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Watermelon Extra

16 hours on a pair of short line 70-tonners

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Russell Tedder's 16-hour 70-tonner ride occurred in July 1955, when he was dispatching for the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf and South Georgia, two affiliated short lines recently acquired by the Southern Railway.

Watermelons were an important source of revenue for the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf and South Georgia in the early 1950s. The two affiliated short lines connected at Perry, Fla., about 40 miles south of the Georgia state line. The LOP&G handled most of its melon shipments on its two daily-except-Sunday mixed trains, Nos. 1 and 2 and Nos. 3 and 4. Eastbound train 2 made a side trip as Nos. 5 and 6 from Mayo Junction to Mayo. However it was occasionally necessary on heavy loading days to run an extra from Live Oak to Mayo or Day, the two major loading stations on the line and return to the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line interchanges at Live Oak.

As the train dispatcher for the two short lines, whenever No. 4 had all the tonnage it needed, instead of having that train make an extra side trip on the Mayo Branch, I would schedule a watermelon extra out of Live Oak to Mayo and Day to pick up that day’s melons. I knew our two General Electric 70-tonners (SG 202 and LOP&G 300) started like an automobile and made quick work of getting an extra out of the yard and to the loading sites and back.

Two lumbermen, brothers James W. and Zenas Wise Oglesby, organized the South Georgia Railway in 1896. In the early 1950s the road extended 76 miles from Adel, Ga., to Springdale, Fla. Rail weight was 56 and 60 pounds. The SG always ran an extra during the watermelon shipping season since it operated only one daily-except-Sunday freight train. The main loading stations were Empress, Quitman, and Morven, Ga.

In 1955, the first season after Southern Railway bought the two roads, the South Georgia handled its watermelons on an extra that ran from Perry to Adel and return six days a week, using ventilated refrigerator cars provided by Southern. The outbound loads were then routed via Southern at Adel.

My first voluntary semi-annual dispatcher’s road trip was on the South Georgia watermelon extra on Saturday, July 3, 1955. By this time Southern had upgraded the track between Perry and Quitman and maximum authorized speed had been raised to 30 mph.

South Georgia 202 and LOP&G 300 powered the train, which carried a Southern day coach in lieu of a caboose. That year the extra made a round trip from Perry to Adel and return six days a week. I had called our crew for this trip for 5:30 p.m. and issued the following orders before boarding the day coach:

Order No. 1 — Engine 2004 [a Southern Railway SW1 assigned to the SG] run extra Perry to Adel and return to Perry not protecting against following extra trains except Extra 202 North. Extra 2004 South wait at Adel until arrival of Extra 202 North.

Order No. 2 — Engine 202 run extra Perry to Adel and return to Perry not protecting against following extra trains except Extra 2004 South.

The engineer was a boomer, having started on the Western Pacific in California. After serving with the Army at Camp Gordon Johnston, near Carrabelle, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, during the war, he joined the LOP&G and South Georgia as a relief engineer and conductor. He was an adventuresome engineer as the rest of this story reveals.

Our boomer engineer backed the pair of 70-tonners out of the LOP&G ready track and picked up six empty reefers and the coach off the house track. After giving the air brake test a lick and a promise, he backed the short train through the LOP&G-SG connecting track and onto the SG main line. The engineer sounded two long blasts of the whistle, eased up to the LOP&G diamond, and stopped. After another two blasts we were on our way about 6 p.m., the foghorn whistle blasting its way over the many street crossings as the little train left town. Soon our hogger had the throttle in the “company notch” and we were bouncing along at 40 to 45 mph.

All was going well until we rounded a curve a few miles north of Perry and saw a bulldozer trying to cross the track. After “big-holing” the train and stopping 200 feet from the dozer, the engineer “pumped ’em off” and our trip resumed as soon as the dozer cleared the track. Where the line paralleled U.S. 221, motorists watched in amazement as the train sped along, the two 70-tonners approaching their top speed of 55 mph. The clickety-clack of wheels on the rail joints turned into a steady roar that was absorbed into the rumbling and pounding of the Cooper-Bessemer engines as they approached their maximum of 1,000 rpm. The light but speedy consist sounded more like Southern Railway’s crack 
Royal Palmthan the lumbering freight that had bobbed and weaved its way through the grass- covered track behind a lone 70-tonner less than a year before.

No. 1, the southbound first-class passenger train with Kalamazoo railbus No. M-100 as its consist, was due at Sirmans, 18 miles north of Perry, at 6:45 p.m. As the watermelon extra stopped on the main line in front of Bill Clement’s store, our boomer hogger sounded the prescribed one long and three shorts for the flagman to protect the rear of the train just like the mainline boys did, even though we were relieved by train order from protecting against following extra trains. The crew and I had just enough time to walk over to the store for a soft drink before No. 1 came into sight. The doodlebug headed into the clear on the house track and stopped across from Clement’s store; a lone passenger detrained as the motorman helper swung down to hand a mail pouch to the waiting postmaster.

Having made the meet, the watermelon extra headed on its way, stopping at the Seaboard diamond at Greenville and opening the gates which removed the derails from the SG track, then stopping while the rear brakemen closed the gates. We ran uneventfully to our first revenue stop at Empress, where the train dropped the 6 empty reefers and picked up 20 carloads of melons. With our first revenue tonnage in tow, we pulled over the ACL overpass at Quitman at 8:30 p.m.

While the crew was switching and picking up watermelon loads, I went inside the depot where the Southern’s commercial agent and government produce inspectors were rolling dice on the station office floor. The agent, who had been fired from the ACL for Rule G violations, was obviously having trouble with his billing that evening, so I pitched in and waybilled the last of the 30 carloads of melons we picked up.

About 10:30 p.m., after the crew finished switching out the melon loads and making a brake test on the added cars, we whistled off with a running start to get over Pilco Hill.

After picking up 22 cars of melons at Morven and 4 cars of peaches at Barney, Ga., we were on our last lap into Adel with a total of 74 loads. (It should be noted that to prevent crushing of the bottom layers, only four layers of melons could be loaded in a car. This restricted the payload to 20,000 to 24,000 pounds per car, thus the tonnage per car was about one-half that of other commodities.) The brace of 70-tonners hauled the train handily over the ruling grade at Pilco as well as other, lesser grades.

Since the best track on the SG before rehabilitation was between Quitman and Adel, this was the last stretch to be rebuilt. However, Southern had already rebuilt and raised the bridges some 10 inches in preparation for the track to be raised to the same level when it was rehabilitated, with appropriate runoffs in each direction. Looking back from the cab of the second unit, I could see the car numbers on the end of the reefers as they came over the humped bridges one by one like sheep jumping over a fence.

A Southern Railway (Georgia Southern & Florida) caboose hop from Valdosta was waiting at Adel. As soon as our crew cut off the 70-tonners and moved in the clear, the cab-booster set of EMD F units coupled to the 74-car consist and doubled it out onto the caboose on the GS&F main line. With a radio highball from the conductor, the GS&F watermelon extra headed out for Macon and Atlanta, where the following morning the melon buyers would enter diversion orders to the specific northern customers that the melons had been sold to after they were loaded and en route.

There was always a rivalry among the South Georgia train crews, and this day was no exception. After a hot meal at the local Adel beanery, our conductor checked the Southern waybill box to see how many empty reefers were on the GS&F interchange to be moved south on the return trip. Seeing none, he consulted with the rest of the watermelon extra’s crew about the local extra that had arrived earlier. Its power was Southern SW1 No. 2004, which was coupled to a Southern bay window caboose tied up next to the SG station at Adel while the crew took its eight hours rest before following the watermelon extra south.

Acting upon a strong suggestion from the conductor, the watermelon extra’s crew decided it would be an appropriate trick on the local’s crew if their train could be hijacked while they slept. Our engineer backed his 70-tonners up to the GS&F interchange yard, where the crew coupled to the 18-car local consist for Perry. The watermelon crew took great pleasure in anticipating the local crew’s reaction when they returned to duty to discover that their train had disappeared while they rested.

Our southbound 18-car train soon headed through the wye onto the SG main line on what was expected to be a straight 76-mile run to Perry, stopping only at Quitman to register. The little GEs handled their tonnage nicely over the grades. From Quitman south the 30-mph speed limit was easily maintained, perhaps too easily since the engines were not equipped with speedometers. At milepost 45 the trailing unit, LOP&G No. 300, developed a hot box, which we nursed into Greenville.

Before our crew could jack up the locomotive and rebrass the journal, we heard the growl of Extra 2004 South’s SW1 as its headlight came into view around the curve approaching Greenville with a handful of local cars it had picked up at Quitman. Our train was on the main line between the house track switches so the local extra headed through the house track and passed our crippled train. In the excitement resulting from overtaking their hijacked train, the local crew ran through the south house track switch, oblivious to the fact that it was still lined for the main.

Finally, the new brass was seated and packed and we were on our last lap to Perry, arriving at Boyd in time to clear train 2, which was due at 8:47 a.m. Within 15 minutes after our meet with the Kalamazoo railcar, we arrived at Perry in time to run around our train on the South Georgia wye and yard it on the LOP&G. The conductor marked off at 9:29 a.m., concluding a 15-hour 59-minute tour of duty, not an uncommon occurrence in those days of the 16-hour “hog” law.

Our watermelon extra had handled a total of 96 cars (90 loads and 6 empties) on the 154-mile round trip. Needless to say, the rookie dispatcher (me) was much better acquainted with physical conditions on the road, but definitely in need of a long Sunday nap.

Due to inroads from trucks and the fact that the railroads had come to realize that payouts for loss and damage claims largely offset any profit they made in hauling watermelons, this was the last year that a special watermelon extra was operated on the South Georgia. A few carloads were handled the next year or two in regular train service before the traffic vanished altogether.

RUSSELL TEDDER is retired from a 46-year career in the short line railroad industry. His article about 70-tonners, “Road-Switcher for the Little Guys,” appears in the Summer 2018 issue of 
Classic Trains magazine.


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