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Power Reverses and Robert Finsterbush

By Fred Boland, Machinist 1928-1980
Bayshore Shops, Southern Pacific Railroad

The ICC put out a rule in 1929 that all locomotives over 140,000 lbs on drivers had to have power reverses. Many an engineer suffered a broken wrist or worse because his reversing lever, or bar kicked back on him, due to dry valves or some other defect in the machinery.

We put hundreds of power reverses on at Bayshore, as locomotives went through their backshop repairs. Those that didn't have them were called "Armstrong’s". The heavy power, the mallets, 2-10-2's, 4-8-2's heavy Pacifics, etc., had them put on when built.

A power reverse raised or lowered the links and thus changed the valve position, so the locomotive was reversed. The engineer moved a handle rod in the cab around a toothed quadrant to position his links where he wanted them. It had replaced the old six foot long "Johnson" bar where the engineer had to use his own strength to reverse the machinery. The engineer dropped the rod "down in the corner" to start a locomotive and then "hooked it back up" as the locomotive gained speed. At the start, steam was admitted for about 7/8ths of the stroke, then cut back to about 50%, and at higher speeds, 25%. It would not be left at full stroke if it wasn't necessary, although a grade, too much tonnage, or some other factor would cause the engineer to drop it back toward the corner to prevent stalling.

The power reverse was a simple piece of machinery consisting of a cylinder with a piston and rod inside, connected to a crosshead with guides bolted to the cylinder. A rotary valve on top of the cylinder was pushed off center in the direction the engineer wanted to go. Compressed air was admitted to that end of the cylinder, pushing the piston. A rod from the crosshead to the "floating lever" turned the rotary valve back to center as the crosshead moved along. The reverse could be moved an inch and stopped, or any other distance according to where the engineer spotted the reversing lever in the cab.

The piston rod had a slightly tapered fit in the crosshead. In disassembling it the crosshead was pushed until stopped by the cylinder. A three foot bar was held inside the guides against the end of the piston rod. A few sharp blows with a sledge hammer broke the fit loose.

The reverse gear just described was manufactured by Alco Locomotive Company, one of the big three builders of locomotives. The Ragonet was exactly like the Alco and Alco probably used the Ragonet patents. I have forgotten the exact spelling, but it was pronounced Rag-o-nay, like Chevrolet is pronounced Chevro-lay. There was also an old reverse called the Sheedy. Why they never did more research before putting Sheedy's into production I'll never know. They probably came from the old mallets built after 1909. This reverse gear's crosshead moved along a rack that had teeth in the bottom. Underneath the rack and part of the crosshead was an air pot with several teeth as a part of the end of the air pot piston rod. The gear was moved to where the engineer wanted it, the air was then admitted to the pot and the teeth clamped into the rack teeth, anchoring the crosshead thoroughly. When the gear was to be moved to another position, the air inside the pot was released and the air to the main cylinder was admitted at the same time. That was it's fatal flaw. The teeth stuck together because before the last air had exhausted from the pot, the main piston tried to move and eventually by brute force moved, taking the top of a few teeth with it. We would cut teeth in the rack on a shaper, but in about two to four weeks the teeth would be worn down to nearly nothing.

During WWII, engine 2571, an old consolidation with a Sheedy was working exclusively between Oakland and Bayshore, and might have slipped over to Tracy a time or two. After starting the locomotive, the engineer would "hook her up", only to have it slide back in the corner after a revolution or two of the wheels. You can imagine driving a car in low gear back and forth between Oakland and Bayshore via Newark and Redwood City every day. Instead of the lighter pitter patter when you got to rolling good, you had a booming exhaust at 10 miles an hour all the way. Many an engineer, after learning his engine was the 2571 would fall too sick to take it out, even though a war was on and thousands of men were losing their lives. A simple solution would have been to apply an Alco, but because of the war, none were available, nor men to apply it, and as long as the locomotive would run it couldn't be taken out of service.

In the days when we had a large air gang, Manuel Maldonado, working under foreman Andy Sherin, had charge of repairing power reverses, bells and their operating devices, cylinder cocks, and brake cylinders, among other things. At one time his helper was Robert Finsterbush, a nice young man. "Bob" as we called him, had been whacked over the head in a Philadelphia robbery where he had lived previously. As a result, there was a marble or two missing, although it did not seriously affect his work. He looked ten years younger than he was, probably attributable to the stoppage of time in his mind from the mugging.

Bob was holding the bar one day, while Manuel worked the sledge hammer. Bob bent over at the wrong moment to see if he was on the piston rod end, and Manuel walloped him on the head.

Andy and pipe shop foreman Simpson visited the boys in the hospital on a somewhet irregular basis. Now they had a reason to visit often. On one such visit, they could hear Bob laughing and joshing as they came down the hall. As soon as they showed at the door the kid would grab his head and moan "Oh, my head, oh my head". They never could put the bee on him. Eventually Bob tired of hospital life and returned to work.

Bob was up in the Brisbane hills one day when he spotted a skunk. Improbable as it seems, he got close enough to it to take off his coat and throw it over the animal. When he brought it home, naturally his mother would not let him or the skunk in the house. For several days he was taking orders from the shopmen for skunks. He never did catch another one, or even see one as far as I know, leaving a lot of disappointed shopmen.