Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Ontonagon Job

It's not often that I'm able to wear my engineer's cap as a photographic rail buff, but yesterday, thanks to fortuitous timing, the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad's "Ontonagon Job" emerged from the paper mill at Ontonagon, Mich., and crossed the Ontonagon River just as a fellow on a Jet Ski passed by -- and I had my camera with me on the highway bridge a hundred yards south.

That's the paper mill at upper left, and you can see Lake Superior on the horizon at upper right. Click on the photo for a slightly larger version.

Watching the Ontonagon Job at work can keep a railfan rapt for hours. Just before noon the train of 20 to 30 empty cars comes up from Channing, Michigan, 92 miles south, and battered old Engine 500 (for you foamers, it's a leased former Milwaukee Road SD40-2 about 40 years old) dances a complex ballet of switching.

First the locomotive cuts off from its string of empties and leaves it on the main line, then clatters north through a "wye," then backs trainless to the west across the river into the Smurfit & Stone mill to pick up a string of cars, mostly boxcars loaded with paper but also a few trailers on flat cars and some empty pulpwood rack cars.

The engine then heads back east across the river with the loaded train (that's when I took the photo) and after passing through the wye couples onto the the string of empties head-on, pushing it south down the main line.

Once the loaded cars behind the engine are clear of the wye, No. 500 pushes them backwards across the wye north into the town yard, where the cars are uncoupled from the engine.

No. 500 trundles back south over the wye, then pulls the string of empties backwards across the river to deposit at the mill.

Finally the engine crosses the river alone, re-enters the wye, backs onto the loaded cars, and leaves town, headed for Channing.

There the cars will be switched onto a train for the E & LS's southern terminus at Green Bay, where they will be picked up by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Clear? Not to anyone but railfans, I'm sure, and even they might need a track map to puzzle out the wye operations. I can assure you, however, that watching a short line (the E & LS has just 208 miles of track) at work is an education in old-time railroading, a peek at the ghosts of Industrial Revolution technology.

Besides, freight trains are cool. Old locomotives emit lots of exhaust and noise. And they make pretty photographs crossing a river.


  1. That picture is really something. I just love listening to the train do it business on clear calm days. I live about a mile from the tracks and some times it sounds like the train is in my front yard. Also I like to visit Vinnie's when the train is in. The train just shakes everything and then I get to thinking about how much power that things has. Wow truly awesome.

  2. Yeah, those old SD40-2s put 3,000 horses on the wheels. They just keep soldiering on.