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The time I got to run ‘my unit’

A chance ride on Illinois Central’s first SD40 leading a coal train east
On June 15, 1972 — six years before author Olson’s ride on it — Illinois Central Gulf SD40 6000 pulls into Markham Yard at Homewood, Ill., with GP40 3011.
J. David Ingles
I have always had a thing for “class units,” that is, the first in a series, and “my engine” is Illinois Central 6000, an SD40 delivered in late 1967 in the then-new orange and white color scheme. I have a custom-painted HO scale model of it, weathered in that livery. Best of all, during my short stint as a railroader, I got to run it!

In October 1980, when I was on my Iowa Division road trip just prior to being qualified as a train dispatcher for the Illinois Central Gulf, I was returning home one cool Friday night. On the segment from Waterloo, Iowa, to Wallace Yard at Freeport, Ill., I was riding a unit coal train which had the 6000 as lead unit, with two former Gulf, Mobile  & Ohio “Big Red” SD40s and an IC SD40A behind.

It was a fun trip. The regular engineer had laid off, so up front were just the fireman (who was a qualified engineer), the head brakeman, and me. My friend and fellow rail historian Bob Schramm was dispatching, so I called him from the Waterloo yard office prior to departing and told him to “give us a good move.” Well, we never stopped for any of our meets, and we had a lot of them! The crew was impressed.

A cool evening? When we left Waterloo, at dusk, our headlight even picked up some very light snowflakes. It seemed like we met a train at almost every siding between Waterloo and Dubuque; only the sidings at Independence and Farley were too small for meets. At Manchester, we met two trains. The turnaround job up the branch from Cedar Rapids was just arriving, and a westbound grain empty, with a U33C leading, was in the siding. At Dyersville, we did have to creep along a bit until a late-running CC-1 cleared the main.

Coming down the hill into Dubuque, in the Mississippi River valley, the head brakeman heated some homemade meatloaf on the 6000’s engine manifold, so we had warm sandwiches coming into town. His mother had made it and wrapped it in foil; it tasted great.

Over on the Illinois side, just after was passed East Cabin in East Dubuque, the engineer turned to me and said, “It’s your turn to run ’em.” I took his seat and throttled up, and we made 45 mph all the way down along the river on the trackage shared with the Burlington Northern. The four SD40s were rolling with our 101 cars. At Portage I had to slow down to 10 mph to negotiate the crossovers, then again we pulled as we went uphill to Galena, where I had to brake for a 10-mph curve.

Once we passed the Galena depot, I pulled back to the Run 8 notch for a run at the hill. We got up to around 35 mph and then started into the grade — not far from the IC here is Charles Mound, the highest point in the entire state of Illinois. By the time we got to the town of Scales Mound, we were down to about 8 mph. Shortly after we topped the grade there, the engineer took over again and ran on into Wallace Yard on the west side of Freeport.

I haven’t had all that many cab rides, official or otherwise, but this one was my most memorable. I have a lot of fond memories of that October night 29 years ago, but best of all, “my unit” is a big part of it.

First published in
Fall 2009 Classic Trains magazine.

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