THE MOUNTAN

KC&G 412 idles in front of the tiny depot at the summit town of Piney as the crew fetches some vittles from nearby Piney General Store. Situated right on top of "Piney Gap", the little town of Piney has been in existance for as long as the rails have been there.



IN THE OZARKS...

Today in the Ozarks, rolling in from the north, gray clouds of a crisp autumn day are closing in above me as I feel the occasional swirl of a cool (why, almost cold) north breeze. The fallen leafs swish and rattle by me in cool response to the breeze that stirs. The hickory, sweet gum, and maple have awakened with color, sprinkled among the deepening rust-colored oaks. Spattered here and there among them, I can see the dark, rich greens of the pine and cedar groves. In the distance, a mountain or two has low hanging clouds shrouding their peaks.

Autumn has arrived in force in the Ozarks.

As I stand admiring the masterful handiwork of the Creator Himself, somewhere up in the wind stirred leaves of the stately maple tree I'm standing beneath, I hear the raucous "song" of a cantankerous blue-jay. It only adds emphasis to the crisp air, reminding me that, indeed, winter is on its way. Seems like fall got here mighty quick this year, and if the weatherman's right, it's supposed to get colder as the day ambles by. Why, according to "Ol' Jess" Hargar down at the enginehouse, he'd "heard-tell" there might be snow flurries in the higher elevations come nightfall! Well, it's happened before about this time of the year in the Ozarks.

My eyes make a another sweep of the artistic scene presented by the mountainsides. I breathe a deep, contented sigh, and take in the sensations: Steel gray skies and snappy days like this are so invigorating. My eyes scan the town of Ozarka that's nestled among the hillsides before me.

Ozarka hasn't changed much in what seems like decades. In fact, if you didn't know it was Autumn of 1964, you really couldn't tell it by looking at the scene being presented to me. Ozarka still looks a lot like it did right after the War (WW2). Ozarka is basically a helper station on the Kansas City & Gulf railroad's "Ozark Subdivision". Ozarka still has it's engine service area and small yard. Day in, day out, the trains still pass through Ozarka. And, as they have for as long as Ozarka has been, they still gather up all they've got for the assault on Mother Nature's devilish device for those who dare railroad through here: The Ozarks.

No, Ozarka hasn't changed much.

But it almost did.

The rugged mountain people, as well as the determined employees of the KC&G, held their collective breaths when the road filed bankruptcy not too long ago. Losing the KC&G through here would have changed Ozarka forever. Much to the relief of all, the court-appointed trustees were actually interested in saving the line, and the road is now in the process of "reorganization". Word has it that it wouldn't be in this shape today if the former owners of the line hadn't "pert nigh sucked it dry" (to quote "Ol' Jess"). Fortunately, though, there sits an idle train on the main just a short distance in front of me that proves, at least for now, there's still railroading taking place on the KC&G.

Shoot, the management seems to be better already, and with this being grain season up north, there is a bunch of tonnage to bring south through the mountains, and with winter coming on, the power plants are stocking up on coal for the impending winter, so in addition to the other tonnage that flows both north and south, there's a bunch of coal moving north. Hopefully the line can indeed "reorganize".

However, "a better tomorrow" is only a promissory note if you go by appearances on the tired old line. Things on the railroad still look pretty sad. Why, some say the Magnolia Shops are trying to hold the engines together with chewing gum and bailing wire! To be sure though, all concerned are hoping that those "better days" for the KC&G are indeed ahead.

Situated at the bottom of the steepest grade on the entire KC&G, Ozarka seems to be a "start here" point for the northbound trains for the grueling battle that lays before them. Well to the south of Ozarka in the Arkansas River Valley, the rails of the KC&G meandered lazily amid the foothills as it ambled north through of the Arkansas River Valley. But now, having arrived at Ozarka, the rails are poised to take on the most rugged piece of railroading that exists on the KC&G: The monummental struggle up what is simply known as "The Mountain". (Upper case added by the railroaders of the KC&G when they're referring to it!) The Mountain is what stands between a northbound train and the ascent to Piney Gap. However if you're headed south, and you've just dropped down off The Mountain with a heavy freight, Ozarka is the place that says to the crew "we've just got another one safely down The Mountain".

When built through here in 1874, these rails belonged to the "Ozark & Southern". The O&S was a brazen (naysayers at the time said foolhardy!) effort to penetrate the Ozarks south out of Springfield, Missouri, and connect with the abuilding Little Rock & Fort Smith that was headed west out of its namesake following along the Arkansas River. The O&S did it. They did indeed make it through the Ozarks and thus a connection with the LR&FS. Insodoing, they did did manage to carve out a living... but it certainly was not a wildly lucrative venture. Fortunately for the southward marching KC&G, the O&S was secured as an established route through the Ozarks, and thus the former O&S line still sees daily use to this day as the KC&G's "Ozark Subdivision".

The Ozark Sub is actually a paradox for the KC&G. Really, it's only this one subdivision among the entire system that has such radical topography to traverse. Indeed, if you add up the mileage of all the "real" mountains that the KC&G runs through, it would be much less than this view at Ozarka indicates. In truth, the KC&G is a flatland road, they only have this one rugged portion of railroading known as the Ozark Sub.

Now understand that the KC&G didn't purposely choose to twist, turn, climb, and descend through these mountains because they wanted to, mind you, but because of necessity. You see, their arch rival ("the other KC route", as the KC&G refers to the "Kansas City Southern") struck out of Kansas City first in the 1890s, so they had the choice among routes. Hence, the competitor KCS decided to bounce back and forth between the Arkansas and Oklahoma border, and take the easiest, albeit far less direct, route to the Gulf. This left the more "inhospitable" routings to the late-coming KC&G, thus the divide that lays before my eyes now. About the only upside to the KC&G's Ozark Sub is that at least it's only one tough section of mountain railroading on the otherwise genteel KC&G profile.

Yes, in reality, the KC&G is termed a "flatland" line. It was the "flatland" railroading that caused the KC&G to decide against the added-expense option of dynamic brakes when they first dieselized. After all, steam hogs didn't have 'em... right? However, that was a decision made early-on in the dieselization of the KC&G that was rectified in mid-'57 with the 450 class, the ALCo RS-11's, and reinforced with the trio of GP20's in July of '60. Be all this as it may, you'd never believe this is a "flatland railroad" if you only saw the Ozark Sub.

My attention is brought back to reality at the deep "blat" sound of an older style horn...

Looking north, I see the headlight of a movement coming my way. It's on the pass track, easing past the idle train on the main. As the movement nears, I see it's a light engine move.

Ah, I should have realized that's what the main line train is waiting on: A helper. I must have just missed a northbound earlier, else there wouldn't be a helper drifting down off The Mountain.

The light engine drifts by at maybe 10 MPH, clanking and clunking over the light rail. It's a tired looking GP7. Its paint is faded and worn. There's traces of where oil had been spewed from an oil leak onto the inside of the hood doors in days past, for the seepage was still evident at the seams and along the bottom of the rattling hood doors. Yup... definitely looks like "chewin' gum an' bailing wire" was all that was keeping this old soldier on the road.

The old Geep completes the run-by of the main line train, and has now eased up against the caboose of the train on the main. I see the Conductor and rear Brakeman coming out of the depot and climbing aboard their "Palace". I walk over for a closer look at the Geep.

Above the idling geep, I can hear the radios crackle that are inside the Geep and the caboose it was coupled to...

"Hey Stringbean!"

"Go 'head Rooster", came the response from the head end.

"Better hold'er down once we start movin' 'cause this ol' crate's been droppin' load on me up 'round 20 mile'n hour or so. Thought we's gonna' break in two when it dropped load on that last shove!"

"I got'cha... hold'er down below 20."

"Yes sir or you'll be pullin on 'em by yerself!" After a pause...

"Alright... we're hooked on... let's leave town!" says Rooster.

"Yer on an' rearin' to go... grab 'ya a couple", says Stringbean from the head end.

"Two notch!" comes Rooster's response. The Geep revs a bit and starts nudging against the caboose and bunches up a bit of slack.

Way up front, I hear a couple blasts of the horn and see a puff of black smoke spew into the crisp air.

Hm... that just could be an Alco up there!

Off in the distance, I can hear a bit of slack being pulled out... Rooster's helper starts to move.

"We're movin'!" shouts Rooster to the head end.

With that, up front I see more smoke spew skyward. Rooster's Geep revs up some more in response and starts shoving harder... the sander dust is wafting from under the wheels.

The northbound is on its way. The battle has begun.

With no time to waste I see the "smokey end" live up to it's name as obviously Stringbean has shoved the lever over to the Company Corner. Black smoke boils out of the old engines. Rooster slaps the Geep's throttle to 8. The sound of a roaring 567 fills my ears with its unmistakable sound. Suddenly the motor revs and then sags... the old Geep momentarily lost its footing.

No, they don't have much run before they hit the that horrendous grade to Piney Gap, so the aging engines are already giving it all they're got. Standing there, still looking up the light-railed mainline toward the head end, I still see blackish smoke boiling skyward. Indeed, the struggle to the top of The Mountain has begun.

Immediately upon leaving Ozarka a northbound hits the grade, for the grade starts just past the north switch of the main/pass. That grade will be doing its best to thwart their upward movement. This struggle will rage for several miles all the way up to Piney Gap. According to the MoW profile charts, there are places on the grade that will hit 2.9%. (BUT... according to the hogheads I've talked with... they think it might be right at 3% for short sections!)

With exhausts shooting straight up, the head end lumbers out of sight, aiming for a speed (hopefully) nigh 20 MPH... maybe. (But not over it, according to Rooster!) I stand and watch as Rooster's GP7 shoves hard on the bottom of the train. Eventually, the Geep also goes out of sight around the big bend at the end of the mountain that puts them into a hollow as they make their way (again, hopefully) to the summit at Piney Gap.

There's no hurry to leave Ozarka to head for the small mountain community of Jack Fork. They'll be grinding sand into puffs of powder alongside Possum Creek for a ways, and there's simply no access to speak of except at Sawmill Spur, but the rough dirt road zig-zagging down to Sawmill Spur could not be driven negotiated anywhere near fast enough to get you down to Sawmill Spur in time to watch the train through, then back out again, and still have time to make it to Jack Fork. It's either Sawmill Spur, or Jack Fork, but not both.

Eventually, the sounds of the exhaust from the out of sight and struggling train fades into the mist-shrouded mountains to a faint, distant drone.

As expected, beating the train to the small mountain town of Jack Fork was not a significant task, not at the speed (or lack of) they're making up the lower part of The Mountain. I stand by the crossing, waiting, listening. Eventually, I begin to hear them. The sound gets louder, and after a bit, they come into sight.

I was right. There's an old Alco "covered wagon" on the point, and it's still laying a smoke screen into the air. That distinctive smoke must mean it's one of the "shore 'nuf' Alco's" (quoting Ol' Jess again), and not one of the EMD re-powered ones. That makes it a bit of a rare bird on the KC&G. However, anything that can be made to run is being patched together by the Magnolia Shops and pushed onto the rails. Well, I guess a road's got do what a road's got to do when they're trying to "reorganize".

Looks like they're down to about 10 MPH now. The three-chime horn erupts for the dirt road crossing that I'm standing beside. Horn blaring, the old engines grind past, exhausts roaring... but they can't let up, for the hard pull is still fighting them. Shortly after making the crossing, the head end will start into the S curve that will swing them around the little bump of a mini-mountain (called "Gobblers Knobb" by the locals) and into the tight confines of Buck Hollow.

I watch as the train rumbles through the community of Jack Fork. Amazingly, the depot is still in use at Jack Fork! I suppose that's owing to the fact that there's a tie loading and a pulpwood operation going full swing, and each with their own spur. Plus, the team track is still in service. Jack Fork is doing its part to help the coffers of the ailing KC&G!

The head end disappears around Gobblers Knob, and grinds its way into Buck Hollow. I stand at the crossing and watch as the boxcars jostle drunkenly, springs squawking in protest, as they continue to battle The Mountain. The "che-kung che-kung" of the wheels on the sagging 90 pound rail ever so slowly decrease their cadence. It is very apparent the engines are still firmly locked in obvious combat with the laws of gravity, but they're still a long ways from having The Mountain whipped.

Just north of Jack Fork, will be the remaining hard climb on up to Piney Gap, where waits the sleepy little mountain community of Piney. Thereon, they'll be laboring up the some of the worst parts of the 2.9% (3%?) grade on the side of Buck Mountain until they either get over it in one mighty heave, or they fall down.

The end of the train grinds into view.

Rooster still has the ears pinned back on the old Geep under his command. The Geep is really roaring as it trundles over the crossing in front of me.

Hey... is that water I see coming out from under that hood door?

I watch as the the old Geep shoots exhaust haze skyward as it shoves hard on the train at the break-neck speed of maybe 8 MPH. Soon, the steel serpentine snake grinds its way into Buck Hollow and disappears, though the sounds of its struggle can still be heard.

Climbing back in the car, I leave Jack Fork and begin a leisurely dirt road trip to the summit town of Piney. No hurry, they'll be working Buck Mountain a while.

I arrive in plenty of time at the quiet little mountain town of Piney. Seeing as I've got a bit of wait time ahead of me, I walk over the crossing to go inside and get a hot cup at the old Piney General Store. Coffee in hand, I sit out on the old bench that's on the tired-looking swaybacked porch and sip on the warm coffee. My mind drifts off to other thoughts.

My mind rejoins the events before me. Hm. It's been a while. A long while. Wonder where they're at? Wonder what's going on? It doesn't normally take THIS long for them to make the Gap. Something must have gone wrong?

Eventually, I begin to hear them ever-so-faintly off in the distance. Somewhere out of sight down the track, the sound's echoing up from the hollow in a slow crescendo. Though out of sight around the cut, down there somewhere they're working hard on the side of Buck Mountain. I can hear the sound of the howling engines as it reverberates up through the Piney Gap cut. Yes, out of sight somewhere on the mountainside, those engines are blowing the guts into the sky, trying to loft one more train over this brutal piece of railroading on the KC&G.

The sound grows.... and grows...

There they are!

At long last I see them, hear them... FEEL them... as the head end punches through the cut that signals the summit of Piney Gap. I watch the spectacle as the lead engines bear down on me, trying to get back up to 10 MPH. No doubt a few windows are rattling in the sleepy town of Piney! (Of course, only a "few windows" is all there IS to rattle in this isolated mountain town!)

The smokey-haze from the roaring exhausts shoots skyward... the sound is near deafening. Tan-colored dust of powdered sand swirls out from under the grinding wheels of the set of power as they struggle for traction. I hear the unmistakable sound of an EMD prime mover rev away with itself as the trailing Geep looses it's grip on the steel rail. The whine of the Roots blower trails off as the engine attempts to regain it's small patch of adhesion on the ball of the rail... then takes hold again as grip is re-established. The set of power crawls by me in a cacaphonous uproar. That trailing Geep is blowing blue smoke into the gray overcast sky as it grinds past in full-throated roar (there's some oil gettin' burned there!)... but it's still giving it all it's got. Finally, the hoghead notches down. They've won. Another pull has been made.

What's this? The head end power only has ahold of half the train? What's happened? Where's Rooster and the rest of the train? Then it dawns on me: Something's gone wrong on The Mountain and the other half of the train is somewhere down there, and Rooster's Geep must have some sort of engine issue.

Well won't that knock yer hat in the creek? Rooster and his fellow crew member's long day just got longer.

The truncated train drags up around the end of the mountain up by the north switch at Piney. As they pass over the north switch, the Head Brakeman swings to the ground. After the head end brakeman unlocks and throws the switch, the engines shoves the cut into the clear on the pass track. After tying down the cut, the power pulls back out onto the main, the Head End Brakeman closes and locks the switch, and gives the "Highball" as he climbs aboard the trailing Geep to man the whistle for the crossing at Piney. That they do, drifting by me and then disappearing into the cut as they start back down the mountain to retrieve the rest of the train, and apparently an ailing Geep!

Well, this is unexpected drama... not uncommon, given the the condition of the KC&G's power... but not expected nonetheless.

I go back into the Piney General Store to get another shot of hot coffee. It's gettin' might chilly up here on the Gap! Back out on the old wooden bench, my thoughts return to the town of Piney...

In reality, there wasn't (still isn't) much reason for the town of Piney to exist. Why, it wouldn't even be on the map if it weren't for the KC&G (actually, if it weren't for the KC&G's ancestor through here: The Ozark & Southern.) No, Piney is simply the place that happens to be at the summit of the tough northbound climb up Buck Mountain. Here at Piney there's a pass track for making meets, and a long spur called the "Back Track" for tie loading along with holding any northbound tonnage as needed. There's also another short tie spur off the main. And, amazingly, the miniscule depot at Piney is still active! Seeing as its on top of The Mountain, and seeing as with mountain railroading anything that can go wrong WILL go wrong eventually (as we're seeing today!), the agency is kept open for a quick access via telephone to the Dispatcher if needed, as well as to pass up orders, and such as that.

Wow. I end up back inside the General Store to take a reprieve from the gathering cold. I mean it's getting COLD up here.

From inside the store, I hear the horn of the returning train... back outside I go into the lowering temperature.

A repeat of the previous scene, Stringbean has the loud handle all the way open as the consist struggles to get the rest of the train up to Piney.

Sure 'nuf. As the bottom of the train comes into view, I see no exhaust whatsoever from Rooster's Geep. It's graveyard dead. Stringbean eases the train to a stop with Rooster's Geep in front of the tiny depot.

I see Rooster come out of the cab and start cranking down the brake on the old Geep to hold it in place. The Rear Brakeman on the train cuts away from the stranded Geep, and Stringbean pulls the train over the crossing until the caboose clears it and comes to a stop. Up on the head of this cut, the Head Brakman pulls the pin and "POW!" the air dumps on the train. The light power will now gather up the front cut, put the two halves back together, and be on their way.

I amble over toward the dead Geep. It looks like Rooster is retrieving a water hose from inside the depot. Yup, that's what he's doing. Soon he's stuck the business end into the fill tube, and on comes the water. Behind me, I hear the northbound whistle-off... the slack is gently pulled out... and they're on their way.

After several minutes, water appears to be overflowing. After shutting off the water and returing the hose to the depot, Rooster goes to a pair side doors on the hood, opens them up, and with a twist of a knob, I can hear the hum of the pump priming the Sardello injector govenor. Pushing on the layshaft, he twists the knob the opposite direction and the starter begins to turn over the dead prime mover. I'm sure Rooster breathed a sigh of relief as the old Geep fires up, belching some white smoke as it does. It then settles down to a soothing idle.

With that, Rooster closes and latches the hood doors, and he and his other crew members (Fireman and Conductor), head over to the Piney General Store.

There's something about trains. I'm convinced they're either in your blood, or they're not. That certain train "gene" has to be resident in you. But if that certain gene is there, you can take it to the bank: SOME train encounter of some type, somewhere... will awaken it, and you'll be fascinated with them the rest of your life. Standing there, leaning against the corner of the small Piney depot and listening (and smelling the aroma) of that idling Geep... I was in my element. I was where I was meant to be. I didn't know how it would come to pass, or when, but I knew that "one of these days"... I would work for the railroad in train service. Not just any railroad, mind you, but this one that had been around all my life and had become a part of my life: The KC&G.

Soon, I saw Rooster and the rest of the crew coming out of the General Store, each carrying a soda drink and a brown poke, likely with some good vittles therein! Having all climbed aboard and settled into the cozy warm cab, Rooster whistles off, the old Geep revs a little, then settles back to idle, and the Geep begans to trundle back down The Mountain.

The sound of the drifting geep quickly disolves into the mist of the mountains. I'm now alone with only the sounds of the mountains surrounding me. The now butt-cold gusting wind rustles and rattles the leafs as a small dervish stirs them in a ciruclar pattern. In the distance, I hear the lonesome sound of a crow as it sounds its alarm for some imagined (or real) danger it perceives: "Caw! Caw! Caw!"

As I turn to leave, I notice some snow flakes silently streaming by. Looks like it's gotten a whole lot colder quicker than the weatherman thought.

Well, that's the Ozarks for you... and this is Mountain Railroading in the Ozarks... KC&G style.



NOTE from the Author: The places, trains, events, etc, described in this fictional narrative are simulated as much as possible on my modeled portion of the KC&G. This includes simulating random engine and equipment failures, simulated delays, et al. Taken as a whole, the layout presents an operational side of railroading seldom viewed by those interested in railroading that never worked as a railroad employee. That is, the stories and experiences of a road that's struggling to stay afloat, as were many of the US roads during the era I model. Such situations are incorporated into the fabric of my operational scenarios from situattions that I've lifted from personal experiences with 1:1 railroading, as well as stories of experiences lived that were shared with me by my many railroading friends.

Such operation not only rewards the recipient with the fun of running trains, but with situations, and the inevetable accompanying drama, that is quite real out on the full-sized mountain railroading counterpart during such an incident. If you've never worked on a mountain railroad, you can't imagine what all can be faced "out there". Thus it's my hope to share some of these experiences in operational form with my operating friends on my version of the KC&G's Ozark Subdivision.

Stay tuned for future installments!


Copywrite 2020 Andre Ming - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED