by Eric Reinert
Here are my recollections of the Penn Central operations I have from the brief period that I lived in Clinton, Michigan.
We moved to Clinton from Milan, Mich. in October 1974, 6-7 weeks after school had started, so I got to be the “new kid” again, this time in Mr. Karbon’s 6th grade class at Clinton Middle School. Oh joy! This, after having been uprooted in January 1971 from Hammond, Indiana to Milan, I would only spend about 7 months in Clinton before we relocated again to suburban Minneapolis, where disco fashion (ack!) had become vogue. But that’s a different story…
It was a beautiful Fall day when we moved into the house at 112 Locust St. in Clinton. Clinton was, and still is, a quaint little town, laid out during the Civil War era, and it still had that same feel around that neighborhood the last time I visited back in 2014 or so. The red barn on the rear of our property that backed up to Clark St. wasn’t part of the sale, but we still got to explore inside it. It was full of Clinton Engine Company hand tools—tooling, fixtures, gauges, measuring tools, etc. Either the building had been part of the company or the owner was a big wheel there perhaps? In hindsight, it looked to me like it may have been property of the guy who started the company, or a prototype shop? I don’t know…cool stuff though. Like a time capsule frozen in time. That stuff may still be in there for all I know.
Anyway, it didn’t take long that fall to explore the area down by the tracks. I was intrigued by the two curved crossings in the weeds rusting away near where the tracks crossed Clark Street. One track went down to an old elevator where there were a million corn cobs laying about. The other went to what I remember as like a mill with a large logo on the side. Both sets of rails were intact for their entire length, but rusty and had long grass growing over every inch, obscuring their existence unless you walked on top of them. I’m not sure when the last deliveries of cars went to either of these businesses. Supposedly they had rail service until fairly recently, but based on the rust on the rails, you wouldn’t know it. All that seemed active in town was a plant south of town (Budd Co.), a hardwood company, and what looked to be like maybe a pallet factory.
Along the siding there was a string of Pennsylvania, New York Central, PC and Railbox boxcars, among others spotted along almost the entire length of the siding. These included a couple of NYC “fast freight” boxcars with the bird wearing an engineer’s cap, and even a “Pacemaker” boxcar one time. This was the only time I would ever see such cars in person. It looked like many had been spotted there for quite some time, and I wondered if there were just stored at this out of the way location.
While riding my bike, heading over to explore the area down by the river, I saw a switch engine idling near the end of track along Division Street. There was no one on board, so I surmised they must have gone to eat lunch. I went home to ask to use my Dad’s Polaroid Land camera. I grabbed it and found it had a couple photos left in it. So I took one of PC 8800 burbling away.
This was small time railroading for sure, unlike the former Wabash main line I lived near in Milan. I would see and hear 150 car freights full of auto-part hi-cube boxcars and auto racks full of brand new automobiles coming out of Detroit two dozen times a day or more. And on the other side of town was the cute little Ann Arbor Railroad. I only ever saw trains on it when we were working our rented plot of farm land that we gardened, catty-corner from down where the Ann Arbor RR crossed the former Wabash at Milan Tower. And I more commonly saw DT&I engines on trains than Ann Arbor units.
Later that fall, I had finally talked my dad into buying some more film and gave me use of the Polaroid. He taught me the tricks on how to use it on cold days to keep the photo near my body to keep it warm, and waited to again hear that distinctive EMD locomotive sound from down at the end of Locust Street.
One of the first times I captured any action at Clinton was when their engine quit on them and they had to be rescued by another crew from Toledo. Having two locomotives in Clinton surely was a rarity at any time in history, but certainly had to be at this period in the history of the line. I donated many of the photos to the Southern Michigan Railroad Society. Oddly, years later I would find that several engines used on the branch were of Indiana Harbor Belt heritage. A railroad based in my old Hometown of Hammond, Indiana. I have shots of both Number 8800 and 8803, NW-2’s of IHB Heritage. They were already 25 years old back then!
I soon started showing up to take photos when I could, and got to know the engineer some. His name was Charlie, and he had hired on the New York Central in 1945, if I remember correctly. He had fired steam locomotives for the Central before his promotion to running, after steam was gone. I learned they operated out of Stanley Yard in Toledo, Ohio, and that he felt it wouldn’t be long before the Penn Central gave up on this little branch line.
Charlie invited me into the cab on several occasions and these, of course, are the most memorable occasions for me. The first time was in mid-December 1974. We had a huge snowstorm early in the month and now the temperature had also dropped to single digits. Charlie felt sorry for me I suppose, and invited me up into the cab of the SW-9 they had that day. I had a seat on the left side, and finished letting the film develop in the relatively warm cab and took a couple photos of Charlie at work on the right side. They finished their work and dropped me off.
Later in the Spring of 1975, I got another cab ride while the crew switched around the South end of town, and was asked if I’d like to ride along back to Tecumseh, as they had to go pick up a car they had left behind. I don’t know the circumstances of “why” we had to go back, but I will never forget going over the river on the bridge, and having to obey the traffic signals in downtown Tecumseh during the street running there. Sorry to say, I didn’t have the camera along that day. Of course! Even a diminutive switch engine is SO much bigger than the auto traffic! Hard to believe this was all 46-47 years ago. I got to witness the end of “small town railroading”, and I was fortunate to have experienced it. If only for a couple of seasons during arguably railroading’s toughest period of financial survival. Today the railroads want to move freight across the country. They have little interest in on-line freight generation like they did long ago.
If we had stayed in the area, I have no doubt I would have been involved with the group of guys whose efforts saved this piece of history. I was so happy to find that things almost hadn’t changed one bit in Clinton, down by the tracks, from the time I left.
I will look for more photos that haven’t been scanned before and send them along when I can. I wish I had more for you, but being 11 years old at the time, I guess I’m lucky my parents let me spend time down by the tracks at all. I really enjoy your blog and it’s great the work you are doing to preserve what once was.
22 July 2021
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