Robert A. "Bob" Malay has spent 42 years with the railroad.
The West Penn Township resident understands the historic importance of rail service in our region and wants to make sure that the steam engines that served Tamaqua will always be part of the community.
On Tuesday, the veteran conductor donated three oversized images depicting Reading Railroad engines #179, 1637 and 985 in service to the Schuylkill County town. All three pictures were taken in Tamaqua.
Malay turned over the photos to Rich and Yvonne Sidella, Hawk Mountain, operators of the Vonz Restaurant at the station. The Sidellas intend to prominently display the historic photography inside the depot, likely in the main dining room, part of the men's waiting room in the 1874 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Passenger Depot.
"It's an unbelievable gift," said Rich Sidella. "Look at the clarity in these photos."
Malay serves with the Norfolk and Southern Railroad, but also worked for Reading Railroad and Conrail.
Witnessing the act of generosity was another veteran conductor, Donald "Donnie" Kester, 91, Tamaqua, who spent 38 years with Reading Railroad and Conrail.
"This takes me back," said Kester, who worked extensively on engine #1637. That particular iron horse was built in 1921 and scrapped in 1952.
"I remember how warm it was in the wintertime," he said. Kester also recalls how steam engines routinely passed through the Tamaqua and Mahanoy tunnels.
"The Mahanoy Tunnel was a mile long," said Kester, noting that large fans on the Tamaqua side would help ventilate the smoke and steam.
Kester comes from railroad ancestry and said he was honored to be part of the presentation inside the depot where he once spent much time, as did his father before him. Kester started working on the railroad in the 1940s, initially as a brakeman.
"Our wages were $7.80 for eight hours on freight with only two stops," he said. "The highest pay was $10.02 for yard rate."
In those days, the Tamaqua QA building hosted a crew board used for dispatching purposes, and the town was a hub of rail activity.
"Tamaqua was the headquarters for the Shamokin Division. They always brought a train of 52 cars," said Kester. "They'd stop below Spruce Street," he said, where a scale and water tank were located.
He also recalls taking the diesel engines to Williamsport.
"Diesels were cleaner," said Kester.
As for Malay, he can recall hopping aboard trains even as a young boy. It sounds dangerous today, but was something typical in a railroad town during a less complicated era.
"I was 8 years old and I'd be here while they were servicing the engines near the freight house," said Malay. "I'd jump on and we'd ride up to Lofty. We could be gone for two hours, as long as we were back before supper."
The donation of the images by Malay coincides with two significant milestones the 50th anniversary on June 28 of the final King Coal passenger train to leave Tamaqua, and the 42nd anniversary of Malay's railroad career, commemorated July 20. To note the special day, Malay attended the Iron Heritage Festival, Danville, which features short jaunts on the North Shore Railroad.
Malay was delighted to pull together the three steam engine pictures.
"The original images are postcard size," he says. Malay enlarged the pictures and then had them professionally matted and framed for presentation.
Malay's personal collection of railroad memorabilia also includes lanterns, oil cans and even employee timetables.
What he values most, however, is the opportunity to share the knowledge and history so that a rich heritage isn't lost.
Malay believes our shared culture is too important to hide. It needs to be displayed and celebrated.
"It doesn't do any good locked away in a closet," he says. "Let the public see it."