One last winter blast (Part I)
All I really wanted was an Alco fix, something to keep the 251 blues at bay during our upcoming winter migration to southern California. Ontario Southland’s plan to dispatch S6 No. 500 and S13 No. 502 on the Tuesday train to Tillsonburg was just what the doctor ordered. I set out early, anticipating an easy-going outing with a pair of Alco pups. In the midst of one of the meanest winters in decades, Mother Nature had something more in mind.
I should have taken a clue from the icy, white-knuckle drive west on the 401, or from the bumper-high-and-deeper drifts the CR-V plowed through on the back roads near Salford. But I carried on in Alco-fueled bliss, paying little heed to the wind, blowing snow, and generally deteriorating conditions.
I caught up with the Tillsonburg crew as they assembled their train of salt loads and tanks in the small yard at the junction of the St. Thomas and Port Burwell Subdivisions in Ingersoll. OSR 500, a Schenectady graduate with Southern Pacific pedigree, was in the lead for the trip south on the Port Burwell Sub. From her plain-bearing trucks on up, No. 500 is a treasure, an out-of the-box delight little-changed since the November 1956 day she rolled out of the Alco plant as SP 1073. Sister 502 was completed by Montreal Locomotive Works in January 1959 as Pacific Great Eastern 1002. Both locomotives worked for Vancouver Wharves before coming to OSR in 1997.
The distinctive chug of inline, 6-cylinder Alco 251s filled the air as the veteran switchers lifted out of town, digging in on the grade leading away from the junction and marching sure-footedly past with a heavy train. The performance was worth every white-knuckle mile on the 401 and enough to sustain my Alcophile sensibilities until spring. But the best — or worst, depending upon your perspective — was yet to come.
Battling through ever-deeper drifts, the little switchers slogged southward, kicking up a blizzard of powdery snow, smacking drift after drift. At McBeth Road, the first crossing south of Salford, they came churning through a quarter-mile-long drift deep enough to create a bow wave that broke over the gangways. South of Mount Elgin, they motored unfalteringly through snow halfway up the cab. The performance became more spectacular by the mile.
On the long, heavily drifted approach to Ostrander, progress slowed to a painful crawl. The Alcos inched along, pushing a mound of heavy snow ahead of the 500, and struggling to drag 13 cars mired frame-deep in snow that tumbled between the cars and ahead of the wheels. After an agonizing few hundred feet, the train stalled.
An attempt to punch through with just the locomotives ended abruptly when the heavy snow threatened to derail the light engines. Defeated, the Tillsonburg called for help.