Cover image for Set Up Running: The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman, 1904–1949 By John W. Orr and Introduction by James D. Porterfield

Set Up Running

The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman, 19041949

John W. Orr, and Introduction by James D. Porterfield


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02741-8

392 pages
6" × 9"
12 b&w illustrations/3 maps

Keystone Books

Set Up Running

The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman, 19041949

John W. Orr, and Introduction by James D. Porterfield

“An engaging book, one likely to become a railroad classic. The major strength of Set Up Running is detail, particularly when it involves locomotives, train movements, and patterns of operation. Especially enjoyable are the depictions of Orr as a loyal Pennsylvania Railroad employee and of his overall pride of workmanship.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Set Up Running tells the story of a Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive engineer, Oscar P. Orr, who operated steam-powered freight and passenger trains throughout central Pennsylvania and south-central New York. From 1904 to 1949, Orr sat at the controls of many famous steam locomotives; moved trains loaded with coal, perishables, and other freight; and encountered virtually every situation a locomotive engineer of that era could expect to see.

John W. (Jack) Orr, Oscar’s son, tells his father’s story, which begins at the Central Steam Heating Plant in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Oscar operated nearly every kind of steam locomotive the Pennsylvania Railroad owned, working from the bottom of the roster to the top position (number one in seniority). Orr has an ear for detail and a vivid memory. He tells about his father’s first encounter with an automobile along the right-of-way, about what it was like to operate a train in a blizzard, and about the difficulties railroadmen encountered in stopping a trainload of tank cars loaded with oil in order to take on water and coal—and many other stories.

This compelling railroad history will enthrall not only everyone in the railroad community but also the general reader interested in railroads and trains, past and present.

“An engaging book, one likely to become a railroad classic. The major strength of Set Up Running is detail, particularly when it involves locomotives, train movements, and patterns of operation. Especially enjoyable are the depictions of Orr as a loyal Pennsylvania Railroad employee and of his overall pride of workmanship.”
“One of my earliest recollections involves the railroad, a plaintive whistle, and my mother stating that my father would soon be home. And it wasn’t long before that large man, clad in blue overalls, came through the door with his travel bag, which he promptly set on the kitchen floor so he could pick me up. There was a strange smell on his overclothes, but it was not offensive, and it was one that I later learned belonged to a steam engine. So from very early in my life I developed an avid interest in the steam engine.”
Set Up Running is a book well worth reading even if you are not a railroad enthusiast. It helps to illuminate a part of the vanishing past when Williamsport was a major rail hub. The book is a major contribution to an important aspect of the social history of the area. There are plenty of references to local towns and spots to make it interesting to area readers. But, perhaps more importantly, it’s just a good story written with love and respect for a man and a time by his son.”
“Rather than a glamorized, rosy look at the days of steam, the accounts of O.P. and John reveal railroading as seen through the eyes of those who handled and lived with the railroad day after day. . . . Set Up Running is a must-read for the Pennsy fan, and a truly rare treasure for those wanting to know the lives of the men who truly kept American steam locomotives running.”
“Through true-life experiences, the reader gets an idea what it was like to work on a railroad in general and a steam engine specifically.”
“[Q]uite simply one of the liveliest and most informative works of railroad history to come along in many years.”
Set Up Running describes life in engine service as seldom told before. You will like it. The good and the bad, the long, long nights, broken knuckles, pulled couplers, firemen that don’t know how to fire and don’t want to learn, derailments, engines that won’t steam, washouts —it’s all here. Not only is this an unvarnished story of what engine service was really like but it is also a valuable sociological portrait of railroading seldom explored in this detail. This was a difficult book for me to lay aside. . . . You will enjoy riding with engineer O.P. Orr in this true story of running an engine in the days of steam.”
“For students of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Orr provides an interesting perspective with his view from the cab. . . . the level of detail is incredible as Orr successfully tempers the romance with the reality of an engineman’s life.”
“Still the book is an amazing document of a fufilling life in industrial America. It is a good read, even though there are no plot twists or shattering climaxes. One comes away with a deepened sense that the bargain between capitalist and worker was arms-length but genuine, that hard work paid and a working life was rewarding.”
“The cumulative effect is an extended meditation on a lost world of rugged, single-minded men—almost monkish in their devotion to their job and ‘the company,’—who once thread[ed] their engines along river banks and down grades to deliver carloads of coal and lumber and merchandise to larger towns, where the freight was reshuffled into other trains and delivered to virtually every point on the continent.”
“My first impression is that this is a first rate account of ‘railroading in the raw’ during the first half of the twentieth century.”

John W. Orr graduated from Penn State in 1949. Recently deceased, he resided in Ralston, Pennsylvania.


My father always told me I had a favorite expression. It was "Why?" A small word of seemingly little significance, it nonetheless became the major factor in my being able to write this book.

Early in life I developed a profound curiosity and interest in railroads and the complex background that ensured the safe, efficient movement of trains over the rails. I grew up in a small town comprised mainly of men associated with the Pennsylvania Railroad in its many different jobs. My father was among them, working throughout Central Pennsylvania during his career as an engineman. Over those years I saw firsthand the contributions these men— and their families—made to the running of a railroad.

When I graduated from college I assumed the responsibilities associated with adulthood: marriage, family, and career. My father, meanwhile, retired. These turns resulted in my interest in railroading being banked, but not extinguished.

Later, upon my own retirement, time to renew my interest in railroading was at hand. I subscribed to magazines, read books, and explored steam-operated tourist lines throughout the United States. Unfortunately for me, most of the books and magazines emphasized historical, pictorial, and/or technical content. Again that question "Why?" began coming up, but now it was addressed to me. As I thought of all the railroad workers I'd had the good fortune to become acquainted with, and of the countless numbers of their kind elsewhere throughout the United States, all of whom had interesting stories, I wondered why nothing had been written about their experiences and lives.

Reading at that time an article in Trains, a magazine about railroading, written by then-editor David P. Morgan, brought to mind an experience of my father's that he had once related to me. I wrote Mr. Morgan, thinking that such a well-known railroading person, and editor of a prestigious magazine, would give my excerpts little of his valuable time. To my great surprise, however, I received a reply a few days later. It opened with "Great!" and he invited me to submit for his personal attention any stories I wanted to. This new development caused me to immediately start recalling the many things my father had told me over the years, now long past.

Which tales or events would be suitable for publication? To me, they were all interesting. With no deadline to meet, I decided the logical approach was to start when my father took his first job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. As I started compiling the stories, I was reminded that my vivid recall of the details was the result of my profound interest in anything connected with railroading, especially the fascinating steam locomotives in use when I was in my formative years. When my father was home between runs, I was constantly asking "Why?" Fortunately, he was always able to give me an understandable answer. To enhance my knowledge, he provided books on the subject. He also used the technique of explaining something by citing an incident from his personal experience. He was a well-qualified teacher. Fortunately, radio reception in our narrow mountain valley left much to be desired, television was not yet perfected, and telephone service was installed in our home only briefly (as you will see, there is even a railroad connection to that fact). Without such distractions, my father and I spent long periods in conversation, much of it about railroading.

I tried to record events in their proper sequence, never hurrying, thoroughly recalling things in advance that I wanted to transcribe. I did not delve into technical details any more than was necessary to describe what I wanted to tell my readers. The manuscript was written in longhand, mostly at night when I was alone. In the afternoon or early evening I would type. Continuing to write and type in this manner for more than two years, I produced a manuscript the final length of which amazed me. Now, rather than harboring the fear something important wasn't included, I found myself wondering if I'd written too much. I carefully reread the manuscript with the thought that some of the text could be shortened or eliminated. In doing so I arrived at the conclusion that eliminating content would distort the theme of the work.

Before my finished work could be presented to David Morgan, I learned that he had passed away. At this, I let the work lie dormant. Then my youngest son, William, visiting on vacation, inquired about the book, and after scanning its contents he asked if he could take my copy to read. Shortly thereafter, he called to inform me that a person in the company he worked for—a Hollywood studio—was willing to edit the manuscript. William also took a postcard-size black-and-white photograph of my father and his fire-man standing on the running board of a Pennsylvania Railroad class H6b locomotive, circa 1914, and had a studio enlarge it to 40 by 32 inches, then airbrush it in color. The photo refinisher placed the print in his studio window and reported that a number of people offered favorable comments on it, a few even inquiring about when the motion picture the still was taken from would be released. This picture is found on the cover of the book.

With an edited manuscript, and encouraged by the interest shown in the colorized photograph, I began sending inquiries to publishers of railroad books. But their responses indicated an interest only in pictorial, historical, or technical works. One publisher was interested in reviewing the manuscript but wondered if I had color photographs to illustrate what I had written. I had to tell him that color photographs of the era my book covered—from 1904 through 1949—were rare and that my collection of black-and-white photographs of my father had been destroyed in a fire that consumed my home. Without color photographs, he wasn't interested.

At this introduction to railroad publishing, I did nothing further with the manuscript. From time to time my wife and son William inquired what I intended to do with my work, and I would procrastinate, avowing that sooner or later I would make further inquiries, even perhaps submit short stories. Then, once again, an article appeared in a railroading magazine,Vintage Rails, with a byline and a query. It stated that James D. Porterfield, an adjunct professor at the Pennsylvania State University and himself a published author, was looking for fictional accounts of railroading that could be used in that publication. I contacted Jim by mail, explaining that the material I could submit was factual, not fictional. A prompt reply indicated his interest in seeing my work. Included in his instructions was a telephone number, which I took to be an invitation to call him. Doing so, I at one point explained that I was retired and lived but eighty-five miles from his home in State College. If he would designate a date and time, I could present the manuscript personally. An appointment was made, but Mr. Porterfield expressed concern that I might find it difficult to locate his home. I assured him that this was not a problem. I had spent a considerable amount of time in the State College area, first graduating from Penn State in January 1949, then spending more than twenty-two years in that area as a sales representative for an electrical wholesaler. In fact, I had worked with the project developer and the electrical contractor involved in the building of the James Porterfield home.

Our meeting went well, and some time later Jim called to inform me he was impressed by the work and would like to recommend it for publication to The Pennsylvania State University Press. Penn State Press requires both the favorable critical comments of at least two recognized authorities and approval from its editorial board before it can accept a work for publication. Armed with Jim's critical review, and that of noted railroad historian H. Roger Grant, and backed further by favorable verbal endorsements from other noted rail authorities, Peter Potter, presently editor in chief of Penn State Press, agreed to have the press publish the book. A contract was offered, a word count and schedule was established, and an agreement was drawn up and signed. You are holding the results of that process.

Said book would not have been possible without the help of numerous others not already acknowledged. Primary among them were Harold K. Vollrath, Bill Caloroso, Herb Trice, and Jeff Pontius, who kindly granted permission to use photographs from their collection. Cummins McNitt, Curator at the Railroaders Memorial Museum in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Kurt Bell, Archivist at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, were courteous and helpful during my visits to gather pictures of the key locomotives my father ran during his career. My son William Orr, and others at the studio where he works, were instrumental in preparing the maps. Finally, Jim Porterfield, who wrote the introduction and contributed in so many other ways, and Peter Potter, history editor, and Peggy Hoover, copy editor, at The Pennsylvania State University Press, were supportive throughout. And for encouragement and help in various ways that made this book possible, I thank my wife, Mary Louise; my sons, John, David, and William; and my daughter, Kathleen.

I wrote this book to fill a gap that many of those who write about railroading seem to forget exists. The focus of this book is on the daily lives and work of the many workers who endeavored to operate the nation's railroads efficiently and safely. It is my sincere desire that this book will provide insight and enjoyment through the story of the life of one such railroad worker, my father, Oscar P. Orr, a Pennsylvania Railroad engineman. I have made every effort to remain truthful and accurate in my reporting. Any errors made are unintentional and are entirely my responsibility.

© 2003 The Penn State University