Conductor brought 8 miles of joy to passengers
After Bill Solomon retired from more than 25 years of working as a purchasing manager, he said to himself, “I want something fun to do.”
So he thought about the train set he had as a child and that his grandfather had bought him a new Lionel car every year. He remembered Uncle William, who was a conductor on the New Jersey rail lines.
“I went for an interview at the Blue Mountain-Reading railroad office and was hired as a car host.”
Solomon enjoyed greeting people from anywhere and everywhere, including those from foreign countries who came to take an excursion at the Jim Thorpe station.
“On one trip, a nice young couple from Philadelphia with a little boy and girl were about to board the train and I gave the kids a bell for Christmas.”
The idea of the bell came from the “Polar Express” movie where Santa Claus said that only those who believe in him can hear the sound inside when it’s shaken.
“The kids were so happy,” Solomon said, “and their parents wrote a letter to the train office complimenting me.”
He replied to the family, and for the next eight years, Gwen and Chuck and their children not only returned to take the holiday train trip, they were guests at Bill and Jamie Solomon’s house for dinner.
So began the tradition of the passing of the bells from Solomon into the hands of children at the Jim Thorpe depot for the 8-mile round trip. In his spare time, he adorned the bells with colorful string, necklaces and souvenir boarding tickets.
After three years of car hosting, Solomon decided to go to school to become a train conductor.
“It was an eight-week program at the Port Clinton office, and then I had to pass a test to be certified by the federal government. I had to retake the test each year to continue to be certified.”
Fall foliage tours from Jim Thorpe to Hometown would attract nearly 2,000 train passengers daily.
“The best part is when we stopped right on the single-lane Hometown High Bridge to get a view of the foliage from nearly 175 feet above the ground,” Solomon said. “Some people who were afraid of heights would close their eyes or look the other way, but they were missing the spectacular colors of the trees.”
At Christmastime, when Solomon collected tickets from the eight train cars, he began to do something very special for the children.
“I would give them each a bell,” he said. “but then I would punch the word, “BELIEVE” onto their tickets just like Tom Hanks did in the movie.”
With a chuckle in his voice, he added, “I couldn’t do it behind my back like he did. I had to make sure I spelled the word right. I’m pretty fast punching out the letters, and that always brings smiles to people’s faces when they watch me.”
After 10 years as a conductor, the physical part of the job got to be more difficult. Passengers might think conductors just collect tickets and monitor train signals, but when the train is empty of people, there is more to do.
“I would have to push the cars and lock them together,” he said. “I would make sure the brake hoses and the couplings were connected. I’m 68 years old now and that requires the physical effort of a man younger than me.”
Solomon conducted his last train ride last Sunday. He still intends to help sell tickets and be of any service needed at the station.
He also has taken his bells and ticket puncher off the train and into various schools and day care centers in the local area.
“The kids get excited when they see me show up in my “Polar Express” conductor uniform. I’ll punch 150 tickets a day at times.”
To think he might soon hang up his uniform in the closet for the last time is a bit presumptuous.
“I have put together about 4,000 bells that are ready to go,” he said.
His wife, Jamie, is recovering from breast cancer surgery and has given Bill a most important reason to continue to hear the sound of the ring in his bells and “BELIEVE.”
“Working on the train is the best thing I ever did,” he said. “I can stay in the Christmas spirit, and it takes me away from everything else.”