Ralph Melchert Remembers Riding Trains
Although born in Chicago, IL, I grew up on a farm about two miles east of Seymour, WI. My parents, Ray and Lucy (Vanden Heuvel) Melchert, were from the Seymour area but were living in Chicago when I was born. In 1940, when I was two years old, we moved from Chicago to the farm, which at the time was owned by my grandfather, William Vanden Heuvel. The Green Bay and Western, often referred to as the “Green Bay Route”, went through a portion of the farm, but today the GB & W is gone, and people ride bicycles on the trail where trains formerly traveled.
Although this incident occurred years before I was born, I remember a neighbor who had a farm adjacent to ours, and who has long since passed away, telling me about the time when a Green Bay and Western passenger train became snowbound. (The GB & W did run passenger trains until about 1948.) Lon Chaney, a famous movie star of the silent era, along with a crew and a cast of actors were on their way to Upper Michigan to make a movie, for which they needed snow, when the train they were riding became snowbound about two miles east of Seymour. (This must have been during the 1920s because Lon Chaney passed away in 1930.) Anyway, our neighbor remembered taking food with a horse-drawn sleigh to the train, which was snowbound for two days. People came with shovels to help free the train. I’ll bet the Hollywood people were surprised to see so much snow before they got to Upper Michigan!
Later I found that this incident probably occurred in 1929, because in that year Mr. Chaney made his last silent film, “Thunder”, in which he was cast as a railroad engineer. Snow scene footage was shot in both Green Bay and Manitowoc, and Mr. Chaney contracted walking pneumonia during the shooting of the film. This illness combined with his throat cancer led to his death in 1930.
When my parents took over the farm in 1940, income was pretty scarce, and factory workers were needed for the war, so during WWII my father worked at the shipyards in Chicago during the winter, since there was no field work, and we had a hired man who took care of the dairy cows. Every Friday night my dad would come home, and my mother would drive to the Chicago and Northwestern station in Green Bay to pick him up. On Sunday night we would take him back to the station for his return to Chicago. I was impressed with the streamlined passenger trains, especially the diesel engines, which may have been EMD E-2s, E-3s or E-5s, but I was too young to know. The train was either the “Peninsula 400” or “Valley 400”, I believe, but we just called it the “400”. At least one time my dad’s ride to Chicago was after a football game. He said he noticed empty beer bottles rolling on the floor of the car with each movement of the train. Sometimes he may have taken the Milwaukee Road’s “Chippewa Hiawatha”, but I remember mostly the “400”.
Our farm had the house and farm buildings on land on the south side of Highway 54, but the rest of the land was a little to the east and on the north side of the highway. It was on this portion of the farm that the railroad went through, leaving about forty acres on the north side of the tracks. Our cows were often pastured on this land during the day (but never at night), and we had to make sure there was no train coming when the cows were crossing the tracks. The land was fenced, of course, and we had gates on each side of the tracks. We made sure the cows were closely grouped together before allowing them to cross in order to reduce the crossing time. (There were several trains each way during those years.) However, one time when the cows were coming home for the evening milking, one cow decided to separate herself from the others and headed east along the tracks. Just then to our shock, a westbound train appeared, and we were sure the cow would be hit and killed. We were relieved when we saw the engineer shoot steam out the side of the engine at the cow to keep her from going on the tracks. Quick thinking by the engineer saved our cow. I think the engine was a 2-8-2 Mikado, but I was too young to know at the time. Our neighbors to the west were not as fortunate. One time an unexpected train frightened the cows who were going across the tracks, causing some cows to panic and run through the barbed wire fence, resulting in severe cuts to their udders.
When I was growing up, the GB & W had a depot in Seymour with a station agent. A railroad car, which contained merchandise for the local stores, would be left on a siding daily or nearly daily. Tank cars would bring in petroleum products, and cattle would often be shipped out to stockyards in Green Bay and Milwaukee. Carloads of farm machinery would arrive for the local farm implement dealers. As a kid it was a sight to see a carload of shiny new tractors parked on the siding. Canned vegetable s were shipped from the canning factory, and grain and feed supplements for livestock would come to the local feed mills. I also remember one occasion when bales of hay from our farm and other farms as well, were loaded into boxcars headed for a drought-stricken area.
We had a relative in Kaukauna who sent a crate of eggs on a regular basis to another relative who ran a restaurant and motel just outside of Hurley, Wis. The eggs were shipped in the baggage car of the “400”, so the fresh eggs arrived the same day as they were sent. A question in my mind is why the restaurant did not obtain the eggs closer to Hurley, but the relatives who could answer this question are no longer with us. In those days trains were a part of daily life for many, if not most people.
My father liked trains and preferred steam engines over diesels. He knew one of the engineers who operated a 2-8-2. As I recall, this engineer told my dad they had just overhauled the 2-8-2s (There were six of them.), but shortly thereafter the railroad converted to diesels, which my dad thought was a shame.
The first diesels on the GB & W, other than switchers, that I am aware of were the Alco FA units, which some say were the best looking diesels ever. They were streamlined and impressive. The hood units that later replaced them were maybe more efficient but were not as handsome.
I mentioned that our farm had forty acres on the north side of the tracks. It was really a little less than that, as I will explain. There was a two or three acre wedge-shaped parcel which bordered the south side of the railroad right of way and projected a little to the east between the right of way and the neighbor’s farmland to the east. I could never understand why there was this little odd-shaped parcel that belonged to our farm. Why didn’t it belong to the neighboring farm? It was fortunate that it did belong to our farm, however. The rest of our farm was all under tillage, but this little parcel was difficult to farm although ideal for planting trees, and I did just that as part of my 4-H forestry project. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized how this little parcel of land came to be. While looking at a plat book one day it dawned on me that this little parcel was part of the forty acres that was bisected when the railroad tracks came through, leaving it cut off from the rest of the forty. At first glance it would seem this parcel should be part of our neighbor’s farm to the east, but in reality it was part of our farm’s forty that the railroad cut through. Being small and odd-shaped, it was not convenient for farming, but it was an ideal little parcel for a 4-H forestry and wildlife project. In a way, I have to thank the GB & W for indirectly giving me this opportunity for a 4-H project.
Although I enjoyed riding trains, we did not use them much for pleasure travel, so to speak. It was for more utilitarian reasons, although I vaguely remember riding back with my mother on the Chicago and Northwestern from Milwaukee. I don’t remember the purpose of the trip, but it was probably to visit relatives.
My dad had three brothers who owned a car dealership in Seymour, Melchert Brothers, selling Hudson, (which became part of American Motors, and which in turn was purchased by Chrysler), Buick, and International trucks. On occasion, when farm work permitted, my dad and others would travel to Kenosha or Milwaukee to pick up and drive new autos back for the dealership. If there were several cars to pick up someone might take the drivers down by auto. Often though, the drivers would take the train (C & NW “400”) from Appleton, and if Dad were one of the drivers, he would sometimes take me along for the ride. Later, when I was able to drive, I would take the train and pick up an auto myself. One time during vacation from college, as I recall, I took the train to Springfield, Ohio, to pick up an International truck at the IH truck factory there, but I don’t recall what railroad I took from Chicago to Springfield. As I mentioned, in those days I did not ride as a rail fan for the most part. Anyway, I arrived at the plant to pick up the truck, which was to be made into a milk truck back home.
Everything seemed to be in order, and the trip home seemed without problems. However, going around Chicago, not on the tollway but on US 45, I think, I suddenly heard a loud screeching noise coming from the transmission. What was I to do? Just then I noticed an International truck dealership about a block away down the road. Furthermore, it was early enough on Saturday to arrive before noon closing. When a mechanic checked the transmission he found the oil to be very low. Apparently they did not put in the required amount at the factory, and after the mechanic put in transmission oil, the screeching noise stopped, and I was able to reach home without incident or dam age to the transmission.