william's picture

The Race at Crawford Curve

Me and the van

After several weeks in Alliance, Nebraska, sleeping in my van in the parking lot at the Burlington Northern Railroad terminal in the early Spring of 1980, I started getting road trips to Edgemont, South Dakota, Ravenna, Nebraska or Guernsey, Wyoming. There were very few locals, which was good, because I had worked enough locals in Grand Forks. Ninety-five percent of the trains out of Alliance were through freights, usually unit coal or grain trains, and they paid better money than locals.

I was happy to get called one morning in April of 1980 for a 110-car coal train to Edgemont, South Dakota, at the “edge” of the Black Hills. The crew caller had walked out to my van and tapped on the back window. My wife had made curtains for the van so I had a little bit of privacy. After tapping on the window several times because he couldn’t see me, the crew caller hollered out “9:30 coal train to Edgemont.”

I hollered, “okay,” and satisfied he had awakened me, the caller walked back towards the terminal. I looked at my Seiko watch and it was 8:15 a.m. Plenty of time. I opened the side door of the van. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring morning, with a temperature in the low forties. I fixed a bowl of cereal with milk from the ice chest I had brought with me from Grand Forks. I made a couple of baloney and cheese sandwiches to take on my run, and I headed into the terminal with my lunch, lantern, and my grip, packed with my travel kit and change of clothes. I met up with my crew at one of the tables inside the terminal. I grabbed a cup of coffee and we checked our orders and our watches. They seemed like a nice bunch of guys.

The conductor was a big guy, maybe five years older than me. When he shook my hand, I could almost feel my bones crack. “Call me Moose,” he said. Moose introduced me to the rear brakeman, Bill Murray, a guy in his early thirties who had a broad smile.

“Everybody calls me Murray -- there's too many Bills out here,” he said. I laughed knowing what he meant. “Sandy Maloney is our hoghead, you'll enjoy riding up on the front end with him,” Moose piped up, using the old-fashioned term of hoghead for engineer. Alliance did have the feel of an old-fashioned railroad town, unlike Grand Forks. I knew something about the history of Alliance. It was an old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad town that existed only for the railroad. It mushroomed into a major division point when Wyoming low sulfur coal came into such demand after the advent of the Clean Air Act in 1970. The railroads couldn't haul enough Wyoming coal to the Eastern power plants, which needed the lower polluting coal to stay in compliance with the Clean Air Act. That
translated into more jobs in Alliance.

“By the way,” Moose continued, Murray is going to ride with you on the head end.

“For a while anyway,” Murray countered. They both laughed and I felt left out of the joke.

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked.

“You'll see,” chuckled Moose, as he picked up his manifest and orders from the table. “Let's get to our train.”

The terminal yard was so big that there were crew haulers who transported the crews to the locomotives and cabooses in bright green Chevrolet Suburbans. I made a mistake of referring to a caboose and I was quickly corrected that the proper term in CB&Q territory was “waycar”, not caboose. It was called a caboose on the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific, but not the CB&Q. Railroaders were particular about things like this.

Murray and I climbed up into the lead SD-40, a monstrous General Motors Electro-Motive Division locomotive. We had seven of them, necessary not only because of the tonnage we were hauling, but because we had to make Crawford Hill, one of the highest points in Nebraska. To climb the hill, the train went through a long horseshoe curve that allowed the train to gradually climb the hill without the use of helper locomotives. Some trains did need helpers, locomotives that would tie on to the rear end of the way car and shove trains up the hill. Helpers were typically used on the other side of Crawford Hill, a much steeper grade.

We received the order to proceed out of the yard. Sandy gently worked the throttle until all the slack had run out of the train. Moose in the back end double-clicked the radio transmitter to let Sandy know the waycar was moving. As soon as Sandy heard the double-click, he moved to throttle seven, and the seven 3000 horsepower diesels roared. It was important to wait until the conductor signaled that the caboose or waycar was moving because if the engineer throttled up too quickly, the conductor and rear brakeman could be thrown against the back of the waycar if they weren't seated. I had seen several fights break out between engineers and conductors at the end of a run because the engineer had been sloppy in his train handling and given the conductor a rough ride.

As we snaked out of the yard, I turned to look back and all I could see was thick black diesel smoke and a long line of black coal cars. We were on our way.

“You gonna do it today?” It was Sandy speaking. I turned towards the engineer, thinking Sandy was asking me a question. I thought for a minute that perhaps he wanted me to call out signal blocks.

“Yep, sure am, and I'm ready, too.” It was Murray that replied to Sandy. Murray pulled out a machete from a sheath. I hadn't noticed him carrying that before. Maybe it was because you normally don't expect a railroad brakeman to carry a machete.

“What the hell are you guys talking about?” I finally blurted out. They both laughed.

“We've got a little bet, Bill,” replied Sandy. “Me and Moose bet Murray $100 that he couldn't cross the Crawford horseshoe in time to catch the waycar. By the way, Murray, there was nothing in the bet about you having a machete.”

“You guys didn't say I couldn't bring one. Without this machete, I may not be able to hack my way through.”

“That's part of the bet.” Sandy didn't want to budge.

“Wait a minute,” I said, “you're talking,” I pointed to Murray, “about jumping off the locomotive at the beginning of the curve and making your way to the other side of the horseshoe in time to catch the caboose, I mean waycar. Is that what you're going to do?”

“I sure am, and I'm gonna take these guys’ money. Do you wanna make a bet too?”

Sandy piped up, “$100 is the bet. Moose and I bet he wouldn't make it.”

This was crazy. “There's a small river down there, and it's overgrown with heavy brush and trees. And it's not just straight across. You’ve got to get in and out of a valley!” That was true. To cross you had to descend into a valley and then climb back up a pretty steep hill. I continued, “It’s gotta be over a mile. You’ll be exhausted before you start climbing the hill to get back on the train. And,” I wasn't finished, and I pointed at Sandy, “what the hell happens if he doesn't make it? Are you gonna stop the train on Crawford Hill and wait for him?”

Sandy scratched his head. “You know, I hadn't really thought about that. I guess we could say he fell off the train if we had to stop. I should be able to start the train again without helpers.”

“Well, Bill, are you gonna bet?” Murray insisted. “I'd put your money on me. Throw in $100 and you'll get your hundred dollars back plus another $100.” He was cocky now.

“No, I don't think so,” I said. “I'll just watch. No offense, Sandy, but I do hope he makes it; we're sure going to have a lot of explaining to do if we show up in Edgemont without him.”

Sandy just chuckled. “Hell, we'll get him on board somehow.”

We made good time across the western plains and grasslands of Nebraska, as we gradually climbed in elevation towards the Pine Ridge, with its hills of Ponderosa pine. After we reached Crawford Hill, we would begin entering the Sand Dunes of Nebraska, considered the largest dune field in the western hemisphere, some 265 miles long and 125 miles across.

As we began approaching Crawford Hill, some 4300 feet in elevation, the locomotives began working harder. Around one o'clock in the afternoon, our train was at the bottom of Crawford Hill, and the train started going slower and slower, as it began climbing the hill. The temperature was about 55 and the sun was still shining. “You know Murray, rattlesnakes will probably be sunning themselves down there.” I said, and pointed down to the valley of the horseshoe.

Murray got up. “I'll be running so fast they won't have time to strike. Plus, I've got my machete.” With that, he passed by me in a hurry out the front door of the cab, with Sandy hollering at him to leave the machete. Murray stepped down the platform on the front of the
locomotive, tossed his machete, and lowered himself down onto the embankment. He lost his footing and tumbled, even though the train had slowed to about 15 miles per hour, but he jumped up immediately, grabbed his machete, and took off sprinting towards the other side of the horseshoe. Sandy stood up with his foot on the "dead-man" pedal, the device that the engineer had to keep a foot on to keep the air brakes from applying, and strained to see him.

“Did he got off ok?” he asked me.

I watched Murray disappear into a thicket, wildly swinging his machete. “He looks like he’s doing fine so far,” I said to Sandy.

“Good,” Sandy grunted. “I still don’t think he should have that machete, though.”

We made our way through the curve, the flanges of the locomotive wheels squealing loudly as they pressed against the inside of the rails. There were oilers every hundred yards or so on the curve that lubricated the flanges in order to minimize the friction. It was hard to tell whether or not the oilers did any good.

We made it halfway through the curve. There was no sign of Murray. I walked out onto the front end of the locomotive and leaned onto the bonnet (the “hood” in front of the windshield) as I gazed out over the horseshoe valley, straining to see any movement in the brush. There was nothing moving that I could see. We crossed over the river. It looked about 15 to 20 feet wide and maybe 4 or 5 feet deep. Murray was going to get wet. There were probably brambles down there also, so he was probably going to get cut up, too. But, he stood to gain $200 and some bragging rights. That was probably worth it if he made it. I sure could have used an extra $200.

The lead locomotive was now turning into the final part of the curve and I walked back into the cab.

Sandy spoke up, “We should see him pop up any minute, don't you think?

“You sound like you're rooting for him,” I told him.

Sandy laughed, “I guess I am. Boy, don't you know the brass would have our asses if they knew what we were doing?”

“Yeah, they sure would,” I answered. “But you know what, it's kind of fun isn't it?” We both laughed.

We left the curve and began bearing towards the right. We could no longer see the inside of the horseshoe. Sandy reached for the transmitter and then thought better of it. What could he say? Dispatchers and management monitored the radio transmissions. One odd statement over the radio could bring scrutiny. Trainmasters had been known to flag trains down to board them when they suspected monkey business, especially violations of Rule G, which forbade use of drugs and alcohol on or before going on duty.

The locomotives were starting to descend Crawford Hill now. We were picking up speed. Several more minutes and all of us would have some explaining to do. Sandy throttled back the locomotives, anticipating that he would have to stop the train. Murray should've made it to the waycar before we reached the top of the hill.

Then we heard it. The double-click on the radio. Sandy wasn't taking any chances. “Everything OK back there?”

“Yep,” reported Moose.

We got into Edgemont a little after 7 p.m. The relief engineer and brakeman climbed up in the locomotive, and Sandy and I crossed the tracks towards the station. We saw Moose, but there was no sign of Murray. Sandy sidled up to Moose and quietly asked where Murray was.

“Oh, he headed straight to the hotel; he was a little banged up,” Moose said with a wink of his eye.

We met up at the railroad cafe across the street from the station after cleaning up. I ordered an omelet and hash browns. I was starving. Every cafe that served railroaders always offered a 24-hour breakfast menu. It was usually the cheapest thing on the menu, and for me, the most satisfying. Sandy, Moose, and I were halfway through our meal when Murray limped in, a bandage over his left eye that was bruised and swollen. When he sat down, I could see scratches all over his face.

“Pay up boys, I won the bet,” he demanded in a lighthearted tone.

“I still don't think we ought to pay. I never agreed to a machete.” It was Sandy.

Moose got out $100 bill out of his wallet. “Oh pay up Sandy, it was worth the entertainment value.” Sandy got out his wallet.

“Well, it looks like he's got at least $200 worth of medical expenses. I guess I'll pay.” Sandy handed over $100 to Murray. “By the way, how close did we come to leaving you?”

Moose and Murray roared. “I had my hand on the emergency valve ready to dump the air when he sprang out of the bushes bleeding and sopping wet.” Moose continued, “I had to extend my arm, while standing on the bottom step of the waycar, and just barely caught him. If I hadn't pulled him up, he'd still be lying back there by the tracks.

“Well, let's eat and head on over to Whitey's Saloon,” Murray said as the waitress put his dinner order of steak and baked potato in front of him. “I'm awful thirsty after that long run.”