Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
0720 1/8/1981 – 1006 1/8/1981:
C&SL Snowplow Extra One
“ . . . and the snow and high winds are now expected to continue for the rest of today and tonight and into tomorrow, adding at least two more feet to the eighteen-inch accumulation of snow already on the ground in the area of Camden and surrounding communities. The following schools have been closed in the Camden area . . . ”
Bud Ellsberg could not have cared less about schools in the Camden area as he reached out from his bed to turn off the alarm clock. He was really more interested in the trains in the Spearfish Lake area. He looked out the window without throwing the covers back and could see fresh snow blowing past, plastering itself onto trees and clogging the street, and wondered just how bad he wanted to send out the run to Warsaw today.
On a morning like this, it was just too easy to sleep in, but Bud realized he would have to get up and see just how bad it was. It had been snowing and drifting already when he and John Penny had brought the Camden turn into town the night before, and it was easy to see that it hadn’t let up much all night. It was not going to be any picnic to run a train up to Warsaw today.
But then again, Bruce Marshall from the Jerusalem Paper plant at Warsaw had called at least twice yesterday about the dye loaded on piggyback trailers on the train sitting in the yard at Spearfish Lake. Ever since some idiot truck driver last fall had tried to take a fifty-five-ton truck over the twenty-ton limit bridge south of Warsaw, ending up in the Spearfish River along with most of the bridge, the plant’s chemistry had been coming by piggyback. It gave the little Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad more business, but sometimes, like today, it wasn’t always a blessing. They’d need their dye today or else they were going to have to shut down, but Bud wondered if they wouldn’t shut down anyway, considering the weather.
The phone rang, settling any question Bud might have had about staying in his warm bed. If it rang more than about three times, his wife would be complaining about it ruining her sleep, so he faced the music, wincing as his feet hit the cold floor.
It turned out to be Betty, his elderly accountant. “I’m snowed in,” she said, “Can you pick me up?”
Bud agreed that he would, and began to get dressed. What a hell of a day to have to run a railroad, he thought.
One of the benefits of being a railroad president – at least of a railroad the size of the Camden and Spearfish Lake – was that Bud got to drive the railroad’s four-wheel-drive pickup home. Snow removal had improved in recent years in the Northwoods town of Spearfish Lake, as the town had gotten away from lumbering and had become more of an industrial town. But even though the city plows had been out on the streets all night, it took the pickup’s four-wheel drive and low range for Bud to get from his home on Railroad Street to his accountant’s house, and then to the office.
Bud sometimes suspected that his quiet accountant was more the president of the railroad than he was. As often as not, he’d be out somewhere with a train, and she was the one keeping the paperwork going, the bills paid, and the operations in order.
John Penny had already arrived at the office from his nearby apartment by the time Bud and Betty arrived, and he had even shoveled out the walk up to the office door. The train that had been SLCR-22 yesterday and would be SLWR today sat snow-covered on Track One, where Bud and John had cut it off the night before when they ran the two Geeps into the engine shed.
“Just hung up from talking to Walt,” Penny reported. “He’s snowed in bad. He said he didn’t think you’d want to run the Warsaw turn today, and he’s not feeling real good, anyway, so he decided to not try to make it in. If you really want him, though, he says he’ll ride his snowmobile in.”
Bud shrugged. “Don’t know how bad I want to try it today,” he said. “I’ll just have to see how bad they want those chemicals up in Warsaw. Tell you what, why don’t you get the blade on the truck, and see what you can do about shoving some snow off the parking lot around here? Clean her up good. We probably won’t need it moved today, but if we get as much snow as they’re calling for, we’ll have a hell of a time cleaning it off later. Coffee hot?”
“Just started. I haven’t been here that long,” Penny grinned. “Boy, on Conrail, they wouldn’t have a brakeman cleaning the snow off a parking lot, or making the boss’ coffee.”
“At Conrail, they wouldn’t have you working, period,” Bud replied. “That’s why you’re here.”
Bud was in the process of taking his coat off when the phone rang. “That’s probably Marshall already,” he thought, and picked up the phone.
It proved to not be Marshall, but Les Marks, the division superintendent of the Decatur and Overland Railroad; all of the C&SL traffic that came to or went off the railroad – and that was most of it – came over the D&O track, from the interchange yard down in Camden. Bud tried to stay friendly with Marks, even though the two were constantly blaming each other for traffic problems over the interchange. After exchanging unkind comments about the weather, Marks said, “Look, Bud, we’ve got a couple of problems. I’ve got an engine stranded down in your yard. Do you think you could stuff it into your engine shed for a couple days?
“Not if it’s a big engine,” Bud said, “The Chessie and the LN’s 9608 already have it pretty full.”
“Just an SW9,” Marks told him. “It’s not that big.”
“I don’t see any problem, then,” Bud said, “But why is it stranded?”
“Well, I was getting to that,” Marks responded. “We’ve had a little problem with the drawbridge south of your place there.”
Bud held his breath. This could be serious. Marks went on, “That thing’s run by a big electric motor, and we’ve had trouble with it off and on. Well, yesterday we finally got a crew out to tear it down, and they thought they had it fixed so they tested it.”
“Oh, shit,” Bud said bleakly, searching for words.
“Well, at least they didn’t drop the goddamn thing,” Marks continued. “But they did manage to short something out, and they burned the commutator down to scrap metal. Totaled the son of a bitch, and now the bridge is stuck halfway open.”
“How long?” was all Bud could ask.
“Turns out we luck out. I just got off the phone with General Electric. Had to hunt around a bit. They’ve got a motor in stock that’s a perfect replacement for the one down there, except that this one is a new one, so that ought to fix the problem for good. They’re gonna ship it out right away, so we ought to have it in four or five days and have the bridge back going about the end of next week.”
Now that Bud knew what the problem was, he could turn from defeat to anger. The drawbridge was the key to his business, and he didn’t control it. If the D&O didn’t get it fixed – and soon – the Camden and Spearfish Lake was out of business. “Yeah, a week or ten days, or two weeks,” he exploded. “Do you know how much toilet paper Jerusalem Paper is going to have in their warehouse in ten days or two weeks? They’re going to be screaming at me to get it out of there. They’re going to be screaming for chemicals! If I tell them, ‘Tough, the bridge is out,’ they’re gonna say, ‘Put it on a truck,’ and there goes my business.”
“Bud, don’t worry about it,” Marks replied soothingly. “Remember, we have trackage to service up there, too, and we’re just not going to let it sit. We haven’t got anything scheduled upbound for you for three or four days, and this storm that’s coming is gonna back everything up even further, another couple of days or more. You get a weekend in there, too. You have an extra all set up to go as soon as we get the bridge open, and we’ll have everything that’s accumulated for you ready to go.”
This made a certain amount of sense, considering that it was what Bud would have to do, like it or not. All he could say was, “Well, all right. Just get the damn thing fixed. I’ll try to cool Jerusalem Paper down for a few days, but keep me posted on what’s happening with that damn bridge, will you?”
It was snowing just as hard in Warsaw, thirty miles or so to the east. Like Spearfish Lake, the town was pretty well closed down. The town’s one snowplow had been working most of the night, trying to keep the streets more or less clear, especially on the north-south streets where the drifting was the worst. It had been a losing battle. The snow had drifted badly all night, and plowing through on each pass up Main Street had been like breaking trail. Sensible people didn’t take cars out in weather like this anyway, unless they had to, and usually they were sorry for it. Four-wheel-drive vehicles and snowmobiles still moved, and some degree of normality was still upon the little town. Northern towns are used to snow, and it takes something more than an overnight blizzard to shake off that normality.
Normality is usually pretty hard to shake in little towns like Warsaw, anyway. Most of the town’s money came from jobs at the Jerusalem Paper plant. Outside of that there wasn’t much but a fertilizer dealership for the few surrounding potato farmers, a couple of gas stations, three bars, a couple of small grocery stores, a school, an oil distributorship, a hardware and sporting goods store, and the few other small businesses necessary to support a town of a few over nine hundred people and isolated by nearly forty miles of road from the nearest town that approaches its size.
Warsaw was neither a pretty nor a wealthy town. It was, in fact, rather shabby and beat-up, much like the old paper plant upon whose fortunes the town lived or died. It was pretty much a place where people live, and go to work, and come home again, and feel vaguely dissatisfied, but don’t often think better of it.
Though Bud didn’t yet know it, Jerusalem Paper Products wasn’t in a big hurry for the load of chemical piggybacks, for the paper mill had pretty much closed for the day on account of the snow. Even here, some activities went on with at least a degree of normality. A few supervisors and office people had snowmobiled or driven four-wheel-drive vehicles to work, grateful for a peaceful day that allowed them to get something done without having the pressure of production surrounding them.
One of those people was the plant’s maintenance supervisor, Clay Whitehall. The fork truck drivers had been complaining about one of the powered overhead doors in Shed 1, the northernmost paper warehouse, to the east of the plant near a pulp log stockyard. From their description, it sounded like one of the door’s tracks was bent, but Whitehall couldn’t imagine how it could have gotten bent unless one of the fork trucks had hit it with its lift all the way up.
For the last few days, Whitehall had been concerned with a balky motor in one of the wood chipping units. To a paper company, that was a hell of a lot more important than a garage door that had to be cycled each way a couple of times before it would open fully, and he’d dealt with the motor first. Now that the chipper was fixed, he could survey some of the other problems that had been piling up here and there around the sprawling, ramshackle old plant. While it was quiet, it was a good time to decide which one of the virtually continuous problems to point his repair crews at when the blizzard let up and they could come back to work.
Something of a warning bell went off in the maintenance supervisor’s head as he reached for the side door of the fairly new steel warehouse. It didn’t register then and he hadn’t realized until he thought about it much later that the door was warm – no, downright hot, like it would get in summer, instead of being freezing cold from the kind of weather in Warsaw right now.
In a bit of a hurry, Whitehall ignored the quiet mental warning, and upon opening the door, he was nearly instantly flattened by a belch of heat and gray smoke pouring from the interior of the warehouse.
At about the time that Whitehall was picking himself up out of the snow and running as best as he could for the nearest phone, Bud listened to the coffeepot burp and wished that it was ready. His conversation with Les Marks had shaken him. He’d known all along that some little damn thing like this could come along and wreck what had become a nice little railroad. Was this the one to do it?
Once upon a time, Bud Ellsberg had been a grocer. He had inherited the small-town grocery business and had made it grow into a large, modern operation. He had hated all of it. He was well past thirty when he reluctantly conceded that he would probably be a grocer for the rest of his life and spend the rest of his life hating it.
Then a vague interest had led to opportunity.
When he had been perhaps five years old, he’d waved to the engineer of a steam engine passing through California Cut out west of Spearfish Lake – it had to have been one of the last steamers on the line – and, in the way of a good many small boys, he’d decided right there and then that someday he wanted to be the engineer of a snorting, puffing, hissing steam engine hauling pulpwood down through the north woods he’d grown up in. Like almost all boyhood ambitions, it had gone away, but he had always had a more than normal interest in what happened out on the railroad tracks west of town. When an Alco or an FM would whistle for the state road crossing, he’d look up in the grocery store, listen to the sound, and couldn’t help thinking that it had to be the way freight heading up to Warsaw with a load of dye, or a load of rock downbound for Camden.
One day, this small part of his life threatened to end, for the Decatur and Overland Railroad announced plans to abandon the line from Camden to Warsaw, and service Jerusalem Paper in Warsaw and Summit Limestone east of Walsenberg over the nearly-abandoned Kremmling branch. Bud had picked the right person to commiserate with at Rick’s Café, down the street from the supermarket: a train buff by the name of Frank Matson, who was also the president of the Spearfish Lake State Savings Bank.
The two train fans knew of several short-line railroads that had been formed by people when a major railroad abandoned their little towns, and they knew there were a few lumber yards, logging companies and the like between Spearfish Lake and Camden that would miss rail service. Somehow, the idea was born to scratch together some capital and maybe make salaries by running the line. That afternoon, at the counter of Rick’s Café, the Camden and Spearfish Lake had been born.
It was a talkative secretary in a D&O office who tipped them off that the railroad didn’t plan to run traffic over the Kremmling branch any longer than they had to, and that brought them the backing of Summit Pit and Jerusalem Paper. Even with that backing, the initial cost of the expanded line was more than the infant company could possibly have managed, but good political connections got them a state transportation department subsidy that was enough to make the purchase price and still have a little left over to upgrade really bad sections of track and buy some equipment.
The going was far from easy those first couple of years, when there had been just the “Rock,” as they called their first Geep, and the one crew to run it. It could take them a week to run from Spearfish Lake the thirty-three miles to Warsaw, switch the paper plant, the oil company and the fertilizer plant, then go twenty-one more miles to Summit Pit east of Walsenberg, then return to Spearfish Lake and go on to Camden, stopping and switching at the various little towns along the way. At Camden, they would switch various local plants and industrial branches, interchange the toilet paper and limestone with the D&O, picking up chemistry and empty gondolas, then return north to Spearfish Lake, again switching at Moffat, Meeker, Albany River and a few other sidings that only the railroad knew by name.
In those days, the C&SL train – not even dignified by a number, since there was only one – had trailed a way car, not for a conductor and rear brakeman, but for the two-man crew to sleep in and live out of when they went over the twelve-hour service limit. In those days, the train left on Monday for Warsaw and Walsenberg, and could usually figure on Tuesday night back at Spearfish Lake. They would take off for Camden on Wednesday morning, and could then figure on getting back home sometime between Thursday night and Sunday morning.
Bud had usually been the brakeman on that crew. It had been the happiest time of his life, since he had sold the Spearfish Lake Super Market for stock in the struggling little railroad. The other crewman was a retired Norfolk and Western engineer, Adam Howland, who had moved to the North Woods with the notion of getting to know by name all the trout in the little streams feeding the Spearfish River. He hadn’t known what he was getting himself in for when he had agreed to work for the little railroad part-time to stave off boredom when the trout season was closed.
Bud couldn’t remember a time in those early years when the hoglawed caboose wasn’t sitting within a hundred yards of an interesting-looking trout stream.
On the long, slow trips, Bud learned about the operating side of railroading, and had become a fair engineer – only fair, since he lacked Adam’s lifetime of experience, and fortunately, those early days hadn’t lasted. Some of the state money had gone to rebuild various sections of the track, and some deep breathing by the bank and some inspired bargain hunting had resulted in another old Electro-Motive engine, an old, but sound, NW2 switch engine that had toiled for the Milwaukee Road for a third of a century. Renumbered 202, the Milwaukee switched Summit Pit and Warsaw, and in its spare time hauled the section gang, track equipment, and ballast cars up and down the line.
Bud had finally been able to initiate one-day round trip service from Spearfish Lake when they bought an old forty-four-ton General Electric switcher that had long been a yard goat for the Chesapeake and Ohio. Naturally called the Chessie, it handled all the switching and interchange in Camden, operated for maybe ten hours a week by a couple of retired D&O oldtimers, Ralph McPhee and Harold Stevens, a couple of engineers who had found retirement boring and were glad to have something to stave off the soap operas.
As business increased, especially with the rock trains in the summer, more power had been needed, and Bud added the Burlington and hired another engineer, Walt Archer, a D&O hand who had gotten tired of commuting to Putnam Yard at Camden from his home on the Spearfish Lake subdivision. These days, usually either Adam or Walt handled the Geep set on the turnaround runs, and either Walt or Bud handled the switching with the Milwaukee. Bud did run the Geep lashup occasionally, so with Adam in Florida and Walt at the dentist, he wasn’t a stranger to the main-line runs. Usually, the Geeps went to Warsaw and Walsenberg and back to Spearfish Lake one day, then Camden and back the next, skipping Saturday and Sunday and then picking up where they left off on Monday.
Even though Bud still enjoyed being a kid and playing with the biggest model railroad any kid could have, he could sometimes be heard saying that it was getting to be too much like a regular business. Enthusiasm, economy, and most of all, local ownership and backing had indeed made the Camden and Spearfish Lake a moderately successful business: it was in the black, and likely to stay that way unless something untoward happened. Being in the black was in itself something of an unusual adventure for a railroad, and Bud never wished for the untoward; he enjoyed playing with his trains too much.
“It’s not all bad, Betty,” he said, getting up and heading for the coffeepot. “We get a few days break. Once we move that load we got yesterday up to Warsaw, we can maybe get a couple days off. Then, I think we’ll tear into the Burlington. I doubt if we’ll ever be able to get it to run right, but maybe we can get it to run better.”
Typical of short-line railroads, motive power on the Camden and Spearfish Lake had once belonged to someone else, but the relative quality of the two General Motors Electro-Motive Division GP-7s was more or less the reverse of what a typical railroader might expect.
When Bud went shopping for the road’s first engine, he had a fair amount of money to spend, and the Rock Island had just gone belly-up once and for all, leaving a glut of cheap motive power on the market. The Rock Island had long been skimpy on maintenance, but the GP-7 that was to become C&SL 101 had just recently been overhauled and was in first-rate condition. This engine, the “Rock”, had proved to be just that: the mainstay of Bud’s operation.
As business had built up, Bud had come to realize that the one engine just wasn’t enough; a second one was needed, one that could run as a multiple unit with control from one cab, and another GP-7 was a logical choice since it simplified stocking parts. Bud had put off the decision until the situation had become critical, and by that time money was tighter and good engines weren’t as cheap. After several months, he had reluctantly purchased the second Geep from an Illinois scrap yard, for not much more than scrap prices.
The engine had had a lot of miles put on it at the Burlington Northern, which is not in the habit of skimping on maintenance, but the railroad’s management knew they were going to scrap the engine, so they had run it into the ground without a nickel’s worth of upkeep. Thus, the Burlington was something of a broken reed, which Bud kept running with chewing gum and baling wire and far too much money, and still liable to blow something at any time.
Bud poured a cup of coffee and called Walt Archer. “Don’t try to make it in just now,” he told him. “I’ll take John, and we’ll hook the Geeps onto the plow and clear the line off to Warsaw. If we get up there all right, I’ll have Betty give you a call, and you and Ed can take SLWR-12 up there. There’s no real rush, though. We might put it off till tomorrow, since that’ll be the last run for a while,” he said, explaining about the bridge.
“Don’t think they saved that just for you,” Archer told him. “That thing has only been working part time for years. Hell, I remember a time when we had to get up here for months on that Frontier-Meeker line they tore up years ago, and that was all bad track from the word go. You take it easy with that plow. I can come in and take that trip if you want me to.”
“Don’t bother. If Marshall decides he needs that dye today, we’ll still have to squeeze in the Warsaw turn later, and there’s no way in this weather that we’re going to have one crew make two runs up there, not with all the extra switching and whatnot. I’ll have Betty call Ed and tell him to sit tight for now.”
Bud hung up the phone and sipped at his coffee before getting Betty’s attention. “When John gets finished with the parking lot, have him come out to the engine shed,” he told her. “I’ll go out and get the Geeps warming up.”
“How about that quote for Albany River Coal and Lumber?” she replied. “You were going to work on that today. And the trackwork estimate for the new trackage at Summit. And there’s the matter of the passing track here at Spearfish Lake! Those figures we got from the county don’t make any sense at all!”
“Yeah, the county diddles while we make do without a passing track. All right, that’s another reason to have Walt make the second run. When I get back, I’ll play around with the Summit figures some more and work up another nasty letter to the Road Commission.”
“How about Albany River Coal and Lumber?”
“Hell, Betty, you know what you want to quote them. Add twenty cents a ton and send it off to them. Make sure there’s some kind of escape clause on account of the bridge. They’ll scream, and offer forty cents a ton less, and we can split the difference and come out about where we started.”
“What a way to run a railroad. I think this is where that phrase started, anyway.”
Shrugging off Betty’s baleful glare, Bud put on his coat and headed out to the engine shed and the Geep set. The two engines sat tail to tail, the way they had been parked the night before. It was fairly warm in the engine shed; the size of most railroad engines and the leakiness of their cooling systems precludes the use of anti-freeze, so when unused they either have to be kept idling or kept indoors. In addition, they can be absolute monsters to start when cold, but the above-freezing warmth in the engine shed helped with that.
Bud looked at the first engine with a practiced eye. When the light was right and the eye was looking carefully, something merely wouldn’t seem right about the paint job on the light blue diesel. Being inside, the light wasn’t right, but Bud knew what was there. Underneath the lettering that read CAMDEN AND SPEARFISH LAKE there was a patch of light blue that didn’t quite match the surrounding paint. When the sun was out and just right, anyone could discern what had once been other lettering: THE ROCK.
The thought pleased him. As he swung up onto the GP-7, now the flagship of the little Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad, he sung softly to himself, “Oh, the Rock Island Line is a mighty fine line, Oh, the Rock Island Line is the road to ride . . . ”
The Rock, as usual, started fairly easily, but Bud had a long and profane tussle to get the green and white Burlington going. It was running on most of its cylinders when John arrived from plowing off the parking lot, to find Bud in the cab of the Burlington. Brushing the snow from his pants, Penny muttered, “Stinking weather.”
“It’s gonna get worse before it gets better,” Bud replied. “The Weather Bureau says we’re supposed to get a good foot tonight and tomorrow. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to get down in Camden.”
“Hell, this countryside’s just two shakes from the glaciers returning,” the brakeman replied, shaking his head. “Well, at least spring can’t be more than six months off.” He changed the subject, “Gonna give it a try, huh? I figured we’d sit tight today.”
“Naw, if we sit tight, that track could get so plugged that even the big plow might have a tough time getting through, and it’s a pain in the butt to have to dig out a drift with a crane and a clamshell. We ought to be able to buzz right through today, and then maybe Walt and Ed can get those flats out of here later. Hit the doors, will you, while I run this thing out.”
Since the cab of the Burlington was near the door, Bud stayed in place while Penny went to hit the switch. Slowly, the door of the formerly abandoned sawmill opened, and Bud powered up the engines to ease them out into the snow. The Burlington’s apron had barely hit the two feet or more of snow when the engine began to bog down from the chore, so Bud throttled it up a little. As soon as the engines had cleared the building, Penny hit the “Close” button; with the Milwaukee still in the shed, they didn’t want to let it cool off more than necessary.
Bud throttled back, and the engines coasted to a quick stop in the deep snow and waited for the brakeman to catch up with him.
“You know,” Penny said when he got in the cab, “I hate to bring this up, but we left that stupid train here on one and the plow is nosed into two. We’re going to have to move the whole works out to the drill track to get to the plow.”
“Worse,” Bud replied, “We’ve got to move them clear out onto the main, since the only place we can do a runaround of the whole consist is on the wye. It won’t matter if we leave the consist sitting out on the main, but getting it out there won’t be easy.”
The phone that Whitehall got to in his mad flight from the fire was an inside line. He had to dial the switchboard to get a line to the fire department. It so happened that Bruce Marshall was near the switchboard when the excited report of “Fire in Shed 1” came in.
“Stay on the line while I call the fire department, Clay.” The supervisor quickly made the call; in but moments he could hear the wail of the town’s fire siren. Switching back to the maintenance supervisor, Marshall asked, “Just where in the building is the fire, Clay, and how bad is it?”
“Can’t tell,” Whitehall breathlessly told the plant manager. “Must be all through the place. It’s hotter than hell in there and there’s smoke just rolling out the door like mad. It’s got to have been going for hours.”
“Stay where you’re at, Clay. I’ll get right over there. The fire whistle just blew, so they ought to be here anytime. Judging from how fast that siren went off, I’d say I broke up a pinochle game.”
Marshall was right about the pinochle game. The snow and the plant closing for the day had left some of the members of the Warsaw Volunteer Fire Department at loose ends, and many of them had drifted to the fire hall to while away the hours over coffee and cards. Thus, a percentage of the department’s staff was on hand when Marshall’s call came in. “Jesus, Shed 1,” a fireman exclaimed. “It’s full to the rafters. It’s gonna take us forever to get that out.”
The storm had its effects at the fire department, too. As the other members of the department arrived one by one on their snowmobiles, they found the earlier arrivals out in the street, pushing on the rural pumper as it backed and charged into the bad drifts on First Street. Fred Linder, the fire chief, had the presence of mind to get on the phone and try to find the village snowplow. However, the snowplow driver was a little ways out of town, having coffee with a married lady friend, and Linder’s frantic calls of “You seen the snow truck?” to various corners of town failed to hit the right neighborhood. About the best he got was the comment, repeated by several different people, “No, but if you see the sonuvabitch, tell him I’d like to get plowed out.”
Most of the firemen were Jerusalem Paper employees, and knowing what the effects of a fire in the plant would be on their livelihoods, they were perhaps a bit more frantic than professionals would call proper. In all the excitement, though, some of them were thinking in those first few minutes. Don Kuralt was one of the few firemen not a Jerusalem Paper worker, but as an independent pulp logger he was about as tied to the plant as anyone else. After yet another futile charge by the pumper, he stood up, covered with snow that had been thrown up by the truck’s wheels and swore, “The hell with this shit. I’ll go get my Cat.”
Kuralt’s house wasn’t far – just over on the next street. It must have been only four or five minutes that he was gone, but it seemed like the same length in hours to the struggling firemen before they saw hope waddling toward them in the form of a small, yellow D-2 Caterpillar bulldozer.
Kuralt swung the Cat in front of the struggling pumper to lead the procession of fire equipment across the little village to the burning warehouse. The bulldozer wasn’t fast, and even an expert Cat-skinner like Don couldn’t make the straight blade plow snow to the side, so he had to zigzag down Main Street, pushing snow first to one side, and then to the other. While firemen sped on ahead on their snowmobiles, the fire equipment had to follow in the snaking path of the crawling D-2.
So, instead of the fire department “being right there,” it was close to half an hour before the flashing red procession, led by the snorting yellow bulldozer, arrived at the scene.
There really wasn’t much they could do when they got there. The fire was in tightly rolled toilet paper in a steel building with poor ventilation, and there wasn’t a great deal of actual flame. There was a lot of heat and smoke, but the fire was smoldering, rather than burning.
But it was a hot smolder, and there wasn’t any real hope of the steel building burning through soon, so that water could be seriously laid on the fire. The firemen had to work through such doors as there were available, including the big overhead door that Whitehall had gone to see about fixing. A fireman wearing an air-pack and a face mask opened the door partway, jam or no jam, by the inspired use of the points of a forklift.
After nearly another hour had gone by, the situation seemed almost stable. To be sure, the building was a total loss from the word go, but things seemed to be in hand, although it would be a long siege before the fire could really be termed under control.
Long afterward, every fireman remembered having seen the covered hopper cars sitting on the railroad siding within a few feet of the burning warehouse – but nobody really took notice of them until hit by the smell.
“The Geeps ought to bite pretty good where the train sat all night,” Bud explained to the brakeman, “So we ought to be able to get them moving right along. Once we get them moving, I don’t want to stop for anything; we might not be able to get them going again, even if we get the Milwaukee out here to help us push, and I don’t want to have to take a frontloader out to the wye. The switches are probably all right, but I want you to get out on the last car and check them and anything else you see. If some idiot left a snowmobile on the tracks or something stupid like that, we could be in deep shit. I know you won’t be able to see much, but just don’t stop me if you don’t have to.”
“Got ya, chief,” the brakeman smiled. “Ride the ass end of this thing through a howling snowstorm, out in the open. The brakeman gets to freeze his butt while the railroad president sits by the heater.”
Bud smiled back. Penny was adapting.
John Penny was an experienced brakeman, but new to the C&SL. He’d gone to work for Conrail in his home town of Philadelphia right out of high school, but he hadn’t had enough seniority to avoid being laid off. When Bud had needed more help a few months before, he’d gotten Penny’s name from a mutual friend. Used to working in a busy yard for a major railroad, Penny had been a little at sea in a sleepy northern town, working for a shorthanded line.
He had been used to full crew operations: an engineer and a brakeman and maybe a fireman at the head end, and a brakeman and a conductor running things from a caboose. He had been a little surprised to learn that the C&SL actually owned a way car, but it was only used as a mobile barracks for the section crew – and there was only one section crew for one hundred and seven miles of railroad. The engineer on the C&SL doubled as a conductor, and the brakeman worked both ends; there were times when the latter had to walk the full length of a train to throw a switch or monitor a move.
As Penny set out for the far end of the train, Bud hooked up the train line for the air brakes and began to pump them up. For the brakeman, it was a long, cold walk in the strong wind and the deeply drifted snow. Reaching the end of the train, he found the air pressure for the brakes low. Seeking to keep warm, he hiked on into the limited visibility of the blowing snow for a few moments until he could see the first of several switches they would have to go through. It was clear, so he turned back to the train and checked the air pressure again. It was a little better, but not much, so he used his portable VHF radio to report this to Bud.
“Think they’ll move?” the engineer/president queried from the warmth of the Burlington’s cab.
“They might. Take some slack and see.”
Though couplings on railroad cars look solid, there is some give. Using this on a long train is one of those tricks that come with experience. When the train had stopped the night before, the rear had stopped last. As a result, the train was bunched together. If Bud pulled very gently, he could stretch it out again.
Up in the Burlington’s cab, he goosed the power to back the engine lashup toward the engine shed. Barely moving, the slack came out of the consist as each car started one at a time on the few inches of slack with each car. “Tail’s moving,” Penny reported on the VHF. The train could move. Bud let the still-tight brakes on the rear of the train pull them to a stop.
Bud thumbed his mike button. “OK, John,” he ordered. “Hang on tight.”
Penny did more than hang on. He hopped up onto the last flatcar and set his back up against a set of dual trailer wheels. He knew what was coming.
At the other end of the train, Bud took a big handful of throttle, and as the two Geeps revved up, he added more. Now, the slack came out of the train in a hurry as the cars had bunched up again; the few inches of each car starting one at a time added up to a few feet when the bunching reached Penny’s end. Although it seemed like more, the speed of that last piggyback car went from a dead stop to perhaps four miles an hour almost instantly. This might not seem like much, but it was a pretty healthy jolt to John Penny, with his back up against a truck tire on an open flatcar in the middle of a snowstorm.
Bud gave the throttles as much power as the diesels would take. By the time he was past where the cars had set, he had the train moving fairly well. They backed up the track, not gaining much speed in spite of a lot of bellowing from the two GP-7s, but not losing much, either. Seated by the truck tires, Penny saw the first of the two wye switches loom up out of the snowstorm, and noted that the snow hadn’t drifted badly on the flats around the wye. “Looking good,” he reported.
“Speed’s holding,” Bud’s voice replied on Penny’s radio. “It’s going better than I thought it would. Start looking for the east switch.”
“Here it is now,” the brakeman said into his handset. “It’s clear. You’re going too fast in this stuff for me to want to get off.” The train wasn’t really going that fast; it would have been reasonable to hop off onto a clear dry surface, but Penny knew he could break something if he tried it at this speed in the snow.
“It’ll slow down when we get out on the main,” Bud responded, knowing that the snow would likely be deeper there. “If I can keep it going, I’ll pick you up.”
As the tail of the train got out onto the main line, Penny could see that the snow was deeper; the train was slowing, in spite of Bud increasing power back on the other end. The VHF squawked, “Can’t keep her moving. Better get off as soon as you can.”
A moment later, from his position beside the tracks, John reported, “I’m off. I’ll call when I see you.”
Bellowing loudly from all the throttle that Bud was using, the Burlington clattered through the main line switch, followed by an equally noisy Rock. Despite all the power, the train was slowing rapidly, and with the Burlington’s wheel slip alarm squalling in the background Bud barely managed to get the engine lashup to the waiting brakeman. He idled the engines and let the drag of the snow stop the train, then got out of the cab and walked down the engine running boards to the cab of the Rock.
Behind him, Penny broke the coupling to the piggyback consist, then climbed up onto the green Geep’s front platform and radioed, “OK, I’ve cut us off. Let’s go.”
A puff of black exhaust belched from the stacks of the two engines in reply, as Bud headed back up the tracks they had just passed over. Penny walked up the running boards of the engines, and had just reached the Rock’s cab when Bud slowed for the switch to Track Two, where the snowplow sat.
The switch was drifted shut, of course. Penny had to return to the cab for a broom to sweep out the switch points, but a few minutes later, when the engines were rolling easily down the siding, Penny had a chance to get out of the wind.
“Cold out there?” Bud asked.
The brakeman nodded and added, “That was quite a ride, heading out there on the ass end of those flats.”
“You think that was a ride, wait until you ride up to Warsaw in the cab of the big plow,” Bud replied, pointing at the plow he knew to be sitting ahead, invisible in the blowing snow.
“Who else? Let me tell you, that’s quite a ride, too. I know. I’ve done it. Sitting up there, freezing your butt off while the thing shakes and rattles and rolls, pitching snow all over creation. What’s really fun is when you come to a BIG drift. You see it bearing down on you, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and you’ll swear that it’s gonna eat you alive. Ah, there it is,” Bud added, spotting the blackness of the plow looming through the snowstorm.
He cut the throttle and valved air; the engine set drifted up to the plow and stopped. “Let’s get this thing hooked up and get out of here. I want to get back sometime today. If I don’t get some paper work done, Betty is going to flat kill me.”
Kuralt was the first to notice. He was clearing a large area of the parking lot with his bulldozer to give the department room to work when he smelled the acridness in the wind. The Cat skinner knew what smoke smelled like, and this was something else; it caught in the lungs, and gave him an almost uncontrollable urge to cough and vomit.
The fire chief wasn’t far away, but he couldn’t hear Kuralt yelling at him through the fire and the noise, so the Cat skinner drove his bulldozer across the lot. When he finally got Linder’s attention, he yelled, “Fred! There’s something burning that ain’t paper!”
“We’d better go see,” the fire chief replied. Kuralt got off his machine, and the two of them hiked into the teeth of the wind. Now, Linder too smelled the bitter odor; a sharp, acidy sort of smell that made him want to cough, too. They soon found the hopper cars, four of them, nestled next to the burning building. The last car had a sickly looking, greasy reddish smoke belching from its top loading hatches.
What was worse to the firemen was that they could see that only a few feet separated the hopper cars from Yard 3, a huge area of stored pulp logs. And there were some logs burning, too.
“Wonder just what the hell is in those cars?” Linder said to no one in particular, knowing full well that the situation was out of hand. God Almighty, he thought, just what do I do now?
Kuralt shook his head. “No idea what’s in them, Fred. Maybe Marshall would know.” The two of them took off running to the grass truck that Linder was using as a command post.
The plant manager was standing by the truck. “Yeah,” the worried man replied to the firemen’s question. They’re full of fertilizer. Northern Fertilizer ran out of space on their siding, so we let them put those cars here. They’ve been there most of the winter. I’d forgotten all about them.”
“Oh, shit,” the fire chief uttered flatly.
“Yeah, bad.” Linder explained that fertilizer doesn’t burn well, it just smolders, but when it smolders, it gives off a wide variety of gases, most of them toxic. “Don,” he ordered, “Get your Cat and see if you can get those cars out of there, so we can get at the fire in Yard 3.” Linder turned and called to a passing fireman, “Harry! Pass the word to everyone. Face masks downwind of the fire!”
Linder turned back to Marshall and went on, “Guess I’d better call Walsenberg and Spearfish Lake for help, although God knows how long it’s gonna take them to get here in this shitting weather. Walsenberg might get here fairly quickly, but there’s no telling how long it could take Spearfish Lake to get here up that stinking County 919. Hours, anyway. With the bridge out, Hoselton’s even farther away, so it’s pointless to call them.”
“Damn that idiot.” Linder knew that Marshall was talking about the truck driver that had taken out the bridge south of town a couple months before. “Now we’ll get that new bridge we’ve been bitching to the county about for years, but it still means we have twice as far to go to get anywhere.” Marshall knew the problem well; scheduling transportation around the broken bridge had been a problem for months.
The fire chief shook his head. “I guess I’d better get back and see how Don is coming with those hoppers. If we can’t get them out of there, we’re gonna have to evacuate the town.”