One thing about Americans is their fetish with racing. They race just about anything; from cars, boats, horses, pigs, frogs, people, baseball and football teams, dogs, even a railroad train. Racing a railroad train is a difficult situation. You don't steer them. They go where the track takes them. To race two trains means two tracks close enough to each other that the competitors can watch each other. Such an area exists between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Soo Line and the Chicago & Northwestern railroads run side by side for 15 miles.
It was against the rules. The railroads put out a special directive. There was to be no racing. Rumor was that two engineers had been caught racing freight trains at 70 miles per hour. What engineer, though, could pass up the opportunity to beat that guy on the other track when the situation made a race possible? Engineers were proud and dedicated. They loved their engines and were not about to let anyone pass them.
We were a group of ... kids whose parents worked for the railroad. Each of us had a pass allowing us to travel free [on passenger trains] and were commuting each day from Fond du Lac to Oshkosh to attend the Wisconsin State Teachers' College. If memory serves, it was sometime in 1936 or thereabouts.
There were rumors that several times Engineers had ran a race between the passenger trains of the Soo Line and the Northwestern. It was the topic that we all speculated about because there was great rivalry between the guys who rode the Northwestern and those of us who rode the Soo Line. Of course we all agreed the Soo Line would win such a race.
The Soo Line group came from a cross section of the Fond du Lac community. My father was a station agent in Byron, Wisconsin, 10 miles south of Fond du Lac. Jerry Gutman's father was the second track agent for Fond du Lac. Our families were friends. Raymond Berger's dad was the train dispatcher for the section of railroad from Chicago to Steven's Point. His father and mine did a lot of experimenting on ideas each had. My dad built radios. You could not buy them because no company was making them. Ray's dad had an idea to make concrete burial vaults and with my father they made a number of small ones located in our basement to my mother's ire.
Fahey Flynn was oldest of our
group. I can't remember what his father did. Fahey was a part-time announcer
KFIZ radio station. His
younger brother was my age and wanted to be
an announcer, too. Then there was Ray Tenpenny; we called him
Dime. His father had a job at the North Fond du Lac Railroad Yards.
And we had the McCullough boys, Jack and Jim. Their
father was the trainmaster. Brownell Dana was our brain. He always had
his face in a book.
How could you race two trains with steam engines for power? Between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh both the Soo Line and the Northwestern rail lines are side by side separated about as far apart as a 4-lane highway. Even though these rail lines both serve the same area, this is the only place where the lines parallel each other this close. The Soo Line had a passenger train that left the Fond du Lac Station at 7:00 AM, and a Northwestern train left their station about 10 minutes later. It was necessary for the Soo Line train to change engines at the rail yards in North Fond du Lac. The Northwestern train usually went puffing by since they did not make an engine change.
It is 20 miles between Oshkosh and Fond du Lac but there is a small town about 4 miles north of Fond du Lac called Van Dyne. It is a stop for both railroads if necessary to leave off or take on passengers or deliver freight. Quite often the trains would pass with one of them stopped at the Van Dyne station.
On this eventful day the Soo Line pulled up to a stop at Van Dyne. The Northwestern train was already stopped. Wow, was this an opportunity an engineer could not resist. We all sensed that a race was inevitable. So did the train crews. The firemen started furiously shoveling coal into the firebox. Dense black smoke began pouring from the engine smokestack. We opened the windows on our car and saw the guys on the Northwestern doing the same. The excitement was catching. Other passengers wondered what was happening and they opened their windows also. We were yelling nasty expletives at each other.
Then it happened! It was as if someone shot off a pistol to start the race. Each engine was given full power. They belched smoke and noise like only a steam engine could. There were buildings on each side of the tracks which echoed the noise back and forth with such intensity I'm sure the residents of the small town thought the end had come. We were waving and yelling back and forth. Once in a while the wheels on the engine would slip giving additional racket until the engineers put some sand on the rails. The sand was carried in that round hump on the top of the engine firebox and was for snow and ice on the tracks during the winter. At first the Northwestern train started to pull ahead of us ever so slowly. Everyone on that train was hysterical with joy. We were losing! The Soo Line was really getting beat! The conductor on our train said that it was going to change. They would not be able to keep up with that acceleration. They were about one-half train length ahead when they matched our speed or they matched ours. Then it happened. We started to go faster than them. Gradually, we came up even. The passengers were screaming and waving with us as we began to pass them. As our car came even with their engine, we saw the fireman shoveling in the coal trying to build a bigger fire to get more steam. You could see the sad faces of the engine crew as we rapidly left the Northwestern behind.
So we won the race, unplanned that it was. There was a lot of ribbing of the guys who rode that train at school for a long time. Even today some 55 years later it's recalled when we chance to meet.
The fellows who went to school by train had great achievements. Fahey Flynn
became an announcer for the first FM station in the State of Wisconsin
and went on to be the head of the news department of
WGN T.V. in Chicago.
Ray Tenpenny was the top announcer for
The McCullough twins both became doctors and
practiced in Fond du Lac. Jerry
Gutman went into the Army during World War II, and after the war he was
with the Red Cross and finally a parole officer for the State of
Ray Berger taught school a few years but he got some illness and died. I forgot to mention the Madden brothers. They graduated with B.S. degrees and went to work as chemists for Bethlehem Steel. Carl Guell, one of the Northwestern school commuters became a Commander of an SAE squadron during the war. After the war Carl became the pilot of the State of Wisconsin governor's plane. Brownell Dana was with the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
As for me, I spent 18 years with a machine tool company and did some design work for the world's first computer-controlled machine and a classifed machine used to make [part of] the first atomic bomb.
With the war over, the machine tool business was virtually non-existent. I found a new job with Mercury Marine as the project and design engineer for the first MerCruiser stern drive which became a new product line. Success of the stern drive made it necessary to find a new location for its manufacture. Stillwater, Oklahoma, was the lucky city to receive the new plant. I, too, had to relocate to Stillwater and retired in 1982 after 23 years as chief engineer.
Now, whenever I am asked where I am from, I reply, "Wiscahoma," with one-half of my life in Wisconsin and the other half in Oklahoma.
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