Like the fins on the ’59 Fords and Plymouths, diesel locomotives to a kid of that time signaled the future, and it appeared bright, colorful and exciting. But steam, while sooty looking and harshly loud, was an old and close friend. One very hard to lose when it became painfully apparent that it would be forever.
This 15 year old was just learning how to drive that summer of 1959 and depended on my parents, my bicycle or walking for transportation. An old, hand me down Brownie camera was all I had to record whatever I found interesting on my forays. Unfortunately although I know I found and saw much to interest me about nearby railroads, I failed to use that camera much so that I could share images with you these years later. Words to describe old memories will have to suffice.
What I remember, regardless of the paucity of photographs, is that many remnants of the steam era remained intact in 1959, and in some cases were still being used for the purpose they were built for. Coaling towers, manned branch line stations, semaphore signals, 4 way switch lanterns, water columns and towers, roundhouses, ash pits. The possibility of seeing in action, the few remaining steam locomotives, was also an exciting and accessible reality that year. Fortunately for a lamenting 15 year old rail fan, Michigan and nearby, Ontario, Canada were among the very last bastions of steam in North America and accessible to you if your parents or a relative gave into your obsession and whining to see them.
It was a year when a 15 year old kid could write a letter to the vice-president and General Manager of the Grand Trunk Western, Harry Sanders, asking for a couple passes to explore the yards, roundhouses and shops of his railroad, and find in the mail two weeks later a nice letter from him with those pass. In 1959, I bugged the gentleman 3 different times for passes, and faithfully got them each time …. enclosed in a friendly, personally signed letter from him.
It was a year when two 15 year olds hiked out the C&O Wyoming yards and were able to just walk into the 360 degree roundhouse and go exploring without being stopped or questioned. Two E-7s, still in their Pere Maquette livery, were snaps inside that by my memory took along with Hollis Baker’s vintage wood slatted coach and a steam locomotive, a Consolidation or Mogul, it’s tender and cab marked for C&O.
The first time the GTW passes were put to use was a Saturday excursion to Durand in April with my Dad and a neighborhood buddy. What was especially memorable about that day besides Durand was how it started as we headed east on old highway 21 from Grand Rapids. I was one of 6 kids in the Cassleman family. To transport all of us my dad bought a Volkswagen bus. It was, in fact, the first one ever to traverse the mostly two lane highways of the upper Midwest of 1959. Bright Yellow, it drew crowds of gawkers anywhere we went. But that Saturday morning, it was an easy to spot beacon for the State Police patrolling highway 21. Somewhere around Lowell, my dad started sputtering and cursing when a cop car turned on his overhead behind us and motioned my dad to pull over. “Are your Mr. Cassleman? Yes. “Well, we got a call from your wife that you left the house without the Grand Trunk passes.” “She was hoping we could spot you to turn you around”.
Does anybody reading this believe that could happen in this day and age of 2017?
Now most of you have seen the Youtube video I posted some years ago of our Durand excursion that day and another in the Fall of 1959. If you haven’t …. here’s the link. About half-way through, I dubbed it with the sounds of switchers actually working the Durand yard in 1958 and 1959. My dad’s 8mm Bolex did not record sound.
But here are also some photos taken that day of my buddy and I in the big 360 degree Durand roundhouse. They’re made from negatives that I converted to positive on a copier, the prints being somehow and somewhere long ago lost. Better something than nothing. But what I remember best about that roundhouse was the smell and sound of it and that its every stall embraced a steam locomotive. 0-8-0s. 2-8-2s. A rare 0-8-2. 2-8-0s. 4-6-2s. and fierce faced 4-8-2s. Some were still breathing. Wisping warm steam; gently throbbing as if snoring in fitful slumber; awaiting the deft touch of a hostler to rouse and get them moving for another day or night of what they were meant to do.
There was not much main line traffic through Durand either the April Saturday we were there, or later when we returned in late fall. The only active steam engines were the 0-8-0 switchers you see in the video, barking and banging their way around the Durand yard. On both occasions, my dad used up most of his film on the switchers. It wasn’t until we were about ready to head back to Grand Rapids, a bit frustrated and disappointed, that a 6300 class 4-8-4 eased its way past the station with a freight from Detroit or Pontiac. Both times, my dad ran out of film just as it passed him. The sorry state of repair those once regally beautiful locos were in was just …. sad to see. Maybe fitting that the camera stopped recording their embarrassment.