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Thread: Riding the Helpers

  1. #1

    Post Riding the Helpers

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    Riding the Helpers

    Over 36 years have passed, but it is as strong a memory as I have. My newly acquired hand me down Yashica and Weston light meter around my neck, three rolls of Tri-X 120 for me to shoot, it was the annual week-end Dad and I spent in Skykomish.

    We hit town at dusk on that Friday, the first week-end of October. After getting a home in at the Cascadia, we wandered over the depot to check with the second trick operator. In those days of no scanners, no internet, the local depot was the source of information. We soon found out that it would tough shooting this time around. The B&B gang was doing a major overhaul of the Foss River trestle, the line was under an all day work window. Just about everything was going over at night.

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    A little dejected, I wandered out into the yard. West 97 was coming down the hill, but these days the priority freight wasn't taking a helper. Still, if the recent formation of the Burlington Northern had taught me one thing, it was shoot anything that was coming. You never knew what was trailing that lead unit. 97 was no exception. Hustling west into the dusk, she sported no less than 2 ex-Quincy SD 45's decked out in the "original" colors of the merger.

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    Not willing to give up, Dad and I hung around the station, waiting for the after dark arrival of yet another westbound, this one with a helper set. In time things did get busy. A helper crew drifted into the station and signed in about the time the westbound hit town, with an eastbound on the horn down at Baring.

    "They're just taking us Merritt and bringing us back," the engineer told Dad and I. "As long as you don't mind staying up most the night, why don't you ride along?"

    It was just that easy back then. He didn't have to ask twice. The off-duty crew parked 4 F-units on the helper lead across from the depot. When the westbound cleared, we picked our way across the tracks and climbed aboard a Sky Blue covered wagon.

    Elmer Dahl was the engineer, his conductor/pilot was Jack Mirosivitch. Elmer was a native son of Skyomish, Jack was a railfan working for the railroad.

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    Up at the east end of the yard, we cut into an eastbound freight. Standing with Jack and the head-end brakeman I set-up my small tripod and snapped a single frame of night time railroading in the valley of the Skykomish. The devil's number "666" stared out through the black night, while far ahead, the bright light of the 668 illuminated the chip car too which it is about to be coupled.

    A lot happened that night. Leaving Sky yard, the chip car ahead of us was dancing so wildly, Elmer was sure it was about to derail. Only crossing the East Sky switch settled down its scary rocking. Half way to Scenic, the second unit died. While waitng on the siding for the Western Star to overtake us, Jack grabbed me and together we went back to try and restart the troublesome unit. Jack reset a few relays then took me back in the engine compartment. He showed me the start button and the big hand throttle.

    "It's like starting anything. Hit the start button and start her cranking then slowly open the throttle until she takes off."

    It was just as Jack said. The old girl came to life about the fifth crank. Jack and I just stayed in that trailing unit for the trip though the tunnel and on down the east side to Merritt. We talked about railroading, he gave me his best shot, trying to convince me to come to work for the BN.

    I can remember all of us cramped into the cab of the devil engine for the trip back to Sky. The headlight pierced the dark Nason Creek Canyon, then painted the tree lined walls of the Tye River Valley as we dropped back down into Sky. Rounding Tonga Loop Jack and Elmer kept looking out the side window at dark the valley below.

    "Yellow over red," Jack called out. They had spotted the East Sky signal far below.

    "That other helper set isn't back yet, they're behind us," Elmer half snarled. "We probably have this next shove."

    I was hoping...but for naught. East 98 was on the main as we took the siding. One of the early of the TOFC hotshots, the 4 big motors on the point would whisk it east unassisted.

    The units tied down on the helper spur, Elmer and Jack signed off duty, Dad and I retired to the Cascadia and good, but short night's sleep.

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    Morning came quick. The smells of bacon and hot cakes drifting up from the cafe had Dad and I up early. Out in the yard the B&B crew was assembling for another day of work up at the Foss River. Our railfan "network" (first trick Sky) told us a westbound was on the hill now, they had just cleared the tunnel. We hustled up to the Foss River, but the sun was a long ways from rising. With that Tri-X burning a hole in my pocket, I shot anyway. It was my initiation into the the now firm belief, fast film makes up for a slow photographer.

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    We chased the train back to Skyomish, catching the head-end as the combo of units and color schemes, (we were glad to see a consist heavy towards the GN) basked in the morning sunlight. The helper cut out, the crew took it down to the west end of the yard where the next crew was ready to take command for an approaching eastbound. The "next crew" was none other than a still blurried eyed Elmer Dahl and Jack Mirosivitch.

    "You coming with us?" Elmer asked again. "We're going all the way to Cashmere, so you might get stuck there awhile."

    I looked at Dad.

    "You go on," Dad told me. "I'll drive over to Gaynor and camp out for the day. If you come back east have them honk at me. If I don't see you on the next westbound, I'll come looking for you."

    Dad' can you ask for more of a sacrifice than that? It was a lesson I carry with me to this day.

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    The incoming crew had warned Elmer the MU connection between the 680 and the 684 was working loose. Armed with some wire and an assortment of cuss words Elmer tackled the job.

    "Up here we're the roundhouse crew. These old junkers are about one step away from the junkyard when we get 'em."

    A distant rumbling materialized into three F-45's hauling East 78 into town. A quick shot, and I joined Elmer and Jack in the cab of the battered old 688.

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    Cut in about 2/3 back the old covered wagons responded to Elmer's tugs on the throttle and began yet another trip up the canyon walls of the Tye River. By the time we reached the Foss River, the slow oder in effect due to the construction was "name only". The head-end notched back, but Elmer just kept on coming in Run-8. On one side, I was hanging from the cab window, trying to get clear of the grab irons for a shot of the units on the trestle, and the tank car pushed off the tracks just a week prior. On the other, Elmer was busy throwing crumpled up water cups at the B&B boys, who countered with a well thrown apple core.

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    In and out of the rock cuts, across the trestles, we were between Alpine and Deception Creek when I finally decided the best vantage point for pictures was out the door less grab iron to destroy the foreground. Hanging as far out the window as I dared, the cool mountain air, the hurried chant of the stack talk of those old f-units, it was a moment forever preserved in my memory and on film.

    Like the night before, the trip through the Cascade Tunnel was a smoky ride. Long before the days of respirators, crews just toughed it out. Once inside, Elmer notched back to Run-6 to keep the old girls cool and running. The further in we went, the denser the smoke swirling over the windshield. Elmer had his cab light on and was settled in doing the crossward puzzle, Jack and I were talking trains. About twenty minutes into our ride through the darkness, our ears popped. it was something I'd noticed the night before.

    "Door's open," Jack said. "Another five minutes or so we'll be out."

    Clear of the tunnel we openned the windows and doors. Crisp mountain air rushed in, forcing the heavy diesel fumes out of the cab. A quick trip down the eastside, before we knew it we were slipping by the small wood station at Cashmere.

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    Stopped at the east end of the yard, I hopped down for a shot of the brakeman talking to Elmer before getting ready to cut the units out. Down the siding, another helper set was apporaching.

    "I just gave them a call," Elmer told me. "That's your ride home."

    There wasn't a lot of time for any formal "thanks" and "good byes". Before I knew it, I was back in the cab of an f-unit, only this time point back west.
    We were shoving on a heavy West 87 and not making very good time. At one point, grinding past Dad taking our picture crossing the Gaynor trestle, the crew threatened to throw me out to lighten the load lest we stall.

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    It was the speedometer needle nearly in the single digits and the amp meter pegged when we crawled under the signal bridge at Berne. Cab talked had ceased as we all watched the wheel slip light madly blinking and the trees slowly passing by.

    "We're up to 12," the engineer called out. Clearing the West Berne switch we we are 15....we made it.

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    By the time we popped out of the Cascade Tunnel, I had hatched a scheme to get a good shot of us crossing the Foss River. I convinced the brakeman riding with us to grab onto my belt as I laid out flat on the floor of the unit and hung out the door. His willingness almost gave me pause to wonder...
    On my belly, my head turned back and peering down into my camera I waited until I could see the river in the veiwfinder then squeezed the shutter release.

    "Pull me up," I hollered.

    "Why?" the brakeman answered.

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    The Empire Builder was waitng for us at Sky when we arrived. I never saw it. By the time it rushed by, our units were cut out and I was walking forward to meet up with Dad down at the depot. Clouds were moving in from the west. Smoke from slash burns lingered in the valley, but in the waning light I took one last shot, shot number 12 on my last roll of Tri-X.

    The trip was over. That was the last time I rode the helpers over Stevens Pass. The old bull dog F's, like the helper district are long gone. Even the men who gave us the rides, have now retired.

    Riding the helpers, it was a time never to be repeated...until I discovered Montana, but that's another story.
    Last edited by Martin Burwash; 01-13-2007 at 02:00 AM.

  2. #2


    OK folks, this is what I would call the first "photo" essay I ever shot. Like the narrative reads, Dad and I used to spend a week-end in Sky each year. That October of 1970 I had my first "real" camera, the first of a series of Yashica TLR's. The shots posted are a good sampling of what came off those 3 rolls, 36 exposures total. I purposely included a few shots that aren't that great, but I felt they really do lend to the feel of the story, a high school kid shooting away at anything and everything.

    Martin Burwash

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    One other quick thought..some of these shots have appreared here and on a few other sites...I thought it would be fun for you too see them in the context of the rest of the photos taken that week-end.

    Martin Burwash

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    Wow, another impressive piece of writing Martin. This one had me engrossed from the first word to the last. I vote for approval.

    Its really too bad the world isn't still as relaxed as Martin depicts in this story. The railroaders I know would all dearly love to give rides like this, but it seems their enthusiasm for sharing the thrill of a cab ride is stifled by too much 'fine print'. Time moves on.

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    Well at the risk of being redundant - WOW!! Having just been up to the hill yesterday this piece is particularly revealing about the changes over the past 36 years. Some things have changed very little and others are unrecognizable. The combination of visual history and personal experience works very well here. The human side of the story is illumiating too, not only the friendly nature of railroaders but their enthusiasm for the work. There's precious little of that these days except for the closet railfans in the ranks. And how many places could a high school kid go today and have the crew of a helper set invite them up and take a 120 mile 'ride' not to mention hanging out of open engine door?! Well done Martin! I second the motion...

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    Back then, the cafe at the Cascadia was where it was all happening. Out of town helper crews had the two front rooms booked, so often just by hanging around the cafe you'd meet up with them. I remember back in about 67 or 68 I got a ride on a light helper set from Sky over to Merritt, where Dad picked me up. It was a Sunday morning and we were talking with a couple of crews as we all ate breakfast at the counter in the Cascadia. The old engineer of the outbund helper invited me along. He was about to retire and remembered well not only running the electrics, but he had actually made a few runs up over the old line right when he hired on. "Officials" didn't seem to care. The Roadmaster Paul George manned his office there and was present, and rather than try and kick us out, invited us in and took time to explain helper operations to Dad and I. Back then there just wasn't this corporate, government, lawyer induced disconnect between the railroad and the public.

    It is a by gone era for the most part, hence my current infactuation with the MRL. As I have told many, I regret not shooting more of the helper operations at Skykomish when I had the chance. Would you believe I have NO shots of the interior of the Sky station back when it was manned 24/7? And really, very few of the crews. I've been given a rare second chance with the MRL and am doing my best not to repeat my past mistakes.

    Martin Burwash

  7. #7


    Quote Originally Posted by Martin Burwash View Post
    One other quick thought..some of these shots have appreared here and on a few other sites...I thought it would be fun for you too see them in the context of the rest of the photos taken that week-end.
    I'd like to mention that I think it's totally fine to use photos you've already posted, whethere here or on another site, as part of an essay. It's not fair to expect folks to come up with all new photos, and it's quite common to take a series of photos that would make a great essay while also cherry picking a couple of the best shots and posting them as stand alone images. Obviously Martin agrees, I'm just pointing this out for the folks reading these comments.

    As for the essay... It does a great job of capturing the feel of the hill, and the crews working there. Martin seems to delight in being different. He shoots in black and white (gasp!) and not only that, but he write about people, rather than dwelling on the arcane details of the F units.

    Great writing and fantastic photos. Shots from the cab of F units in mainline helper service? Simply Amazing.

    I vote for approval, even though there's not a sunny day 3/4 wedgie Kodachrome in the lot. (Then again, that's what I like about the essay!)
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

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