Lake effects and legends, February 13, 1995
It was, as Sergeant Pepper might say, 19 years ago today. On February 13, 1995 to be precise, I made an unforgettable, hair-raising trip aboard an eastbound Goderich-Exeter plow working from Goderich, Ontario, to Stratford and return. I photographed part of the train’s journey, and then rode shotgun aboard GEXR 55437 (a 1950-vintage Russell plow of CN pedigree) with Brad Jolliffe as far as mileage 9.5, where I traded off with Bill Miller. The fare for passage was working the helper position in the plow, which involved operating the left-side wing as well as the flanger blade. We battled every inch of the way, stalling in heavy drifts, and backing out for a second, and often third attempt to ram through; stopping to thaw frozen train lines, and hanging on for dear life the rest of the time, squinting to find snowplow signs in a blinding blizzard and often yanking in wings and pulling up the flanger blade in the nick of time.
The trip inspired an essay in Passing Trains, published the following year. When the book was released in the fall of 1996, we held the traditional launch party at Jim Brown’s Alliston station. In the course of the evening, I had Brad sign the page with the essay documenting the experience. Nineteen years later, memories of that wild ride still quicken my pulse, and the autograph on page 74 of Passing Trains is a treasure.
The content of that essay, enhanced with additional illustration, is included below.
Lake-Effects and Legends
“Hang on!” Brad Jolliffe shouts across the cupola. “This is going to be rough.” Before the words are out, the battered Russell-built wedge plow slices into a heavy drift and begins to rock, shake, and bounce violently. An explosion of snow swallows the plow and a barrage of frozen chunks pound against the cupola windows. Visibility is nil and speed is dropping rapidly as Jolliffe squeezes the transmit key on the radio mike and tells the hogger to give it all he’s got. Back in the cab of Goderich-Exeter GP9 No. 180, Tom Jackson widens the throttle to Run 8, but the aged Geep’s 1,750 horsepower is no match for the heavy drifts. Within a train length, Goderich-Exeter "Work Extra 180 Snowplow" is stalled in the frame-deep snow east of Mitchell, Ontario.
With a loud rush of air, the plow’s wings retract and bang tightly against the carbody to allow the train to back clear of the drift. However, No. 180 will not make the transition to reverse until Jackson, with water from melting snow dripping off the cab ceiling and running down the electrical cabinet walls, manipulates the relays by hand. Had the risky procedure failed, the Plow Extra would have been stranded as drifting snow quickly filled in the cut behind the train — a situation with which Jolliffe and Jackson are all too familiar.
Nervously eyeing the air gauges — and watching the pressure slowly drop as the train line freezes — Jolliffe gives the highball to attack the drift a second time. With a half-mile run, Work Extra 180 Snowplow charges forward, and like a rough-riding rodeo bronc, the old Russell bucks and heaves, bounces and bumps and breaks its way through. Victory comes at a price though, for the plow’s air-reservoir pressure has dropped to 35 pounds and alarm bells are ringing aboard the 180 as the Extra grinds to a halt just clear of the drift. While Jackson cuts out a troublesome traction motor, Jolliffe drops to the ground, parts the air hoses between the engine and plow, and adds a measure of alcohol in an effort to thaw the frozen train line. Nearly a half hour will pass before the plow is able to resume the battle to reach Stratford.
Since coming on duty at Goderich at dawn, the crew have struggled to make 35 miles in 8 hours; the sun will have set by the time they make Stratford, just 46 miles from their starting point on the shore of Lake Huron. It will be near midnight when the train limps back in to Goderich with its weary crew, half-frozen plow and crippled GP9. By snowbelt standards, that’s a good day.
Winter railroading in the southern Ontario snowbelt, where lake-effect snows bring annual accumulations of over 100 inches and high winds pile hard-packed drifts 10 to 12 feet deep, is the stuff of legends. Seasoned veterans tell of plows flipping end over end; of snow smashing cab and cupola windows and burying crews inside; of trains stranded for days and even weeks; and of harrying trips and wild rides that could fill a book on their own.
With the abandonment of hundreds of miles of trackage in the lee of Lake Huron, snowbelt railroaders have become a vanishing breed. Indeed, the Goderich-Exeter crews working GEXR’s former CN Stratford-Goderich and Clinton Jct.-Centralia lines are among the last. However, as long as steel rails cross the squall lines and streamers that blow inland from Lake Huron each winter; as long as railroaders are up to the challenge of battling blinding snowstorms and headlight-high drifts — and brave enough to climb aboard ancient wedge plows for nerve-wracking, adrenalin-pumping, bone-rattling rides — the legend will remain alive.