Charles began his railroad career as a navvy, serving on crews that laid and maintained tracks. He built a solid reputation over fifty years as a brakeman, conductor, fireman and finally engineer.
The job demanded much of his family, moving frequently to find jobs. As rails were gradually converted to trails it seemed as if he might outlive his usefulness, but Michigan proved to be a good place to prepare for retirement at a slower pace, on a scenic run.
His habit of inspecting the train he was assigned to drive was rooted in his earlier days. He reviewed track conditions, equipment history and weather reports before boarding each locomotive. Thus, he knew that trains on the trestle over the falls near Marquette were limited to 15 miles per hour.
The Christmas Eve run was the last before the three-day holiday. Twenty flatcars loaded with timber were bound for the sawmill.
“You doing ok Charles?” asked Russell, the fireman on this run. “Baker said he’d take it for you.”
“Thanks Russ, no, the work keeps my mind…you know.” Charles looked away, toward the controls and past an assortment of dangling memorabilia. They were deteriorating with age but lovingly protected – a gold medal from a girl’s softball competition, tiny pink ballerina shoes, a trophy for the “world’s best dad.” The train’s headlights illuminated gently falling snow.
Charles turned back to Russell, misty eyed, and spoke softly, “When my wife died I didn’t think I’d make it. I know better now. But Connie and my daughter looked so much alike. It was like losing her twice.”
Russell nodded and took his seat in the cab. He turned on the radio to break the awkward silence. Delilah’s Christmas show was on 101.9. He reached to quickly change the station. Charles grabbed his hand.
“That’s ok. She’d like this,” he whispered and looked through the windshield. “The snow is pretty.”
Darkness fell as the freight pulled away from four trackside loaders, two hundred tons of logs straining behind the engine, the clanking of massive iron couplings challenging each subsequent car, a screeching cascade echoing into the distance.
It wasn’t a long run, perhaps ninety minutes, mostly a slow meandering through hills and forest, passing over a trestle at Dead River falls. It was picturesque by day and serene at night.
Forty minutes passed as the train gradually gained speed and established momentum. A red light on the control board indicated a pressure problem in a brake line, possibly in the caboose.
“Can you check on that Russ?” Charles asked casually.
“Will do,” replied Russell. Conversation with the Senior Engineer had been forced and somewhat uncomfortable. He welcomed the break.
Charles waited a few minutes, then flipped off the false warning light. He locked the throttle, then headed to the back of the cab. A second set of controls allowed him to hydraulically uncouple the next car, an emergency procedure that required a keyed override.
Russell felt a jolt and minor deceleration, but wrote it off to an expected incline, and continued on his way to the Caboose.
The plan had been forming in Charles’ mind since the funeral. He didn’t want anyone else hurt, but wanted to stop the pain that was growing more unbearable with each passing day. Christmas approached like a dark and endless tunnel.
Dead River was two miles ahead. The irony of the name was not lost on him. He knew that an eighty-ton locomotive, fully fueled, would derail at speeds in excess of forty miles per hour. A ninety-foot fall and the ensuing explosion would be hidden by the surrounding hills and quickly be extinguished by the falls.
He pushed the throttle forward, clutched a handful of prized mementos to his chest, closed his eyes and prayed silently as the unburdened locomotive quickly gained speed.