers, one crossover lever, three direction-of-traffic levers, six signal levers and two spares. Direction-of-traffic would first have to be established before signals could be engaged. Some of the levers had buttons to be pushed as an added safeguard to effect certain out-of-the-ordinary routings. The levers were color-coded black for the switches and crossover, gray for direction-of-traffic, red for signals, and white for spares. Route locks were automatic within this assembly, but if separate locking levers had been needed, they would have been color-coded blue. The spare levers served no immediate purpose, but they were in place if needed for additions to the interlocking and/or to replace other levers becoming defective.

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Chronology of Events - JD Tower (1894-1992)

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Photo, c-1947, with an eastbound passenger train passing JD Tower, shows the tower as it looked before the entry door was moved to the building's east side. Entry at the time of the photo was through a door near the corner of the west side. The assembly extending from the front of the tower parallel to the ballast was the pipeline by which the operator moved switches and crossovers manually using mechanical levers in the tower. The levers and pipeline were retired in 1978. Until 1949 JD Tower was heated by coal. It was delivered by train, and the coal chute was trackside near the northwest corner of the building. It was each operator's duty in cold weather to properly tend the furnace for the next shift before going home. [Photo by E.L. Thompson]

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Some of the People

Here are some of the members of the JD Family - past and present - who through the years significantly contributed to the tower's legacy. Much is based upon the personal accounts of such noted retired operators as John Sim and Donald Breakiron, who themselves are included herewith, and from whatever other sources became available. Regrettably, many members of the JD family from the earliest days of the office, who properly should have been included, are not. History does have a way of becoming lost. Time, however, will never dim the glory of their deeds. The legacy of the place belongs to all who have served here... all of them.

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE 'Some of the People'

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The Saga of Saucerman

This is a TRUE STORY and no annals of JD Tower would ever be complete without it.

It happened in the evening of July 14, 1974. The operator on duty observed a 'ball of fire' descend onto the right-of-way near the Baltimore Avenue overpass several hundred feet west of the tower. He thought that the fire may have been something from outer space...

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE 'The Saga of Saucerman'

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To Move a President

One of JD Tower's most noteworthy achievements was one that, at the time, had to be kept secret.. Presidential moves were nothing new to the B&O. They happened frequently. But with Franklin D. Roosevelt, JD Tower at Alexandria Junction, Maryland, was most often a hotbed of activity..

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE 'To Move a President'

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Making Westbound Moves from Potomac Yard

By Tom Swearman . . .

I suppose the most unusual thing I remember about JD Tower was the turning of westbound freight trains out of Potomac Yard. This was before the installation of the crossovers at Melrose Avenue, which took place in 1943.

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE 'Making Westbound Moves from Potomac Yard'

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A Hot Time at JD Tower

By Donald Breakiron . . .

Here is an incident that took place in the fall of 1968 while I was on second-trick at JD. This was before the days of having a dumpster, and it was my self-appointed duty to dispose of the trash each day by burning it...


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The Initials 'JD'

The name of the office was Alexandria Junction. But like all offices using Morse telegraph for communication, it was identified by an 'office call' for expedience in keying transmissions. Offices were assigned a call consisting of one or two letters. Each dispatching district had its own listing of office call designations that would not duplicate the call of any other office on the district.

While it is true that the letter or letters assigned were often taken from the name of the office involved ('A' for Aberdeen, 'BE' for Belcamp, etc.), this was not always the case. The call that was assigned to an office became its identifier even if the letters bore no relationship to its actual name. This is as it was at Alexandria Junction; its office call 'JD' seems to have been applied randomly.

Interestingly, the official timetable name Alexandria Junction was later changed to JD Tower... but this did not happen until after Morse communication had been mostly eliminated in favor of voice communication.

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From the Attic at JD Tower

Excitement was in the air one Sunday in late 1986 as a long-awaited assault upon the attic at JD Tower took place. The anticipation of discovery was not unlike that of opening a time capsule, it was not known what, if any, time period would be represented and waiting there to be found.

Access to the attic was through a small trap door in the middle of the high ceiling, and an extension ladder was brought in for this purpose. There was initial disappointment when, at first glance, all that could be found was insulation. But it was soon discovered that the insulation, a more recent addition, had been covered atop the rolls of paper goodies just waiting underneath.

Found were copies of train orders, clearance cards, miscellaneous papers, block sheets and other records from the 1950s.

Dust and itchy insulation aside, it was a productive effort!

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Tower Included in Historic Listing

JD Tower is listed in the 'Inventory of Historic Resources' of Prince George's County, Maryland. As such, it carries a degree of protection under county law, but this by itself would not prevent demolition of the structure if no bona fide use for it could be found.

The listing is covered under the county's historic preservation program administered by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and is one of over 500 sites included on a county-wide historical map. It is listed as 'B&O Switching Tower/Alexandria Junction.'

Here is what the commission reported in a 1974 historical survey summary as to the tower's significance:

"The Baltimore and Ohio switching tower is a rare surviving reminder of the early days of railroading in Prince George's County. It stands by the side of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line in Hyattsville, approximately 1000 feet north of the junction with the Washington and Point Lookout Branch, and is the only remaining Victorian structure on the B&O Railroad in this area. (It) is distinguished by modest elements of Victorian decorative detail, i.e., the variation of shingle siding and acroteria. It appears to be functional and (with the fine Victorian railroad station at Laurel) is one of the last vestiges of the early days of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad." [Prince George's County Historic Site Summary, Survey P.G. #68-8.]

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A Model of JD Tower

Donald Smith, a Montgomery County policeman, has transformed his fascination for JD Tower into making an HO-scale model of it.


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Parties in 'The Park'

A stretch of land on the opposite side of the tracks from JD Tower was once a streetcar line. Now it serves as a right-of-way for an electric power line. A clear space has been kept trimmed, and its use for picnics by members of the railfan community during warmer weather weekends is now legendary..

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE Parties in 'The Park'

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Some Photos from the JD Tower Scrapbook

CLICK HERE FOR 'Some Photos from the JD Tower Scrapbook'

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The Last Logbook Entry

March 5, 1992... Alexandria Junction Tower opened with an 8-lever Union Mechanical machine installed March 1894... Second installation 16-lever Union Mechanical machine 1906... Tower location changed, moved from sta. 94+25 to sta. 93+63 on Oct. 23, 1912... Tower and machinery destroyed by wreck Aug. 11, 1917; rebuilt and restored to service Oct. 3, 1917... Operator control switches and signals ended Febr. 21, 1992... Timetable reference to station JD Tower deleted Febr. 28, 1992... Tower closed March 5, 1992... This, then, is my last entry to the JD logbook, and all operators who have heretofore served this station and are here with us in spirit, will be invited to depart with us now as I prepare to lock the door. I value the honor of being the station's last operator. JD Tower Alexandria Junction, Maryland, rest in peace. /s/ Allen R. Brougham, Jr.

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A Final Tribute - the Locking of the Tower

The honor of closing JD Tower had been bestowed to me. At 2300 hours on March 5, 1992, my tour of duty ended, and all positions at the tower were therewith abolished. A brief ceremony was arranged, and about 20 people assembled to witness the event...

CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE 'A Final Tribute - the Locking of the Tower'

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An Epilogue

It was my requested honor to be the operator to close JD Tower. I cherish that honor. But I know I wasn't truly worthy of it. Surely one of the many earlier operators would have been much more worthy of the honor than was I. The late Mr. Sigafoose comes most immediately to mind.

The life and times at the tower were not always so easy as they were in more recent years. The glory days extending back to before the 1950s found the place: (1) without air-conditioning; (2) with coal in the basement to be shoveled each shift; (3) with no indoor toilet; (4) with armstrong levers to throw; (5) with the messy aftermath of soot and smoke from passing trains; and (6) with a longer work week. Add to all of this the legacy of oil lamps, Morse communication between offices, written orders and messages instead of radios, and a sundry of other glory-day railroading features, one can understand what I mean by implying that any honors that are due are really to those of an era long before my own.

My sincerest regret is in knowing so little about the members of the JD family from the tower's earliest days. Much appreciation, however, does to to those who did attempt to learn something about them. Source material included company employee magazines from 1913, and publications by the operators' union from 1908. To Mario Hendricks who spent a number of hours researching the former, and to Robert Williams who spent a day in Washington researching the latter, I offer special thanks. While their efforts to at least produce a list of names were not successful, their research will prove helpful to future projects.

Once again, the legacy of JD Tower belongs to all of its family. So it was with this in mind that the focus of the tower's closing ceremony was to allow all who had so nobly served the office in the past, and who were still there in spirit, to symbolically depart in a musical procession just before the door was locked.

To them we bid farewell. Thank you for your share in the legacy of Alexandria Junction Tower.

Now may it rest in peace.

Allen Brougham