An engineer looks back on 3 decades riding the rails


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March 17, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Two things happened to Harry C. Bowie III this week.

He celebrated his 60th birthday Sunday and brought his more than three-decade career as a locomotive engineer with an unblemished record officially to a close yesterday in a late-morning ceremony at Penn Station attended by fellow railroaders, family and friends.

On Thursday evening, the amiable and soft-spoken Bowie was about to begin his last run at the throttle of electric locomotive No. 4915 on the MARC Penn Line train No. 538.

During its 75-mile run, it delivered weary homeward-bound commuters to New Carrollton, Seabrook, Bowie State, Odenton, BWI Rail Station, West Baltimore, Penn Station, Martin Airport, Edgewood, Aberdeen and Perryville, its final stop.

Departing Washington's Union Station at 6:05 p.m., the train arrived in Balimore exactly an hour later.

"We were running a little slow because of the rain, which affects traction. You have to be careful and don't want to overdo it," Bowie explained yesterday.

"When we arrived in Baltimore, the road foreman of engines relieved me, and another engineer took the train onto Perryville. They took some pictures of me on the platform, and my conductor, Joe Jones, gave me a card with two Orioles tickets. Another engineer gave me a card and a present of a new quartz watch."

His career ended in the very building where it began 33 years earlier.

A Baltimore native who graduated from Boys' Latin School in 1965, Bowie earned a business degree from the University of Baltimore in 1970. He was working in an Owings Mills department store when he was laid off in 1974.

Recalling stories told by his best friend, railroader Steve Strachan, Bowie was walking by Penn Station when he decided to see if he could land a job. On the door of the employment office was a faded yellow sign saying the railroad was not hiring.

Bowie pushed ahead anyway, and when he arrived in the office, he astonished the employment director by giving him a resume.

"His name was Ray Curry, and I don't think he was used to seeing many resumes. Anyway, he told me that railroad work involved irregular hours and working in bad weather. I told him I was used to bad weather because I had been in the infantry," Bowie said.

"It turned out he had been in the infantry, and so we had this common bond. He told me they were testing 10 men the next day for the position of fireman and [asked] if I wanted to be a standby in case one didn't show up. One didn't show, so I took the test and was one of four who passed. I don't know who that guy was that didn't show, but I'd sure like to thank him," Bowie said.

He soon found himself assigned to the old Orangeville roundhouse near Bayview Yard, where he was given the job of hostler -- the person who moves engines to the outbound or fuel tracks, or into the roundhouse.

"On my first day there, the foreman told me to go down and bring up a couple of GG-1 electric locomotives. I just stood there and finally said, `Who, me?'

"He roared, `You're the hostler, aren't you?' I said I was, but I didn't know how to move an engine, and I had never in my life done it before. He then had someone show me how to do it, and I was off and running," Bowie said, laughing.

He learned quickly, and after working as a fireman, graduated from engineers' school, and was promoted to engineer in 1976.

He began his career with Penn-Central (which later became Conrail), where he was in freight service for 12 years. He handled Amtrak passenger trains and worked yard switchers at Bayview Yard, Washington's Union Station and at Potomac Yard in Virginia. Since 1994, he has been with MARC.

"Which is just enough excitement for me," said Bowie, a Mays Chapel resident.

Recalling his freight days, Bowie talked about the difficulties that sometimes arose with locomotives assigned to a long train.

"Whatever you got, you got, and you had to make it work," he said. "My happiest days were getting difficult trains such as the 65-car Tropicana juice train over the road. That always made me feel good."

Bowie remembers handling another difficult train on New Year's Day in 1979 -- his one and only wreck. On a run from Enola Yard near Harrisburg, Pa., down what railroaders call the Port Road, which lies on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, to Baltimore, several cars jumped the track.

"I had my doubts about that train before leaving Enola. We had 54 loads of coal and seven empties," Bowie said. "We were near Peachbottom and someone had chopped down an expensive tree, like a black walnut, and it was across the track."

He put the train into "full emergency" in an attempt to bring it to a stop.

"I could tell something was wrong. I had my conductor walk back, and he came on the radio and said, `Harry, you've got to walk back here and see this. Right now, I'm looking at the world's biggest freight car,'" Bowie said. "Two 65-foot boxcars had crashed into each other, forming a 130-foot-long car."

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