Track Patrol

From Keith Meacham on July 13, 2013 - to

"It ain't as easy as it looks," one Soo Line Track Patrolman once told me. "They (The Soo Line) want you to find the bad spots AND dodge trains at the same time. If they have a wreck on your territory, it's YOUR fault you missed it, even though it might happen on a weekend."

I refer to a job now covered by a man driving either a pick-up truck with Hy-rail wheels, or a Suburban-type vehicle equipped with Hy-Rail wheels, the unappreciated Track Patrolman. Track Patrol has been a fixture on many railroads for a number of years, and what these guys find and look for, varies with the terrain. If, say, the Track Patrolman worked for Union Pacific between Stockton, CA., and Portland, OR., he also keeps an eye out for rocks on the tracks, rock slides, snow drifts, in addition to looking for track defects. On the Milwaukee Road, a gentleman named Jeff Jensen worked Track Patrol between Hyak, WA., and Avery, ID., and part of his job was to be in a specific place along his lonely crossing of the Cascade Mountains to open and close the doors to one of the many tunnels on the Milwaukee's Crossing of the Cascades.

I became aware of Track Patrolmen during my Late Father's tenure on the Soo Line. There was a very nice guy by the name of Mike Kowalski, that traveled the section of the Soo Line from Stevens Point, WI., to Chippewa Falls every day. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Mike went TO Chippewa Falls; on the opposite days he came back. When Mike was working, they were still using Fairmont Motor Cars ("Speeders" if you wish to call them that) to do the job. Mike Kowalski had "duded Up" his motorcar: he had a propane heater in it, electric start, and the entire car was enclosed with steel sides. Even so, Track Patrolmen were "Out in it" every day, in all weather. If it were -20 below zero, with a nasty northwest wind, you were out in it. If it were 90 blistering degrees, you were out in it. If it were a blizzard, you were out in it. If it were Tornado weather, you were out in it.

And, you did it by yourself on a Fairmont Motorcar. None the least of your worries was that you got a "Line Up" from the train dispatcher of what trains he could expect were moving against you and in your same direction of travel) on the same track, a piece of paper that often did not reflect how the trains were actually running. It was given to the track patrolman as more of a sort of guide, so he could gauge how fast he should be going and about where he could get to a motorcar set-off or grade crossing, to get the motorcar off the track and get in the clear. Oh, did I forget to mention you had to manually hoist that motorcar ON and OFF the tracks as necessary?

Among all this, you were supposed to be "Inspecting" the track for "Defects". The list of things these men look for is lengthy, but it includes:

  1. Broken Rails
  2. High Joints
  3. Pulled-Apart joints
  4. Sun Kinks
  5. Cracked Joints
  6. Flat Spots caused by sliding wheels when the brakes set up too quickly on some cars but not others.
  7. When you got to a track switch, it was paramount to make sure the switch points were tight to the rail they were supposed to be thrown to. You also were expected to check the switch blocks in the switch to make certain those said blocks hadn't moved (especially important on "High Speed" switches)
  8. Low Spits
  9. High Spots
  10. Rotted Ties
  11. Broken Ties

....and I may have left a number of things out in my list.

This is all to be done while moving along at a nominal 35 mph, in all weather. Some of it you didn't "see", per se, but "Felt" when your motorcar jumped up or down over/through/across the imperfection in the track. One fellow I was chatting with, working relief for the guy that took Mike Kowalski's place as Track Patrolman, told me, "It's impossible to catch it all rolling along trying to stay ahead of the trains. You hope you do at some point during the week and you don't have a train go all over the countryside in the process."

Of course, like any job, if, in your travel across your assigned territory, you happen upon one of the aforementioned defects, there is paperwork to fill out to note you found this defect, where, at what time, date and year. Defects of larger proportions needing immediate attention was like calling out the National Guard, and your name became mudd by the train crews stranded on either side---because you found something. The Train Dispatcher may end up hating you, too, because you just blew all his carefully planned meets all to hell.

Added in to this list of "Have-to-do's" is that added enjoyment of crossing highways, gravel township roads, county trunks and City Streets. A Motorcar, even equipped with a bright, flashing yellow warning light, seemed to be invisible to many motorists. I can think of a few cases where the lone track patrolman was crossing a highway at grade on his motorcar, after ascertaining the way was clear in both directions, only to get splattered by a motorist going far over the posted speed limit. I don't recall any getting killed, but I recall some Hospital Time for a couple. Mike Kowalski always complained of the County Highway 'P' crossing in Clark County. It was at an extreme angle, and hard to see either direction. He was narrowly missed at that spot several times in his career.

I can't write this without mentioning the late Mike Monroe. I had met Mike when he was Assistant Road master stationed at Owen, Wis., back around 1973. Mike met an untimely death while doing Track Patrol on the old Wisconsin & Northern line Between Neenah and Argonne, Wis., around 1975 or so. It was a freak accident, that happened on the Menominee Indian reservation. Mike was the track patrolman on the "Argonne Line" as it was called, and the Soo was doing some needed trackwork at the time in the Shawano-Gresham area. A "gang"-type Motorcar proceeded Mike Monroe a few miles ahead, and while crossing through the Indian Reservation, the Section Crew saw three young Braves out hunting rabbits with a .22 rifle. As a joke, when the Section Crew rolled through, the Brave with the rifle raised it in the direction of the Section men on the motorcar. The Section men all ducked, but no shot was fired. Along came Mike Monroe a short time later at 35 mph. Mike never noticed the young braves along the tracks, as he was concentrating on the track, and the one with the rifle took a hip-shot, pot-shot at the back of Mike Monroe's motorcar after it passed. By accident, the bullet pierced the canvas rear cover and through Mike Monroe, piercing his heart, killing him. Mike slumped over, dead, but his motorcar kept putt-putting along until it ran into the larger Gang motorcar in front of the Depot at Gresham. That's when everyone found out Mike Monroe had died.

Welcome to Wisconsin. Track Patrolman here have to contend with all manner of wild animals crossing ahead of their Motorcar. Black Bears, White-tailed deer, skunks, gophers, porcupines, ferrets, weasels, cows that got out of their grazing land, and the occasional Bald Eagle that figures it doesn't have to move. If you have to stop to make a visual inspection, the often-friendly Red Winged Black Bird will be nearby, often hovering overhead, to assure you stay away from it's nest. Sometimes the red winged black bird will play "Bombardier" and try depositing a load from it's stern atop your head if you're there too long.

Mike Kowalski's career ended suddenly, on an icy March day, in early spring. Mike left Stevens Point following Train #17 (Stevens Point-Park Falls) about a half-mile behind. This was one of those early spring/late winter days, where the melting snow produced pea-soup fog, caused by a cold front following in behind the warmer air. It was drizzling that morning, and the drizzle froze within 5 minutes to ice. Mike followed # 17 to Auburndale, WI., where # 17 held the main line for a meet with an Extra East. Mike pulled up behind # 17's caboose, set the brakes, and got off and was chatting with the Conductor of # 17, Dick Woods.

As Mike Kowalski headed through Junction City, The Section Gang there was waiting to throw on their motorcar, a push car and assorted tools, to follow Mike and train #17 to Auburndale. The Junction City Section Crew had work to do on the east power switch of the siding there. As soon as Mike disappeared into the fog westbound, the Junction City Section Crew threw all their equipment on the push car, got both push car and motorcar on the track, and took off to beat the time of the Extra East at Auburndale.

Mike Kowalski was standing on the ground, at the caboose step, chatting with conductor Dick Woods. To the east they heard the sound of wheels on rail joints, and both Kowalski and Woods looked up to see the same thing: The Junction City Section crew coming pell-mell out of the fog, hell-bent for election. The Section Foreman of the Junction City Gang didn't see Mike Kowalski's Motor Car standing there until it was too late, and he did set the brakes, but too late. The Junction City Section Crew all jumped off their larger "gang" motor car, which continued sliding until it hit Mike Kowalski's smaller inspection motor car. The radiator of the larger gang car split the gas tank open on Mike's smaller motorcar, spraying gas everywhere, and split the propane line inside sending LP everywhere. Both Motorcars caught fire; the rear brakeman of # 17 came running with the caboose fire extinguisher, only to find it was EMPTY. The call went out for the Auburndale Volunteer Fire Department, who, by the time all the members arrived at the firehouse and got to the scene, it was too late.

After witnessing all this happen in front of him, Mike Kowalski retired on the spot. Had Mike not dismounted and walked over to chat with Dick Woods, Mike would've been killed. This event shook Mike Kowalski to his core. After how many near-misses in his track patrol career, Mike said that was enough when he came that close to death.

Keith Meacham

Response from Joseph Santucci on July 14, 2013

What an awesome share, this was quite the great read. Can I copy this and post it on my HTOTHI with you as a "guest" writer?

Was the Mike Monroe you spoke of the father to the Monroe twins that worked in the section out of Fond du Lac going on to become supervisors and track patrols themselves? I remembered them from my WC days One was Mike and I don't recall the other brother's name but I want to Matt or Mark. I'm sure I'm wrong.

I recall while growing up next to the old New York Central/Michigan Central Joliet Branch seeing their track patrols. They had the motorcar but a gang of three on it. Being that it was a branch line they didn't run the entire line daily but portions of it. In addition to what you described in the maintenance chores, they also oiled the switch lamps on all the switches. They were still using oil lamps as switch markers and periodically they would stop and add oil and as necessary, replace the wicks in the switch lamps. I used to watch them on their patrols all the time as a kid as the line was right next to my house and the interchange yard with the C&EI was directly across the street from my house.

To ensure proper Soo Line content, I used to routinely observe Soo Line boxcars in the trains that operated on this line. Recall seeing the $oo Line dollar sign version most of the time. On occasion towards the end before we moved away from there it was the occasional billboard style lettering. As a very young youngster I didn't understand or even know where the Soo operated and didn't know it was pronounced SOO. I used to call it the S-O-O Line. It was this mysterious railroad that operated somewhere far, far away.

Thanks for posting this, Keith, sparked a lot of memories from my childhood that I hadn't thought about for some time.


Response from Ron Kaminen on July 17, 2013

HI: I don't think the fathers name was Mike, but he did have two sons that were also section foreman and track patrols later.

The father was shot in the back while traveling on the Argonne Line thru the reservation. The motor car stopped when it hit a track machine on the mainline. He was already dead when he hit. That was a sad day on the Soo Line!

Ron K. Littleton, Co.

Response from Thomas Heiderer on July 18, 2013

Was the shooter ever arrested?

Tom Heiderer

Response from Ron Kaminen on July 18, 2013

HI: I think they did find the boys that shot him.

Ron K.

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