The Last Engineer
Riding on the old U-M Railroad
by Daryl Hurst
My father passed away last year at the age of eighty-nine. By all measures, Russell Hurst lived a full and happy life. A member of the "Greatest Generation," he served bravely in WWII and then came home to marry the girl next door (literally) and raise a family. During the preparations for his memorial service and throughout the months of reflection that followed, I realized that one of my most cherished memories is of working with my father in the late 1950s on the now-defunct University of Michigan Railroad.
It was a responsibility we both took seriously. For my part, I had to brave cold, snowy weather to walk to my post and wait patiently for my turn to climb up into the cab of his locomotive. Once aboard, I would greet my dad and then give a tentative nod to the quiet man who doubled as flagman and switchman. As a four-year-old, mine was not a paid position, but my role was critical to making the workday more fun for these grown-ups. As soon as my dad lifted me up onto the well-worn leather engineer's seat and gave me permission to pull the throttle that made the massive engine lurch forward down the tracks, broad smiles broke out on our faces, and the three of us knew it would be a great run.
I think my dad and I both regretted that this railroad assignment was only a part-time gig. In the summer months, he was a general laborer for the masons in the university's Plant Operations. He would don his engineer's cap each fall when the heating season returned and even then only ran the train as needed. My own time on the railroad was limited to those preschool years when my older siblings were in elementary school and my mother had gone back into the workforce. My primary assignment was to spend my days with my Grandma Hakala, helping her take care of the
aphasia patients who stayed in her large rooming house on the south side of East Huron St. near Glen Ave.
The house was actually owned by the university, and the men received treatment each day at the speech clinic located directly across the street at 1007 E. Huron. My grandma's place, along with a couple of other large houses, sat high up on the north edge of Fletcher Park (the front lawn of today's Power Center). The park had several large, old elm trees in the middle and a row of lilacs on the slope bordering Washington, which at the time continued on past Fletcher toward Observatory Dr.
I can vividly recall lounging in the private family room, watching Bozo the Clown on TV and staring out the large front window at the traffic and pedestrians on the busy street below while my grandma fed the men their breakfast. I was always impatient for the meal to be over on those special days when I knew that afterward I would meet my dad at the university powerhouse down the block.
The large brick edifice, built in 1915, was a city landmark from its beginning, with a towering smokestack reaching high into the sky. The facility was enlarged in 1924 and a second smokestack added. Naturally, I was most intrigued by the railroad tracks that ran along the west side of the building. They headed south past the end of the building, across a bridge over Washington, and almost to North University Ave., ending about 200 yards behind the old homeopathic hospital (today's North Hall).
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.
As the flashing red light over Huron St. signaled our crossing, the flagman walked ahead of us, then jumped back up on the side ladder to ride until we neared the next intersection at Ann St. The thirty-five-ton gasoline-powered Plymouth switching engine we rode had been purchased as surplus from the U.S. Army in 1949, after the university dismantled its original electrified rail system. It had a twin that was parked on a siding alongside the old food service building (replaced by today's Biomedical Science Research Building). The university had purchased the second engine for parts, but I always imagined it was being readied for me to use when I grew up.
As we prepared to cross Ann, my dad would let me yank on the overhead cord that made the whistle shriek, warning the automobiles that we were coming through. Our route would then continue along the east side of the Glen-Fuller curve, cutting behind several houses that faced Glen on our left and gliding amazingly close to many of the university buildings on our right. The old tracks angled through the western quarter of today's Ann/Catherine parking structures and ran right next to Angelo's restaurant, which had only recently opened at the time I was riding the rails. The popular coffee shop was already the regular hangout for my dad's morning break with the other men who worked the coal operation at the power plant.
After our third crossing, at Catherine, the tracks continued snug along the west side of the Victor Vaughn Building. The sidewalk along the east side of today's W. Medical Center Drive follows the former track bed, a tight passage at this point. I remember feeling like I could have touched the red bricks if my dad had let me lean out the cab's window. After that snug curve, it was another close shave by the northwest corner of the building trades and carpenter shop, then clear sailing down to the switchback that lay in the valley directly north of the university's Old Main hospital. This long, sloping grade cut behind the land now occupied by Med Sci III, II, and I and the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Today you have to turn right onto E. Medical Center Drive and then left on Nichols Drive to get down to where the U-M Railroad ended.
Back then, the track passed over a small concrete bridge that spanned a dirt utility road, then dead-ended on another trestle, an elevated setup that allowed the university to bring down hoppers of coal ash to dump off the side, likely to be used for winter road maintenance. It was easy for me to imagine the disaster of a runaway train flying through the timber blockade and off the end of the elevated track, but with my dad at the controls I always felt safe. Today the hospital's Survival Flight copters fly from pads near to where the old trestle and ash dump were located. Here we would leave our empty cars and pick up the full ones, all made possible by a set of sidings and a connecting track to the main line about thirty yards away.
Coal was likely supplied from Ohio and West Virginia, delivered to the sidings along Depot Street by the Ann Arbor Railroad. After the daily train from Detroit to Jackson went through, the coal cars could be moved farther east along the Michigan Central main track to the U-M siding. Here it was up to the large supply locomotive to do the heavy work of moving the C & O coal cars from their mainline tracks to ours. Leaving the consignment of full cars on the lower siding, it would come up the grade to couple to our empty ones, taking them back down to link up with the full cars. Pulling forward and then backing up our hill once again with this full load, the locomotive would leave the coal-laden cars for us and then head out again with the empties.
That's when our real work would begin. While the U-M Plymouth engine seemed large to me, it was tiny by most standards. We could take four to six empty cars down in one trip from the power plant, but the climb back up with a full hopper had to be done one car at a time. Apparently the women in the university's old maternity hospital used to report how much the overburdened engine backfired and wheezed. I had a much more romanticized image in my head of our locomotive as "The Little Engine That Could," simply repeating "I think I can, I think I can ..." as we churned steadily up the hill. When snow and ice coated the rails, the crewman would throw down sand to gain traction.
Shortly after I had left my position as the railroad's unofficial mascot in order to begin kindergarten, the university purchased a much bigger eighty-ton diesel engine to improve efficiency and handle its expanding needs. My dad and his crew certainly liked it, and I remember riding it once or twice, but the modern style with the controls in the center didn't have the same feel to it. There was little of the magic that the smaller but more traditional cab-in-the-back locomotive evoked in a little boy's imagination. It was the look, feel, and sounds of that old Plymouth engine that were important aspects of the pretend storylines I carried in my mind.
For even after returning home to my grandma's after one or two morning runs with my dad back in those preschool days, my job was not finished. After lunch I would spend the whole afternoon perched on one end of the black wrought iron fence that ran along the upper sidewalk in front of the house, pretending the first segment was my own train locomotive and the sections of railings stretching before me were the coal cars I was transporting back and forth. Today I can still make that run in my mind, churning along to the click-clack rhythm and squeal of metal against metal as we round each bend.
Unfortunately, that memory is all that is left. By the end of the 1960s, the house had been torn down, the power plant had been converted to natural gas, and the university had abandoned its railroad. Subsequent building and paving projects have virtually obliterated the old rail bed.
Nearly half a century later, my father, the last engineer on the University of Michigan Railroad, is gone, too. Most people who worked with Russ Hurst in his later years at the university knew him as the head of the Moving and Trucking department. Many acquaintances recall his stories of flying on a B-24 bomber and being interned in Sweden after his plane was shot down. Family and friends recall him as a dedicated church member, a father to many exchange students, the "cruise director" trip planner, or the grandpa with the swimming pool in his backyard. The little kid in me, however, finds comfort in remembering my dad as a train engineer. It is a strong, clear, and warm memory of a loving father who, on the university railroad and in so many other ways, gave me the ride of a lifetime.
Daryl Hurst can be reached at email@example.com. He thanks Dr. H. Mark Hildebrandt, Rich Olszewski, Pam Gibb, and the Bentley Historical Library for their help in researching this article.
[Originally published in May, 2013.]