Faces in the Crowd: Alvin Jones

December 2, 2019

by Gene Bodnar

Several weeks ago, Dennis Guerriero, the Chamber Ambassador who set up the railroad museum in the Clare Railroad Depot, introduced me to Alvin Jones, who is a long-time railroad engineer and major contributor of historical artifacts to the museum. Dennis arranged the interview for me and even provided two comfortable living room chairs for the occasion.

Alvin was born in 1930 in Carlton, Michigan, a small town near Monroe. He graduated from Monroe High School, and then joined the Army, serving a 3-year stint from 1948 to 1951.

After returning home from the Army, he was hired by the Chicago & North Western Railroad as a Fireman. The CNW holds the distinction of being the only left-handed railroad (meaning that all signs are on the left-hand side of the tracks) ever built. It was also the first railroad to connect with the Union Pacific at Council Bluffs in 1867. These two railroads merged in 1995.

A fireman’s main duty was to shovel coal into the firebox and ensure that the boiler maintains sufficient steam pressure. Alvin says there were two methods of feeding coal into the firebox: stoker and hand. In the stoker method, a series of 6 jets fed coal by using a compression method. In the hand method, which was the method used by Alvin (and the one he preferred), coal was spread only where it was needed, filling light spots and spreading it evenly. A Fireman also served as a “copilot” to the Engineer, responsible for knowing the signals, curves, and grade changes to anticipate the amount of steam needed.

In 1954, Alvin began working as a Fireman for the Pere Marquette Railway, which merged into the Chesapeake & Ohio in April of 1947. Throughout his long career, he witnessed numerous mergers. The so-called Chessie System was incorporated in 1973. It became the parent of the Baltimore & Ohio, the Chesapeake & Ohio, and the Western Maryland that same year. The Chessie System and SCL Industries merged to form CSX Corporation in 1980. The B&O took over the WM in 1983, and the C&O took over the B&O in 1987, becoming for corporate purposes, the only Chessie System railroad. Finally, CSX Transportation merged with C&O in 1987.

In 1957, Alvin was promoted to Engineer. As a Railroad Engineer, his duties included not only operating the locomotive but also being intimately aware of the weather and rail quality; being an expert in solving technical problems through effective troubleshooting; ensuring that schedules for trains are followed and railroad regulations are not neglected; and following alerts and instructions from the railroad station so he can act instantly in case of an accident.

During his career, Alvin experienced many interesting and sometimes terrifying events. For example, during his very first day as a Fireman on the Pere Marquette train, he was feeding coal into the firebox when an automobile crashed into the engine right where the steps to the engine are located. He said, “I could have reached out and touched the vehicle; it was that close.”

At another time, he remembers a man falling from a distance into a pile of coal and getting buried up to his neck. It took quite a while to get him free from that pile.

Alvin once ran a locomotive for the Barnum & Bailey Circus that consisted of nothing but a huge number of wild animals, with no passengers aboard. The whole operation had to be handled with kid gloves.

Among the many locomotives he has operated, Alvin ran the famous Pere Marquette No. 1225. It’s a steam locomotive built in Lima, Ohio, that is presently one of two surviving such locomotives, the other being Pere Marquette No. 1223. Today, the No. 1225 is still an operating locomotive stationed in Owosso, but the No. 1223, which needs major renovations, is stationed in Grand Haven. Alvin’s locomotive has gained a measure of fame by being the model on which the locomotive in the movie “The Polar Express” is based.

On September 17, 1973, Alvin was involved in a 3-train collision. An eastbound train was stopped at a signal. It was then rammed from behind by another engine that was pulling 25 cars. The crash resulted in cars from both trains being derailed, sending them into the path of a third westbound train. A total of 100 cars were directly involved in the accident, with ten crewmen hurt, two of them with broken bones and bruises. Three fire engines arrived at the scene, where diesel fuel and anti-freeze from one of the engines had spilled over the tracks. Furthermore, leaking formaldehyde seeped from a tank car, filling the air with fumes that required the evacuation of three families. Firemen sprayed the tank car with foam to prevent the formaldehyde from exploding. A C&O official declared, “This is the worst crash I’ve seen in 30 years.”

Alvin worked over 40 years as a Railroad Engineer, with 33 of those years with CSX. He “retired” in July of 1995. His retirement was celebrated with three retirement parties, one in Detroit, another in Midland, and a third that his sister threw him at his home.

A short time after he retired, he was called back to work as Superintendent of Engineers, where he became the supervisor of all other Engineers. For a time he also ran the dinner train until it was finally taken down in 2000.

Alvin says he loved working on the railroad; he loved the challenges of the job, and he loved controlling the enormous power of those huge steam locomotives. The only things he did not like about his job were the stopovers that required him to eat in bad restaurants and sleep in lousy motels. He solved those problems by sleeping right in the locomotive itself and by bringing his own food that he ate with his own mess kit.

Not a man to sit around doing nothing, Alvin got a job in Traverse City as a Security Guard for Pinkerton’s, which is the well-known private security guard and detective agency.

Even today at 89 years of age, Alvin is still quite active. He’s currently building a flatbed trailer from a kit, and this is not the first one.

I asked him if he had another other talents or occupations. He respond that, as a young man, he formed and belonged to two different musical bands – one called “Al Jones and His Hawaiian Heirs” and the other called “The Majors.” In both bands, Alvin could play either guitar or drums. He called the latter band “The Majors” because two of its members were majors in the Army. Incidentally, he once played drums with Gene Krupa’s drum sticks, and he owns those sticks today. (Gene Krupa, known as “The Drummer’s Drummer,” was the most influential drummer in history.) Alvin played in a number of bands through his entire lifetime in many cities around the country, even as far away as Seattle and Phoenix.

Alvin also told me that he loves to travel. He owns a pickup truck and an Airstream trailer, and he travels with a partner at every opportunity. I asked him where he likes to go. He said, “Wherever I want to – all over the country.” He then proceeded to name off about a dozen different states, all around the country.

One of the pictures he showed me was of him seated in a tractor, so I asked him if he did any farming. Yes, he did some farming early in life, but he stopped while he was in his 40s. “No, I’m not farmer now,” he said. “I always wanted to own a tractor, so I bought one.” He uses it for hay rides, parades, landscaping around the house, and other chores.

Alvin has donated a large number of railroad artifacts to the museum in the Clare Railroad Depot. They are nicely displayed in a large glass case in one corner of the museum. Included in the case is a collection of HO scale locomotives, with each one representing a type that Alvin operated during his long career. Another item is a very large slab-like chunk of coal that has railroad symbols mounted in it that a brakeman made for him years ago. Another item is a watch that is at least 125 years old – he owned it for about 60 years himself, and his uncle, another railroad man, gave it to him. His uncle owned it for at least 50 years before that. There is also a C&O pipe wrench, a B&O chisel, and waste tongs (a fire-starting tool) on display. In addition, you can find caboose lights, a C&O water keg, and a Pullman ash tray. A book of rules for the Tuscola Saginaw Bay Railway is also displayed.

You can also find items from the Chessie System, including a lighter, matches, and two decks of cards that display a cat, which was the symbol of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad. The mess kit he used to eat his meals on board the locomotives is also here. You can also view the switch keys used to gain entry to the engine, and a brake plug as well. Finally, you can see an ash tray from the House of Drums.

The badge he wore while working for the Pinkerton Agency is also on display. Last but not least, you can view his membership card in the International Itinerant Union of Hoboes.

Of course, anyone who is interested in local history or railroading history in general should come to the Clare Railroad Depot. It’s free. In addition to Alvin’s artifacts, there are literally hundreds of other interesting railroading items to view. It’s open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Don’t miss it.

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