By Dick Hovey
Posted April 17, 2007
February 1979 turned out to be very snowy in the upper Midwest. Our little Burlington, Iowa railfan group, the three Ewininger brothers and I, set out to find out how the railroads were coping with the snow. Our first encounter was with Santa Fe’s rotary 199361 in Ft. Madison. We were told it was heading to Henrietta, Missouri to clear the line to Council Bluffs. Early the following day we headed to Henrietta where we found the Rotary and its GP20 companion ready to go. Although it made for some spectacular shooting it didn’t get very far before the pounding action of the rotary’s blade broke a rail.
Henrietta was a joint N&W –Santa Fe town. When we stopped there to see if anything else was going on the N&W guys told us they would be plowing the Moulton – Ottumwa branch the next morning.
The Moulton - Ottumwa branch was built by robber baron Jay Gould when he owned the Milwaukee Road and the Wabash. The branch line created a link from the Milwaukee Road in Ottumwa to the Wabash allowing him to compete in the lucrative Chicago –Kansas City trade. By 1979 it was used infrequently.
When we arrived at Moulton the following morning we found the train had arrived at Moulton from Moberly with Union Pacific 168, a GP9 with an over sized plow, on loan to N&W due to their lack of plow equipped units, and N&W GP38-2’s 4131 and 4146.
The crew dropped off the 4146, a good move as it turned out later, and set off with half a dozen cars and a waycar. Within a couple of miles they were hopelessly stuck. At this point the section crew turned out to help, without success. That’s when the 4146 came in handy; with it coupled on the waycar and the two units in front doing what they could the whole string made it back to Moulton.
The crew proceeded to the next logical step, leave the train behind and go with the three units. This combination didn’t make it more than a few yards further than the first attempt. Back to Moulton again to place an urgent call to the Road Foreman. After explaining their plight they were surprised by the response. “Well boys”, the RFE said, “You’ve got too many engines. With multiple units under those conditions, one of them is bound to unload due to wheelslip. When that happens you're just dragging dead weight and the other engines will start to slip too. Your only hope is to go with just the 168.”
As they left chilly office the crew looked like condemned men. The air was filled with muttering about lousy “desk-bound” advice. When they hit the first drift they had made the UP shuddered but kept on going, and the next and the next. As the sun was starting to set they pulled into the joint Milwaukee Road – Wabash yard in Ottumwa.
One is sometimes greater than three.