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Dedication Chapter For John H. Thurston

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Chapter Eight
Trains
Chicago and North Western Railway’s Locomotive 1385.
C and NW’s Ten Wheeler (4-6-0), built in Schenectady,
New York in 1907 – shown in Altoona, WI on May 20, 1986.
This chapter is dedicated to my father,
John H. Thurston,
Railroad Brakeman
– John R. Thurston –
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John H. Thurston
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The “400”
By John R. Thurston
t is difficult, if not impossible, for people of the modern era to revert to the 1930's
when Altoona was a railroad town deeply mired in the Great Depression. But
something like this has to happen if they are to thoroughly appreciate "The 400" and
its impact upon Altoona residents.
At that time, virtually all of our fathers and other relatives were railroaders. They
talked endlessly about "deadheading," switching strategies, "doubling-up on Knapp
Hill," and other railroad topics. It was their life. It became ours. We breathed coal
smoke. There were always harsh, hissing, clanging sounds coming from the
switchyards or passing trains. We spent hours watching the switchmen make up new
freight trains. When Martin Radisewitz blew the roundhouse whistle for shift changes,
townsfolk would check and set their watches. Four long, ominous blasts on it signified
disaster in the form of a wreck. Train work was often unbearably hot or cold,
demanding, and inherently dangerous. Decrepit railroad boxcars were repaired on the
"rip track." The railroad's ice house provided saw-dusted chips to get us through the
endless hot days of summer. The bolts that fell off the railroad cars became the sinkers
for our fish lines. Altoona was railroad, railroad, railroad.
The worldwide Great Depression of the 1930's was devastating to Altoona. Proud
railroaders considered themselves lucky if they were able to work two or three days a
year! My brakeman father worked for the federal W.P.A. for twenty-five cents an
hour to put food on the table. This involved snow-shoveling, driving a horse-drawn
shale wagon to construct city roads, and performing other menial tasks. A single egg
or a bowl of soup often constituted an entire meal. While we children were generally
protected by our ignorance, this Great Depression exacted an incredible toll upon our
parents and relatives. Railroaders came to feel lost and worthless. Railroading had
been their life. No one ever talked about his personal situation, but feelings of
depression, anxiety, and fear were inevitable. Some never fully recovered even after
war preparations and FDR's policies kick-started the economy later on.
During those very "hard times," a favorite pastime of Bud Griese, Hank Harris, Joe
Wittren, and I took the form of watching passenger trains go high-balling through
Altoona. We had no TV, computer games, joy rides, or trips to Cancun. Putting pennies
on the rails to be flattened was as exciting as it got. As young adolescents, we would
gather together for hours near the depot to talk and enjoy our camaraderie as we
waited. Those were truly "Golden Times" for us although we did not realize it then.
Imagine the excitement we experienced when we heard about "The 400," a new
super-train reputed to be far better than the famous Burlington Zephyr. And, wonder of
wonders, this yellow and green world-class streamliner would be running through
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Altoona every single day. We talked about little else for months. In making its first run
in 1937, "The 400" far exceeded our high expectations. After standing around for
hours in anticipation, we finally heard its horn in the distance and then stood entranced
as it thundered by. All this took less than a minute. And this spectacle would be
repeated again and again! This was incredibly exciting for everyone.
It would have taken a rare emergency or mechanical difficulty to occasion a stop by
"The 400" in Altoona.. But, in the midst of our impoverishment, it came to be a source
of local pride. It was "railroad," and we were railroaders. We desperately needed a
morale booster in those days. Its daily appearance gave us something that we could
anticipate and enjoy. Its well-heeled, well-groomed passengers were going
somewhere. So why couldn't we? We came to believe that things would improve. And
they did.
After about two decades of wonderful performance, "The 400" began to go
downhill. Both the train and its service became increasingly shoddy and unreliable.
Local opinion held that this downgrading was deliberately orchestrated by a railroad
company hell-bent on discouraging passengers. Fewer and fewer riders would then
became part of the argument to discontinue a service that lost money. Cost-
effectiveness ruled. Little or no consideration was extended to the importance of
railroad passenger service or loyalty/obligation to lifelong railroaders.
With the final run of "The 400" in 1963, an important era came to an end. It saddens
me now to think that while people refer to Altoona as "Cinder City" to honor the past,
its identity as a bustling railroad town now exists only in the form of distant and
fading memories.
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Engines, Trains, and Rolling Stock
John R. Thurston
n light of the importance of railroading to Altoona, it was
surprising how difficult our search for local railroad pictures
became. The reasons for this are manifold. Perhaps, we just
weren't sufficiently diligent in our efforts; we just didn't look in
the right places. There was a tepid response to feelers that we
put out to various groups that remain very interested in railroads
and railroading. In the hey-day of Altoona railroading, up to the
late 1940's, there were very few cameras in use; early on we
couldn't afford them, in WWII film was virtually impossible to
come by. Maybe people assumed that trains, engines, rolling
stock, and cabooses were unremarkable, permanent fixtures in
our community – that they would always be there. If so, there
would have been no compelling need to take pictures of them.
We did manage to corral a few. The cover of this book shows
a working engine and its engineer, Lloyd Lenz. And it was not
our purpose to tell anything approaching a complete history of
the railroad's rolling stock or the several railroad companies that
operated in Altoona at different times. Books have been written
about these richly-deserving subjects; there remains much to be
said. Eau Claire's Chippewa Valley Museum contains a treasure
trove of such information.
Our efforts were concentrated on railroaders, their work,
their families, and their community. But it’s mandatory that
readers have at least some idea of what a railroad engine of that
early time period looked like. The story of one such engine, with
an important Altoona connection, is well worth telling.
For the purposes of this chapter, we have chosen to
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concentrate on the pictures we gleaned from the Internet. Soo
Line Engines 2719 and 1003 have received a full measure of
attention on the website entitled Soo Line #2719 Photo Gallery.
2719 and 1003 were representative of working engines of the
first half of the Twentieth Century. We are deeply indebted to
those who developed that website and wish to accord them a full
measure of recognition for their efforts. A. Robert Johnson and
David G. Peterson recorded several of the pictures that are to
follow.
Built in 1923 in Schenectady, New York, 2719, a 4-6-2
steam locomotive, was retired as working freight engine on June
21, 1959 after logging an estimated three million miles.
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It was moved the Eau Claire's Carson Park in the following
year. It remained in a protected enclosure in the vicinity of the
baseball park for many years.
In the 1990's, it was returned to the Altoona Roundhouse to
be restored and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers
belonging to the Locomotive and Tower Restoration Fund, Ltd.
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It began a series of excursions on different railroads in
Wisconsin's northlands on September 19, 1998.
It moved to the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in Spooner,
Wisconsin in June, 2000 where it provided excursions until
2003.
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SOO Line #2719 in 1998
Gary confidently handling the controls of #1003 – Photo by David G. Peterson
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2719 invariably returned to Altoona to spend every winter in the
Altoona Roundhouse. However, Altoona, without a whimper of
protest, allowed its shelter, the roundhouse, to be razed in June
2004. Deprived of protection, 2719's future was bleak. It was
forced to sit outside in the open, exposed to the elements, until
December, 2006. It was then moved to the Lake Superior Railroad
Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. After extensive repairs, it began a
series of summer excursions in 2007 that continue to this day.
2719 is still owned by the Locomotive and Tower Fund, Ltd.
The fate of 1003 is unknown to me.
PHOTOS FROM STAR-OBSERVER PHOTO ARCHIVE
THE 400 HIGHSPEED TRAIN
This postcard shows the "400" high-speed train that traveled through Hudson in the
1930s and 1940s. The train could make the trip to Chicago from St. Paul's Union
Depot in 400 minutes (about 6.5 hours), reaching speeds of over 100 mph. The train
traveled on C&NW train tracks. A ticket on the 400 was $15.10 for coach, $1785 for
first class. The lady waving in the foreground looks happy, but the two fellows
sitting on the track in front of the train look oddly out of place.
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The last eastbound 400 stopped in Eau Claire July 23, 1963. This
photo appeared in the next day's edition of the Eau Claire Leader.
File photo