The L&N Railway: The Laona and Northern Railway was owned and operated by the Connor Lumber and Land Company. Primarily it was a logging road, but was also used to haul provisions and passengers. The main line operated from Laona, which was located on the Chicago and Northwestern Railway to Laona Junction, which was located on the Soo Line. Then there was a branch line that went to several logging camps southwest of Laona.
The main line had a well-built standard road bed, but the branch was mostly a rough typical logging railroad. The two locomotives consisted of a standard and a Shay gear. The standard was over fifty years old when Connor bought it. It was exactly the size and appearance of the old locomotives shown in western television plays today, except that it had been converted to a coal burner. As fireman on this locomotive it was one of my jobs to keep the brass on it shined up and there was plenty of brass. Another task was to keep the reflector on the kerosene head light polished. There were three of us to a train crew, the conductor, engineer, and fireman. When necessary the fireman helped out as brakeman. The cow catcher (pilot) was about six feet long and carried a rooster (coupling bar). When we connected the front end of the engine to a car, the brakeman stood on the edge of the cow catcher and held this heavy rooster up to fit into the car coupling and drop a coupling pin through the eye of the rooster. This was a dangerous task and the engineer had to be careful.
The other engine was a gear driven locomotive with three vertical engines attached to one side of the boiler. It was known as a Shay Gear. The entire weight of the boiler an engine rested on two trucks. Gears were attached to the truck wheels. The crank shaft transmitted power to the wheels with tumbling rods and pinions. These pinions and gears were dabbed with tar every day to keep them from cutting and consequently the railroad track had a trail of tar from one end of it to another. The three vertical engines ran very fast and when the throttle was wide open. You could hear the exhaust from these engines for miles, sounding as though it was traveling one hundred miles an hour. However, due to its reduced gears, it could not travel over twenty miles at its best. If you ran it too fast, the keys holding the brass boxes in place, would come loose and cause the bearings to pound. We called this engine the “Dinkey”; however, it was one of the most powerful locomotives ever built for its size.
One morning while I was the engineer on No. 1 (the standard) and walking to work, I noticed men running all excited. The round house (square) was on fire. The hose was run out from the sawmill boiler room, the water turned on and the fire extinguished, but not until the roof and the front half of the building was destroyed. As soon as we could, we got to the locomotive, and found the cab burned off. Laying in the gang way, between cab and tender, was the body of the night watchman. His greasy overalls had caught fire and he had burned to death.
Steam was up in the boiler. I put the Johnson bar (reverse lever) in reverse and backed the engine out into the open. When I went to stop it, I found that the air breaks were out of commission. I stopped it by throwing the reverse lever ahead. The water glass was out, but the water column gauges showed the height of the water in the boiler to be O.K.
I was sure that we would have a vacation for a while, in order to repair the locomotive, but no such luck. We were ordered to start switching. That was some job. I would put the Johnson bar in the direction that we wanted to go, and then open the throttle value just as wide as necessary to ease along with the load, then when we wanted to stop, throw the lever in the other direction. The throwing of this big heavy lever back and forth all day long was mighty hard work. Finally one of the cylinder heads blew off, breaking out a small part of the cylinder. This was because of the engine running in one direction, while the engine was in reverse and sucking soot and cinders from the smoke box into the cylinder.
I was sure that we would be tied up then, but no Sir, I was ordered to operate the engine with one cylinder, and that was some trick because every little while the good side would stop on dead center and the engine would have to be pried off the dead center, so it would move again. Fortunately this was too slow, so we tied it up for repairs.
Billy Harkens, the mill superintendent, fitted the cylinder back on and filled the cracked part of the cylinder with babbit, the cab was rebuilt, the air brake system repaired and in a few days old No. 1 was as good as new, and may be going yet, as far as I know.
Hicky Men: A hicky is sort of a wrench made of about 1” round iron, bent to an angle. The short part was about 4” long and square on the end. The other end was about 16” long. The square end of the Hicky would fit into the gear of a hand brake on a logging car. The conventional hand brake as seen on box cars can not be used on logging cars. A logging road brakeman was supposed to keep his hicky handy all of the time when he was on the job.
If we had a string of cars loaded with logs and was about to descend a long hill, he was supposed to set the breaks on each car and the locomotive was supposed to drag the train down to the foot of the hill. If this was not done, the engine could not hold the train back; due to the rough track, the cars would sway and logs could fly off the cars in all directions and the engine might jump the track also. It was a dangerous business, so a good brakeman should be a reliable hickyman.
The Laona & Northern at that time, had no side tracks with switches at both ends. All were stub switches, consequently, in order to side track cars we very often had to make flying switches. The safe way to do this, was for a man, (in our case the fireman) to stand at the switch. A brakeman would stand on the rear platform of the locomotive. The engineer would start the cars rolling towards the switch, when he neared it, he would slack up, the brakeman would lift a lever, releasing the coupling pin and the engineer would speed away from the train and as the engine passed the switch, the switchman would throe the switch thus shunting the cars into the siding.
A more dangerous way, (and we did it that way most of the time) was for the brakeman, to pull the pin and then jump off at the switches and throw it, all in one operation. A brakeman, in order to do this trick should be sober, alert and agile.
Laona Junction: When the Laona and Northern Railroad connected up to the Soo Line in about 1902, the Soo Line built a depot, and it was the only building for some miles around and outside of the siding, was smack in the woods. In order to keep an agent there, the depot had living quarters built in one end. It was a lonesome place for a year or two. The first agent had a pede and pumped either to Cavour, four miles away or to Laona, eight miles in order to break the monotony. He stayed about a year.
The depot agent had to be a telegraph operator in those days, operators were in big demand. Consequently, it was hard to keep an agent at the junction, due to its loneliness. However, there were telegraph operators known as boomers, they came and went. The main line (The Soo Line Railroad) would not pick up our car loads or way freight, without proper billings made out by an authorized agent and consequently, our side track would be filled to capacity for weeks at a time, while we were without an agent.
Once, when we were without an agent for some time and the siding was loaded with cars we (The Laona & Northern Crew) got word that a new agent would arrive at the Junction on the morning local passenger Soo Line train. We were all standing on the depot platform when the train pulled in. Sure enough a rather tall stranger stepped off the train. He looked first one way and then another and told the conductor that he wanted him to go into the depot with him to make sure everything was O.K. He produced a bunch of keys, inserted one in the depot door and went in, and all of us followed him. He looked the depot over carefully and found everything satisfactory. He then went to the telegraph instrument and began ticking away, then he listened to an answer. Then he closed the instrument and said to the conductor, “you can pull out now, I am going with you, I just wired in my resignation”.
When Laona Junction was about two years old a nice little hotel and saloon was built there by a Mr. Dagle, and as long as I lived in Laona, the Junction never got any bigger.
The hotel was named the “Meteorite Inn”, due to a rare discovery. One spring morning our train was flagged down by a lumberjack about a mile from the Junction. He told us that smack in the middle of a logging road was a large rock that looked like it fell out of the sky. All of our train crew walked up the road for about half a mile and there was a rock that surely was a meteorite. It was yellowish-white, about three feet square and full of holes of all sizes. It looked something like a giant coal clinker. There were several small pieces of it on the ground. I picked up some of these pieces and presented them to my wife and she has them today.
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