Ross Stong: Working on the Railroad

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

p.morenci-depot Don’t let the title or the cover photo throw you off. Stanley Stong’s book about his father’s life with the Ohio & Morenci Railroad is much more than a tale of trains.

You don’t have to be a rail fan to appreciate it. Anyone can pick out the gems about life in the first half of the 20th century. Just call it a local history book, and make sure you call it interesting.

Stong himself describes the book as a mixed bag—his father’s biography, the local railroad history, and the effect that the railroad had on small-town American life.

Born in 1889, Stanley’s father Ross grew up during an exciting segment of American history—and a time when the railroad was king. After the initial spread of railroads across the rural landscape, next came the advent of the electric interurban passenger car, allowing residents from towns such as Lyons, Morenci and Fayette to travel to other communities along the line.

Stanley’s book is largely gleaned from letters he wrote to his grandchildren—letters that introduced them to the great-grandfather they never had the privilege of knowing.

“My father would have told this story of his life much better than I,” Stanley wrote in the introduction. “As he was a gifted speaker and storyteller, these tales would have been presented in a fascinating manner.”

Stanley says that his father and the railroads grew up together. Ross was born on the family farm in Chesterfield Township, just a few years before the first tracks were laid through the township. First came the Lima Northern that passed through Denson on its way to Adrian. Within a few years, the Toledo & Western electric railroad traveled west through Denson and Morenci.

As Ross grew up on the farm, he watched passenger cars transporting people east and west, north and south. Tied to the routine of farm life, he could only imagine what it was like to travel the rails.

Eventually the railroad led to his ticket off the farm and Ross grew up to work for both rail lines. They prospered together before finally fading into history. Ross died in 1949, the Ohio & Morenci (successor to the Toledo & Western) folded less than two years later. The Detroit, Toledo & Ironton (formerly the Lima Northern) was abandoned in 1979, but passenger service had ended long before.

Electric interurban

The electric-powered railroad burst upon turn-of-the-century America, playing a crucial role in the country’s development before fading away a couple of generations later. By 1900, there were 10 lines branching out from Toledo, including the Toledo & Western that headed toward Indiana.

Developers of the T&W saw a grand plan—“a vital link in the middle of a chain of interurbans,” wrote Stanley. There would be a connection to the south at Denson. A connection in Morenci with the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, a connection by stage coach to the Wabash at North Morenci, a connection at Alvordton with the Cincinnati Northern. It was to become part of a Buffalo to Chicago corridor, but it never materialized.

The rail into Indiana was never completed and the passenger base was reduced to the residents of the small towns and farms along the line. The T&W’s unique feature of handling freight cars in addition to passenger  units eventually proved a detriment due to safety issues and traffic control. Village councils failed to renew permits to allow train tracks in village streets.

Passenger service through Morenci ended in 1932 and a year later freight traffic ceased. The Teeter & Wobble, as it was known, lasted just over 30 years.

The interurban’s legacy went far beyond the abandoned stations left behind. It was the railroad that brought electricity to the communities through which it passed, and marked the end of wood and coal stoves.

But the future looked bleak for the Stong family in 1933, until the T&W line from Pioneer to Allen Junction (between Berkey and Sylvania) was sold. With the purchase of  the “Yellow Mule”—a gasoline-powered locomotive—a freight operation known as the Ohio & Morenci Railroad was maintained for 18 years, and Ross Stong was hired as superintendent.

In autumn of 1949, Stanley writes, fate stepped in and his father died of an aortic aneurism. This spared him from seeing the end of the O&M a year and a half later.

“Personally,” Stanley wrote, “I prefer to consider that he and his beloved railroad passed into the sunset and history together.”

– June 14, 2006

Glimpses of Life 

Stanley Stong writes about life in the apartment above the depot in Morenci. The building still stands on Main Street next to the video rental store.

The Parlor

In those days it was fashionable to have a parlor in which to entertain and impress your guests. The room was little used otherwise. The centerpieces of the room were a matching overstuffed davenport and easy chair, upholstered in mohair. The upholstery was dark, stiff, prickly and uncomfortable.

The parlor had an entirely different function during the winter months. As there was no heat in the bedrooms, [we] would move the beds into the parlor, where, although there was no heat, enough heat drifted in from the living room to make sleep possible.

Living Room

The living room was used by the family more than any other room. The room was heated by a coal-fired stove which stood near the center of the room. We purchased coal from Porter Lumber Company just across the street.

Telephone

It was a party line telephone with several families sharing a single phone number, each subscriber assigned a specific ring (e.g., two shorts and a long). To place a call to another telephone number, you gave the crank a healthy single twist which connected you with “Central.”

Central, always a woman, was the cornerstone of the telephone system. Central was a wonderful clearing house of useful and up-to-date information. She was even known to help promote romances. When calling a girlfriend, Central might say, “Oh, Stanley, Rosie has gone to Toledo with her family, but they will be back around 9 o’clock.” How telephone service has deteriorated over the years!

Refrigeration

In the 1920s and 30s, an icebox stood in the kitchen. We would notify the iceman of the amount of ice we wanted by rotating a window sign (25, 50, 75 or 100 pounds). The iceman, protecting his shoulder with a heavy leather shoulder shield, carried the block of ice up the back stairs and carefully placed it in the ice box.

The ice had been cut in a nearby lake during the previous winter and stored in an ice house located near the Old Dolly station [by the existing fertilizer plant on Coomer Street].

Garbage Disposal

Our solution to the garbage problem was simple, though not accepted by today’s standards. My mother simply threw the garbage out a rear bedroom window. Potato peelings? Dirty laundry water? Out the window!

Baths

There was neither bathtub nor shower in the apartment. Baths were taken in the kitchen on Saturday, the traditional bath day. The tub was a large galvanized tub which was moved into the kitchen and filled with bucketfuls of hot water. In winter, baths were taken as near the kitchen stove as possible. Privacy and modesty are not appropriate terms to describe our baths.

 

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