Catching the train before D-Day

For many years in the past when railroads were the main method of transporting goods and people, most traveling circuses and carnivals also used the rail service during their show season. One such local line was the D.A.V.&P., a very small branch of the mighty New York Central RR. These letters were used to indicate the area served.

In this case meaning Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley & Pittsburgh. But the line was never finished beyond Titusville (Pa). That may be why the line is usually referred to as just the D.A.V.

Growing up in the village of Falconer in the ’30s and ’40s I had my very own railroad, sort of, as the above mentioned D.A.V. line ran just beyond our back yard. One of my earliest forms of entertainment was to run to the back fence when I would hear a train coming. There I could enjoy watching the action of the huge locomotive, and also wave to the train crew. They would usually wave in return.

When a circus came to this area and set up at the Falconer circus grounds, they arrived early in the AM via the D.A.V. and left that night on the Erie railroad. A week or so before the arrival of the show, colorful ads would show up around town to advertise the coming event. For many, the best, and only show to watch was the unloading of the circus train, as that was free. Another free feature, that I can remember, was the circus parade, which usually took place around noon. That practice however, was discontinued while I was still very young.

One year a few days before a circus was to visit, a couple of my buddies namely Douglas (Doug) Webster and Larry Lloyd, and myself were discussing the pending arrival of the above when we hatched a daring plan. Wouldn’t it be great if we could hitch a ride on the freight train from Falconer to Dunkirk the night before the circus and hop on the circus train at Dunkirk and ride back to Falconer in the AM.

This would not be quite as simple as it sounds, as in those days kids were required to be home and in bed at night. Therefore it was necessary to make some sneaky arrangements at home. In the past we had sometimes stayed overnight at a friend’s house, so it was presented that way, and OK’d.

When the big night arrived, we were able to climb into an open gondola car unseen by the train crew at around 9. After a short delay, the train was on its way out of town. As I remember, the train consisted of about 10 or 12 cars, and our car was about in the middle of the train. At our position we were treated to the full benefit of all the oily steam and soft coal smoke. The trip was mostly quite uneventful; however, the track conditions imparted a fair amount of extra motion to the ride.

Lightning bugs were flashing in the fields and woods as we passed and heat lightning could be seen flashing in the distance. At one point the train slowed to a walk on the grade of Cassadaga Hill. There we considered hopping off to wait for the circus train, but changed our minds when the train picked up speed. After a few more miles, the train slowed again while running through Fredonia and into Dunkirk, then came to a stop. So, now what? Here we were in the middle of the night, in a strange place, with no circus train in sight.

There is an old saying about what can happen to the best laid plans of mice and men. Apparently that also applies to the plans of boys in their early teens, as about this time, our plans started to unravel. Just before stopping, we passed a small building that was the only place lit up around there. Without much thought we hopped down and headed back there to inquire about the circus train.

Inside were two men that were quite surprised when we came through the door. “What the heck are you kids doing in here!” they shouted. We gladly explained our plans, which they seemed to get quite a kick out of. They even offered to let us stay there to wait for the circus train when it would come through later. But with the idea of three kids trying to board a moving train in the dark, and also maybe with their jobs in mind, they reconsidered and decided they didn’t want to be part of any possible disaster.

At about this time we learned of our whereabouts. Our train ride had come to a stop inside the grounds of the Brooks (Alco) locomotive works, and this being war time, these guys were supposed to be guarding the place. Therefore, they figured, the best solution was to have the Dunkirk police contact our folks and have someone come out and pick us up.

We were then given a free ride to the police station, where we were treated quite well. We were even offered the use of a large cot in one of the cells, where we could stretch out and get some sleep, but being pretty well keyed up, no sleep was to be had. My dad was working in Buffalo and Doug’s dad was in the Navy, but Larry’s dad was available for the job. So he was called, and after about an hour he arrived to take us back home.

On the way, Doug wasn’t feeling very well, and noticed a little swelling around his neck. Larry had just gotten over the mumps and apparently had passed them on to Doug. I had had the mumps years before, so was immune. Doug spent the next couple of weeks at home in bed, so missed some school and the circus too.

Due to an event that was occurring almost half a world away, our little misadventure fortunately, received very little attention. As that day happened to be the 6th of June in the year 1944.

Bruce Lawson was a Levant resident. He died Sept. 26, 2010.