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Thursday April 24, 2014
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The Last Engineer



To my young eyes, the rails along the side of the plant seemed perilously perched on an open grate of iron anchored in cement in a wavy sea of black coal. Equally precarious, but exciting to watch, was the gantry high above, where I could see a man in a tiny cab sliding back and forth on another iron rail. Using his dangling clam bucket, he would scoop up piles of loose coal and hoist them up and away to unseen funnels on the roof that fed the boilers inside. My young imagination raced at this sight, as it did when my dad would describe the steam tunnels that ran beneath Central Campus.


For safety, I always had to wait on the sidewalk until my dad pulled the train engine alongside. Then I climbed aboard to join him on his one-mile run to the other end of the spur, which serviced the powerhouse and food service operation across the street. In those days before OSHA rules and institutional guidelines, my dad could get away with letting me ride in the cab of the blue locomotive with the yellow "UM" on the side. Our mission: take empty hopper cars back down to the New York Central (previously Michigan Central) main line that ran along the valley on the south bank of the Huron River, and bring back cars full of coal.

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