Mike's Train House
Let's go back.
Back to an
earlier time. Not better or worse, just earlier. 1971.
Green Bay and Western Railroad Company was a 257 mile long line slicing across the entire state of Wisconsin from Lake Michigan all the way to the far side of the Mississippi River at Winona, Minnesota. It was physically impossible to travel south to north through the Dairy State without crossing the GB&W, no matter how one might try.
For those who cared about such things, it was an all Alco-powered railroad. There were few of those even in 1971. The sound and tell tale exhaust smoke of Alco 244 and 251 prime movers was stirring; unlike anything I had heard along the railroad I had grown up with, the mostly EMD-powered Milwaukee Road near Chicago (though we had F-M power, which had it's own unique stucatto). And the Nathan three chime air horns on those GB&W engines! If there is a heaven, that's what the angels play!
Let's begin our tour at the place where rail meets water: Kewaunee, on Lake Michigan. Connecting with car ferries of both the Ann Arbor and Chesapeake & Ohio, the Green Bay Route's eastern terminus features a stub end yard on a long, narrow peninsula. At the tip, there sits the joint offices of the AA, C&O, and GB&W. You could buy a ticket here to take the ferry over to the Michigan side if you chose. Looking outside through the office front door, you can see a pair of shiny bright red GB&W diesels loading a car ferry.
It's mid morning, and the summer dew has already burned off. What a great day to chase train Number 1 across Wisconsin! As the freight rolls away from the Lake and upgrade, the red Alco's dig into the 90 pound rails, traction sand coating them while simultaneously being crushed into powder by hundreds of tons of weight on the steel wheels of the engines. The Kewaunee division, formerly known as the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad, is the busiest of three divisions. Soon enough the train passes through Summit siding, and begins a downward descent to Green Bay, and Norwood yard.
At Norwood, a hopelessly inadequate yard dating from 1874 awaits Number 1. The train left Kewaunee with 27 cars and a caboose; even this short train would be too much for Norwood to store on just one of it's eight main yard tracks. Several cars will be taken off the train, bound for local Green Bay customers or interchange with neighboring Chicago and Northwestern, or Milwaukee Road; three dozen more cars will be added for the trip west. There are three cuts of cars on three tracks, all side by side; these will be assembled to make up the complete train. In a process unique to this railroad, the stationary cuts of cars will be "aired-up", using a very large air compressor and many feet of underground pipe work, with connecting air hoses coming out of the ground next to the tracks. This will save much time in getting underway west
While pausing at Norwood, the train's two locomotives will be exchanged for a new crew and a fresh set of "horses". These are already fueled, sanded, and washed; they're ready to go. After some late switching moves by an early GB&W road switcher demoted to yard duty, Number 1's new power couples on up front to the first cut, and proceeds to put the 60 car train together, cut by cut
Slowly and methodically, Number 1's front end rolls back and forth through the west throat of Norwood Yard, past unguarded city street crossings and tidy little homes, while it puts it's train together. It's been this way for many years. How many more will it continue?
Finally, the train is whole. After making sure there's enough "air", the gravel voiced Alco's are turned up a notch. The word is given by the Norwood dispatcher, and Number 1 is off and running. Well, walking is more like it.
It's a two or three mile crawl west for Number 1, before the big red Alco's are notched into "run 8", for the curving climb up Oneida Hill. This is a great place to watch that famous Alco smoke. As the train tops the hill at Oneida, the line straightens out and Number 1 can run full out! We're on the New London Division now; GB&W's "race track", and it's early afternoon.
Quickly, the train is hitting the 49 MPH speed limit. There will be just a couple of stops for Number 1 on the New London Division today; a local freight handles interchanges with the Soo Line at Black Creek and C&NW at New London, plus pick ups and set outs at numerous industries located along the line.
At Manawa, our train stops to meet it's eastbound counterpart Number 2, as well as local freight Number 5. Here, they will pick up and set out a few cars each for movement elsewhere along the railroad. Manawa has a small yard that's busy for a couple of hours a day; then it's zilch in Manawa until manana
As we bid adeiu to Nos. 2 and 5, we roll west. Soon we slide through Plover, past a waiting local freight Number 7; afterward, it's time to stop at the yard in Wisconsin Rapids. A relatively long and narrow facility, the yard at "Rapids" is a one hour stop over for Number 1's crew. Two taverns across the street from the yard office tempt the team, but Rule 13G is well enforced on the line. No brews for these boys until they're off duty in a couple of hours.
Leaving the Rapids, Number 1 crawls across the Wisconsin River bridge and onto the Whitehall Division. Those river rapids which give the town it's name are just below the bridge. Just past the bridge lie separate crossings for Milwaukee Road, C&NW and Soo Line, all in a convoluted knot. Once clear of yard limits, Number 1 is off to the races again, on straight, level track. Again, 49 MPH is the limit; frequently that speed is exceeded on this stretch by rare and classic Alco's
Fifty miles later, the train pulls into Merrillan. This is the crew change point for both Nos. 1 and 2. It is also an interchange point with C&NW. Merrillan is a tiny railroad town; other than the GB&W and Northwestern, not much is happening here. But our now-off duty crew from Green Bay will find a tavern or two open.
After Merrillan, Number 1 runs at a much more leisurely pace- 35 to 40 MPH. It also will make pick ups and set outs to a few customers on this far western section of the GB&W. As the towns swim by, the line becomes much curvier as it hugs the Trempealeau river valley, heading downhill toward the mighty Mississippi.
Crossing the C&NW at Marshland, Number 1 slows for the stop at East Winona and the interchange with Burlington Northern. A long, narrow yard lies just east of the crossing; here BN and GB&W trade many cars. As our train slowly travels across the bridge to the Winona, Minnesota side, it is late. Midnight has arrived, and so has Number 1. After a couple of hours trading cars with the Milwaukee Road and C&NW, the Merrillan crew will take train Number 2 back east, and another day will begin on the Green Bay Route.