BUTTERED TRACKS

By Bill Grosboll
July 8, 2007


I recently read some poetry which told of the old steam engine trains coming through Petersburg to begin the long hard climb to the top of the hill northwest of town which brought to mind a story told to me by my father.  Before I get into the story, let me set the scene.  The old steam engines did not have the power of the new diesel locomotives thus it required them to ‘break’ the train before attempting to climb the long grade at Petersburg.  The engineer would split the train in half, sometimes thirds, at an area south of town.  He then would take a portion of the train through town, getting as much speed as he possibly could before starting the long climb.  Once the train got to the top of the hill, known as Hilltop (didn’t take a genius to come up with that name), the cars were parked on the siding and the engine would return back down the hill to pick up the next group of cars.  This procedure was repeated until the entire train was on top and then continued on toward Havana.

Well, as the old steam engine was going up the hill, it huffed and puffed harder and harder as the grade steepened and the harder it pulled, the more the smoke and ash came out the stack.  Along with this smoke and ash, were sparks and during the dry times of the year, would cause grass fires near the railroad.  One big problem the railroad faced as it climbed the hill was the possibility of the engine losing traction which would cause the large drive wheels to spin freely on the rails.  Naturally, if this happen the train would now have to reverse it’s direction and back down the hill through Petersburg to where it began and then make another attempt.  All of this was very time consuming and needed to be avoided if possible.  

It’s seems that two little old ladies (my father called them ‘Old Maids’) lived in the northwest corner of Petersburg and had a pasture located next to the south side of the tracks, just past the old brick yard.  They had problems with the sparks from the train catching their pasture on fire and would file claims with the railroad for their loss.  After several of these claims, the railroad became slower and slower in making restitution to the Old Maids, much to their displeasure.  The little old ladies decided it was time to settle things with the railroad, so they took it upon themselves to go down to the tracks and put butter on the rails in an area of steep incline.  When the engine reached this buttered track, the wheels immediately began to spin and required them to back down the grade and return to the flat to get another run at the hill.  This all took considerable time and while the train was gone, the Old Maids buttered the tracks again, which caused the whole episode to repeat itself.  The engineer decided that something must be amiss and after backing down the grade, walked back up the tracks, which was quite a walk, and inspected them and discovered the butter.  After cleaning the tracks and posting one of the crew at the area, the train once again backed south of town and made another run, this time making it to the top.  The two little old ladies never had any further problems with the railroad honoring their claims.

 

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