"Mr. Alco" New book features photos of George Hockaday

A PA-4 locomotive takes an unscheduled break at a railroad tunnel under Fort Ticonderoga on Feb. 8, 1977. George W. Hockaday, a legend in locomotive circles, was aboard the blue and silver powerhouse and had enough influence to stop the train for a wintry photograph.
Longtime Rotterdam resident Hockaday could never become a locomotive engineer because of poor eyesight. But as a revered mechanical engineer, he occasionally got the chance to work in the driver's seat. Here, Hockaday pilots "PA 18," a locomotive that eventually was named in his honor.

BY JEFF WILKIN Gazette Reporter
People who know locomotives still tell stories about George W. Hockaday.That's because George, a revered mechanical engineer, knew locomotives better than anyone.On one run, aboard a locomotive heading toward the Delaware and Hudson Railway's Colonie Shops, the big engine developed electrical problems. Hockaday slipped on some heavy, insulated gloves, opened the high voltage compartment on the cab back wall and reached in with both hands. "Pretty soon," recalled Carl B Sterzing, president of the D&H Railway, "there erupted a huge shower of sparks. For several seconds, it looked like Fourth of July inside that cab, but things eventually calmed down and the engine began running as smooth as a purring cat."The story is part of "Trackside with 'Mr. Alco,' George W. Hockaday," a new book co-authored by Jim Odell and Len Kilian. Included are tales about Hockaday"s long career as a master mechanical engineer, a man who put the rumble and roar into powerhouses built at Schenectady's former American Locomotive Co. and into engines built and rebuilt around the country.Locomotive buffs will love the words but will also like the pictures — about 300 color photographs, just about all of them taken by Hockaday — are in the large, 128-page book. "We feel we perused more than 10,000 slides to come up with the 300 we have here," said Kilian, a railroad historian who lives in Rotterdam Junction. Kilian and Odell worked on the book for three years.
Hockaday, in addition to expertise with fuel pump breakers, injectors, filters and hundreds of other parts, also loved his Kodachrome. He was once president of the Schenectady Photographic Society. His collection of photographs includes shots of vintage locomotives in bright blues, reds and yellows, some in the yards and others in motion on the rails. He got the Laurentian, the Rock Island, New York Central and a Pennsylvania — the mighty "Pennsy" — arid hundreds of others, many of them built by Alco."There's almost a mythological draw or appeal to Alco Locomotives because they're disappearing so fast," Kilian said.Other photos in the book are also rare, like the color scenes Hockaday took in Alco's Schenectady shops. The company didn't like people taking photos inside their buildings, but George built a reputation for clicking away where he really wasn't supposed to.Readers will see stories about Hockaday from the people who knew him."I remember driving down to the A&M [Arkansas and Missouri] with George," recalls colleague and Alco consultant Chris McDermott. "He brought what seemed like a complete spare parts inventory and a library of publications along with him in the back and trunk of the car. It seemed like he could reach in and find whatever was needed from that supply."Locomotive fans will learn other things about Hockaday, who died in April 1998 in Sodus (near Rochester) at age 75."His dream was always to be a regular railroad engineer, as his father and grandfather were, but his eyesight was very poor," Kilian said "He went to work as a mechanical engineer for a railroad in the Midwest, for a little railroad in Indiana called the Monon. That was its unofficial name. He was recruited out of there, in 1956, to come to work for the American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, where he worked until the company's demise as a mechanical engineer and a customer liaison person. He started to establish this reputation as being 'Mr. Alco' because of the miracles he could create out in the field with recalcitrant locomotives that would not perform."Hockaday, his wife, Biantha Thompson Hockaday, and sons Warren and Bruce lived in Rotterdam for 30 years. When Alco closed in the late 1960s, Hockaday joined the D&H Railway. The locomotive expert also worked as a consultant. In 1979, he and Biantha moved to Sodus, where Hockaday worked on the new "Ontario Lines."Biantha, now 85 and living hi Rexford, fondly remembers Me with George. "He was a railroader from start to finish," she said. "That was his entire interest."Biantha worked with her husband on the consulting jobs. Some days, she would oil parts; other days, she might be on wire harness duty."Just whatever had to be done," she said. "I'd run the locomotive while he ate his lunch. I mean, there's nothing to it, as special," he said.
The timing is right for a book about big engines. The Christmas holidays have long been associated with rails, from people heading home for family gatherings to the familiar scene of a miniature locomotive chugging under a Christmas tree.Kilian understands the fascination."I think people have an innate love of either the man in the locomotive cab, the engineer who used to wave at them, and still does if you watch CSX," he said. "Or in the olden days, they loved to see the guy in the caboose. The dream of many, many boys and girls was, 'I want to be a locomotive engineer.'" Biantha Hockaday is glad her husband became a railroad man. Even today, locomotives Hockaday worked on are still blowing their whistles, traveling from town to town."It's nice to know that he lives on in a way," she said.
"Trackside with 'Mr. Alco,' George W. Hockaday," is priced at $59.95 and available by contacting Len Kilian at P.O. Box 175, Rotterdam Junction, N.Y., 12150. Shipping is extra. Kilian may also be reached by calling 887-5244.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com.


cil16566 said...

George was a good Friend of my father Harry Cassman, while on the Monon. I remember a tour he took us on at ALCO in 56. A great man. Gene

Bonnie said...

Several months ago, I came across some black and white photos (Wayne County Council for the Arts - Newark, NY) taken by George Hockaday. I had no idea of who he was and decided to try the internet. I was amazed to find the photography he is most recognized for had to do with the railroads. We have several beautiful landscape photographs by both George and his wife Biantha. He was certainly and interesting person. I really enjoyed your article which gave me a better understanding of George and his family.