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‘Foreigners’ at Bensenville . . . and beyond

The Milwaukee Road made a habit of ‘borrowing’ power from the Erie Lackawanna and other roads

MILWonEL
West of Huntington, Ind., on the Erie Lackawanna, in March 1976, an EL U25B and GP35 back down to an eastbound freight brought in from Chicago by Milwaukee Road F units.
Mike Schafer
When I started with the Milwaukee Road in 1971, in road service, the railroad was desperately short of motive power. To help alleviate the situation, the Milwaukee was leasing some decrepit Penn Central Alcos. Occasionally SD9’s from the Missabe Road, or U.S. Steel sister Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, would show up. In fact, my first return trip over the road from Savanna to Bensenville, Ill., the Milwaukee’s main Chicago yard, was with two Missabe and one EJ&E SD9’s on “D&I 2nd 62,” better known as the “second meat train.” (“D&I,” standing for Dubuque & Illinois, was the old division name.) Eddie Johnson was our engineer. The arrival of new SD40-2’s beginning in 1972 negated the necessity of further short-term leases, but that didn’t necessarily mean there was enough power to go around.

In those early 1970s years, the Milwaukee participated with Union Pacific in a run-through power arrangement. UP SD40-2’s and U30C’s were common sights at the Bensenville Diesel House, on the north side of Green Street at the southwest corner of the big yard. This “foreign power” was usually restricted to trains D&I 61 and D&I 64, the UP run-throughs via Omaha, but keen observers would note from time to time one of the “C&M” (Chicago & Milwaukee Division) trains, headed for Milwaukee, would be pulled by the UP power laying over at Bensenville between runs.

With 64’s early-morning arrival at Bensenville and 61’s early-morning departure from same, the captive UP locomotives could be put to use productively by the Milwaukee instead of spending most of 24 hours sitting under airplanes approaching O’Hare Airport. This practice of “borrowing” was put to rest once the UP found out about it, though, and so did the run-through agreement, if memory serves me right.

Norfolk & Western ran a transfer into and out of Bensenville using any combination of power on any given day; ex-Nickel Plate and ex-Wabash Geeps were prevalent, and remembered for their distinctive Mars lights and four digit numbers. Although the Milwaukee, to my recall, never “borrowed” any N&W power for road trains, it would use the power while on layover on various transfers to the Indiana Harbor Belt at nearby Norpaul, to Galewood Yard, or even into the city, down the Bloomingdale Line to and from Division Street Yard on Chicago’s Goose Island.

But to me the most interesting power to regularly visit Bensenville in those days was the Erie Lackawanna’s. The “Erie Puller” could be powered by any of the following: GP35’s, U33C’s, C424’s, SD45’s, SDP45’s, SD45-2’s, and even four-unit consists of E8A’s, regeared for freight service. Like the N&W job, the Erie transfer came early in the day and left late in the day, affording those in the Milwaukee’s Control Center (Power Desk), on the 8th floor of Chicago Union Station, some “opportunities.”

I remember bucking snowdrifts out on the flats between Hampshire and Genoa, Ill., with four EL GP35’s on some forgotten eastbound out of Savanna. On another trip, we had three EL Alco C424’s and a GP35, and I remember the engineer taking his time as we “pumped air” at Savanna as he tried to figure out where everything was located on those strange locomotives.

The most memorable trip I had aboard EL locomotives occurred on March 27, 1975. I was called at Savanna for train 198, an extra east under the Milwaukee’s recently revised freight-train manual, on duty at 11:45 a.m., with George Lancaster as conductor, 60 cars, and four EL E8A’s as power. Extra EL 817 East departed Savanna just after 12:30 p.m. and easily made the climb up Savanna Hill’s 1 percent grade out of the Mississippi River valley.

As was common practice in those days, our crew was issued a “work message” with its orders to “fill at Davis Junction.” This advance message al-lowed for the rear brakeman to ride up front so both brakemen were in position to do the work upon arrival there. Davis Junction was the crossing of the D&I with the line between Rochelle (Flag Center) and Rockford, Ill., owned by the Burlington but used on trackage rights by the Milwaukee.

I remember thinking to myself how smoothly those E8’s rode over the Milwaukee’s less-than-perfect, 131-lb.-jointed-rail, double-track right of way. It was quite a treat after a steady diet of Milwaukee GP40’s.

The trip was uneventful until we pulled up to the Davis Junction depot. As we approached, I saw the agent, Barry Meyers, leave the building in somewhat of a hurry and walk toward our approaching engines.

“What a nice guy,” I thought to myself, “Barry’s coming out to meet us. It saves me a walk to get the bills and the list.” But the look on Barry’s face was anything but congenial.

“Get back on your engines and get to Bensenville,” he barked. “The Erie has found out we stole their engines!” Hey, that was good enough for me—it got us out of the work.

Why did I suddenly remember this little incident after all these years? I was questioned by someone who saw a picture of Milwaukee GP40’s pulling a train on the EL somewhere east of Chicago. His logical question was, “Did the Milwaukee have a run-through power agreement with the EL?”

My reply was, “No. Those GP40’s were running off horsepower-hours we owed to the EL.” If my memory serves me correct, again, at least two Milwaukee GP40s were on EL property at all times for well over a year.


First published in Summer 2006 Classic Trains magazine.

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