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Turning Back the Pages of the Tattered Little Note Book
By Bruce E. Mercer

As we ponder the future of CSX in southwestern Ontario in 2005,
I have been reflecting on nearly 40 years of observations and employment in the region.

Bruce Mercer writes about his early railroad career working as a trainman and locomotive engineer on the C&O in Ontario in the 1980's and 90's before being laid off in 1996. Previously he had worked non-op jobs on the TH&B and the C&O in Toronto and is currently an engineer on OSR.

History of CSX and predecessors

Sarnia /Chemical Valley region

As a teenage fan, I recall the spur that used to cross Vidal St South, right in the middle of Imperial Oil plant #2; this was 1967 and Vidal was only 4 lanes with a grassy boulevard. These rails were still in place. Still not entirely certain just what the purpose was, be it for CN to switch Plant 2, or for C&O to switch or interchange to CN. I'm thinking the former.

The "C&O For Progress" signage, notable placements being the Boat Yard office, and the Clifford Street enginehouse. I took what would be the final shot of the Boat Yard, 2 days before the B&B painters changed it to the blue & white of ' CSX '.

Variety of box and tank cars that would come and go via the CN North interchange, which was located at the very northern most end of C&O trackage. CP 40-ft boxes for motor oil and other oil products loading, plus numerous types of tank cars - all for Imperial Oil Plant #1 (which was but 50 yards from C&O rails, but switched exclusively by CN). Many old cars of UTLX ownership carried such things as Transformer Oil; some cars were old enough to have rivets and friction bearings (all pre-Mississauga mind you).

Working some afternoon yard job that had to make the long trek out to Allied Chemical, which was in between Corunna and Mooretown; it was located on the east side of the 'main' within the lengthy yard limits that extended to South Sarnia (mile 63). Had at least 3 spurs within the complex; pretty sure the main commodity was an acid of some type....hydrochloric perhaps. The cars probably came, or went, to Allied's plant in Amherstburg. Having to trundle out there, pulling the cars in one direction, and shoving all the way back in the opposite direction, sometimes took 45 minutes. There was no welded rail in 1978 and that 85 lb jointed crap was in pretty bad condition in most places. After the plant closed and was cleaned up, all that remained was a marshy, grassy area.

Another obscure plant was Beker Industries, (pronounced becker) about 100 yards south of station name sign WATSON. Beker bought & sold ammonia, which basically came from the nearby CIL plant; I don't think they really did anything to the product except ship it out to various customers in tank cars. The plant closed in the early 80s then reopened as a GE Railcar Repair facility. A goodly variety of GE Capital rolling stock came in & out for several years....all requiring minor repairs, restencilling, etc. From the gate near the C&O mainline, to the stop block at the rear of the property, was approximately 15 car lengths. One long night in the rain, our crew tried to put 16 cars in there....clear of the gates of course. The next day we got asked how the car next to the stop block got shoved into the weeds......
Unless someone has dismantled their ammonia holding tank, you can where Beker was located by looking north from the crossing on the north side of CIL (where Liquid Air is located).

Sarnia and region

The inner workings of each chem plant were unique unto themselves; Dow had tracks numbered from 1 to 42, but several numbers were left out. There was no 13, or 20, or 22-25 and only 30 and 31, then it jumped to 40, 41, 42. Just the same it was fairly complicated - and busy. In 1978, there were 2 fulltime assignments just for Dow, one each on first and second shift.

Polysar was just as busy at times; right at the top of Sarnia Yard (practically overlooking the Boat Yard) was Poly # 13; or as it was unofficially called, K-1. Since Polysar was created during World War II, at first to manufacture latex based rubber, I think the K-1 designation might have come from the military. (There is a K-2 in North Carolina but it's not Polysar; it is operated by, or for, the military). In any case, Poly 13 is the butadiene loading and unloading rack. In busy times, they would take 2 switches per day, 5 cars to each side of the rack.

Deep within the east side of Polysar was the Latex Division (this has since been sold off, to BASF I believe); they had a fleet of CGTX cars and used a winch as a car mover if C&O couldn't make the move in a timely fashion. Down by the water's edge, just south of the boat slip, was Poly 22; this was the catalyst unloading for their main cracking tower; nasty shit but thankfully only a couple of moves per month as one car lasted them awhile. A nearby track, Poly 12, was for access to their power plant, but it was gone by 1978. Poly 10 track used to get 2 and 3 cars at a time of Coal Tar from Stelco in Hamilton. No need to get into the environmental aspects of this junk. Later, in the mid to late 1980s, Poly 10 was used to unload unit Benzene trains that came from BP in Lima OH. The cars were GATX TankTrain's and we'd get one about every other week. If nothing else, it provided some interesting road power.

At Courtright, CIL was a busy place during its first 15 years of operation; they brought in unit trains of sulphuric acid from Copper Cliff, Ont; and unit trains of phosphate rock from the 'bone valley' region of south central Florida. Later, the unit rock trains were scaled back to chunks of 20/30 cars. After arriving Detroit from Russell KY, the block of rock cars were added to the head end of train 42 for setting off at Blenheim (usually the North Siding). It then fell upon SA-37 (later SA-99) to lift that extra tonnage and take it further north; depending upon how urgently it was needed, '37 or '99 might have to spot them; or, they might leave them in the passing track at Wallaceburg for the Sarnia/Chatham turn (Local 4) to lift and spot.

Acid trains would show on a semi-regular basis, coming from Sudbury to Chatham via CPR. C&O would always handle these trains as a unit train move (nearly always 36 loads) but sometimes there wasn't enough motive power. One day about 1982, I was working Local 3 and we had but a single GP-7. Off we went like a herd of turtles, pulling 36 acid up to CIL, and spotting it. Never got over 22 mph.

The benzene runs lasted a year, maybe 18 months; it was really a 'dumping' of the product by BP at Lima OH. They found someone to take it off their hands.

Not sure when acid trains ceased, probably 1984/85....the CIL plant got sold/taken over by Terra Industries, and in turn sold/taken over by ICI.

The entire format of the operation changed during this timeframe.


A couple of lines about Sombra and Chinook Chemical - they now have, what, 3, 4 tracks, with 2 or 3 new ones added since the early 90's. Used to be a single track within the plant, and a deadend at that. Now they have switches at both ends, and sometimes the poor northbound has to switch upon the Darcy McKeough floodway bridge. Smelly place, if you've ever been by there. But its all for the good - chicken feed etc.
Used to have a few of their own tank cars, smaller riveted ones, painted silver with huge CHINOOK CHEMICAL lettering.


Here's a place that had its own yard assignment until the early 60s !
Lots of industrial spurs (you could build a shelf railroad and model this town!)

Swingbridge, bridgetender and RTC office. March 12, 2006 Steve Host

Bridge has been swung open. July 14, 2005

CSX D725 with CPR run-through power led by SD40-2 5616. September 30, 2005

South of the drawbridge and specifically between McNaughton Ave and King Street ( north end of the Passing track), no less than 7 spurs. Between King and Albert, where the Moose Lodge now sits, used to be a
milling company named Greenmelk. 2 tracks here, both off the south side. To the north of the main track, North siding ran from a point between King and Albert, all the way to the STATION. Running off the North, were separate spurs for Caron Grain (now Hazzards on Murray St; and 2 spurs for Hawkins Milling, immediately behind the site of the STATION.

Moving a little further north, in the middle of the sharp curve approaching the drawbridge, we have the Sugar House Lead extending west/southwest from the main. Among other things, this led to the Canada & Dominion Sugar Co. (C&D) trackage. Yes Virginia, before beans and corn, an awful lot of sugar beets were grown in s/w Ontario. C&D had a large operation in Chatham as well, although located between the CN and CP in the west end of the city. Wallaceburg Brass was the first little spur beyond the mainline switch; there was also a second switch just off the mainline that led to a small elevator but I've forgotten who owned that.

There was a complicated maze of tracks around C&D here; the C&O -owned tracks started at # 8 and went to #14. The C&D -owned tracks, if in fact they had numbers, were # 7 down to #1 and then several other tracks right along the river were C&D-only and unnumbered. This is part of the property where Hazzards built their new loading/unloading facility, between the Gillard St and Baseline crossings.

In the southwest quadrant of the C&D property, Maple Leaf Mills (MLM) ran a meal and pellet operation, with seasonal off loadings of Ammonia and liquid nitrogen fertilizer that all came from CIL Courtright.

Further down the Sugar Lead trackage, south of Baseline Road, was the Dover Township gravel pit, and out in the bush at the very south end, was the spur lead to North American Plastics. They manufactured automotive parts and shipped them out to places like Flint and Parma OH in 56 foot boxes. It's a large white building (or it *used* to be white, at the intersection of Baseline Rd and hwy 40 on the south side of town.

I've seen a few shallow-draft lakers taking on some product down behind the C&D property in the mid 70s. Then they make the short but time-consuming journey out the Sydenham River to Lake St Clair, stirring up dead-head logs and mud along the way!

The northernmost industrial area starts right at the drawbridge, the former Dominion Glass Co. Large operation at one time, with 5 separate tracks. Basically, bringing in sand with which to make glass products and shipping said products out....

The other industrial lead is called Libby's Lead; the mainline switch is right at the Dufferin St. crossing north of the river. The first set of buildings on the curved lead used to belong to Wally Enterprises, who took good hardwood or pine and turned them into baseball bats and hockey sticks; used to bring in the wood by rail. Further down the lead is Ben Iron Foundry, now owned by Wabco/Wabtech. They were making freight car air brake valves a couple of years ago.

Across the way from Ben's was Eaton Spring; they brought strip steel in gondolas from Stelco in Quebec and turned it into automotive leaf springs. Sometimes there were 25 carloads waiting to go to the plant, as they could only spot 5 at a time.

Down at the river's edge was Libby's Canning Co., now Nestle I believe, and hence the reason for naming this Libby's Lead. Two lengthy spurs into this facility at one time, likely for inbound, new empty cans (from Chatham perhaps, Canadian Canners or Continental Cans) and for outbound canned fruit and vegetables. *If* the plant still functions, it all goes truck these days.


Just 2 spurs in this hamlet; 1 is dual-ended and used to be St Clair Grain, now Cargill or Hazzards. The other was Kent County Fertilizer, later became a CIL Agromart. The busiest one loaded corn into C&O, CSX, CN and CP cars practically year round; the Agromart was only seasonal for rail business, most notable in the mid/late winter and early spring. They'd get 1 or 2 loads of ammonia plus several carloads of nitrogen fertilizer solution, all good stuff to go into the fields for crop growing enhancement and other uses.

Dresden and the Belt Line
(off mile 29.70)

At one time, the Belt Line extended north, and then curved west, then south, covering a total distance of just under 2 miles. By 1978, it only extended as far as Main Street, where it was stubbed at Lambton-Kent Grain. Also still in use at that time were the No. 2 and No. 3 tracks at Canadian Canners. The former National Hardware spur was rusting away in the weeds and you could only use that switch if you shook a sectionman out of bed!

Canners were quite busy, especially during late summer, and fall harvest when the field crops were processed and shipped. I would say this business, which was entirely for Canadian destinations, was split about 60/40 between CN and CP. C&O/CSX of course had no cars in this pool, so the methanol heated CN and CP cars were utilized (CN 283/285xxx series and CP 165xxx series).

Former industry served by the remainder of the Belt Line, included Robinson Thompson Lumber, St Clair Grain, Clark Fuels and BW Hind Fertilizer.

Moving south from Dresden there were 3 small stations that I suppose many years ago were good sources of revenue. First is Ennett, which last had a fertilizer depot and a medium-sized elevator. The single spur served both as they were once related (BW and EW Hind Co.) Today if this elevator is still receiving rail service, it probably is Cargill....? The switch for this spur is a few feet north of Mile 28.

Next is Eberts, where a passing track and a short spur exist. The south end passing track switch is right at Mile 24; the siding has a road crossing about 15 car lengths from the south end (6th Concession, County Rd 35), and the capacity is listed at 50 cars. That might be a stretch at times given today's car sizes.

And at Mile 23 was Darrell. By 1978 the switch had been removed but the rails and wheel stops were still on the east side of the mainline. I've been told this was a Chatham Township gravel unloading location in it's final years of service. Prior to that, it was a sugar beet loadout for C&D Sugar.


While working one long night on Local #3 (Chatham/Courtright road switcher), we derailed a hopper and the rear axle of our GP38 right on the Murray St. crossing at Hazzards. This was due to an accumulation of snow & Ice in the mud rails (flangeway). "Rush hour" in The Burg had to detour until the next morning when the road truck arrived from St Thomas with their rerailers. The following week, my brother (who is a resident of the town) showed me the headline in the little 'shoppers news' of the train "accident".

Since the strip steel for Eaton's came via CN or CP at Chatham, it was usually a northbound (Local 3, or 4) that spotted such cars; however, this entailed one of two choices. You could take the loads down Libby's Lead and 'drop' the cars to get them on the nose of the engine; or, you could perform a protracted move way out at the passing siding and shove them through town, in order to have them on the nose. (usually, it depended upon your necessity for overtime !)

One day we were performing the 'drop' at the Eaton switch on Libby's Lead. As always the engine had to go into the sharp curve of the Eaton spur, while the loads would roll not too badly up the straight track. Except no one thought to test the hand the cars rolled past us alright and kept going as the brakeman frantically cranked....and cranked..and cranked - to no avail. He went over the next crossing but fortunately no vehicles were present.

One winter's evening, while northbound on Local 3, we headed into the Sugar Lead; we must have only been making a 'Burg turn that night because we wanted to 'drop' the caboose and 2 empty hoppers at the switch next to Gillard Street. Problem here was it's a shitty piece of trackage and the switches don't throw very easily. Also, no one thought the accumulation of snow on top of the railhead would be enough to cause the caboose and 2 cars to stop short of being in the clear. But, they 1 foot! So there we sat, with the 3 of us scratching our heads about what to do next. SA-99 had already gone north, so the next possible 'saviour' would be southbound Local 4 - after 3am! And this was only about 7pm! So without telling anyone our predicament, we found a solid tie lying in the weeds and placed the engine as close as possible to the end walkway on the caboose. Very gently, we managed to use that tie as a lever to get the engine past. Took about an hour but no one else was ever aware of what happened. (No, we couldn't run down to the other end of that track and pull the cars in, because it was out of service).

One night while working Local #3 (Chatham/Courtright), we had both the Canners and Kent Grain, with cars in and out of both. In order to get cars in/out of Kent Grain, you had to either 'drop' them, or use the Canners No. 2 track as your runaround. Well, we decided it was perhaps easier if we dropped the outgoing load of corn down the lead, putting the engine ( a 57xx GP7) in towards Canner No.3. One brakeman positioned himself on Sydenham Street (crossbucks only, it was after 7pm in December), the other took up his position at the Canner's switch; and the Conductor was on my bottom step, to pull the pin on the hopper. We achieved separation and I rode into the clear alright, but the brakeman manning the switch had the handle slip out of his hand momentarily, so the points weren't quite all the way over! Clunk, clunk, down on the ties went 100 tons of steel and corn, and, there we were, blocked on the Belt Line with no escape. The call went out to St Thomas and about 2 1/2 hours later the road truck showed up. In total we suffered 4 hours delay, so they cut off our CIL work and we turned back at Wallaceburg that night. There was no investigation forthcoming, but, I passed the Senior Trainmaster on my way into work the next afternoon, so I believe that brakeman got a good tongue

About a mile south of Ennett, during a particularly bad night in the winter of '76/'77, southbound Local #4 [ Sarnia/Blenheim Turnaround ] encountered deep drifting snow and stalled in the vicinity of Mile 27. This is a tricky location when conditions are right: west or northwesterly winds carry the snow across the open fields and a row of cedar hedges (planted by farmers to prevent soil erosion) causes the snow to backfill onto the right of way. Local 4, with engineer A.E. 'Bert' Roberts at the throttle was wedged so deep, they had to get eastbound train NI-42 (Detroit-Buffalo) to run light engines over to Mile 27 from Blenheim and shovel their way to the drawbar to pull him out. But not before Bert had made numerous attempts at pulling himself out. End result was that he burned a number of holes into the rail at this location, and the section forces had to replace both rails the next day. This was in the middle of a small early-laid portion of welded rail, so for years the small jointed pieces became known as "Bert's Bump ".

It was a good way for the tail end to be woken up during successive trips into Chatham....the smooth singing of the ribbon rail interrupted by the clatter of the replacement pieces.

Part 2


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