Working On The Portage Line, Circa 1944-45

By Keith A. Meacham

My late Father, Neil E. Meacham, worked a 43-year career with the Soo Line Railroad, starting out his career as a "Telegrapher", the term coming from the Slang-shortened words, "Telegraph Operator". Dad hired on in June of 1944. As any new Employee of the Soo Line in the position my Father took, Dad was assigned to, "The Extra Board", where Telegraphers were assigned different jobs in far away locales. In this capacity, my Dad worked at almost each station on the now long abandoned Soo Line Branch to Portage, Wisconsin.

Dad had had exposure to the Soo's Portage Line as a young Child. My Father and his two brothers, and Grandmother & Grandfather, had lived in the Soo's Depot while my Grandfather was Stationed there as Agent in the early 1930's. The Portage Line was no stranger to my Father as a New Railroad Employee in 1944. Dad was well acquainted with the Portage Line and it's operations. Before Dad graduated High School, the Family had moved to Stevens Point, Wis., about 1943 from Dale. (My Late Grandfather, Archie O. Meacham, became Third Trick (or Shift) Wire Chief in Stevens Point at that time.)

As an "Extra Man", Dad had opportunity to work at every station on the Portage Line, except in Portage itself, near the end of the life of the Line in 1945 before Dad joined the Navy at the End of World War II. By the time Dad was discharged, the "P-Line", as it was called, had been abandoned and taken up.

Dad's earliest memory of the P-Line came from a memory as a child living in the Depot at Bancroft. It only stuck out in his mind because Bancroft---of all places---was the first time Dad had seen a Woman SMOKING!!

Aside from that, The First Station on the P-Line that Dad worked at as a Soo Line Employee was Plainfield. Plainfield in those days was bustling with Railroad Traffic, at least, at the time Dad worked there. Dad was at Plainfield Twice as a relief man prior to Joining the Navy. Both times he worked there, he was relieving the Agent who was on Vacation. Dad was there both times for a one week period. Plainfield could be called one of the busier Stations along the Portage Line; when the Local to Portage arrived, they usually had up to two-to-three hours worth of Switching work there. Alas, the same could not be said for the rest of the Portage Line!

Plainfield stuck out in Dad's mind because of the amount of Western Union Telegrams Sent & Recieved there. Plainfield had a number of Business persons associated with growing Cash Crops (mostly Potatoes) that made regular stops in the Soo's neat Plainfield Depot all throughout the working day, to check on the incoming quotes from the Chicago Board of Trade. The amount of copy work from the Telegraph connected to Price Quotes kept the man working at Plainfield in that time period quite Busy.

In this time period, the Train from Stevens Point to Portage operated on a Down to Portage one day, come back to Stevens Point the next day Cycle, going to Portage on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, coming back on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Dad once quipped that the collective age of the Members of the Train Crew working on the P-Line local was somewhere near 500 years in seniority!!! He was only joking, but the P-Line tended to have older Employees working on the Local, men with many years of seniority of work with the Railroad. "They were all nice guys", Dad recalled to me years ago.

It sounded as though the Local to Portage did not work at a terribly hurried pace in it's journey from Stevens Point to Portage, and the train, even stopping at each station to pick up Mail, Express, an occasional passenger, and do the required Switching of Freight Cars, seldomly exceeded it's allotted 16-hour shift.

In the small towns of Westfield, Hancock, Coloma, and Endeavor, the Soo Line Agent/Operator had enough duties to perform to keep him "Pleasently" Busy, as Dad put it. You weren't over taxed, or rushed. Working the P-Line was an experience in a slower paced enviroment, even in the Closing Days of World War II. Coloma sported a Meat Packing Plant that shipped out about a Carload of meat per week. All four of these smaller burgs had the mandatory Feed Mill. In the era prior to the mid-1950's, the Small Town Feed Mill provided the Railroad with inbound Feed business, about two to three cars per week. Consider that somewhere along the P-Line one Feed Mill or another was receiving a Carload, which kept the P-Line Local busy switching cars in or out at that point. In almost all of the Stations along the

P-Line mentioned above, even little Bancroft, there was also the ubiquitous Potato Warehouse or two, indicating the Main Cash Crop of the region the P-Line serviced.

Montello, Wisconsin, was on the end of a short spur that came off the Main Stem of the P-Line at Packwaukee Junction. Here the short Branch to Montello veered away to the northeast, while the Chicago & North Western crossed high above the Soo's lowly P-Line on a Bridge. Soo & the C&NW exchanged cars at this spot, as there as a connecting track between the two roads.

In Montello, Soo Line serviced a small Paper Mill. Montello can be called the Second Busiest Station on the P-Line because of the generous traffic to the Mill located there. Though the traffic to this Mill was not the gargantuan amount produced inbound and outbound at a Consolidated Papers, it was enough! Carloads of Coal came here for an Electric Generating Plant of some import, but I'm at a loss to understand if it was a Municipal Facility or Private. I never asked Dad to elaborate on it, either. Dad made it sound as though the Depot in Montello was in the Downtown. I never asked for elaboration on that, either!

I'm to understand that the Local, on it's southerly trip, would back the Train into Montello from Packwaukee Junction, and leave forwards in the direction of Portage; going North, the Train would pull in engine first, then back out to Packwaukee Junction heading back to Stevens Point.

Dad relayed to me in conversations over the years that he could never understand why the P-Line had been abandoned. He had worked in the Potato harvesting season, and asserted that the Soo had, "All It Could Do" to move the carloads of Potato's loaded on the P-Line. One thing he tended to forget: The P-Line was only Busy during Shipping Season for Potatoes, the rest of the year it was a Sleepy Branch Line!

Dad also told me that during Shipping Season, the Soo would assign an Extra Train to do the Work of Switching the many Potato Warehouses along the P-Line, working as far south as Needed and then returning north to Stevens Point. At the start of the Shipping Season, the Local that ran the branch on it's every-other-day venture would distribute Empty Cars along the route for Potato loading. When the workload began to cause this train to run afoul of the Hours of Service Law, then the Soo would assign an Extra to do this work, allowing the Local to proceed about their leisurely pace.

Toward the end, while Dad was starting out his Employment with the Soo Line, the Soo assigned spiffy looking Class E-22, E-23, E-24 or E-25 4-6-0 "Ten Wheeler" type Steam Locomotive engines to work on the P-Line. Dad, as a youth living at Bancroft, was young enough to recall the Soo assigning Class C-4 & 5 and Class C-20 & C-21 4-4-0, "American" locomotives for use on the local on the P-Line.

After returning home from the Navy, Dad expressed Astonishment that the P-Line had been pulled up. Over the years, my own curiosity gave me incentive to give the P-Line a little study. The Line itself was built to fulfill the Charter of the Original Wisconsin Central Railway of 1872 to build a Line from Portage City (Portage) to the Head of Lakes, or Ashland. Once finished, this line figured prominently in schemes to get the Wisconsin Central a line to Chicago. None were ever carried out, and the P-Line went the way of many a strictly Rural Branch Line and eventually lapsed into eternal rest.

It is an interesting fact, however, that Train Service on the P-Line at the time of abandonment was still daily, with the train going to Portage on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and returning on the opposite days. Years later, in the "Abandonment Frenzy" that took place in the late 1960's and lasting through the latter half of the 1970's, that had the P-Line not been pulled up shortly after World War II, the Interstate Commerce Commission would not have allowed the P-Line abandonment at all, because the Line had more or less daily service on it yet!

But, more often than not, the P-Line local sported a Locomotive and two or three cars as it made it's leisurely way south or north. That didn't translate into a "Money Making" operation, even in the closing years of World War II.

However, a Friend of mine, who is also a Student of Railroad History, is fond of flaunting the theory that Soo Line predecessor Wisconsin Central had it in mind to build to Madison to connect with the Illinois Central line that entered our State's Capital from Freeport, Ill. This particular Rail Line connected with the Illinois Central's Original Main Track built southwards out of Freeport, running almost perfectly geographically southward through the center of the State of Illinois. This line was nick-named "The Gruber Line" and traversed through such places in Illinois as Decatur and Dixon on it's strictly rural Illinois journey.

If you add the idea of the P-Line eventually connecting with the IC at Madison, you can invariably make the assumption that Both Wisconsin Central and Illinois Central possibly intended to use the "Gruber" as a Main Routing. Although it is an interesting hypothesis, I have not found it to be with any basis in fact. It appears the Portage Line got as far as it was ever intended to go.


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