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December 27, 2003
On the Michigan Division of the Big 4 we had several outlying jobs. At Marion, Indiana, a yard engine. At Wabash: a yard engine and also a local that ran from Wabash to Elkhart. At Elkhart: a yard engine and also the Goshen Switch Run that ran from Elkhart to Goshen 6 days a week doing the work at Goshen. At Benton Harbor, Michigan: a local that ran from Benton Harbor to South Bend, Indiana via Niles, Michigan.
As a younger fireman, you were forced assigned or caught the job from the Extra Board. After a few years when you became the oldest fireman and were set up to the youngest engineer, you then worked these jobs at Elkhart and Benton Harbor as the youngest engineer. Having to work these outlying jobs would keep you away from home a great deal but you gained experience firing and running that could not be learned in any other way.
I was called to deadhead to Benton Harbor to replace the regular fireman who had layed off for a couple of trips. After locating the engine house and reporting in, there was 5 or 6 hours before the job was on duty at 11pm. The time came and I was introduced to the crew. The power was an H-7 2-8-2 # 2000. There was a turntable, water plug and a crane to dip coal from a gondola for the two engines at Benton Harbor. I had never been on the job before so knew nothing about how the track laid. I told the engineer this and his question was, you can fire an engine can't you? Remember this is at night and I will not be able to see.
The engineer tells me that when we leave town, "turn the water pump wide open and fire against it and keep the steam pressure under the pops. The pump won't supply the boiler but when we reach the top of the hill and I ease off on the throttle, the pump will catch up and be ready for the next hill. Do not stick your head out of the window because the brush is almost to the cab sides." After a couple of trips the fireman marked up and I returned to South Anderson. I worked this job one more time with steam and the next time I worked this job in 1953 it had a GP-7 diesel for power. The engineer would let you run and he would sit in the middle seat, where you could only see out the side, and tell you the throttle position and when to set the air and release it and how much to apply. I knew then that all good train handlers had this ability and I would learn this also.
At Elkhart you started at the NYC roundhouse and traveled about 2 miles to the Big 4 yards located at Jackson St. At that time there were many industries, in fact they supplemented a first and second trick. The things learned at Elkhart were these, smokeless firing, different ways of giving signals and the different work locations on the job. When I climbed on the yard engine, checked the water glass and opened the firebox door, I saw a fire like nothing I had ever seen in a firebox. I had not been working very long and I asked the engineer what I was supposed to do with this fire. He looked in the firebox and said there was nothing wrong with the fire, it was a good fire. Start filling in the holes and water it to keep down the smoke. That's when I learned that you fired these engines with a donut type fire, a bank of coal completely around the firebox, and that these engines worked two tricks before the fire was cleaned.
When it came to hand and lamp signals the yard men had a few signals that were theirs alone. When coupling to a cut of cars with another cut, the switchman would give an easy signal and when the engineer acknowledged the signal the switchman dropped his arm or lantern. The reaction of an engineer is to apply the brakes when the arm or lantern drops. When you were within a car and a half, the switchman would again give an easy signal and a stop signal at the coupling. One of our engineers broke the brake handle trying to stop with these signals. This job worked many industries, which again was good training for the time when you would be called as the engineer on this job.
Going back to the Benton Harbor job and train handling. The twenty-one miles from Benton Harbor to Niles Jct. ran from 1% to 1 1/4% grade with very little flat track but continually up and down. You handled the train just like a passenger train, using the air and throttle. Local work was plentiful and gave much training on signals, spotting cars and handling heavy cuts. The training a fireman could get on these jobs was indispensable when he was set up as an engineer. You can see by the elevation map that the longest flat spot was between Clark Equipment and as you start into Pipestone Cut. This was about two miles long.
One bad training program on the Benton Harbor-Niles Local was the auto train accidents. If you worked the job a month you were lucky indeed if you were not involved in an accident. Some were not serious other than a damaged vehicle others would take life and cause injuries to the occupants. The most tragic accident I was involved in as an engineer was with an auto that ran into the engine almost head on. The result of this was five deaths and two injuries. It took many months to not be crossing shy after this accident.
This training ground prepared a young fireman for almost every incident a young engineer might encounter. The operational part you learned and improved on, the accident part you learned to handle in your own way. Today the young engineer is expected to learn in a year what we had four to five years to learn in. If the company does not have a person to person training program they are poorly trained at best but on paper it looks good.
Maurice worked the Michigan Division from 1947-1981. He then worked on the Bee Line from 1981-1992. From 1947 until august 1950, he worked on the section at Shirley and Markleville. In 1950 he started firing on steam and then on through the diesels. Maurice said, "I had the pleasure of working with C. C. Staley and Ron Buser many times."