The Pine Line by Ray Pendergast Jr.

"This is an article that I wrote for Attorney Robert Rusch from Rib Lake who was one of the movers and shakers that urged the Taylor County Board to buy up the line Medford to Prentice, he wanted to hear from someone who worked this line and tell about it. I spent the last 20 years Stevens Point to Park Falls."

The Pine Line
Love That Railroading
(The Iron Wheel and the Steel Rail)

An Engineer's view of the track ahead of his train, who among us all, would not love his occupation when he alone has control over the locomotives that were at times over 9,000 horsepower pulling over 100 cars and the entire train weighing 10,000 tons to over 13,000 tons. It required skill and dedication which in turn produced love and pride in your work. This was done sitting in the Engineer's seat with all the controls in front of him at his command, and he alone would call upon good judgment as to when to set the air brakes and when to release them, when to increase the locomotive power and when to decrease it. He would always be checking his watch and the time table and schedule. The schedules of other trains both opposing and following trains, superior trains and inferior trains, station stops, and flag stops, train orders and special instructions. If you were on a steam locomotive you would be continuously watching the water glass gauge. The constant awareness of boiler water was always with you. If the boiler did not received water the intense heat from the fire box (The fire was white hot not an orange color from burning coal and the draft caused by the exhaust from the cylinders up the smoke stack) could melt the crown sheet of the boiler and the boiler could explode, killing the crew on the head end of the train. This did happen many times on railroads throughout the world.

The Railroad Watch

It had to be a certain size, 21 jewels, lever set, an approved make and dial. It had to be inspected once a month by a jeweler, designated by the railroad, all terminals had a jeweler that did this. His compensation, I believe, was a pass to ride the passenger trains of the railroad. All members of the train and yard crews had to carry a card that the jeweler would sign and date indicating that your watch was inspected. Failure to do this resulted in a trip to the office of the trainmaster to explain yourself.

In addition, engineers and conductors, when reporting for duty at the terminal, there was a  train register which both had to sign indicating that they compared their watches with the standard clock at the terminal.  If the watch showed between zero and 30 seconds fast or slow it had to be so noted in the train register.  If over 30 seconds, fast or slow, the watch had to be set according to the standard clock.  These standard clocks at the terminal were checked everyday at 11:00 AM from a signal over Western Union, Chicago, Ill.


Lets go back a little over 100 years and look at Chelsea when it was a bustling railroad terminal, around the clock operations, 4 passenger trains a day with connection to Rib Lake on a passenger car on the rear end of a way freight train which made a couple of trips a day. Image piles of firewood cut by the settlers along the Ashland Line right-of-way, fuel for the steam engines, and seeing a steam locomotive standing along side a stream, river, pond, or lake taking on water for the water tank of the tender. This was done by using a siphon hose. The settlers were paid by the railroad to keep an ample supply of firewood, later on the locomotives would burn coal. Chelsea had a coaling dock and remember the wooden water tanks and the long steel spout the fireman would pull down when he was standing on the tender. He would position the spout over the opening in the engine tender, then pull the rope that opened the valve at the water tank. Many are the fireman who came down wet if he didn't position the spout correctly as this water gushed out at great pressure to quickly fill the tender.

Picture, if you will, a hotel with a restaurant at Chelsea. I know this as my grandmother, Mary Wudi, was a cook there. She came from Austria when 12 years old, settling in Greenwood. About 1890 she met my grandfather, Edward Pendergast, while he was working the Chelsea to Rib Lake run. This was his first run as an engineer.

Chelsea also had stock pens for loading cattle in the stock cars. Once a week the way freight would spot a car for loading and then it would be on its way to Chicago and the famous stock yards.

Anyone walking into a railroad depot was always confronted with the mysterious sound of the telegraph key. Everyone hearing this would wonder what this metal key was saying. Even when the operator was not sitting at his desk this telegraph key would emit its dots and dashes. Each station had its own call letters such as BN or PF and the trained operator's ear would recognize his call letters. He would then sit down and acknowledge the call with the telegraph key and his call letters.

I can recall to this day the smell of valve oil that was mixed with the steam that lubricated the cylinders and air pumps. The sharp cracking sound of the exhaust steam as it left the stack. How the Engineer would walk around his locomotive with his long spout oil can when he had the opportunity to do so, reaching into the hard places to get at, that were not automatic oiling. The Fireman would shake the grates and clean the fire, sometimes in 90 degree weather in July or 30 below zero in a snowstorm. You had to love your job!

Does anyone recall the twice a day mail delivery that the Postal Service provided? Trains #111 and #112, #117 and #118, Ashland to Chicago, and they provided sleeper car service? Yes, there are a lot of good memories on this Ashland Line. But there are several sad recollections that go with it. The train/auto collisions will always be with me. The same is true for all train crews nationwide. They were so unnecessary, inattentive driving was the primary cause. The crossings at most accidents were wide open, motorist could see the trains coming for over a quarter mile, with the headlights on bright, the whistle blowing and the crossing marked with signs to alert the motorist.

At one time I considered taking a different run due to the collisions I experienced on this Ashland run. Two collisions on County Hwy. O, south end of Medford and one at Potaczek's crossing (Allman St.). The Dentist who lived on the hill a quarter mile north of Potaczek's crossing decided to test his brand new 4 wheel drive on a field across the tracks from his home in heavy snow cover in February. He got hung up between the rails due to the snow. He could hear us coming but could not see us nor could we see his predicament because of track curvature. So he did the right thing by running toward the train to stop us but alas it was too late to stop. We struck the 4 wheel drive and it was a total loss. Damage to the engine, several scratches. These locomotives weigh around 150 tons compared to a one and a half ton auto.

Another at County Hwy. M just south of Whittlesey, a fatality. I was sad. Also a slow moving collision with an auto on County Hwy. D at Westboro while switching over the crossing. It spun the auto around and they ended up heading in the opposite direction. Two boys and two girls with a lot of beer cans strewn about inside the auto. No injuries. The girls walked home.

The feeling an Engineer has when there is a collision on a crossing can not be described here in this article especially when there are fatalities. There is a sense of hopelessness after doing everything possible to avoid the accident, blowing the whistle prior to the crossing, bright headlight, bell ringing, strobe light on, and the engine and train brakes applied in the emergency position. Then knowing it may take half a mile to a mile to stop the train. It is a feeling you can never forget. Twenty collisions in 35 years and I can remember every one of them. For some the coroner was called, the ambulance for others, and some walked away without a scratch.


I dreaded these machines. Not that I didn't enjoy them myself nor would I want to ban them, its just that some people selected the most dangerous place to ride them. I mean down the railroad tracks, in the middle, between the rails.

We all know the noise these machines emit. A snowmobile operator was never aware of a train coming up behind unless he turned around and looked. And they rarely did! They couldn't hear the diesel horn above the noise their snowmobiles made.

An example of this happened on Train #18 about 1 mile north of Abbotsford, it almost ended in tragedy, when our train was going around a curve approaching Abbotsford. We came up on two snowmobilers traveling in the same direction as we were. The husband on one machine and his wife on the other. What made this situation worse was the fact that each parent carried a child with them. They both were unaware of our train bearing down on them. I immediately put all brake valves into emergency application, diesel power off, and pulled on the whistle cord continuously to get their attention and warn them off the track. I could not get them to look back and all this time we were gaining on them and they still did not respond. Believe me, there was a high state of apprehension in the cab of our locomotive. Then the good man upstairs must have decided that it was just not their time to leave this world. The brakes started doing their job and a gap between us started to widen and later when we came to a complete stop, then and only then, did they turn around and notice the peril they had got themselves into. They departed the rails and kept on going south along the right of way fence and exited on the 1st crossing road in a hurry. To this day these people do not know how close they came to death along with their children.


Who among us have not been intrigued and fascinated when coming into possession, or watching, a toy electric train? Every man, women, and child has, there are no exceptions. Mine was when I was 5 or 6 years old, a Christmas morning. It was a wind up, not electric, but to a child there was no difference (its a train). Today this is a popular hobby, can be expensive, enjoyed not by children alone but by grown adults, including myself. My wife has a pot holder that says, "Pray for me, my husband collects trains".

Every subdivision had a family living along the tracks who would always come out of there homes and wave to the train crews as they went by. If it was dark, they would flick their yard lights a few times and the Engineer would answer with a highball (two short blasts of the whistle). Both parties felt good! Two of my most faithful highballers were Don Radtke (Don's Shurfine Store) and Charlies Little Bar, both of Westboro. They never missed a train. Also, Chuck Nelson of Chelsea was a reliable highballer. This went on for years, how I miss those small friendly events.

Another event I miss happened every spring for a few years. A group of pre-school or kindergarten pupils would be waiting for our train at the Prentice depot looking forward to riding our train. Bob Wicklander, the agent, would ask me if I would give the children a ride the evening before on our way north and the next morning they would be there waiting for #18 south bound along with their teachers. We had to put half of the children in the rear unit where my fireman looked after them for safety reasons. I will never forget the expressions these children had on their faces as they climbed up to the cab of these locomotives. They ranged in age from 4 to 5 years old. They will never forget this experience and neither will I. After a short ride they thanked me and I knew I would see another group the following year. Bob, the agent, and myself were braking a few railroad rules doing this, but what the heck. The joy and pleasure these children experienced from this ride made it worth the risk we took.


With this bit of history, I hope the people that will be enjoying this new trail, Medford to Prentice, and traveling it by whatever methods, will let their imaginations wonder a bit. How was it the day, June 2 1877, this line, Ashland to Milwaukee, was completed 113 years ago ?

Try to visualize the thousands of men and women that rode those passenger trains enroute to their induction centers during World Wars I and II. They came from every city, town, and village along this route, some never to return.

Try to remember the emigrants that came here in the late 1880's and early 1900's from foreign lands. Alone, without friends. They must have been lonesome, but with great hope in their hearts in this new world.

Try to imagine the hobo's that would ride these trains, either on the locomotive tender or in an empty box car or gondola. Thousand upon thousands must have rode these trains over the past 113 years. They will ride here no more.

Ray Pendergast Jr. 1990


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