• James Eichenlaub

The (Not So Great) Train Robbery

Updated: Sep 11

According to one source, "In 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company purchased the farmstead of David Robeson, paying him $11,000 for land worth about $2,500 for farming purposes." This patch of dirt later became known as the city of Altoona, PA, where my nephew Richard and I were born and raised.

To some degree, the railroad is in my blood, having lived most of my life within walking distance of the tracks, and in a few cases, within spitting distance. Consequently, friends, relatives, and I spent many hours of our young lives in and around the shop yards, hiking along the tracks, and/or looking for relics of the days-gong-by rail industry and long-past train wrecks.

One spring or summer afternoon of our early teen years, circa 1964 or so, Richard and I walked along 10th Avenue behind the old Wolf's Furniture building when a freight train rolled into the far side of the rail yard as it was presumably slowing to stop.

As it passed, Richard saw that one of the boxcar doors was slightly ajar, and the car appeared to be full of boxes or bags, perhaps crates of something. We threw our speculations back and forth as to what it might be, and in the end, deduced that whatever it was, we could use some of it, That is, if we could somehow get at it.

As we continued our stroll, we hooked up onto 11th Avenue somewhere near the center of town for a bit of window shopping. As we did so, we heard the screech and boom of the rail cars clashing against one another as the train slowly rolled to a stop.

Now, when I say "window shopping," there is no inference to Microsoft; we were looking at what was behind the windows in the stores, which was the closest thing we had back then to online shopping! In those days, browsing required legs, feet, and actual motion of the body. Especially those lower extremities, if you know what I mean?

Our intended destination was the movie theater, but between us, we had enough money to visit McCrory's five and dime where we could pop a balloon for a free banana split. It was all a matter of luck! Each of eight or ten helium balloons contained a small piece of paper on which the price was written. They varied, of course. Some had the actual price, some discounted, and one (supposedly) was FREE!

So, we both set about selecting the color of our choice, assuming that if one of us found the free one, we would still have enough money for the Olympic Theater! After several minutes of debate over warm and cold colors, which was the luckiest color (like green, for instance), I settled for pink (likely because I was infatuated with females), and he took red!

As it turned out, neither he nor I was that lucky, but we did get some small discount, but it left us with insufficient funds for the movie and only a small amount for other minor entertainments like a couple of pinball games at the arcade!

We left McCrory's and walked down through town past Joe's United Cigar Store, until we reached the Logan Theater just a few doors away from our intended evening of entertainment, and crossed Eleventh Avenue to what was called 'The Penny Arcade, (Which was a lie. There was nothing in there for less than a nickel.) In less than thirty minutes, we walked out the door with empty pockets and the sun just past its zenith. NOW, WHAT?

After a few seconds of serious contemplation, we reached the corner of Eleventh Street and Eleventh Avenue. We decided to have another look at the rails where we saw the freight train stop earlier. Looking down Eleventh Street, and sure enough...not only was the train still there, but that very same open boxcar sat almost directly within our line of sight!

At this point in the story, "Uh oh!," Richard's juvenile delinquency rapidly bubbled to the surface.

Returning to Tenth Avenue, we walked along the chainlink fence until Richard spotted a portion of the fence bent away with an opening wide enough through which to crawl. Probably made by wandering hobos to jump easily in and out of the yards, it was nearly hidden by the weeds and brush on the street side. Tipping an imaginary hat to the purveyor of our good fortune, we slipped through the crack and into the rail yard.

With the Twelfth Street bridge in plain view not a quarter-mile distant, the two of us skedaddled across the open five or six rows of tracks toward the car full of treasure! Like two wads of loose cat hair up a Hoover, we were inside where the air was stagnant and stiflingly hot. Surrounding us were stacks and stacks of bags and boxes, all laid out and strapped to wooden pallets, and not a single one of them accessible without a crowbar, cutters, and other sharp objects. Unfortunately, we both left our train robbery tools at home that day.

Set in close to one another with small gaps between and wider along the sides, we were able to pull ourselves up onto one of the palates and jump from one to the other, investigating all that we could that was near the light of the slightly opened door. But as we moved away from the door, the car became eerily dark at either end, and as I approached the leading end of the car, I saw what appeared to be the motionless figure of someone sitting between the crates and the forward-facing wall.

Not desirous of disturbing the slumber of what could likely be a sleeping train-troll or something worse, I leaped and hopped back to the open door where I told Richard what I saw. Of course, Richard 'the Lion Heart' immediately wanted to investigate and insisted on returning to the scene of the enigma. Personally speaking, I was ready to search for another form of fun like jumping in front of a moving train or pounding a nail through my foot.

To our good (and bad) fortune, just as he determined a course of action and prepared himself for battle, the distant rumble of moving rail cars began in the distance. The thunderous sound starts when the engine moves forward, and all of the railcars in succession are jerked into submission to follow. A few seconds and our car heaved, slamming us against the palates. We rushed to the open door just as the train began to move.

Richard's eyes suddenly filled with flames of adventure!

"HOW COOL IS THIS!" he shouted.

At that moment, we became official hobos and looked at one another with the same question in our eyes, "Should we ride it or not?" I mean, seriously, we can jump off any time we want, right? So there we stood until the train rolled slowly through and past the Juniata shops.

When the train began to gather speed, it was still not too fast to jump. That is, of course, if we didn't mind being torn apart by rail ties and gravel. But we could escape if we really wanted. But we thought it better at the moment not to and stood by the open door watching hobo television as the trees and fields rushed past.

As you might have guessed, it wasn't until civilization disappeared that we began to question our decision. As another train moving in the opposite direction flew past us, I was suddenly not so cool with this after all. Anxiety and fear grew by the second, but neither of us would admit to our trepidation about where or when we would end up.

Riding on in silence like Poncho and Lefty, neither of us dared to bring up the subject of how we would get back to where we started, and my anxiety was peaking when I realize that the train appeared to be slowing again. We sat on the wooden floor near the opened door, contemplating our exit, and in that same instant, a chilling sound hit the back of our ears amid the odor of cigarette smoke that wafted toward us.

"What the hell are you boys doin in my car?"

A voice that came at us in a sort of high-pitched Walter Brennen tone.

Half expecting to see Amos McCoy, we turned, and instead of Amos, there stood before us, like a prize in a Cracker Jack box, our very first real live hobo-in-a-boxcar.

Never offering his name (and we never asked) he stared at us through thick lenses that made his eyes look like he'd seen many frightening and fearful things in his life. Intently staring at me through those ocular inquisitors, he awaited an answer.

"We uz just," I paused, shrugging my shoulders and trying to find the necessary words, "Just messin around...an, uh, and the train started goin," I said.
"I seen ya sneakin up on me and then ya got skeered and run off. I thought you'd jumped out the door cause it got quiet." He said.

Pausing for another long haul on his cigarette, he continued,

So then, ya'd better get off here, or you're gonna have one helluva long walk back to Altoona,"

Smoke spewed from his nostrils as he said,

"The next station ya kin off at after this is Harrisburg cuz these here freights don't stop at no small towns usually."

About that time, civilization returned as the train slowed to pass through Tyrone. By this time, the train was again barely moving, and the hobo went to the opposite side of the car and jerked the door open for us.

"Git out over here," he snapped, "I don't want the yard bulls to see yunze, or they'll come looking for me uz well."

Gripping the rail at the side of the door, we lowered ourselves to the gravel and stepped off into the trees as the hobo closed the door behind us without as much as a wave. The train was lengthy, and it took some time to pass. So as we sat in the weeds waiting in the late afternoon sun as we talked about how to get back home.

Options: We can hope another train comes by. (A thought I wanted no part of.) We have no money, so a cab is out of the question. How far was it to walk? I don't know. Which road do we take? I don't know! Nothing but questions without answers. Once the train passed, we walked across the railbeds through the trees opposite and out onto the street.

Our final choice was to wait at the train station. We sat on a bench for some time, trying to figure a way home, and left without a choice; I picked up a payphone and dialed '0' for the operator.

"I wanta make a collect call to 814-944-1593," I said.

It was well after dark when my older brother arrived at the station and drove us back to our respective homes and bedrooms, where we were sure to have a switch taken to our backsides!

Those, however, were different days, different times. There were no such things as being grounded or given time-outs. Ironically, no switch. Richard when to his home and I to mine.

And, as it turned out, my brother never ratted us out. Richard was presumed to be at my house, so his parents were none the wiser, and my mother was still at work, so she never had an inkling of what we'd done. So after some dinner and television, I went to bed, and the following morning no reprieves were necessary, leaving us little else to do but plan another new adventure!

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