Eric Bombeck's "The Way We Were" by Nate Clark
Posted by jonathanwichter on November 29 2018 16:02:31
One snowy, black and white picture from just over 71 years ago provides a glimpse through a window into the world as it was. It is about to change, forever, and the world will be a better place.

Sharon, Pennsylvania Attorney Fred T. Fruit and a young associate (perhaps a legal assistant
) traipse through the unplowed snow alongside one of the Erie Railroad's six-axle, heavyweight dining cars in downtown Sharon on December 13, 1944. This image was recorded by an unknown photographer adjacent to Mile Post 81, as measured from River Bed Yard along the old Cuyahoga River channel ('bed'), near the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio. (Snowflakes in the recessed numeral '8' of the heavy, cast concrete milepost make it look like a '3'.) This is the Erie's Mahoning Division, First Subdivision, by way of Warren, Youngstown, and Hubbard, and M.P. "C 81's" location indicates this point's distance, as measured from Cleveland via that route. The tracks are at the foot of Sharon’s ‘West Hill’ and are briefly (before angling into The Buckeye State) nearly parallel with the Penn-Ohio border, about 1,800 feet to the west.

Specific railcar types in this scene identify this as 
combined train No. 5-15, The Lake Cities and The Midlander, a daily First Class train from Jersey City. According to the Erie's Mahoning Division timetable, it is scheduled to make a 9:31 a.m. station stop at Sharon. The two train sections will split at Youngstown, from which No. 5, The Lake Cities, will proceed up to Cleveland and No. 15, The Midlander, will continue on west through Akron to Chicago's Dearborn Station. Seven decades later, we do not know the actual destination of these two gentlemen.

What we do know, however, is that they are walking along the Erie mainline as 
it bends into the short, 5-degree, 12-minute curve that ends at the North Water Avenue grade crossing, just over 105 feet from M.P. C 81. That crossing is right at the west portal to the 283’-long, two-span, skewed quadrangular (‘lattice’) through-truss bridge over the Shenango River (Bridge 81.04). If the train weren’t here, the building in which today’s Warehouse Sales is located would be visible across the tracks, to the right, and behind these two fellows.  

Assuming they have just secured their train tickets from the Erie's Agent in Sharon's two-story, 1926 brick station (blocked from view by the woodshed) at M.P. 80.89, these two gentlemen have walked most of the 581 snow-blanketed feet stretching from the station to 'C 81' and its 'whipped-cream' cap of snow. A smiling Erie dining car waiter leans from the nearest car's open Dutch door, and another onboard culinary staff member in a chef's 'toque' hat is in the galley doorway at the far end of the dining car the two intrepid patrons on the ground are passing. 

Judging by the
 ice encrusting the running gear beneath the railcars, this train has obviously been bucking some fair-sized drifts on its way down from Meadville, through Greenville and Sharpsville. In the distance, the utility lines crossing above the train along West Silver Street are near where fellow travelers are boarding and disembarking, as baggage and mail are also being transferred, across from the station along North Main Street. 

Beyond that flurry of activity, the big steam locomotive powering this train is generating an almost 'volcanic plume' of coal smoke on the other side of the West State Street crossing at M.P. 80.86. The engine's fireman has undoubtedly turned on the blower to increase the airflow drafting through the burning bituminous on the steel grates in the boiler's huge firebox. This generates more steam pressure, which the engine is soon going to need for the train's imminent westward departure and the hard climb up the 1.13% grade along Little Yankee Run, between Masury, Ohio, and Hubbard, en route to its next stop in Youngstown.   

My father, Nathan S. Clark, turned age 20
 just five weeks before this photograph was made. He has also recently ridden over the Erie, earlier in 1944. Though he grew up near Hubbard, not far 'over the hill' into Ohio from Sharon. he had instead gotten on the Erie at Chicago and come east from Army training camps, and onto the Erie via a connecting railroad's troop train. He and his fellow soldiers did not pass through Sharon, however, as their train was routed over the Mahoning Division's shorter, more rural Second Subdivision 'cutoff' via Cortland and Orangeville, OH and up through Transfer, PA. That high-speed, priority freight bypass of Youngstown's and Sharon's urban congestion was a route rarely trod by passenger trains in the 20th Century. Since troop trains didn't need to make all the intermediate stops of the civilian trains, however, the Army special was saved those extra ten miles of travel.

Ultimately, Dad got on a troop ship from New York Harbor to cross the Atlantic and fight with the 75th Infantry Division against the Germans in Europe
. As a Forward Observer in the Battalion Intelligence & Reconnaissance Squad for the 75th, he was charged with getting close to the enemy's activities to help with artillery target acquisition. His first engagement with the enemy will come in 11 days, in The Ardennes Forest on the frigid night of Christmas Eve, 1944. Indeed, taking into account the six-hour time difference from Sharon,the opening volleys of Germany's Ardennes Offensive that will trigger 'The Battle of the Bulge' -- the largest battle ever fought by the United States Army and which will seal Germany's fate in World War II -- are almost exactly 62 hours into the future, as snow falls upon a paused Erie passenger train, a cold, concrete milepost, numerous felt fedoras...and a chef's toque. 

Attorney Fruit and his traveling companion will no doubt return to
 celebrate the holidays, warm and safe in their homes. This ordinary winter day in the life of America is literally hours before an extraordinary milestone in human history will be marked, 1/4 of the globe away. That event will decisively ensure that the Allies will win in Europe and the curtain will begin to come down in that theater of World War II. Thousands of American troop trains will soon bring our boys back home from victory. Sadly, in securing that victory in the months ahead, many service members who are alive and unscathed on this day will become casualties suffered by America. They will be transported on Army Hospital Trains (my father will be gravely wounded by a mortar shell the following February)...or in caskets. The calm 'normalcy' on the faces in this photograph belies the ramifications of this date on the calendar. Who could foresee that a pending enemy attack will soon make this yet another WWII 'December to remember'?

Image courtesy of the law offices of Fruit, Dill, Goodwin, and Scholl, still operating in Sharon, 102 years after F.T. Fruit founded the firm.