"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 15: Railroad Days
When I started working at the M.T.& W. depot, I was eighteen years old and the railroad was thirty-two. Its official name was The Marinette, Tomahawk and Western Railroad Company, but the local townsfolk said the initials stood for "Miserable, Tired and Weary" or "More Tramps Wanted". Like so many of Tomahawk's major enterprises, it was a William H. Bradley creation. The first track was laid in 1891, and, with locomotive and cars borrowed from the Soo Line, was used to haul freight between the Soo at Tomahawk Junction (now Bradley) and the Tomahawk area.
During the next few years the tracks were extended westward to Spirit Falls, and eastward to Harrison where they connected with the Chicago and Northwestern. After Bill Bradley died in 1903, construction of the railroad stopped, leaving his dream of connecting Tomahawk by rail with a Lake Michigan port unrealized. In 1904, what were to become the most important of M.T.& W. tracks were laid, from the existing line at Somo Junction (where tracks led westward to Spirit Falls) to the dam, to serve the paper mills there. A peculiarity of the railroad's route to the paper mill is that, because of the geography of the area and the way the railroad grew, trains going south from Tomahawk to the paper mill must first travel north. They cross the Wisconsin River, turn west at Jersey City and cross the Tomahawk River, then south to cross the Somo River at its mouth (near the Seefeld Somo farm) and then southward along the west bank of the Wisconsin to the mill.
The M.T.& W. depot is a two-story wood building located between North Avenue and Bradley Park, about a block from the little house where I was born. It was painted a dark red, as were all the buildings and rail cars owned by the company. Yes, they had their own boxcars, a caboose or two, and many, many flatcars which were used to haul logs out of the woods to the sawmills and paper mills. The main business office was on the depot's first floor, and was the workplace for George Piper, the station agent, his assistant, George Lindsley, and myself. The superintendent's office was on the second floor, and was occupied by C. H. Grundy, who was also vice-president of the Bradley Company and divided his time between his depot office and the Bradley Company building in "downtown" Tomahawk. His assistant was Charlie Stiff, who occupied an adjoining office. Those two men sat up there day after day, year after year, smoking long black cigars until the wood-paneled walls and ceilings were saturated with stale cigar smoke. On those rare occasions when I ventured upstairs the odor was so powerful I tried not to breathe until I was back downstairs! I often imagined that, if that building ever burned down, it would smell like a giant black cigar was burning!
Most railroads used to run on pretty rigid schedules. Not this rail road. Since it hauled only freight, trains were run only when needed. For example, the run east to Harrison was made only when cars were left there by the C. & N.W. (Chicago and Northwestern) to be hauled to Tomahawk or when a shipment originating in Tomahawk was to be turned over to the C.& N.W. The only runs made on anything like a regular schedule were those made into the woods to haul out logs. Some mornings the train crews would meet in the depot to discuss operating problems and/or scheduled runs. In this way I met some of the train crew members such as George Foster, locomotive engineer and father of Elmer, the same Elmer you met in the last chapter. George had a unique way of dealing with the uncertainty in the length of his working day. As his locomotive and its train load of logs emerged from the woods and approached the Somo River bridge, he always blew his whistle in a long, drawn-out wail, notifying everyone within earshot that George Foster was coming home, and in particular telling Mrs. Foster that it was time to start preparing supper!
The small size of the M.T.& W. often made it the butt of good natured jokes concerning the length of its tracks (a total of about fifty miles). George Piper always countered these jokes with the observation that: "This railroad may not be quite as long as some, but it is every damn inch as wide!" And sometimes when I heard him say that I added, under my breath: "Yes, and sometimes it's wider!" And some times is was, especially in spring. Part of the M.T.& W. tracks were laid over rather soft, marshy terrain, especially on the route to King's dam and Harrison. In the cold northern Wisconsin winter even rotten railroad ties, supported by deeply frozen earth as they were, could keep the rails in place. In the spring however, when the soil thawed, the weight of the locomotive would spread the rails apart, allowing it to sink between them into the soft rail bed. And there it would sit ignominiously, waiting for another engine to pull it back on the rails.
My job at the depot consisted of two very different kinds of work. One was loading and unloading LCL (less than carload) freight into and out of boxcars. Fortunately for me, by this time, most of this kind of shipping was being done by truck, so freight handling was really only a minor part of my duties.
Most of my time at the depot was spent on "paper-work." Everything shipped by rail, carload or smaller, was accompanied by a bill of lading, or "waybill." This document, issued by the railroad on which the shipment originated, identified the type of freight, its weight, the shipper, the consignee to whom the goods were to be shipped, the route, if it was to travel on more than one rail line, and the dates of receipt and delivery. Waybills for all shipments making up a train were in the custody of the conductor, whose office was in the train's caboose. When a shipment reached its destination, the conductor turned the waybills over to the station agent, who notified the consignee of its arrival, and supervised the preparation of the freight bill.
In the United States, railroad operations are governed by rules and regulations issued and enforced by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). One of these regulations requires each railroad to keep permanent copies of all the documents it originates. This included freight bills, which were my responsibility.
Here's how the M.T.& W. kept permanent copies of waybills and freight bills in 1923 B.X. (before Xerox). The originals were written by hand with a purple indelible pencil. The copy book, which contained many large pages of thin paper similar to "onion-skin" was prepared as follows: The book was opened to the last page with copy on it, and the next (blank) page was turned back. A sheet of heavy waterproof cardboard was placed on the next page. The documents to be copied were then placed, face up, on the cardboard. The blank page which had been turned back was now placed on top of the documents. Next, a sheet of damp cloth was placed on the blank page, followed by another sheet of waterproof cardboard. Then the book was closed and placed in a huge iron letter press, which was then tightened down by turning the big iron handwheel. And then, still not satisfied that it was tight enough, one of the Georges put a long iron rod in the spokes of the wheel and tightened it still further. During the next ten minutes or so, the cloth dampened the blank page which then absorbed some of the purple dye from the indelible pencil marks. Then the press was opened, the book was removed and the cloth, documents, and cardboard were taken out, and presto! the erstwhile blank page now contained permanent purple copies. Thank goodness for photocopy machines!
After a few months of writing freight bills by hand, I discovered, hidden in an almost forgotten storage area, an OLD typewriter. It was an L. C. Smith, and quite different from the machines I had used in typing class in high school. I think it had seven rows of keys. Three rows for upper case letters (capitals), three rows for lower case letters, and one row of keys for numbers, which one turned into punctuation keys by using the shift key. Another different feature of this machine was that it printed on the under side of the platen (paper roller). That meant that you couldn't see what you had just typed unless you tipped the paper carriage up and back, and of course with it in that position, you couldn't type! However, the machine was in good mechanical condition, so, after practicing a while, I installed a purple indelible ribbon and started typing the freight bills. After that, for as long as I worked there, the freight bills were much more legible!
One of the M.T.& W.'s biggest customers, if not the biggest, was the Tomahawk Kraft Paper Company. I wrote many, many freight bills for the paper mill, and every few days the mill's office manager, Oscar Duus, came to the depot to pay freight bills and collect new ones. I think the improved freight bills must have caught his attention, because, one day, one of the depot Georges told me that the "grapevine" had informed him that the paper mill needed a timekeeper, and that the job could be mine if I applied for it. So, I visited Mr. Duus, asked for the job, was hired, and ended my railroading days.