The Legend of the Dirt Mercs

by Rich Holzapfel

Dirct Mercs

This is my account of how the Dirt Merc legend began and then continued to grow. This account is true as nearly as an old guy that has CRS (can't remember stuff) can recall. Names will not be used to protect the innocent as well as the guilty!!

In the spring of 1997 I was awarded the bid to be the MoW foreman of the Company Work Train of the Alaska Railroad. At this time I had 23 years of experience on the railroad.

The work train crew consists of a train crew; Engineer, Conductor, and Brakeman, they make all train movements under the direction of the foreman.

The crew also consists of the MoW foreman, a heavy equipment operator, and a track repairer/laborer or two depending on what job the train is doing.

The work train does everything to support the MoW work crews during the hectic and short work season. Everything from moving equipment for the crews to hauling and dumping ballast, distributing ties and rail for installation, air dumps of shoulder material, and anything else required to keep the crews moving.

In years prior to this the train crew and MoW crew existed as separate entities. They really each did just their side of the job and did not work as a cohesive team.

When I and my crew got together in spring 1997 we decided the job would mesh into one team, everyone helping with everything on the job so that no one was left the hard jobs to do on their own. The job became a team effort and everyone enjoyed it so much more than before. We were all focused on a common goal. By now you're wondering what does this have to do with the Dirt Merc legend, but it needed this background to help you understand how it all came about.

We began the season saying we were the kinder, gentler work train spreading joy and ballast throughout the railbelt. We were helping everyone we could. We were working long hours and many days straight without days off to keep everyone going. We had been working for probably at least a month without a day off so
the boss decided we should take the weekend off. We were all happy with that decision because we were all ready for a break. We had been getting called on duty at 11am to follow the passenger train through the tie gang to get south of them to dump as the only ballast available that year was at MP 388 pit and the tie gang was working between Broad Pass and Denali Park. On our Friday we expected to be called on duty at the regular time and looking forward to starting a long needed weekend. Instead another supervisor decided we needed to be called on duty at 5:30pm which meant we would have to work all night and then get a short weekend. Of course we all complained, but that made no difference.

We went to work at 5:30 pm. Since we had a very heavy load of ballast and some extra cars of supplies, we ended up having to double Honolulu hill (meaning we didn't have enough power to pull everything over the hill at once so we had to leave some of the train at the bottom of the hill take the first cut to Hurricane and put it on the siding then go back and get the rest pull it all up to Hurricane and put it back together). Needless to say we ran out of life right there at Hurricane (i.e. train crew went dead on hours.) So from there we drove to our homes for the weekend, getting there around 9am Saturday morning. Needless to say it was a short weekend. When we returned to work Monday morning at 7am the dispatcher, who was a good friend of ours, asked, "Are you still the kinder, gentler work train?" My conductor emphatically said, "NO! We're now Dirt Mercenaries and we'll be coming to your town real soon!"

From that time on the legend grew. We continued to help everyone that we could, but that long Friday night made us an even tighter team, us against them mentality. We took pride in getting the job done even if obstacles were thrown in our way. We decided we would have to help ourselves to get the job done because no one else was going to.

About a month later we were being sent north from Anchorage with 33 cars of ballast that had been delivered to the Powder Spur at Eklutna. We knew we couldn't get up and over Honolulu hill with just two locomotives. At that time I believe we had two 2500 hp locomotives. We believed, at least our engineer did, that he could get us over the hill with one more loco added. So I called the chief dispatcher to see if there was an extra locomotive we could use just to get up the hill and then set it on a siding so a freight could pick it up. Unfortunately, it was one of those days when the whole GOB (General Office Building) was having meetings so no one could give us an answer on the power situation. We were going through Anchorage to fuel and service our two locos so when we got to the roundhouse to fuel and sand up we saw the 3020 just sitting there on track 7. We asked the roundhouse foreman if he had any extra power we could use and he said he didn't think so. I asked what about the 3020. He said it had been serviced and was ready to go. Again, I tried the chief dispatcher to see if we could use the 3020. I was told the chief was in meetings and no one else new anything about the power situation. So being good Dirt Mercs we all looked at each other and said it doesn't look like the 3020 is doing anything so we cut our 2500's apart and put the 3020 in the middle and we left Anchorage with all 3 locomotives. Two days later the chief called and asked what locomotives did we have in our consist. We told them we had the 3020. However, by that time we didn't need it anymore because we had already made it up Honolulu hill in one try which saved us one whole day in getting the ballast placed behind the tie gang. Suffice to say that after that little episode the Dirt Merc legend really caught on. Any time there was a lost freight car that the yard office couldn't find we were the first crew to be called and asked, "Do you have car number ???? in your train?" Of course we never did. Later, when we were accused of stealing the 3020 locomotive I said how could we have stolen it since it never left railroad property!!

There have been many Dirt Mercs over the years. You had to have a special attitude to become a Dirt Merc. There were some crew members that never made Dirt Merc status, but once you became a Dirt Merc it's for life. You can never stop being a Dirt Merc.

Dirt Mercs


© 2012 Rich Holzapfel