Westminster man to talk about Pennsylvania Railroad

Westminster resident Jack Norris, left, is shown with Brad Smith, the former curator at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Norris presented his diary of experiences with the railroad to the museum (Photo courtesy of Jack Norris / March 31, 2013)

Westminster resident Jack Norris had a long, full 50-year career as a business owner in the sales industry.

He is the father of two and grandfather of five.

But when he talks about what's closest to his heart, you quickly realize that nothing has ever topped the summer of 1957, between his junior and senior years at Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn., when he interned on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Norris kept an extensive diary during his summer on the rails, which was highlighted in the January 2013 issue of Rails Magazine.


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He will talk about it Wednesday, April 3, at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library.

"I was a junior at Trinity and the railroad was interviewing seniors for internships, and I impressed upon them my passion for railroading, and they offered me a summer job," Norris said.

Born and raised in Westminster, Norris became enthralled with the Western Maryland Railroad, on which he frequently traveled to Baltimore and occasionally to Cumberland.

"My job with the Pennsylvania Railroad was based in Indianapolis, Indiana," he said. "But when I got out there early in the summer, they didn't have a job for me because they were furloughing people.

"But they put me on the payroll anyway, and for the next few months I did every conceivable job there is on the railroad," he said.

Every night that summer, when Norris returned to the local YMCA, or wherever he happened to be staying, he'd write down all the day's events while they were still fresh in his mind.

"I put down all types of notes, about how I felt about the railroad, the deterioration of the tracks. I kept a detailed diary on a daily basis, with names of people, my feelings about track conditions, all kinds of stories — everything," said Norris, who by the end of that magic summer had compiled a detailed, handwritten 127-page journal.

He recently donated the journal to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, in Strasburg, Pa., and will give a presentation as a keynote speaker during the museum's annual membership meeting on Sept. 28

"You know what a hump yard is?" he asked, referring to a railroad yard where cars are shunted from one train to another. "I worked in those, and I got to climb on top of boxcars to turn on the brakes. That's where I learned how to get off of a moving train going 25 miles an hour."

"I had a pass to ride on the engines, and I covered a whole area of the country: Peoria; Terre Haute, Indiana; St. Louis; Chicago," he said. "Along the way, I did everything.

"One time, coming back east, I had a pass that allowed me to go from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh to Altoona. That's when I got to go around the famous Horseshoe Curve in an engine — can you imagine that?"

Norris was referring to the one-of-a-kind, 3,485-foot-long, triple-tracked railroad curve in the Allegheny Mountains, of Blair County, Pa., which is a Mecca for railroad buffs.

While some of his observations and experiences may appeal most to railroad aficionados, others are decidedly more light-hearted.

There was, for example, a wedding he attended in Chicago while he was working in Indianapolis.

"I was at a wedding reception in South Chicago at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and the waitress got so tired of getting individual glasses of champagne for me that she finally gave me a whole bottle .... well, actually, not only one bottle, but two or three," he recalled sheepishly.

"It was a hot summer day and you can imagine what happened to me," he added with a chuckle. "After the reception, they poured me into a car and took me to Evanston, Indiana, which is north of Chicago, and put me in a tub of cold water, and poured ice into it and got me sober.

"Then they put me on a suburban train at 8 o'clock at night that took me to Union Station, in Chicago. From there, I took an 11 o'clock train called the Kentuckian that arrived back in Indianapolis at 4:30 the next morning. I was back in my office at 7:30."

After his unforgettable summer of '57, Norris did a stint in the Army, earned a master's degree, married, raised a family, and eventually started and ran two businesses.

Meanwhile, his diary gathered dust in various attics and closets. "It survived over 50 years and 12 moves," he said.

In 1987, Norris moved back to Westminster. After he retired, he began taking courses at Carroll Community College, mainly to keep himself busy, including several classes with popular history professor Robert Young. Young's encouragement inspired him to dust off his diaries and polish them up.

"He heard my stories, and he just gave me the inspiration to get off my butt and do something with them," Norris said.

Jack Norris will share his railroad memories and discuss other aspects of the nation's railroad industry at a presentation April 4, at 6:30 p.m., at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Public Library, 50 E. Main St., Westminster.

For information, call 410-386-4490.