Harry Carl Eck

Harry C. Eck
Harry C. Eck(Baltimore Sun)

Harry C. Eck, a former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad locomotive engineer who rose to become superintendent of locomotive operations and later, as a docent at the B&O Museum, shared his enthusiasm for railroading with visitors, died Saturday of pneumonia at Northwest Hospital.

The Catonsville resident was 86.

"You can't go wrong saying something good about Harry. He was bright and energetic," said Archie McElvany, a B&O veteran who retired as general manager of operations from successor CSX in 1988.

"He was the absolute best person to have on the railroad because he could make things happen. He'd take ideas and make them happen," said Mr. McElvany who lives in Idlewylde.

The son of a lumber merchant and a homemaker, Harry Carl Eck was born in Baltimore and raised on Chapel Gate Lane.

Mr. Eck's romance with steam railroading began as a small child in the early 1930s, when his family took "Depression Sunday drives in the family's Studebaker."

"And when we did this, I would always ask my daddy, 'Can we go by a railroad crossing?' in hopes of seeing a train, and frequently we did," he told Paula Snell, who interviewed Mr. Eck in 2002 for the B&O Museum's oral history collection.

"So my entire ride was based on when we get to the railroad track, crossing over and hopefully seeing a train with one of those big beautiful steam locomotives," Mr. Eck said. "Without the steam locomotive, I'm not sure I would have chosen the railroad industry for a livelihood."

Mr. Eck began his career the summer of 1943, between his junior and senior year at Polytechnic Institute, when he went to work at the B&O's Mount Clare shops as a 52-cent-an-hour electrical apprentice.

After graduating from Poly in 1944, he got a job as an apprentice fireman, performing the backbreaking work of hand-firing Q-4 steam engines — what Mr. Eck called "shovel engines" — on runs between Baltimore, Brunswick and Cumberland, at a daily pay rate of $8.07.

"We were on duty for like 14 hours. So it was a long day," recalled Mr. Eck in the interview of his first day in engine service.

Mr. Eck was promoted to engineer, running both freight and passenger trains, and in 1956 was promoted to assistant road foreman of engines on the B&O's Philadelphia-Baltimore division.

In 1959, he was promoted to assistant road foreman of engines on the New Castle, Pa.-Akron, Ohio, division.

From 1961 to 1962, Mr. Eck was an air brake instructor before being named general supervisor of locomotive operations in 1963, a job he held until 1974 when he was named superintendent of locomotive operations.

Mr. Eck's career coincided with the end of steam on the B&O and the dawn of the diesel electric era.

"I hated diesels when they arrived. I wanted steam to flourish forever," said Mr. Eck in the interview. "So, if you can't beat them, join them."

After studying diesel locomotives at General Motors Electro-Motive Division in La Grange, Ill., he developed a reputation as an excellent diesel troubleshooter.

"And I learned the game and tried to be a good troubleshooter. Couldn't shovel coal anymore, had to do something," he said.

As much as he loved steam, Mr. Eck said it was the diesel that saved American railroading.

"If it hadn't been for the diesel locomotive, all the railroads would have been bankrupt in a couple of years because the steam locomotive required a tremendous maintenance force," he said.

"Harry wrote a book, 'The Modern Locomotive Handbook,' that was used not only by our railroad but railroads all over the country," said Mr. McElvany.

When the B&O was contemplating power for operation of its trains, they turned to Mr. Eck.

"He'd conduct all the tests that told us how we wanted to run a train. He did it, and did it very well," said Mr. McElvany. "We would look at something and then put it up to Harry, who made it happen. He was just tops."

Mr. Eck retired in 1985, but made the transition into working as a docent at the B&O Museum, where he operated a collection of historic engines and spoke to visitors.

"Harry had great patience and the ability to judge how much technology a visitor wanted to know. He could go to any level and would tailor his remarks," said Courtney Wilson, executive director of the museum. "He was loved by visitors from all over the world."

"He knew working railroading and could communicate it beautifully," said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired CSX executive and B&O historian and author. "He was a very impressive docent."

He had been a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and RABO, a B&O retirement organization, and since 1997 wrote a column for its quarterly newsletter, "Harry Eck Lets Off Steam!"

Reflecting on his career, he told a Washington Post reporter in 1998, "It's tangible stuff."

"Sounds, mostly: whistles, steam sounds, engines picking up speed, the wind at night, the clack of the wheels over rails or seeing the light from the locomotive through the pitch dark."

He added: "I remember it clearly — the freight trains, meat on the hoof from Chicago, the beer coming from St. Louis. You get a sense of the countryside when you're in the locomotive; you understand completely the weather, the temperatures and the aches of honest work."

Mr. Eck was a member of Catonsville United Methodist Church, 6 Melvin Ave., where services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Surviving are his wife of 53 years, the former Charlotte Exley; a son, Henry H. Eck of Catonsville; a daughter, Mary Elizabeth McFarland of Havre de Grace; and two grandsons.