My Ride in a Detroit & Mackinac Diesel Engine

Train Trip to Ossineke   

 

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When I was growing up, I lived with my mother, father, younger brother, grandmother, grandfather, and uncle, on a small farm west of Oscoda, a small town located where the Au Sable River empties into Lake Huron, on the northeast section of lower Michigan.  During the summer of my tenth year it was determined, I’m not sure by whom, that I would travel by train to visit my maternal grandparents, Grandpa and Grandma Pollard, in Ossineke, a small community fifty miles north of Oscoda, about ten miles south of Alpena.  Grandpa Pollard, like Grandpa Vaughan, my paternal grandfather, worked for the Detroit & Mackinac Railroad for much of his life, and at that time held the position of station master of the Ossineke D&M station.  His duties included meeting the trains that passed through the stations, including the northbound passenger train in the morning and the southbound passenger train in the afternoon.  I was told that my cousin Sarah, daughter of my aunt and uncle and a year older than I, would also be there during the time I visited.  It would be the first (and possibly the only) time that the older Vaughan grandchildren would be staying with their Pollard grandparents for any length of time, unaccompanied by any parent.  Grandpa and Grandma Pollard must have been quite excited by the prospect of having their two Vaughan grandchildren staying with them in their small but comfortable house, nestled in a cluster of large pine and cedar trees not far from the train station.  I remember few details of my visit there.  But I remember the train trip from Oscoda to Ossineke with vivid intensity.

I thought it was a little surprising that I would be traveling by train, alone, instead of riding up in the family car with my mother and father.  They told me that my mother would be driving up at the end of my one-week stay to bring me home and that they thought I would enjoy traveling by myself on the train.  Although I had traveled on a train before, during World War II, it was always with my mother and father, when I was much younger.  The train trip north was not long, maybe an hour and a half at the most, with only two short stops, Harrisville and Black River, before we reached Ossineke.  The passenger coaches were old but comfortable; I knew, for I had often had the opportunity to observe them while I stood by our fence next to the north-south D&M train tracks that bordered the west side of our farm, watching the south-bound train slow to a crawl and frequently stop as it approached the Oscoda station.

 

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When the morning came to leave, I wasn’t particularly surprised by the fact that Grandpa Vaughan joined my father and me in the short, half-mile drive in the family car to the train station.  I assumed that his reason for accompanying us to the station was to greet any old friends who were working on the train.  He had first started working for the D&M in 1900 as a fireman, and eventually worked his way up to engineer, working on the old steam engines that pulled the freight and passenger cars between Bay City and Alpena.  Grandpa worked for the railroad for over twenty years, until one day in 1937, when he was switching cars at the gypsum plant near Alabaster, a hot cinder went into his right eye, causing great pain and eventually nearly total blindness of the eye.  Cinders in the eyes were occupational hazards for the men working in the train engines during the days of steam-powered locomotives, as the exhaust stacks of the coal fired boilers blew soot, cinders, and smoke high into the air.  When the train was moving, the debris of the exhaust came down several cars to the rear.  When the engine was moving more slowly, pushing cars back and forth in the train yards, the detritus would come raining down upon the enginemen.  Even when they wore large-billed caps and coveralls with high collars, cinder burns were common.

After the cinder ended his career as an engineer, Grandpa continued to be employed by the railroad a few years more, working as a station master in Alpena, before taking his retirement and returning to the farm to take possession of his portion of the farm property, when my great-grandmother died, my great-grandfather having passed away many years before.

Although he had retired from the D&M twenty years earlier, he still knew many of men who worked for the railroad and enthusiastically waved at the men in the engine cabs who blew their whistles on the north- or south-bound trains as they traveled past.  His interest in railroading remained intense throughout his life; he paid his annual dues to the Trainmen’s Union and subscribed for many years to Railroad Magazine.  The only time I remember him going to the Iosco Theater, the converted store that served as Oscoda’s movie house during the early years of my youth, he went to see Alan Ladd in Whispering Smith, a story about railroading in the American west.  The film was based on the book by Frank Spearman, which I rested on the bookshelf in the parlor of our farm house.  Not only did he go once; he went to see it twice!  Amazed as I was at this event, I was even more amazed that I was allowed to accompany him on both occasions.  He was fascinated by the railroad scenes (one scene involved a train wreck), and he expressed his professional opinion that those scenes were realistically done.

Our 1948 Ford Coupe pulled in to the parking lot at the train station and we all (my dad, Grandpa, and I) stepped out.  I had a small suitcase full of underwear, socks, clothing and toothbrush that my mom had helped me pack.  The Oscoda depot was located just a quarter-mile south of our farm, and about a mile and a half west of town.  It was a small wooden building on the east side of the tracks with the passenger lounge at the south end and the baggage room on the north end.  A few benches rested along two walls and a time schedule hung prominently on one wall.  A large pot-bellied cast iron stove sat next to the north wall, cold and unused now in the middle of summer.  We walked up to the ticket window where my father purchased a ticket from Oscar Cook, the station agent, and handed it to Grandpa.  I wondered briefly why he didn’t hand it to me.  Grandpa took my hand, an uncharacteristic action, and said, “Come on, son.  Let’s watch the train come in.”

The old steam locomotives were long gone from the D&M, having been retired in favor of the much more modern and efficient ALCO diesel locomotives.  The large diesel engine, hidden underneath a long box-like cover, occupied three-quarters of the length of the locomotive; the engineer’s cab sat at one end of the engine, with a small accessory section behind that.  The engine could pull a load equally well in either direction, but I liked it best when the long section was in front; then it looked like a real locomotive.

 

We walked outside the station and did not have long to wait before we could hear the deep notes of the diesel horn blowing its arrival from the south, warning traffic not to travel on the dirt road that crossed the tracks south of the station.  I saw the engine move into sight around a long curve as it moved slowly toward the station.  The large blunt end of the diesel engine grew slowly but impressively closer.  The engine bell ding!ed steadily as the engine cruised into the station.  The weight of the large, heavy engine vibrated through the concrete platform of the Oscoda train station, the vibration of the slowly moving, heavy iron wheels jolted up my spine as I stood, watching in awe as the engine rolled past slowly, then stopped.  Behind the engine were two baggage cars and two passenger cars.  I wondered vaguely which passenger car I would be riding in.

But instead of moving toward the passenger car, Grandpa walked towards the engine.  I followed along, assuming he wanted to talk to the engineman and fireman, whom I could see ahead of us, leaning casually out of the right side of the north-bound diesel engine.  The D&M diesel engine was large and solid, with a long, rectangular nose, white with a broad red stripe painted horizontally along the side, the words Detroit and Mackinac in white against the red.  As we approached I could hear and feel the steady throb of the idling diesel engines, and saw the fumes of diesel smoke rising from the exhaust stacks.

“Hi boys, how’s it going?” Grandpa asked, talking off his battered felt hat in a kind of salute.

“Hi, Ed.  Good to see you,” said the older man, slightly on the heavy side.  He took off his engineer’s cap and I could see a wavy grey thatch of hair on top of his head.  “This the boy?”

“Yes, my oldest grandson.  Say Hello,” he nudged me.

“Hello,” I said.  “Pleased to meet you.”

“What’s your name?” said the other one.

“Kirk,” I said.  “It’s my middle name.”  I always felt like I had to explain that.

“Hi Kirk,” the grey-haired man said.  “I’m John.  This is Andy.  He’s the fireman.”

Grandpa had explained that even though diesel fuel powered the engine, the engineer’s assistant was still called the fireman, a term carried over from the old days when firemen shoveled coal into the engine’s boiler.

“Looks like you’re on schedule,” Grandpa said.  I had learned from Grandpa that time was an important detail in the railroad business.

“Yep.  No problems so far.  A light load and a good day.  Couldn’t ask for better conditions.”

As interesting as this discussion was, I began to worry that we should be moving back to the passenger car.  I knew that the train did not pause long in any station, and I wanted to make sure I had a good seat by a window so that I could take in everything along the route.

“Miss working on the train, Ed?” John said.

“Sure do,” Grandpa said.  “Hard work, long hours, but the best years of my life.”

“Too bad you didn’t have these diesels,” Andy said.  “They do all the work now.”

“Nah,” Grandpa shook his head.  “Steam engines.  Nothing like a steam engine.  Even if one did blow some cinders in my eye.  Had to baby the steam engines–had to know how to work them.  These”–he gestured at the candy stripe engine–“they’re all buttons and levers.  They don’t have any soul.”

“Ah, they’re not so bad, once you get to know them,” said John.  He pulled a watch out of the pocket of his bib overalls.  “Well, time to go,” he said, and began to pull inside the cab of the engine.

I suddenly panicked.  The train was leaving and we were standing well in front of the closest passenger car.  I would have to run if we were going to make it.

But Andy suddenly stepped down one step on the side of the engine and extended his hand, from which he had removed the fireman’s glove.  “C’mon up, young fellow.”

I looked quickly at Grandpa.  What was this?  They surely weren’t serious?  But Grandpa was looking over his shoulder back towards the station, where I could see my father engaged in conversation with Oscar, the station master, whose back was turned to us.  My father was looking partly at Oscar, partly at Grandpa and me.  Still looking over his shoulder, Grandpa grabbed me tightly with both hands above my waist, and I felt myself lifted suddenly up onto the lower step of the engine cab, where Andy grabbed my extended arm with his right hand and, when I had placed one foot on the steep top step, the seat of my pants with the other.  My suitcase, which I had set down on the platform during the conversation, came flying into the cab behind me.

The engineer, John, was blowing the diesel horn.  The train was about to leave.  I turned to look back at Grandpa for some kind of guidance or instruction, but he was walking casually back along the platform toward the station, and in fact the train was now starting to vibrate as it moved forward.  As the train slowly moved forward, Grandpa and my father disappeared from view.  I looked dazedly around the inside of the cab.  I saw dials and levers in the front center section and a series of small windows that looked to the front on either side of the long boxy nose of the engine.

Andy gestured towards a bare metal bench that ran along the left side of the cab beneath a large square side window.  “That’s where you sit,” he said, and turned to help John, as the train started to move forward.  The back half of the window above the bench had been pushed open to allow for an easy view out the left side.  There was a matching bench and window on the right side of the cab.  I sat at the back of the bench that Andy had indicated and pulled my suitcase next to me.  The warm summer breeze blew through the open window.

I could not believe what was happening.  Dazed and in a state of shock, I realized that Grandpa must have arranged this event.  He had somehow communicated with his old railroad buddies so that his ten-year old grandson could ride in the cab of a train engine.  I had the vague sense that what was happening was somehow probably not legal, but I was not complaining, and no one else seemed to be.

The engine vibrated steadily.  The noise of the diesel engine was controlled, unlimited, pervasive.  The train was moving ahead slowly but the engine gave no indication of pulling a weight.  A bell began to sound as we moved ahead, ding-ding-ding-ding, a local noise to discourage people in the immediate vicinity from standing too close to the moving train.  I could feel us gliding on the cushioned iron wheels beneath us.  This was the largest moving thing I had ever been on, and I felt myself a puny part of this immense, unstoppable forward-moving force.   Relaxing only slightly, I leaned hesitantly out of the window.  I wondered what people would say if they saw a ten-year-old blond-haired head sticking out of a diesel engine cab, just as if it belonged there.  Fortunately, the left, or west, side of the tracks was mostly undeveloped land.  On my left, the thin scrub pines moved past, and then the town cemetery came into view.

Then the horn sounded: two long, toooot, toooot, pause, one short, toot, pause, and one long tooooot and I knew we were approaching the River Road, the primary route from town that led west along the south side of the Au Sable River.  I could see the red-and-white striped arms of the crossing gate lowered.  We moved slowly across the intersection, bell dinging steadily as two cars on the west side of the crossing waited patiently for the train to move past.  I pulled back slightly so as not to appear too visible to the drivers and any passengers.  Looking down on the first car, a Chevrolet sedan, I had a momentary vision of the driver looking casually up at the cab with a bored look, and then squinting his eyes suddenly as if he had seen some kind of a strange vision.  But then we were past him, his view blocked by the corner of the baggage car immediately behind the engine.  Once across the River Road, we were now moving along the western edge of our farm, past the fence near which I had often stood, which was on the other side of the tracks from where I was sitting.  I stood up to look through the engineer’s window on the other side of the cab to see the farm lands and farm house more clearly.

“That your farm, son?” asked Andy.  I nodded.

“Here, c’mon over for a better look.  Grab here,” and he indicated a metal handhold on the engineer’s side of the cab.  I stepped over unsteadily, for the train was now rocking slightly from side to side, picking up speed on a slight downhill slope.  I hung on to the handhold with both hands, swaying with the movement of the train, looking now through the engineer’s side window, and then swinging back to look past the edge of the cab entrance for an unobstructed view.  We were moving parallel to the dirt road that led north from the River Road to the farm house.  Our white farmhouse came into view now, about two hundred yards east, partially hidden by the shade trees in front.  I could see two figures in the front yard, mother and grandma; they started to wave.

“Want to say hello?” asked John, the engineer.  I nodded, confused.

“Here–pull on this,” he said, indicating a thick cord that extended from the front panel to a hook over his head where it was tied tightly.  He gestured to show me how it was done.  I reached up, grabbed the cord tentatively.  Nothing happened.

“Harder, harder!!” he said.  I pulled harder, until the cord was taut.  The horn let out a sudden “whonk!”  Surprised by the noise, I let it go, then grabbed it again.  “Whoonk!  Whoonk!”  One for mom, one for grandma.  Grandma waved something large and white, probably the dishcloth from the kitchen.  Mom waved her hand excitedly.  So they were in on this too!  I let go of the cord and moved to the end of the cab, where I waved one last wave, and then they were gone, lost in the trees and the distance.

I looked back in the engine cab.  Andy and John were looking at me with big grins.  I imagine they must have thinking what my emotions were.  I moved back to the left side of the cab, but did not sit down yet, as I wanted to watch us move through the woods on either side of the track as we approached the trestle across the Au Sable River.  The trees, fully leaved, moved slightly in the summer breeze.  Soon I could see the outline of the iron trestle bridge approaching through the forward windows of the cab, and the sound of the wheels changed as we moved across the trestle, the solid sound of the wheels on the track of the railroad bed changing to an echoing noise as we moved over the river.

Through the spaced wooden ties and the iron framework of the bridge I could see the current in the river surging beneath us.  I and my cousin Gale, swimming together, had often dropped from the bridge into the current beneath.  Then we were across the trestle, cutting across the cow pasture of the Merkel Dairy Farm where I had often hiked during the hot dry days of the summer.   On the left came the junction where a set of rails turned to the left, curving off to carry supplies to the military air field, Oscoda Air Force Base, its eastern boundary located a mile or so west.  Then, after the standard blasts from the horn (two long, one short, one long), we were across the road from town to Van Ettan Lake and the entry to the air field.  But no cars were waiting on the west side of the crossing, and my presence in the engine went unnoticed.

The track now moved into a heavily wooded section, and I sat down, content to rest and absorb the pleasures of an elevated view of the passing countryside.  On the left side of the engine I could see occasional glimpses of a lake, which I knew was Van Ettan Lake, a large lake that extended along the north side of the air base, and which was used for recreational boating and swimming in the summer.  We angled slightly west as we started our run past the west side of Cedar Lake, a long thin sliver of water which extended north for many miles.

Through the forward window I could clearly see the left side of the tracks stretching ahead for at least a mile, as we came to a long straight stretch of track.  Almost no roads crossed the tracks through here, so the engine noises consisted only of the steady throbbing of the diesel engines, no horns or bells sounding.  The engine rocked easily from side to side as we moved effortlessly along the tracks.  I hoped to see something unusual ahead, but nothing came into view, only the train tracks extending into the green wilderness and an occasional bird flying from one side of the forest to the other.

Then the track began to curve slightly to the right and we passed through an area of open land with farm houses scattered on both sides of the track.  Then into a section of pine trees and the beginning of habitation, a few houses coming into view along dirt streets laid out in a regular pattern, and I saw a sign that read Greenbush, a smallish community that spread from Lake Huron on the east to the farms in the west.  John pulled on the horn cord and the engine bell began to sound, and the speed of the train began to slow, so I knew we were coming into a station.  I stood up to get a better view of the station, which must be coming up on the right side, as I could see no evidence of a station on my side of the engine.  Here came the depot with the sign, Greenbush, but to my disappointment, we did not appear to be stopping.  I saw a man wearing an official hat, standing close to the side of the train, holding a bag in his hand which he was apparently going to hand to someone farther back in the train.  “North-bound mail,” explained Andy.  “But no passengers, so we won’t stop.”

Once past the station, we maintained our relatively slow speed and our horn and bell continued to sound.  The reason was soon clear: we were crossing US23, the main north-south highway that linked Oscoda to the towns farther north along the Lake Huron coast, eventually running all the way to the Straights of Mackinac. At this point the highway moved inland, away from the shoreline and began to climb the low hills into Harrisville, while the train followed the coastline more closely, for the first time since it had left Oscoda.  A busy highway like US23 required a mechanized crossing, and the arms of the crossing mechanism were down, the lights flashing and the bells sounding.  I was disappointed to see that there was no traffic backed up on my side of the train.  I looked to the right in time to see the Greenbush Tavern off to the right, just east of US23, before it disappeared from sight.  On the left I could see the clubhouse of the Greenbush Golf Course, a number of cars in the parking lot, and I saw some golfers on the course.  The course occupied the flat land that lay between the railroad tracks and the highway to Harrisville.  The golfers were all some distance away, concentrating on their game, and thus failed to notice a twelve-year old blond-haired boy smiling broadly from the open window of a D&M engine cab.

The tracks moved past more open lands and a number of dirt roads that led to summer cabins scattered east along the shore of Lake Huron, whose clear blue waters were visible, reflecting the late morning sun.  Our speed increased, but only briefly, and we slowed for the approach into Harrisville, and we once again moved through the regularly spaced streets that indicated a community.  Our horn sounded and the bell began.  Our speed slowed significantly, and I knew we must be preparing to stop at the Harrisville station.  As the engine approached Harrisville’s main street, which ran from the higher land in the west to the shoreline to the east, we were moving so slowly that a person walking at a fast rate of speed could have kept up with us.

We crossed the main east-west street of Harrisville at a snail’s pace; the crossing arms were down, the lights were flashing, and the bells were sounding.  The engine moved into the street crossing and I could see at least ten vehicles backed up on the left side, heading into town from the west; this was the largest number of cars I had seen at any stop waiting for the train to cross.  There was no way I was not going to be seen.  I sat quietly on the bench, head up, pulled back against the rear frame of the window, hoping that if I did not move, no one would notice me.

But my efforts were futile; the engine had scarcely moved into the crossing when a hand extended from a car window and pointed in my direction, and heads started to lean out of car windows.  People were pointing and talking excitedly.  As the engine began to move past the crossing, I looked up the sidewalk that ran in front of the stores on the north side of Main Street; there stood a blond-haired boy, about my age.  From his angle he had been able to see me as the engine moved the entire way through the crossing.  His mouth was open and he stood in a condition of immobility, as if in shock.  Then, just as our line of vision was about to be broken as the engine carried us past the corner of a building, he raised his hand and waved.  Involuntarily, I smiled and waved back, and was promptly rewarded with waves from every other person (so it seemed) assembled in front of the passing train.  The secret was out: a ten-year old boy was riding in the cab of a D&M engine.

We came to a gradual stop in front of the Harrisville train station, located three blocks north of Main Street.  The Harrisville train station was (and still is) noticeably unusual in its construction, the outside consisting of large, carefully placed stones.  Built in the late 1800s, it was unique among the D&M stations for its impressive stone exterior.  It looked like it should have been a museum, or even a small church, not a train station.  The station platform was crowded with people waiting to board the train or to greet passengers who were departing.  I imagined that there would be a stream of excited car drivers and passengers driving directly to the station to find out how it was possible that a ten-year old boy could ride in the cab of a D&M engine, and I waited nervously for the station master to climb up the steps of the engine and drag me back to the passenger car, or worse, haul me into the station and call the Sheriff to take me to jail.

Fortunately, the station was on the right side of the engine, so that my presence on the left side of the cab was largely screened from public view.  The train stood in the station for an unusually long time, or so it seemed, and I remained immobile, trying to make myself invisible to the eyes of any passersby.  Fortunately, no one came up to the engine except for the station master, but I noticed that John descended to the platform to talk to him while Andy stood in the entrance to the cab, at the top of the steps, effectively blocking the view of the interior.

Finally, Andy stepped back as John climbed back into the cab.  John placed his left hand on a lever and with his right hand, pulled down on the rope that sounded the horn, and the train began to move forward again.  We moved out of the station, and soon left the few remaining streets of Harrisville behind.  The tracks soon moved into wooded territory, and stretched in more or less a straight line between the poplars, pines, birches, and oak trees that populated the coastal woodlands.  Almost no roads crossed over the tracks, so our diesel horn did not blow and our bells did not sound.  Our speed increased noticeably, and the noise of the diesel engine increased to the greatest intensity I had sensed thus far.  Apparently there was little for the John and Andy to worry about on the track ahead, for Andy started to explain the controls of the engine: what the gauges showed, what the controls were for.  I followed his explanations as well as I could, but my main impression was one of awe and incomprehension at the noise and power of the engine.  When he had finished, I sat back on the bench, eager to see what new visions lay ahead of us.  But the woodlands continued without break, and all was green wilderness on both sides.

Suddenly the green was broken by a flash of brown, as a buck deer broke from the bushes which lined the east side of the tracks and bounded gracefully over the train bed to the higher land to the west, skimming lightly over the rails, touching his hooves down lightly, propelling himself into the green foliage on the other side.  When we reached the place where I thought the deer had crossed, there was no sign that a deer had ever been there.

We made a gradual slight turn to the right and moved into the town of Black River.  The station served a small community, where few streets crossed the tracks, and no one stood on the station platform as we arrived.  A brief pause, and we were on our way once again, for (to me) the very short distance to Ossineke.  Almost as soon as we left the Black River station, we were curving northwest into the Ossineke station.  I could easily see it coming into view, as the station was located on the left (west) side of the train.  Even at a distance, I recognized the two figures standing on the platform: Grandma and Grandpa Pollard, whose welcoming smiles I could see well before the engine reached the station.

“Well, son,” John said, after the train came to a stop, “here you are.  Hope you had a good trip.”

“Yessir, I did.  Thanks!”  I shook his hand and Andy’s hand and climbed carefully down the steep steps of the engine cab to the platform.  Grandpa Pollard grabbed the suitcase that Andy handed down behind me.  No one was boarding at Ossineke, and I heard the diesel engine power up again, heard the train start to rumble out of the station.  I looked back and waved.  But John and Andy were looking ahead down the track.

“They didn’t wait long, Grandpa,” I said.

“Nope.  The only reason they stopped was to let you off.”

Then Grandma Pollard asked the question that was impossible to answer: “How was your trip?”