December 2002

Fire in the Bellefontaine, Ohio Roundhouse

It has been some time since I have mentioned the old New York Central Railroad, but I remember the time when I was in the second grade at an old four-room schoolhouse in Bellefontaine, Ohio. We lived on top of a hill, and could see the roundhouse and back shops from the upstairs window of the house. This was also in the days when it was not unusual to have a hobo stop in for a free meal. My mother always fed them, and I suspect they had our place marked as they always came directly to our door and not to the neighbors.

The whistle to start the work shifts at the roundhouse could be heard all over town as well as the whistle signal to call the wreck crew and other things, which I was too young to understand. It was also in the days following the great Depression, and times were still hard and anyone with a railroad job was a lucky man.

My father had a good job as a machinist, but took layoffs at times when work was short. I can recall, at one time he had an old square car with red wheels and had to sell it to pay a grocery bill. After that, he had to walk to and from work each day. On one particular day, we heard the whistles sounding in an alarming way and the word quickly spread around that the roundhouse was on fire. This was very bad news for the city and county as the New York Central was the largest employer around. The whole economy of the area depended on the railroad. We had two main lines or divisions come together in Bellefontaine. I was told the fire might have started from someone doing some welding, and since everything was made of wood there was no way they could put it out.

We sat at home on the hill, and heard many explosions during the day as the fire raged on out of control. Some of the explosions were from chemicals, and some were exploding steam engines. When the fire finally burned everything to the ground, the community was in shock and all were wondering where the next payday would come from or if there would ever be another one. A decision was made to rebuild the roundhouse, and many men including my father were sent to other places to work. My father was transferred to the riverside shop in the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio where he worked until the new facility was completed.

It was shortly after he was transferred that he decided to bring the family to live with him. After living in a house with a very spacious yard to play in it became difficult to live in a downstairs apartment with no yard and no new friends. I recall a small pretzel factory directly across the narrow street where we lived, and we used to watch a man folding them by hand behind a large window. The first thing I learned after moving there was the two party system I encountered. The first thing I was asked was "are you Catholic or Protestant?" In that neighborhood the three story Protestant school was on one end of the street, and the Catholic school was on the other end of the street. The kids very seldom played together even on weekends at the playground unless it was some kind of a rough game where they could batter one another.

One time, I was in a city park back of our apartment flying a new kite my mother bought me when two Catholic boys came running toward me, and while one boy held my kite string the other boy had two rocks in his hands and used them to pound on the string until it came apart. After that, the boys from the Catholic school flew the kite. Now these two boys had kind of a rough reputation, and all knew who they were. My mother went to their mother's house and had it out with them. Later that day the kite was back in my hands and the Protestant boys were having the fun.

On another occasion we would play dodge ball in the swimming pool after it was drained in the fall, and this also became a contest when the two parties would jump in and see how many of the opposite ones they could hit. We were all happy when the men were recalled to Bellefontaine and we returned to our home on the hill with the big yard and all the friends we left behind. It was also a great time for the community to see all the jobs return home and the local business people enjoying good paying customers once again. For many years after that, the railroad prospered in Bellefontaine and times were good, but the old timers still remember the sad day the roundhouse burned down in Bellefontaine.

And so it was in the old roundhouse.

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