ALCO: A family affair for the McCarthys

Editor’s Note: Robert J. McCarthy Jr., a former Scotia resident and career journalist who now works at The Buffalo News, fondly remembers his family’s association with the American Locomotive Co. Memories of January 1969, when major changes were announced for ALCO.

By Robert J. McCarthy Jr.

Fifty years ago this past week, Bus #24 followed its usual route along Maxon Road toward Freeman’s Bridge and drop-off duty for all the Scotia guys from Bishop Gibbons High School.

I was a Gibbons freshman then, accustomed to the ride past the sprawling plant of ALCO Products Inc., where my dad — Bob McCarthy Sr. — had worked since 1941 (with an Army “diversion” to North Africa and Italy during World War II). Usually, the yard along Maxon Road was bustling with gleaming, new ALCO locomotives for familiar railroads like the New York Central, Boston & Maine, or Delaware & Hudson ‑- as well as far away places like Greece and Pakistan.

But the Maxon Road yard proved eerily quiet that January day. On Jan. 8 and 10, 1969, ALCO completed the last of 75,000 locomotives it made in Schenectady – a pair of T-6 models for the Newburgh & South Shore. As Bus #24 passed, two unfinished DL-535Es, destined for Alaska’s White Pass & Yukon, rested outside Building 62, looking rather forlorn. ALCO had announced its closing, and the DL-535Es would be ignominiously completed at the company’s Montreal Locomotive Works plant.

I turned to my friend -‑ the late Tom Girard ‑- and pointed to the pair of unfinished hulks.

“I think those are the last ones,” I said to him. Tom shook his head.

Another kid in the back of the bus -‑ Dan Moffett ‑- muttered something under his breath to nobody in particular.

“I guess that’s the end of the old ALCO,” he said, making it kind of official.

After 120 years of locomotive production, it was over. Life for the thousands who worked there, life for the City of Schenectady and life for the McCarthys was about to change.

I knew it was coming. Dad came home for lunch one day a few months earlier and sat with my mom ‑- the former Evelyn MacFarland -‑ also an ALCO veteran from 1940 to 1954. He summoned my brother, Kevin, and me to the kitchen.

“You guys know the locomotive business isn’t doing too well, right?” he asked.

Sure we did. ALCO always struggled against the big competitors ‑- GM and GE. But ALCO carried on. Dad still left our Spring Road home in Scotia every morning for Building 143 on Erie Boulevard. Everything would be OK.

But it was all changing. Some parent company Kevin and I never heard of now controlled ALCO. Dad was offered a job at ALCO’s Auburn plant that built the big diesel engines for locomotives, ships and power plants. He said he would delay it as long as he could, but it might mean the McCarthys would move to Auburn.

Schenectady soldiered on with repair work and other minor jobs for a few years. Congressmen Dan Button, Sam Stratton and Carleton King convened hearings in Washington to ask how this could happen ‑- developments covered diligently by the Gazette’s Jim Walker. The company investigated making other products. But nothing happened.

Soon, Dad was spending two days a week in Auburn. Then three days. Then five days. One day in July of 1970, his pal and co-worker, Roy VanValkenburgh, appeared at the camp we were renting at Friends Lake. They took a walk down to the beach, and after Roy left, Dad told us it was official. We would move to Auburn in November.

The mother of my friend Paul D’Ammasso made one of the nicest suggestions ever. She knew I loved it at Gibbons, where I was now a junior. She offered to let me live at their Scotia home until graduation.

But the McCarthys needed to be together again. By this time, Dad was 50 years old. He felt terrible about moving his family but had no choice other than leaving our home. Life would go on.

And it did. ALCO’s Auburn plant boomed through the 1970s before it also closed, and Dad retired as traffic and liaison manager in 1983, after 42 years. He and Mom both died in 2012.

All these years later, there’s a certain satisfaction in revisiting the story of an iconic company that played a major role in the nation’s history, especially during World War II. For more than a century, people around the globe associated Schenectady with ALCO ‑- the American Locomotive Co.

Even today, spying an old ALCO chugging along some out-of-the-way short line provides a genuine thrill. It’s a source of special pride to get close and inspect the builder’s plate mounted on the side, announcing to the world completion of a diesel-electric locomotive by ALCO Products Inc., Schenectady, N.Y., USA.

You know — the city that lights and hauls the world.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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