Another day on the railroad
an actual experience by Bob Stierwalt
(This was the winter of 1966-67, possibly February or March 1967.)
March 24, 2005
I was standing in the yard office in Bay City, Michigan watching the snow come blasting across the yard tracks. I knew if the engines for the southbound freight for Detroit didn't hurry out of the enginehouse they might get into trouble with the snow somewhere down the line. Their train was made up in the yard and they should be coupled on by now, but there was no sign of them. I was the Trainmaster in charge of the territory from Detroit to Mackinaw City, Michigan. I knew the train dispatcher in Detroit was fidgeting worrying about the snow and wanting to know what was happening. I turned to the General Yardmaster (GYM) and told him to call the foreman and see what was going on. Looking out the window I saw the engines start to move so I told Bill, "Forget it, here they come."
The two big EMD covered wagons, crossing warning bell ringing, eased along the ready track and out into the yard, stopping beyond the switch which was then lined for their train and on a signal from the brakeman backed to their train. It was a good thing the GYM had called the MofW men out to place the oil switch heaters in the switches, at least the switches weren't frozen or full of snow. After coupling up, the brakeman hooked up the air hose and I heard the engineer rev the locomotives to #3 notch to pump air to the train line. I watched the snow blowing across the yards outside the window, waiting to hear the horn signal acknowledging the air test signal given from the rear end of the train. Finally it came and I could visualize the engineer applying the brakes, it shouldn't be long now and the train would begin its trip to Detroit.
The headlight switched to bright and the engineer blew two longs on the horn and the engine bell started. The air test was completed and the train was ready to go. I could see the engines out the window slowly ease ahead, stretching the slack and beginning the trip. The snow was really coming down, made more evident in the glare of the headlight and the wind whipping out of the west. I heard the engineer speak to the operator over the radio, telling him "Were out of here, see you next trip". The southbound started picking up speed, heading down through town over flasher protected crossings until finally the caboose came by and the Conductor gave the operator a high ball with his lantern. I decided to call it a day and said good night to the GYM and went home to have a nice supper with the family.
The engineer on the southbound, after leaving the city limits, widened on the throttle opening it out to #8 notch and the EMD covered wagons leaned into the harness and started picking up speed. The wind was blowing hard from the west and the snow was drifting badly. Fortunately the round nose on the lead engine helped push the snow to either side. It was nineteen miles from Bay City to Saginaw and the train did that in about 35 minutes, slowing down upon reaching the yard limit board. Easing through the yard the engineer noticed the snow getting really heavy and started getting concerned that maybe the wind would pile it deeper.
Reaching the open country south of Saginaw it was difficult to get the train up to track speed, in fact it was impossible, the engines were in #8 and the best they could do was 35 MPH. They soon approached Vassar and the snow was getting deep enough to slow the train, it was deep and then they entered the cut before reaching the block station at Vassar. The snow had drifted in really deep and the train was slowing down to less than 15 MPH. They weren't going to make it. The train shuddered to a stop and the engineer shut the throttle down as the train stalled in the deep snow. The snow had drifted in the cut and was above the couplers and covering the running gear not only on the engines but on a lot of the cars behind.
I had arrived home and no sooner sat down and the phone rang, it was the operator at Bay City Yard advising me the southbound was running into heavy snow. I hurried and ate and decided to drive back out to the yards. Upon arriving the operator said "We got a problem, call the dispatcher in Detroit ". I got on the phone and called the dispatcher and he said "Bob, we got the southbound stalled in a drift at Vassar, what can you do". I asked, " Where is the crew?" " I released them to go to the hotel in Vassar" he replied. I had Train 209-210 power sitting in the engine house and knew they were equipped with snow plows on each end. I told him to advise the Superintendent that I was calling a crew to go south with 209-210 power and try to pull the train back to Saginaw. I told the crew dispatcher to get me a crew as quick as possible and then called Al Myers, Equipment Foreman to make sure the engine house forces had the power ready to go when the crew arrived. The yard crew on duty reached in on the caboose track and pulled 209-210 caboose out to clear the engine track so the crew could couple on as soon as they were ready. The extra crew arrived in an hour and a half and quickly brought the engines out of the house and coupled to the caboose, Al and I climbed on the lead unit and gave instructions to head for Saginaw and stop at the depot.
The snow was easing up and running light we didn't have any problems on the trip to Saginaw. We stopped at the depot and got permission from the operator to enter the occupied block and proceed at restricted speed to the stalled train. As we departed Saginaw depot I noticed the snow was much deeper and the snow plow on the lead unit was throwing it to either side. The wind hadn't let up much and you could see the snow blowing and drifting across the tracks. Suddenly, in the gloom and by the glare of the headlight we saw the marker lights on the train ahead. We eased up to the caboose and with the brakeman's signals we coupled on.
We were faced with a dilemma, with no one on the train, how do we get the brakes released on the units on the head end of the train. I told Al we would have to walk to the head end and release the brakes and maybe we could use the power there to help move the train when it was pulled back. We got off the engine and immediately were hip deep in snow, it was going to be a tough walk alongside of the 80car train. The snow had drifted to the bottom of the cars and with the strong wind had crusted over. In the beginning this appeared to be a blessing, but soon became a curse as we would take three or four steps on the top and then break through going hip deep again. Trying to push our way through the hip deep snow was next to impossible and we would climb out and try to walk on top only to break through again. I looked at the train and noticed we were out of luck in climbing aboard and trying to walk the tops of the cars as it was comprised of box cars, hoppers, and gondolas with some flat cars thrown in. It would have been more difficult to try to climb on the box cars and then down off to get around some empty gons or hoppers and then back up.
We forged ahead becoming more and more exhausted until finally I said "Al, we have to go back we aren't going to make it". We lay side by side in the snow trying to get our breath back in the bitter cold, but the snow had stopped. Al said, " Bob, I hate to tell you this but we are half way, it is just as far to the rear as it is to the head end, we might as well go ahead". Looking at it from that standpoint Al was right so I dragged my body upright and started toward the head end of the train. As we walked and crawled and fought our way forward we both wondered if we were going to make it. Finally we got to the rear unit and then to the ladder to the cab of the lead unit. I grabbed the hand rails and struggled to pull myself up as I tried to keep my feet from slipping on the steps. It took all my strength to drag myself into the cab and turned and extended my hand to Al as he struggled up the ladder. We finally were in the cab and got the door shut; it was warm and we slumped into the seats, completely exhausted, breathing heavily and soaked with sweat from our exertions. About twenty minutes of rest got our breathing slowed and our pounding hearts back down in our chest.
Now we had contact with the rear end through the engine radio and we could start trying to extricate the train. I told Al, "Turn the double heading cock and we will let the rear engines pump and handle the air on the train". I called the Engineer on the units on the rear and told him we would apply power on the head end back against the train, while he pulled it back toward Saginaw. He said, "OK, roger, give us some help I am starting to pull back". I reversed the engines and opened the throttle trying to shove back. I was careful not to apply too much power, I didn't want to jack knife the train and I sure couldn't feel any movement, it was snowed in solid. The engineer from the rear spoke over the radio, "It's not moving, I am shutting down". I replied, "OK, I can't pull ahead, the snow is almost up to the headlight so start jerking them out a few at a time, take them back to Saginaw and put the cars in the siding". The rest of the night the crew on the rear pulled the train out of the drift five cars at a time; while Al and I managed to struggle through the snow to the depot and call the train dispatcher and advised him what the situation was and our intentions. He asked me to advise him when we would have the train ready to go so he could wake the crew in the hotel and get them on duty to bring the train to Detroit.
Finally the train was in the siding and I advised the dispatcher. The southbound crew got on the engines at Vassar and we backed to Saginaw and coupled on to the cars in the siding. The southbound left Saginaw and because of the snow plows on 209-210 power clearing the track they made it through the drift at Vassar this time. Al and I got on the two units sitting in the clear at Saginaw and we all went back to Bay City. What a night.
Robert Stierwalt hired out 6/25/53 at Anderson . In the middle 60's became road foreman at Corning, NY-Trainmaster Bay City,Mich - Detroit as Rules Examiner and then Labor Relations in Detroit, Altoona, and Indianapolis Then back to Detroit until retirement in 1990. His father was the engine house foreman at Wabash. Now resides in New Mexico.