WHITINGHAM- On St. Patrick’s Day, 1958, 22-year-old Jacksonville resident Reggie Fox went to the office of Harry Lowe at the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad because he needed a change of scene. Town Meeting had ushered in a new crew chief at his Whitingham road maintenance job, and he questioned whether he and his new boss would get along. Fox had been working on roads in both Dover and his hometown of Whitingham since his discharge from the Army in ‘56, but on that day his life changed. Lowe hired Fox on the spot as an engineer and conductor on the “Hoot, Toot, & Whistle” line.” Now 78, and still living in his hometown, Fox reflects upon the days he spent on the rails as the greatest job of his life.
In 1958, the Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad, or Hoot, Toot & Whistle, ran 11 miles from the Deerfield River Pulp and Paper Mill in Readsboro to the Hoosac Tunnel in Florida, MA, winding along the east bank of the Deerfield River through a tight mountain pass. By that time, the line’s 13-mile extension from Readsboro to Wilmington had been out of commission for nearly two decades. The construction of Rowe Yankee Atomic Power Plant, however, had given the remaining line new life, along with a new owner in Samuel M. Pinsly.
Fox began working for the Hoot, Toot & Whistle line as a conductor and engineer, bringing pulp cars and oil tanks to and from the Hoosac Tunnel, to about where the Eilers Bros. garage is in Readsboro today. Together, he and his brakeman, lifelong friend Gordon Kingsley, would make the 22-mile round trip multiple times each day with their single engine train, providing what one writer called, the “narrow Deerfield Valley’s link with the outside world.”
“I was on a salary of $100 a week, so it didn’t pay much,” said Fox. “I did it for the love of the job, and so the job had no hard parts to it.”
But $100 a week was enough to cover the $88 monthly mortgage on the house he built on Route 100 in 1961, just up the hill from the junction with Route 112. He was also married, having “heard wedding bells” when he came home from the Army; he married the former Julia Bartlett, who worked for the town of Whitingham as a clerk and treasurer for decades. Together they had three children, and four grandchildren, and they still live in the red and tan house on Route 100.
Next to his family, Fox loved trains. He loved the power of an engine, and the short but sweet route he navigated through the woods of Vermont and Massachusetts. “I used to make my family upset on occasion,” said Fox. “I would have to leave parties or not even go to parties or other family occasions because I would have to go down to work on the line. That’s how involved with it I was.”
As involved as he was, and with as much love for the work as he felt, one thing he could not control was the weather, and brutal winters made for his only complaints. When it snowed or hailed, his work would become dangerous and tense, and the railroad had only one homemade crane with a bucket to remove snow before the railroad “got rich,” according to Fox. “I hated it but all we had to move the snow was that old crane, that’s all we had to bail us out,” said Fox. “Where that hail fell you could spit into the Deerfield River, so if your engine left the track, you’re swimming.”
While the unpredictability of mountain weather made Fox nervous, so did protesters. In the winter of 1967, Fox was called south to work on a rail line from Tennessee to Cincinnati, OH, after a strike prompted Pinsly to ask for his engineers from the north to step in. Fox was a scab to the F&C Railroad workers. They tried to sabotage the trains, and taunted the workers with fake lynchings. But the attraction of driving a train pulled by more than one engine helped Fox overcome the nerves.
“I knew what we were up against, I knew it wouldn’t be a picnic,” said Fox. “I said ‘well this is the only chance I’m going to get to run a train with multiple engines, one with that much power. When you have two or three locomotives all hooked together it gives you some kind of feeling that you really have got some power, man, and you did, you had a lot of power.”
Fox spent May through July and the winter of 1967 hauling bourbon and top heavy trailers on the 44-mile-long F&C Railroad.
Fox came back home and worked on the HT&W line hauling the usual supplies, and taking riders on excursions in open air gondola cars. But the HT&W would close in 1971, and Fox, with his history of hard work, had the choice of moving to any rail line Pinsly owned, but the closest one was in Claremont, NH, and the Bellows Falls-Green Mountain line was too far as well, so Fox retired from a life of trains. Fox would go on to work at Deerfield Glassine in Monroe Bridge, MA, which became Deerfield Valley Paper, and produced specialty paper used by, among other companies, Hershey’s. He was also one of the first Whitingham residents to join the Whitingham Ambulance Service Inc.
“I was sad when it was all over, I loved that job,” said Fox. “I loved driving trains, and I can’t remember ever having a bad day working for the railroad.”
Now retired, Fox enjoys spending his time maintaining his family camp on Ick Road, a task that he never takes a day off from. He also keeps a journal, and three binders of news clippings, pictures, and guest books from those days when he, Kingsley, and the other train drivers of the HT&W line played a big part in a bygone era of the Deerfield Valley’s important connection to the world.