Thursday, 9 April 2015

Throwback Thursday #11 - CNW RS-32 #4241 on the Alco Line in July 1980

CNW 4241 eastbound on the CNW Alco Line at Balaton, MN on July 12, 1980. Michael P. Guss photo, author's collection.

Today’s Throwback Thursday takes us back 35 years to the American upper Midwest, to the small town of Balaton, MN, some 95 miles west of Mankato, MN, in the southwest part of the state. An eastbound freight powered by Alco RS-32 #4241, RSD-5 #1690, and EMD GP9 #4508 is crossing the north-south highway that runs through town. What seems to be an unimportant branchline, is in fact quite significant from railfan perspective. We are in Alco country – trackside on the famous CNW Alco line, running east-west from Mankato, MN and Rapid City, SD. This secondary mainline, completed westward to Pierre, SD in 1880 (and to Rapid City by 1907), was home to many Alco products, based out of the shops at Huron, SD, throughout the mid-part of the 20th. Up until the early 1980’s it was common to find locomotive models such as: RS-3’s, RS-32’s, RSD4/5’s, and C425’s (often paired with slugs converted from retired RS-3’s) slowly pulling trains over the hill-and-dale countryside. Rural railroading at its’ best, the line passed through many miles of desolate countryside and provided service to many small communities along the way. Light rail, slow track speeds, and plenty of switching made the Alcos a good fit for the line – one not often seen as Alcos seemed to be far less popular west of the Mississippi.

Never a stranger to buying second-hand power, the consist of this train provides a good example of the railroads’ penchant for finding a bargain. The slow pace of branchline railroading is in stark contrast to the lead units’ previous life: as the former NYC 8038, the unit likely spent many days hauling hotshot freights on the Water Level Route. Acquired from Penn Central in the late 1970’s, the unit probably felt at home in the company of many other Alcos. RSD-5 #1690, the oldest engine in the consist, was built new for the Northwestern in 1954. Its’ light weight spread over six axles made it well suited to navigating the light (and often rickety) prairie rails on this part of the system. Though details are few on the demise of the Alcos, it is probably safe to assume they have long since met the torch. The third unit in the consist, GP9 #4508 was another bought-new engine for the railroad – well, sort of. Originally Minneapolis & St. Louis #710, the engine became the property of the CNW when the latter acquired the M & St. L in 1960. A rebuild in 1974 resulted in a chopped nose, which probably helped extend the longevity of the unit. Sold by the CNW when declared excess, the engine then went to work for the Wisconsin Central (still in CNW yellow), before finding a new career on the Portland & Western Railroad, a Genesee and Wyoming shortline (repainted into G&W orange!). Photos reveal the unit survived up until 2011, though details about its’ current whereabouts are a bit fuzzy.

Though everything seems perfectly normal on this summer afternoon, changes were soon coming to the Alco line. The bankruptcy of the Rock Island in 1981 provided the CNW with a bargain in the form of 120 ex-RI geeps purchased that year. This not only spelled doom for the 244-powered Alcos, but the Alco line in general. This was  the end of the line for the 244-powered Alcos, and also meant a relocation of the 251-powered Alcos to lines out of Green Bay, WI. No more was the Alco line operated by Alcos. Eventually the old Alco line fell out of favour with the CNW and was sold to the Dakota, Minnesota, & Eastern. Operations by DME began on September 5, 1986; 22 years later, Canadian Pacific assumed operation after purchasing the DME and Illinois, Chicago, and Eastern. A new operator was established, however, in 2007 when CP sold 670 miles of the DME to shortline operator Genesee & Wyoming. A new shortline, the Rapid City, Pierre, and Eastern, took over operation of the old Alco line on May 30, 2014. A number of former DME/ICE SD40-2’s now haul freight over the line, and are a far cry from the days of 244-powered Alcos. Traffic, much as it has been for the past several decades, consists largely of bentonite clay, fertilizer and other agri-products, and carload freight to industries along the line. Impressively, against the march of time, its’ light rail and the mass-abandonment of secondary lines following de-regulation, much of the old Alco line continues to serve the communities where the bark of a 251 engine could once be heard.

A Google street-view of the same crossing as it looks today - wow, have the trees grown up!

‘Til next time,


1 comment:

  1. Glad you appreciate the photo. Many good memories of this line while being raised in South Dakota back then!
    Mike Guss