Wednesday, March 10, 2004

To be in Talkeetna by 9:00 am, I had to crawl out of bed by 5:00 am. After a quick shower and breakfast, I was on the road north. The storms had not affected the roads between Anchorage and Wasilla, but beyond that things were pretty dicey.

Don's CadillacI rolled into Talkeetna at 8:55 am, said a quick prayer of thanks for being able to keep Don's gray 1989 Cadillac out of the ditches and found my crew, Frank Armstrong, Duane "Do Anne" Frank, Rich "Hozer" Holzapfel, Daryl "DK" Kollander and Derek "Rimfire" Winchester at the Talkeetna section house. They spent some time getting their orders together and making plans for the day. Their light-hearted banter and stories from the previous evening would rival any comedy currently on television and portrayed the camaraderie that existed between this crew. They developed a plan of action and decided the best thing for me to do was to drive to Willow, get a ride back north to Montana and catch the snow fleet there.

Out the nose of the spreaderAs Rich Holzapfel and I waited for the fleet at the Montana grade crossing, we swapped railroading stories. Within a half hour, the snow fleet came pounding down the rails. The lineup was Jordan spreader 9, GP40 numbers 3007 and 3012, several Difco dump cars, two flat cars one of which held a company pickup truck and caboose 1081. With a great deal of nervous excitement, I hopped aboard spreader 9. The work consisted of clearing the sidings at Montana [click here to view the 700KB video], Willow and Houston plus all grade crossings. At each siding, the crew used the wings of the spreader to clear the mainline. Conductor Duane Frank would then clean the snow from the switch points and align the switch. The snow fleet would then enter the siding and use one of the wings to push the rest of the snow off the siding. All snow removal was done at a fairly slow speed so as to not risk derailing the spreader or rolling the rail.

As the snow fleet traveled from siding to siding, they cranked it up to a maximum of 35 miles per hour which produced a pronounced rocking motion in the spreader. [click here to view the 532KB video] Travel time was used to eat lunch or watch for eagles and moose. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better than this, the crew invited me to tag along with them tomorrow as they "went south" to clear the snow from Portage to Grandview. Yowza!

At the controlsFor beginnings only: A Jordan spreader (first invented in 1900) is a very large and complex piece of maintenance of way equipment. The spreader itself is pushed with diesel locomotives which also supply the air required to operate them. In the summer, it can be used to spread ballast (rock) along the rails. In the winter, it can be used to plow snow. The front of the spreader has a large "V" plow blade. This can be lowered to plow snow or raised to clear. The spreader also has long blades (wings) on both sides that push snow clear of the tracks. The height and width (spread) of each blade is controlled through hydraulics by an operator using a joystick. One employee said the joystick found in Jordan spreader 9 is based on the design of the one found in the F-15 Talon aircraft. [click here to view the 636KB video] Although the Jordan spreader does a good job removing snow, the railroad prefers to use modified ballast regulators which cost about one tenth the cost to operate.

At Willow, the crew dropped Rich and I off near our cars. We then headed to Houston to catch the snow fleet clearing the siding. I videotaped the operation while Rich took photos with my digital camera. [click here to view the 640KB video]

Jordan spreader at Houston Jordan spreader at Houston

Returning to Anchorage, I washed Don's car at the Alaska Laser Wash and filled it up with gas. Don had an extra special dinner prepared for the three of us (his grandson Brian was also spending the night). We feasted on spare ribs, rice, salad, sherbet and chocolate chip cookies. On the outside of Don's door is a sign that says, "Here lives a spoiled rotten cat" I think he should add "and ARR railfan" to the bottom of the sign.

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