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A view from the right side of the cab with Pictures and Ramblings of a Retired!!! Soo Line Engineer
My first road trip on the Soo Line and other trivia!!!
When I applied for Engine Service at the Soo Line, the clerk suggested to the Roundhouse Foreman, “Look at the size of this guy, let’s put him with George. He won’t f___ around with someone this size.” I am 6’5” and weigh 250 pounds. I would be marked up with an engineer that was working between Superior, WI and Ewen, MI. That job was marked up as an Eastern Division job (Old DSS&A Division), separate from the other positions at Superior (Old Soo). I inquired what was going on and found out that this engineer, George, had the last two firemen that worked with him fired, the last one for sleeping on the job. They dated me on a switch engine assignment at Superior and transferred me to the Eastern Division to work with George on Trains 40 and 41.
This assignment went to work in the early evening, seven or eight o’clock. I showed up early so I could read the posted bulletins for this Division. I signed out in the train register and waited for “George” to show up. A man walked in the door, looked at the train register and walked out. He had a face that resembled an English Bull Dog and apparently had a gruff attitude to go with it. The caller in the office said, “That’s your engineer.” I picked up my grip and went out after him, catching up just outside the roundhouse door. When I got next to him, he asked me, “Can you run an engine?” My reply, “NO.” George replied, “Grumble, Grumble, Grumble, Mumble, Mumble.” I thought, “Boy, is this going to be fun.”
I checked the units and then sat in the fireman’s seat on the lead unit, a covered wagon. Two other crewmembers entered the engine cab and I introduced myself to them. One was conductor Hanson (Bunny) and the other was rear brakeman Don. About twenty minutes later I asked if the head brakeman was going to be much later. Don said, “He isn’t done screwing his girlfriend yet.” I thought, boy is this guy a jokester or what. I conveyed to him “that was funny”. He nonchalantly pointed out the window to a car that was parked about thirty feet away. Sure enough, through the back window you could see this skinny little white ass pounding away. I wondered what kind of railroad I’d hired out on.
After a short while, out steps our head brakeman, Ronnie. We left the roundhouse and air tested our train. Leaving Superior was a chore: Through a crossover, a rail crossing with a gate, a junction with the CNW, then two hundred feet to the wye switches that lead to the NP Main Line to Ashland. The line to Ashland was light rail, 85-pound which was a far cry from the GN’s 112-pound to 115-pound rail. The NP Ashland line was constructed from various segments of logging railroads when there were large forests growing in the early years. It was sixty-two miles to Ashland and I swear there were sixty-two curves and sixty-two hills. A few years later when the BN was formed, a couple of the engineers from the GN asked me how the hell you run an engine over the Ashland Line. On the GN, the grades were long and gentle and the trains were long. The engineers usually shut off and used the dynamic brakes. That didn’t work here because the trains were short and the grades were sharp and short. By the time the GN engineers shut off and tried to use the dynamic brakes they were already starting back uphill and damn near stopped. They needed to learn how to stretch brake. I just told them, “Don’t shut off. Just set the air and pull the train to the bottom of the grade and release the air.
After a pickup and setout at Ashland we left town. The track was more like what I was used to on the GN. We arrived at Marengo Junction, which is where the line splits off to Ewen. The sidings on the GN were ten times better than this 80-pound rail. I thought to myself, “You mean we’re going to take these engines and cars over this?” One of the first major bridges we went over had shifted. The track made a zig at the embankment to get back on the original roadbed. We soon arrived at Saxon. There was a connection with the CNW there.
As we entered the siding I saw water shooting up out of the ground along the sides of the engine. I found out that the track there was “corrugated”. When the roadbed was constructed, the trees were cut down and placed crossways to the roadbed and then used as a base. The White Pine Line was the same way. On later trips with jeeps, the water would hit the front of the engine and splash on the windows. The brakeman never rode the footboards here.
Up until this time George had occasionally shined his flashlight in my direction to see if I had fallen asleep. After leaving Saxon, George told me to go to sleep. Was he trying to set me up? I told him I wanted to “see where I was going” to which he replied, “Go to sleep, you ain’t going to see anything at night anyway.” I had no intention of going to sleep whether he wanted me to or not. On later trips it was apparent that he did fall asleep, even when running the engine. Once between wye switches leaving Superior, another time going down Blueberry hill and approaching a twenty-five mph curve at fifty are a couple that stand out in my mind.
We were to meet the opposing train at Thomaston and take the siding. I thought this would be interesting as the time card said that we had fifteen more cars than what the siding held. We headed into the siding and right out the other end onto the main line until the caboose cleared the siding. There wasn’t anything in the train orders, nor could I find anything in the special instructions to allow this. What the heck is going on now? I couldn’t believe this! When I asked George he said were going to go up to Connersville Spur about a mile up the track and back in the clear there. I asked if this was pre-arranged with the other crew. George replied, “No, we do this all the time.” It was pretty scary stuff. An attempt was made to call the other train on the radio before doing this and we received no answer.
2200-A Taking the siding at Thomaston, MI
Note 2200-A is a manual shift engine
We sat in the clear at Connersville for about twenty minutes. Out of the fog, with less than two hundred feet of visibility, the train we were to meet sailed by at track speed. We then doubled back to our train and proceeded to Ewen. Ewen was a town that was populated with more dogs and skunks than people and had only one road crossing the tracks.
After tying up, the train crew took me to McGinties Bar. Our headman’s girlfriend in Superior always made a hot lunch for him to take with. He doctored it up and fed it to the female bartender at McGinties. What an operator that brakeman was. He walked in with ‘her’ lunch and said, “Hey Tits! Set’em up for the new fireman.”
Annie at Ewen, MI
This was Finnish territory. There was a large mural over the back wall of the bar that showed a depiction of Custer’s Last Stand. A small sign beneath said “Finlander Picnic at Bruce’s Crossing”; Bruce’s Crossing being a small town nearby. I then learned a little more from the conductor about George. George was stepping out and having a grand old time at Ewen…Until his wife got wind of it. The trip before, Carol, George’s wife (quite a portly woman ) caught George out on the dance floor in his Hawaiian shirt with some hussy. She grabbed George by the ear and led him out of the place. Carol put George on a buck fifty allowance per trip for spending money.
Brakemen Stearns and Beasley
The train crew turned out to be a real joy to work with and I really enjoyed knowing them. They made the job fun to go to work. George was something else though. He requested that I get permission to learn how to run an Engine since I had experience as a brakeman. When I hired out on the Soo it was not required that a new employee have any kind of rules exam. When I made an inquiry to the Terminal Superintendent about what had to be done, he assigned his trainmaster to give me a rules exam. The train and engine men referred to this trainmaster as the “Butter Cutter”. He was a clerk that had been promoted to a trainmaster. He knew little more about the rulebook than what he could read from it in real time, let alone apply it. When he tried giving me an exam and was getting things wrong and I was correcting him, the Terminal Superintendent, who must have been listening in on the intercom, came into the room and OK’ed me. This led to George teaching me how to run an engine.
George was pretty rough as an engineer and most of the time it was intentional. During that winter I often inquired whether a particular piece of track was uphill or downhill. When spring came, water was running uphill all along that line. It was a perfect run to learn on though. Lots of uphill, downhill, curves and it even had retainer territory going down into White Pine Mine from Bergland, though we never used the retainers. It took some months to learn all of it completely, but when I did, it gave me a real sense of accomplishment. Short heavy trains are the most reactive to sharp grade changes; they are most interesting to operate at night in a heavy fog. This beginning experience made it a lot easier running over other subdivisions that some of the other engineers shied away from and from some trains such as ore trains from Ironton.
There were a lot of pranks with the train crew and a lot of funny situations. I remember the time I nailed the rear brakeman’s grip down to the deck of the engine. Another time I found a turtle and put it on the windowsill of the second unit and covered it with a newspaper. Later, when the headman was riding the unit and he had his arm resting on the newspaper, the turtle started to move. Boy, did he jump! Once, when switching at Ewen I stopped without being told to when kicking a cut of cars. We were using radios for communication. The engines were up a grade and it was easy to get going too fast. Don reprimanded me over the radio, telling me “Don’t stop until I tell you.” He then said “Kick’em” over the radio again. You can guess what happened; his radio quit. We got going pretty fast and I shut off and applied the brakes. Pretty soon the headman was seen running across a field away from the train giving stop signs. Don was running after a car he had cut off to stop it when it hit some other cars and spilled their hay bale cargo. Don tripped over the bales and got skinned up. Bunny stopped some cars before they went over a derail. Don didn’t laugh then, but later realized just how funny it was. Don was comical at times. I saw him once giving one of the brakemen a sign: he jumped up and down three times and then gave a cut sign, meaning, “Cut off three hoppers”.
George got his son a job on the Soo. Sonny worked at Ewen for a while as an operator. When we arrived at Ewen one trip, the station agent was waiting for George. He informed George that his son had taken off in the middle of his shift and never returned. As it turned out, Sonny had rented a house nearby. He had been on the prowl during his off hours and impregnated a local girl. The girl’s mother went to the station during Sonny’s shift and confronted him. She shoved a shotgun between the bars on the service window and told him to leave town. He did, promptly, without stopping home. George needed to clean the kid’s house out that and I offered to help. After a few stiff drinks at McGintie’s, George asked me to go with him to the house. Every flat surface in the house had beer cans and liquor bottles on it. Various articles of women’s undergarments were scattered all over. He took this pretty hard. After we finished I went to the motel and went to sleep. George went back to McGinties.
We went to work early that trip. When the agent called me to go to work he told me that George was still at the bar. The enginemen had a room on the end of the depot with a stove, a few bunks and some lockers. There wasn’t any place to eat at Ewen that was open twenty-fours a day so we usually brought prepared meals that we could heat up. I went to the depot and put George’s and my meal in the oven to heat up. When the meals were hot I went over to McGinties to tell George that his meal was ready. I had just finished mine when George walked in. I had his plate on the table ready for him. He was in dandy shape. I’ll never forget what he had to eat that day: pork chops and mashed potatoes with gravy. He tried to get his bibs on and had one hell of a time. He finally got them on and sat down to eat. He’d barely started to eat when his head started bobbing up and down. Pretty soon he passed out face forward into the mashed potatoes and gravy. He didn’t move. Pretty soon all he would be able to suck in his nose or mouth would be potatoes and gravy, not air. “Come on George, pick your head up,” was all I could think. I thought I was going to bust out laughing. He finally stirred and lifted his face out of the plate. His face was dripping gravy. He started cleaning it off with his fork…swipe after swipe… with his fork. That was it. I was going to totally lose it.
I walked out the door with my grip and looked the engines over. George came out the door and climbed up on the engine and sat down in his seat. He turned to me and said “I’ll show you how to run this ****** engine.” He was really belligerent when he was in this condition. I wasn’t about to argue with him, or suggest that he rest in the fireman’s seat. Don had told me that George was in rare form going to work one time, before I hired out. He got up in a covered wagon, walked right across the cab, and fell out the other side because that door was open too. Luckily, he fell into a snow bank and didn’t get hurt. Don knew what was going on when he walked out of the depot that night and saw George sitting in the engineers seat. Don turned right around and walked back into the depot. The conductor got on the radio and suggested to George that he let the fireman run the engine. A heated discussion followed. I didn’t dare get off the unit because who knew what would have happened. Twenty minutes later George got up and told me to take over. We did the switching there at Ewen, made up our train and left. George never stirred. It didn’t take him long before he was out cold.
We went to Bergland and made up what we needed to take down into White Pine Mine. I backed out of the mine because I didn’t want to change ends and leave George alone. The trip down to White Pine is a fourteen mile one way excursion. Track speed on this line was 20 mph. The first mile or so is uphill and then it drops down towards White Pine, with three places in-between that are uphill. It’s about a five hundred foot drop in twelve miles. The last mile is quite steep as a F7 (1500 HP) is rated for only 1150 tons. If the temperature was 15 below zero then the rating was 920 tons. Those were the company’s figures. I doubt that even on a good day a F7 wouldn’t take that much out of there. If you had to double because of over tonnage you claimed a day’s wage for the double. That’s why the company overstated the ratings. On that last piece of track into White Pine you made a twenty-pound train line reduction just to keep from picking up more speed. There was a small yard of three or four tracks with a derail at the lower end. If you weren’t under control and the derail wasn’t on it didn’t make much difference as the track ended in two hundred feet at the base of a five hundred foot tall smokestack.
George never stirred. We left Bergland and headed for Marengo Junction. After eight hours in his resting position, George woke just before arriving and took over. We pulled down and backed up to get the conductor and brakeman on the head end. To set out at Marengo you needed to make a drop to get the cars on the leg of the wye that was used as a transfer track. George was in a decent mood when Bunny got on the engine. That was the first time any of the train crew had entered the cab that trip. A few minutes after getting in the engine cab Bunny told George, “You look pretty bright-eyed and bushy –tailed (long pause) NOW GEORGE”. George’s neck and face turned crimson. I could have wrung Bunny’s neck. Bunny knew that he had pissed George off and was thoroughly enjoying it. George was no match for Bunny. What an ugly trip back to Superior.
George always looked forward to payday. That’s if he could get his check before Carol did. They lived fairly close to the track on the outskirts of Superior. There is a road crossing that she could hear George whistle for when he went by and would then look out the window and confirm it was George. Then she would hot foot it down to the depot and get George’s check before he could. Remember the Hawaiian shirt incident? On paydays George would slow way down for this crossing and go over it without whistling just so he could get his check before she did. He’d go on a mini toot on her and she didn’t like that. It wasn’t long before she had HIS DOG trained to jump up on the chair by the window and bark at his train. Talk about man’s best friend. When she lost track of when he got into Superior she would call me to find out what time he arrived. One payday she called just when I walked in the door at my home. She wanted to know how long we had been home. I was tired of the calls and told her it had been hours. She dropped the phone missing the cradle. I heard fast footsteps and the door slamming. She never called again.
There were three crews working 40 & 41, making two trips a week. One crew laid over in Ewen on Sunday. I did work with most of the engineers before they busted the assignments and started running to Ashland from Ewen instead of terminating in Superior. Engineer Tim Donlevy was a quite unusual person. He had a twisted sense of humor that was really funny once you understood him. When he was running the engine at night you would swear that he was sleeping. When he approached a crossing his hand would go up and pull on the whistle cord. His fireman’s name was Hansen. They called him Pukey, because when he was “forced” to run the engine he actually would start puking.
Engineer Bill Bogan was a speed demon, especially down into White Pine and down Thomaston Hill. It was more than just a thrill when you went down Thomaston hill with him, or down into White Pine, for that matter. On one trip into White Pine I had to put my arm around the radio support just to stay in one place. Forty miles per hour plus on twenty mile per hour track! To this day I don’t know how he stayed on the track. A little bit too far overboard on the way he ran. His fireman was JJ O’Brien.
JJ was truly someone who had something to say about everything with most of it cutting remarks. His wife was his match, though. Once, when I picked him up to go to work he was verbally sparring with his wife. I told him we weren’t going to leave until he kissed and made up. He went to kiss her and she told him, “Kiss the dog.” What could we do but leave? An original diarrhea of the mouth he was. I worked with JJ out of Superior quite a bit after the jobs on the South Shore were busted. JJ told me he was promoted to engineer when the engineer he was working with was unavailable and they had no one else. All it took was the roundhouse foreman’s assurance that he had the ability to operate the engine. They were steam engines at that time with no exam required!!!!
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