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A tribute to Emmett Duffy

June 27, 2009

Last week, while exchanging messages with Walter Duffy, he came up with the following column by the late Bill McLaughlin that is just pure McLaughlin. Prose is described as "everyday speech," but yet, most of what we read is not the way we talk. Would we have described Bill and the other youths who hung out with him at the freight yards as "a whole rat pack of young ne'er-do-wells"? Probably not.

So for those of you who did not have the pleasure of knowing Bill or reading his columns, and for those of you who did know him, I expect you will enjoy this story.

When Bill illustrated the book, "Joe Call, the Lewis Giant," by Maitland DeSormo, here is a piece of the bio that DeSormo included: "He was born in Saranac Lake in 1917, and his early years were filled with joy and exhilaration. The town was as lusty, monied and wide open as any frontier settlement. They called it 'Little New York' because of its cosmopolitan character Following graduation from Saranac Lake High School he entered the New York State Ranger School, later transferring to Syracuse University and the University of Iowa."

Now as plans seem to be going forward for development of that area around the railroad depot what a surprise to read the last sentence in Bill's story.

"He was a big, big man"


Emmett Duffy was unquestionably the strongest man alive. He stood six-foot five and wore a size 16 shoe. He had a deeply lined face and a look of sublime patience. Nobody remembers him. That's because his domain was the freight station and he labored out of sight.

In a TB health resort where silence was much appreciated, at least between the hours of 2 and 4 every afternoon, Emmett Duffy should have been decorated by the health department.

Emmett never called on a noisy switch engine to move the freight cars to the various sidings. He picked up a crowbar and wedged it under the wheel to get it rolling and pushed it by hand where he wanted it parked.

He wore faded, baggy overalls. His temper was nicely under control and a vein of humor seemed to lie untapped beneath the surface of his quiet personality.

So he was never decorated as a citizen of the month or man of the year but his life was full of honest toil. He should have been canonized.

If he was interred around here , which I doubt (which he is, in Pine Ridge Cemetery), we could have arranged to have a special marker put on his grave, aboxcar on a field of white clover with a pair of silver crowbars crossed in salute.

There is always something that makes an honest man's job twice as tough as it should be. Emmett's job included built-in responsibilities like being a watchman, watering caged livestock, the systematic compilation of bills of lading, and unloading of valuable cargo in such a manner that damage suits were scarce or unheard of in Saranac Lake.

When Emmett died or retired, whichever came first, and the freight station was torn down, the clear spring water coming through an iron pipe close by suddenly dried up.

This natural fountain had bubbled forth from the earth for half a century.

Occasionally the absolutely terrifying scare of infantile paralysis epidemic hit the community. The health department mandated that the village drinking water, to be safe, must be boiled.

Natural spring water was exempt from the ruling. Everyone who could carry a gallon jug, two milk bottles, a galvanized dairy pail or a paper cup lined up at the spring in back of the freight house to avail themselves of this unpolluted mountain water.

People were so afraid of the crippling plague that they would make a trip to the spring three times a day and stand in line to fill their jugs.

So it was providential that the spring died about the time that Emmett died. He was the one who kept his eye on the young nincompoops horsing around the pipe and making sure they didn't break the line or foul the water.

Emmett was no fool. He knew there was a whole rat pack of young ne'er do-wells colonizing the acreage underneath the freight house and the covered platforms extending half the distance of the yard area.

He worried about fires, naturally. But he knew that the pipe-smoking wayward clan was much safer under the building than running across the tracks beneath parked trains or playing games on top of the boxcars and tankers.

A miss step while roof hopping from a freight car to the slanted edge of the building could be fatal.

Emmett would rather have four or five nuisances follow him around during the day than try to get rid of them. He had a lot of surprises in store.

When the first Austin Bantams arrived in the village, they came by freight. Emmett had already hustled the boxcar by hand to the unloading platform before informing us he had a surprise.

As we waited, he rolled back the heavy door. Five miniature roadsters were inside. This was better than a circus. We brought our lunches and watched Emmett set about with a jack and a crowbar getting the small automobiles jockeyed around and onto the loading platform all by himself.

It was always "by himself," and that's why Emmett was such a heroic figure to the small fry pain-in-the-tail fraternity hanging around the freight yards.

Never a dent and never a scratched fender! Five automobiles in one afternoon! He once took a dead horse out of a livestock car and did it just as gently as if the horse had been alive.

He even tried to offer solace to the "darkie" who was traveling with the horse when it expired.

The gates of heaven must have swung wide for Emmett. Even in overalls his was the kind of royalty the lord had in mind as earthly examples of the golden rule.

Emmett always managed to have the surprises at the time we were most active under foot. Saturdays were a special trial for him and he set up surprises where we could see them in advance,

Fancy state or county fair chickens and laboratory animals were always in transit, and the ammonia smells were good for a head cold. Once in a while a stuffed emu or a gnu would come along. Those exotic animals of the African veldt were tagged for Mr. Ire's house at the corner of Park Avenue and Marshall Street.

Walter Duffy at Wilson's Store, a nephew of Emmett, says there is a picture in the Knights of Columbus Hall and Emmett is in the photo standing head and shoulders above everyone else.

For some reason, I don't wish to see it. The picture I have of Emmett is right here in this column. I don't need pictorial reinforcement.

If the old depot area is ever developed for commercial purposes, I am going to lead the move to have the parking area or the access road named after Emmett Duffy.



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