The Keeper Of The Key

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My maternal grandparent. Patrick Sweeney, was indeed a giant among men. To me he was Thor, Atlas, Hercules, Paul Bunyan, and Saint Patrick, all rolled into one. When I knew him, back in the eighteen nineties, he was very old and nearing the end of his time. Still, he was straight as a rod, his lionlike head topped by a mass of rumpled hair, once red but by then a snowy hue. Steel-blue eagle eyes peered keenly from under heavy, frosty brows; a full white beard, worn long but with no mustache, framed his rugged face.

Standing six feet and seven inches, “Granther” had shoulders of yardstick span. Even then, approaching ninety years of age, he was amazingly strong, and I could well believe the stories I heard of his fantastic physical feats when he was younger. During the years 1846 to 1851, Patrick Sweeney had labored mightily in the building of the first railroad along the east-bank, water-level route of the Hudson River from New York to Albany, a distance of some hundred and forty-three miles, thereafter, he became a railway switchman on the Hudson River Rail Road, as it was then known.

Thus it happened that on a sunny morning in April, 1862, Granther was on duty as a switchman at the little river town of Stuyvesant Landing, about twenty miles south of Albany. Despite the turmoil of the Civil War, this was a quiet job, permitting meditation and extracurricular interests. For as a rule there were but two trains north and two south during a twelve-hour stretch of duty, plus occasional wartime specials.

Granther often remarked that this particular April morning was extra fine and quiet. The old Hudson was unrippled, smooth and calm at high tide, reminding him of the River Shannon and the Lakes of Killarney, which he had known in his boyhood. So, Granther said, he just sat in die sun near his switch shanty, smoking his day pipe and watching the river, especially where a big sturgeon had jumped and splash-landed in the cast channel, starting a great, rippling circle on the surface of the water. Granther’s sharp eyes had also spotted a fine stick of timber afloat in the stream. Why not, he thought, try for the sturgeon? The least he could do would be to salvage the drifting plank while he was at it.

But wait—duty came first! The southbound morning train from Albany would soon be along. Granther must switch it from its arrival track over to another, and send it on its way to New York. This waiting, he grumbled to himself, might make him miss his try for that gambolling sturgeon out there; he might even miss that fine piece of timber.

Was the train late? No, there it came, chuffing along toward the switch, its whistle tooting. A double set of rails led south from Albany; from Stuyvesant Landing to New York there was only a single track with occasional sidings to allow north- and southbound trains to pass each other. With more haste than usual, Granther opened the switch between the No. 2 track and the single line of rails.

After the train had gone, Granther closed and reset the switch in neutral, locking it tight and noting that the red-target danger signal was showing. Then, going to his train-sheet log, he entered therein the hour and minute of the day, and the engine number of the southbound train. Likewise, and most important as later events proved, he noted in his log that the train’s engine carried no flags to indicate that any extra section or special train was following in its wake.

Now, his duty done for a while, Granther was free to give his attention to the river, its now ebbing tide practically lapping at his feet. First, he got out his heavy hook and line and baited it well with a thick slab of fat, raw bacon. Then, after knocking the hot dottle from his pipe and spitting on his hands in anticipation, he launched his flat-bottomed skiff and rowed rapidly out into the river, trailing behind him the fat bacon bait intended for the sturgeon.

Soon he was well out into the swiftly moving ebb tide of the east channel. Sure enough, there was his prized stick of timber drifting along to meet him. He made it fast to the skiff with a loop of rope, meanwhile looking about him for signs of the leaping sturgeon. No fish was in sight—but suddenly his wandering gaze fastened with disbelief upon a plume of engine smoke approaching along the shore line from the north.

An extra train, southbound—and he not at his post! Grabbing the two oars, Granther put his powerful back and arms to work, making the skill fairly leap from the water. Damn that southbound train that passed a while ago! It hadn’t carried any Hags for this following special. Now, unless he could beat the second train to the switch, he was indeed in trouble!

Rowing hard and watching, over his shoulder, the oncoming plume of smoke, Granther got within a hundred yards of shore; he began to feel that he had won the race. At that precise moment the giant sturgeon chose to strike the trolling bacon bait.

Ordinarily, Granther would have drawn his boat hand-over-hand along the heavy troll line right up to the madly plunging fish and stunned it with a blow from a pick handle that he carried for the purpose. But time was fast running out. He thought of chopping the fish loose with his boat hatchet, and also cutting the line to the timber he had salvaged. But such wasteful action was against Granther’s nature.