Conductor Joe Coates Stories
Recollections of Howard Hontz, Chief Trainmaster starting in 1959.
From the BLHS Bulletin, December 2009, pages 5 & 7:
One evening, shortly after I arrived in Albany, I got a call that the Adirondack Local was derailed at Riverside, New York on the Adirondack branch. This was the job that brought the ore train from North Creek south to Saratoga and returned with the empties for the next day's production of National Lead at Tahawus. This job also served the other customers on the line except International Paper at Corinth, which was served by a separate crew.
The conductor on the Adirondack Local was a man named Joe Coates, who lived with his wife near North Creek. Now Joe was a very good employee, and it was his habit on returning to North Creek with the empties every day to drive along the line, stop at each customer's place of business, and ask what service they would need that night, so he would be prepared to satisfy their needs on the next trip. He was also very alert to any problems or anything relating to the operation, and quick to report any problems to the proper people. Joe did these extra services on his own time and not for any reimbursement.
At that time, though, I was not aware of all that Joe Coates did, as I was brand new to the operation. I drove to Riverside that evening to inspect the derailment and determine what had to be done to resume service. I parked the car at the Riverside station and started walking north on the track in the dark.
After quite a ways, I saw the headlight of the lead unit. As I got closer, I could see three men sitting on the front of the unit, which was derailed. I walked up to where the men were and identified myself, saying, "I am Howard Hontz, the new Chief Trainmaster, replacing Gordon Mathewson", and I extended my hand to shake theirs. Upon hearing this, Joe Coates stood up (at that time I had never heard of Joe Coates, nor did I know what a valuable man he was) and in a loud voice said, "You are just the man I want to talk to. I am Joe Coates, the Conductor on this job, and I have to do everything that gets done up here. I have to be track inspector, agent, car and diesel repairman and record clerk, and I don't get paid enough for all this, and I want you to do something about it." Upon hearing this speech, one of the employees spoke up and said, "Oh, for God's sake, Joe, shut up and sit down. You are overpaid now." Well, that broke the ice and we all broke out laughing, even Joe.
That was my introduction to Joe Coates. I soon learned how valuable he was to the D&H and to those who worked with and under him. But at my first instance of meeting him and hearing his speech, I wondered what I was into. Once I really got to know him, I realized he had put on that show just for the fun of it. It was his style, and he knew what the results would be from the other employees with him. However, at first, I must admit, I was somewhat shocked by Joe's outburst. I am sure my face showed my shock which was just what Joe was looking for.
Once these introductions were over and we all stopped laughing, we got down to the business of determining the extent of the damage and making the plan to clear the derailment, repair the damage, and resume service.
The D&H was blessed to have many employees like Joe Coates, and that was what made the D&H such a pleasure to work for.
From recollections of Jim Lafayette, brakeman on the D&H.
From the BLHS Bulletin, January 2010, page 10.
I hired out on the D&H as a brakeman on July 2, 1965. I was 18 years old and only a couple of weeks out of high school. I had worked the night yard in Fort Edward, then the night yard in Mechanicville. The following day the crew dispatcher called me to report to North Creek for SC-5, the Adirondack Branch local.
I had no idea where North Creek was, but my grandfather Duffy and my dad were railroaders and gave me directions. I jumped into the 1955 Chevy that my father handed down to me from my bother, who was overseas in the Navy.
When I arrived in North Creek, I found the railroad station. I went to the door and knocked. Well, nobody knocks on the door on the railroad, but the agent, Mr. Gonyea, was a nice man and treated me well. When I told him why I was there, he directed me to the caboose, which was standing at the station platform, and said that I should go there and report to Conductor Coates.
My father and grandfather had told me of some of the perils of railroading, but they had failed to warn me about Joe Coates.
I knocked on the caboose door, only to be greeted by a loud bellow from within, "What the (blank) do you want?" I went in to find Conductor Coates sitting at the desk, which was full of waybills and train lists. He looked like a conductor, with bib overalls over a jacket, and a black tie. He had on the required railroad hat, and pencils were sticking out of his bib pockets.
I told him my name and that I have been sent up there to work. The next thing I knew, the waybills and train lists were flying all over the place and he was screaming and hollering about the blankety-blank new guys that he always winds up with. I wasn't sure if hiring out on the railroad was such a good idea at that point. When he settled down, I assisted him in picking up the paper work, and he got on to showing me a little about railroading.
When we had the train assembled and were conducting the brake test, Conductor Coates was at the caboose sink when he went into another of his rants about the hot water. He told me in no uncertain terms to get up to the engine and tell that blankety-blank engineer to turn the hot water on.
Luckily I had been a track runner in high school, and made the 100-plus cars to the engines in pretty good time, only to find out that Conductor Coates had pulled my leg. The RS3's didn't have a hot water tap to send water to the caboose! They all had a good laugh at my expense. Joe Coates was just being Joe Coates. My dad and grandfather knew that, but I needed to learn it for myself.
Later that night while switching the Warrensburg Branch, Conductor Coates dozed off while up on the warm engine. The fireman, Keith Knott, promptly pulled out a pair of scissors and cut his tie off. I didn't stay around to see the results.
[Joe lived in a house across the road from the Riverside station and retired in about 1980.]