Moncrief  Tower

By: Rodney Butcher


   Atlantic Coast Line’s major junction in Jacksonville Florida was located on the north end of Moncrief Yard. A tower was constructed to control the double track ACL main line between Jacksonville north for Savannah and Waycross Georgia. The Moncrief interlocking also controlled the old JS&W Ocala Division for ACL’s central southwest lines and Milldale line for downtown Jacksonville’s shipyards and Export Yard industries along with two Pulp mills. The tower also controlled the crossing for the St Johns River Terminal Co. (Southern) line from Simpson Yard to their downtown Springfield yards

   The tower itself was the standard ACL wood frame tower built system wide around 1925 with the completion of ACL’s double track program from Richmond to Jacksonville. The signals were all semaphore’s on the main lines from Folkston to Jacksonville from 1925 until the new CTC system was completed in 1972, with ground dwarfs on leads. Switch network was all mechanical lever-bed, with pipe linkage running the length of the plant. The former Jacksonville & Southwestern RR (JS&W) crossed at Moncrief when completed in 1899, connecting a Milldale sawmill owned by W. W. Cummer to Newberry Fla.  In 1904 ACL acquired this line and created the new St. Petersburg and central-southwestern Ocala Division. The Milldale line was changed to run out of Moncrief eliminating the diamond.

   I was fortunate to have spent the last active year of the tower in operation with SCL’s Waycross Division. Amtrak and Auto Train was the form of passenger Traffic at this time, with Seaboard Coast Line still pure. I had just seen the 1776 for the first time departing on a north bound freight when I decided to get my nerve to go up and knock on the door of the tower. A young man named Brad Robinson was on duty, he let me in and we talked for hours. It soon became a regular hangout for me. Brad and I became close friends, later I even moved in with his new family for a short time. His shift began at 3pm, ending at 11:00. I would get there around 5:00 and sometimes stay until 11:00. I became familiar with the operation of things and would often get the opportunity to “line-up” a move by throwing a lever in the bed and set the signal on the panel above the lever-bed. The chanting of train orders was the most impressive part of traditional railroading, I almost could understand them, and it was a true art. The track speed across the Southern diamond was 60 mph at that time. When train orders were to be given Brad would get 3 hoops with the orders for the trains, passenger trains were a real challenge, at 60 the engine, baggage master and conductor would all get orders. He would stand at hoop length from the live rail and hold each hoop up one at a time, replacing the spent hoop as fast as possible. This process was more often on the slower freights going through the cross-overs out of the yard, but passenger trains were a real treat. My place in the tower was next to the heater in the northeast corner, the window leaked air due to pulpwood hitting the tower regularly on Southern transfer cuts from Simpson yard to Moncrief. Southern had a connection on the JS&F for transfer cuts. Before the SCL merge Southern had trackage rights on the ACL to Savannah. Southern freights used the mainline at Moncrief, once clearing the tower a Southern yard engine would reach out and pull the train back into the JS&W towards Simpson Yard. Out-bound trains were pulled out of Simpson Yard by Southern switcher onto the main and detached were the train would depart north on the ACL.  SCL’s 191 & 192 the St Pete section of the City of Miami or the South Wind ran on the JS&W until Amtrak, by now the track just west of lane Ave was being pulled up to Mattox were a new connector was built off the former Seaboard. The main purpose for the JS&W was now downgraded to industry, the new auto facility and Southern enter-change.

     The Milldale line was a heavily used industrial link to most of ACL’s Jacksonville customers. SCL still used this route for Moncrief /Export Traffic. Prior to the merge, ACL used the Milldale side of this line to reach St Regis Paper Mill, the Navy Fuel Depot, and Gulf Oil Docks via two wooden swing bridges. The St Johns Terminal Co. had  99 year trackage rights from Milldale via a connection at the Seaboard to the Cummer sawmill. These rights hadn’t been exercised  for many years, but SCL was obligated to keep the two trestles until the 99 years were up even though they were not used. Seaboard had connections from the north side of Trout River making this route redundant. At this time the Milldale side was used mainly for US Gypsum Board, Phillips 66 oil docks, and Shell Oil. The Milldale Line split for Export Yard at Norwood Ave. were Glidden Paint were customers. The Export Line ran southeast to F&J Junction crossing the Seaboard and Southern continuing East to Export Yard. The ACL trains on the Milldale line used all switchers with cabooses. This practice continued for a short while with SCL. When Jacksonville Terminal sold some of their engines to SCL one left Moncrief with a 100 car cut for Export, these locomotives never worked at full throttle under load for a long period of time. That night we witnessed fire coming from the stack of an Ex-JTC engine until the entire train passed, shortly we heard that it set fires from US1 east to the Golf Coarse at Gateway! The Export jobs returned on empty fuel tanks more than once. Often the switchers came to Moncrief double-headed (Baldwin’s at that) with 75-100 cuts.

    The real action was the double track mainline, second shift normally saw 5 northbound passenger trains. The Silver Meteor passed a little after 4pm, the Champion after 5pm, the Floridian after 7pm,  the Silver Star after 9pm and Auto Train around 10pm as I recall.  Through freights started running north in the early afternoon until around 9pm. The first trains out were usually hot pig trains like 176 for Potomac Yard or the Atlanta, Chicago, or Cincinnati pig & auto rack trains, some with L&N units. My favorite trains were 104 bound for Waycross, this was a mixed consist that sadly carried off the retired E units and out of service heavyweight passenger equipment as they “clean up” after Amtrak started, mixed in the train like any other box car. Not all was sad, this train carried some of the oldest equipment still in regular company use. Big blocks of 8,000 & 10,000 gal tanks cars of diesel fuel from the Gulf Docks always made this train for the Waycross shops. Some still wore GULF, while others ATLANTIC COAST LINE, & SEABOARD. The other favorite of mine was the joint through Frisco train #334. You could count on Frisco units, usually U25B’s, both high and low nose models with a mixed consist. This train originated at West Jax Yard and picked up at Moncrief before heading towards Waycross then on to Birmingham. Yard jobs were plentiful, the auto rack train from Lane Ave. auto ramp, Southern interchange to Moncrief, Southern’s Springfield Job crossing the diamond from Springfield and return, along with “yard swings”. One day when I pulled up, I saw several pigs and a M5 cab nearly turned over. The roof of the cab was almost at arms reach from the window of the tower. The story was the crew on the cab cleared the cross-overs early, the engineer proceeded to mainline speed when the rear cars derailed. That night was very interesting, between watching the wreckers pick-up, the track gangs relay, and run trains by was a real challenge.

    In the afternoon a southbound train may still be “held-out” waiting for a clear track, but by then most trains were in.

    Communication was a mix of  both new and old railroading. The tower still used the old dispatcher’s line. This was a wood box with plug holes in the front, you simply placed the plug in the hole of the person you needed to talk with, and stepped on a treadle on the floor. It had an extended mouth phone and head set. Each line had a different ring so you knew who was calling you. The only lines still in use were the Waycross Dispatcher and Jacksonville Terminals Beaver Street Tower. Beaver would ring up all departing northbound passenger trains or special moves on the mainline, Moncrief would them line up. One night Beaver reported the departure of the Floridian.The far cross-over was lined reverse and needed to be normaled, we tried to line the switch but the lever wouldn’t lock-up. The length of the linkage and lack of grease often made these switches hard to throw. We called the train and told him that we had a switch that wouldn’t lock-up and proceeded to get a spike hammer and lantern. By the time we walked all the way down to the switch the train had already stopped, baggage door opened, tools thrown out, and the baggage master running. He spiked the switch and off they went. You don’t see this kind of railroader now! All Brad had to do was authorize the train to pass the positive stop signal  with his lantern. I would like to add that by having a person in a control station like a tower it saves  time. In this situation you have a diamond crossing in front of you. The person that controls that interlocking can clear you of any conflicting moves and proceed immediately, in a CTC or automatic block situation you must obtain authority first and then run “time” before proceeding. This is when a crew member sets a timing devise to assure opposing signals are red or “stop”. After waiting a prescribed time, usually 6 minutes, you may proceed after checking switches or making sure any opposing trains are under control to stop.

  The Waycross Dispatcher generally only called for locations of trains or to give new train orders. He rarely called for southbound’s unless they were “running against the current”, a southbound using the northbound. Most all other moves by now called via radio, who, where they are, and where they needed to go. The Southbound Through Freights called at Dinsmore, Export Jobs at the “Golf Course”, and the auto rack job before departing Lane. This would allow time to stop and clear street crossings if they were to be held out, or simply make arrangements to keep moving. Southern’s yardmaster’s would line-up by telephone. In the corner of the tower laid several old metal signs with numbers, these were used to yard trains before radios. 

    The tower had a few outbuildings. The MOW had a tool shed, & motorcar house. I seldom saw the signal maintainer, so I never got into the lower part of the tower to see its workings or the motor car. I did however see the out-house. The tower had no toilet but did have a water fountain. One night I watched the Silver Star pass by Crescent Moon!

    The end was near as track gangs started removing crossovers and re-aligning track to simplify for CTC operation, the signal gangs were putting up new signals and laying wire. After that was complete, all that was left was to relay dispatcher’s directives to trains as signals were out. Brad had closed Folkston Tower the year before and exercised his seniority to Moncrief, now CTC had taken his last leverman position. The night we closed the door at Moncrief Tower he asked if I would like to lock the door and as I did it felt so strange that no-one relieved us, the tower had been manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since 1925. Now the lights were out and the building was empty. It didn’t take long before they tore it down; all that was left was the roof in the brush. An era had passed and I was able to be a part of it.

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