By Mike Hobbs


Imagine the big family dog picking up your model train in its teeth, shaking it, and giving it a toss. That mess would resemble some of the photographs and slides that Paul L. Johnson has of train wrecks that the Galesburg Car Department’s 250-ton derrick, nicknamed the "Wrecker," cleaned up while he was the lead man of the wrecker crew from 1971 until he retired in 1982. Some of the train wrecks were horrible messes with track torn up, cars on their sides leaking contents like corn syrup, cars in ditches, in rivers, and the loss of human life.

After graduating from Galesburg High School in 1939, Paul got a job as an elevator operator at the Hill Arcade for $50 per month. He hired on at Gale Products in 1940 and made 47 cents an hour. He said that at that time air conditioners, Canteen soda machines, and Gale, Philco, and Mayflower refrigerators were manufactured at the plant. He was laid off from Gale in September, 1941, but was able to start as a carman helper in the CB&Q Galesburg Car Department that same day thanks to the encouragement of carman Harry Findahl, the father of a friend. Paul started out on the railroad at 58 cents an hour, which he called "big money" at that time. He was laid off on December 31, 1941. In March, 1942 he was recalled to the Car Department.

Paul volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps on July 7, 1942. In the service he overhauled engines on B-17 and B-24 bombers. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was stationed at an air base near Burtonwood in northwest England. He was discharged on December 31, 1945. In January, 1946 he returned to the railroad and worked as an oiler in the Repair (Rip) Yard. An oiler repacked and oiled the journal boxes of friction wheels. This job also took him to the depot where he oiled the journals of the many passenger trains that came through town at that time.

In 1947 he was set up as a carman. In 1948 he got the job as second shift lead man, making ten cents an hour more, on the "Hot Track," which was #10 in the Rip Yard just east of the Light Side. Two carmen and two helpers made light repairs, like changing out wheels, on bad order cars that had been switched out of "hot" trains, like LC (Lincoln to Chicago) and CD (Chicago to Denver). He was bumped off this job in mid-1949 and went to a carman job on the Heavy Side of the Rip Yard where he worked on bunk cars and flat cars. Part of his job involved riveting on draft sills. Rivets were heated in a portable furnace fired by fuel oil that was delivered to the riveter by a Storehouse clerk. "Hot" riveting was done at the Galesburg Rip Yard until the 1960’s. In 1950 and 1951 Paul worked on Storage Tracks 1 and 2 which ran the entire length of the Rip Yard just east of the "Hot Track." Four carmen and a lead man patched floors and replaced truck (wheel assembly) springs on tie cars which had been converted from coal racks. There was a wooden plank between the Storage tracks that carmen used for the wheelbarrow that they transported their tools in.

In 1951 Paul got on the call list for rerailing cars in the Galesburg yard and within a fifty-mile radius. Other carmen on the list were George Nicholas, George McCall, and Gene Pearson. Carman Roy Cruys was the regular man on the crew when the rerailers were called out of town. Three carmen would go out to derailments in a Storehouse truck driven by Luther Ellickson. The truck had no boom to handle wheels and no air compressor for air jacks. At the site of the derailment the crew would have to roll good wheels down planks from the truck bed. Bad order wheels weighing over a ton were pushed up the planks to the bed. It was hard work pushing the wheels up. They could be blocked part of the way up the planks, so that the men could catch their breath. The Storehouse truck also carried wooden blocks, two frogs, and Duff screw jacks which Paul called "man-killers." On the truck bed was an enclosure called the "Dog House" heated by a kerosene lantern that the carmen could get into in inclement weather while in transit to and from a job.

Paul said the derailed end of the car would be jacked up utilizing sill hooks and the Duff screw jacks. The coupler on the derailed end would be lifted at an angle using a ratchet jack. As the screw jacks and ratchet jacks were lowered, the wheels would hopefully come down onto the rail. This was difficult work having to be done any time of the day, any day of the week, in any weather conditions. In 1969 the Car Department acquired the Cline Truck that was equipped with a light boom to handle wheels, an air compressor for air jacks, and winches on each end of the truck. Carman L.E. Duden held the bid-in job on the Cline Truck.

The Galesburg Post ran a story on June 25, 1998 about the three derricks that have been headquartered in the Galesburg railroad yard. They operated on rail. The first derrick was a steam-powered outfit with a sixty-ton lifting capacity acquired in the early 1900’s. It was called the "Little Hook" and was manufactured by Industrial Iron Works. It was scrapped in 1978 and was replaced by the 100-ton Pettibone, a mobile crane that could operate on rail and road. Carman Louie Connour was the lead man and operator of the Pettibone. Bob Connour and J.W. Inglebright were also on the crew. The "Big Hook" was a 150-ton steam-powered derrick acquired during World War I. It was sent to Aurora in 1942. In 1942 the CB&Q purchased two 250-ton "sister" derricks manufactured by Bucyrus-Erie. They were steam-powered. One was delivered to Galesburg, the other to Lincoln, Nebraska. The Galesburg derrick, the "Wrecker", was converted to diesel in the 1960’s.

In 1952 Paul got on the call list for the 60-ton "Little Hook." In 1955 he got on the regular crew which consisted of a lead man, engineer (crane operator), and four ground men. A road foreman accompanied the crew to train wrecks. The "Little Hook" covered an area west to middle Iowa, north to Savanna, northeast to Aurora, east to Peoria, and south to Beardstown. In 1969 Paul got a job in the Rip Yard Mill that he held until he retired. On this job he made file cabinets, desks, hall trees, and pigeon-hole racks that were used in offices in the yard. He made the large safety sign that hung above the subway to the old Roundhouse. I recall walking into the Mill in the early 1980’s and seeing a pigeon-hole desk that Paul had just completed. It was a beautiful piece of work.

In 1971 Paul became the lead man for the Wrecker which was on call 24/7. He continued to work his regular job in the Mill. The Wrecker outfit consisted of the derrick itself, an idler car, a tool car, a dining car, another tool car, a flat car, four gondolas, and a waycar or caboose. The idler car carried wedges, blocks, chains, two wooden pads 7’ X 7’ X 8" thick for the Wrecker’s outriggers, and four trucks. The tool car, which was an old converted coach car, carried cables, oxygen, acetylene, blocks, and a power plant that provided lights, heat, and air-conditioning for the dining car which was next in line. The dining car had three sections. In the middle section was a long dinner table with a formica top and twelve chairs, linen closet, lead man’s desk, two passenger car seats, and a fold-down table. On one end of the car was the kitchen section with a six-foot long stove with two large ovens below and a griddle and six burners on top, a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer, and cabinets with dishes, silverware, and canned goods. At the other end of the car were the sleeping quarters with four bunk beds, four wash basins, and a shower. Under the bunk beds were drawers for clothes and blankets. Behind the dining car was another tool car with more blocks and cables, followed by a flat car with rail, ties, angle bars, tie plates, and spikes, a gondola with fifteen trucks, three gondolas of panel rails, which are 40’ sections of pre-assembled track, and finally the waycar for the train crew.

The derrick operators, or engineers, while Paul was lead man were Joe Flynn, R.J. Gustafson, and Red Appleby. Cooks were George Nicholas and Gene Pearson. Regular ground crew members were Bill Upson, Spud Asher, Axle Rosine, Stanley Gustafson, and Stanley Gross. As lead man Paul would give signals to the engineer on how to move the derrick’s crane. The ground men placed the pads under the outriggers, handled blocks, and hooked cables to cars.

When the Wrecker was needed, Paul would be notified by a crew-caller at the yard office as to the location of the train wreck, the number of cars on the ground, and when the train crew had been ordered to take the Wrecker outfit to the scene. He would have about an hour to get everything ready. He would call his regular crew, engineer, ground men, and cook to report for duty. If any of the regulars couldn’t make the trip, he would call from the extra list until he got a full complement. He would call Hi-Lo Grocery to order groceries for the dining car. When the carmen arrived, they would oil the journal boxes of all the outfit cars. Paul would start up the power plant on the tool car. The groceries from Hi-Lo would be loaded onto the dining car. When the locomotive tied on to the outfit, the air brakes were tested. The locomotive would initially pull the outfit slowly for a few miles. Then a stop would be made at a place like Cameron or Wataga where the journals of the Wrecker’s wheels would be checked to make sure they were not overheating. The outfit was then restricted to 35 MPH as it continued to its destination.

At the scene of the train wreck the crew would work to clear the track of derailed cars, which sometimes were on their sides, so that the section men could begin repairing the track for traffic. At a big wreck there could be twenty section men, and the wrecker crew would normally work twelve hours per day starting at 7am taking their meals when they could. The Wrecker crew, section men, train crew, and officials ate well on the dining car on T-bones, ribeyes, pork chops, bread, rolls, canned vegetables and fruit, and coffee. Paul recalled the crew working three days without sleep one time when a coal train derailed near a depot and tied up the main line. When the track was rebuilt, derailed cars would be set back on the track one at a time and set to a nearby siding, all the time working around train traffic that had resumed. The wrecked cars made up a "funeral train" which was generally taken to Galesburg where the cars would be repaired or scrapped, and the loads would be transloaded.

Paul said the longest wrecker job during his tenure as lead man was a one-week cleanup in Ferryville, Wisconsin involving two trains with locomotives and forty cars on the ground. The Wrecker would pick up one end of a locomotive or loaded car at a time to handle them. Paul remembered one particularly difficult job pulling an overloaded tank car out of a creek, and another when the Wrecker pulled a 100-ton generator out of the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. The work was often hard and difficult for the carmen and section men involved in the cleanup. The weather could be brutal. The Wrecker was once involved in a cleanup near Aurora when it was 20 degrees below zero with a hard wind. There were lighter moments. Paul remembered the time in Iowa when the crew accused the cook of making meatloaf out of dog food. Another time Paul started to brush his teeth in the dark of the bunk section of the dining car when he realized he had put somebody’s Brylcreme on his toothbrush.

Paul Johnson retired from the railroad in 1982. Later that year the Wrecker was shipped to Seattle. A Car Department official in Seattle reported that the Wrecker hasn’t been used in the past six years but is kept on standby with its idler car for train wrecks in the Cascade Mountains that other equipment is unable to get to. A 125-ton mobile crane is currently used in the Galesburg yard for derailments. Hulcher, a private firm, now does most of the train wreck cleanup on the BNSF system.