Most of us remember graduating from a Train Watcher to a Railroad Enthusiast. Much like graduating from one school grade to the next, making that transition took education and a drive to learn. Sometimes, locations served as “schools,” helping us move forward. Frequently, those schools were filled with teachers in the form of friends or family who had an interest in railroads. However, there are times when railroad employees step into that teaching role. Such was the case with my “graduation” from Train Watcher to Railroad Enthusiast.
Through a succession of unusual events in early 1976, I was befriended by an Illinois Central Gulf (ICG) operator who worked evening shift at the ICG Brookhaven, Mississippi Freight Office. He and I would talk about railroad operations and I was soaking up the information he provided as fast as I could. He described a railroad world I had never even imagined. One fateful day everything changed when he invited me to stop by the Freight Office so I could see first hand how the railroad worked.
My first visit left an indelible impression on me. I began to understand how the railroad functioned as a business. I learned about train symbols, operating plans, track layouts and all the mechanical fundamentals that made a railroad work. Perhaps the most important lessons came from watching the employees and how they performed individual tasks that came together to form a business. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was a frequent visitor to the Brookhaven Freight Office, making permanent friendships with many employees in virtually every segment of the railroad’s organization chart.
One scorching summer evening in 1977, I took the accompanying photograph that sort of sums up what the railroad business meant to me. The image shows long distance local MBB (McComb-Brookhaven-Bogalusa) passing the ICG Brookhaven Freight Office as it departs the double track ICG Chicago to New Orleans mainline and approaches the former Mississippi Central mainline. The MBB existed primarily to serve large paper mills at Ferguson station near Monticello, Mississippi, about twenty miles east of Brookhaven, and Bogalusa, Louisiana. It hauled seemingly endless strings of loaded pulpwood cars, wood chip hoppers, tank cars with chemicals for the paper mills, and empty box cars for loading finished paper products.
The MBB originated at McComb, Mississippi, approximately thirty miles south of Brookhaven. Upon reaching Brookhaven, MBB departed the ICG mainline and entered the former Mississippi Central mainline for the twenty mile eastward trip to Ferguson, where it would set out cars at the huge St. Regis paper mill. It would then backtrack to Wanilla, Mississippi and turn south on the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (GM&O) secondary line for the seventy-five mile trip to Bogalusa, Louisiana where it would deliver cars to a paper mill and terminate.
This was local railroading as its finest, with every employee doing a specific job that made the entire business work.
The MBB’s counterpart, BBM, would repeat this process in reverse, originating in Bogalusa and terminating in McComb. The two trains operated daily, but were scheduled such that they didn’t meet along their route. As a general rule, MBB would arrive in Brookhaven in late afternoon or early evening after Amtrak 58, the northbound Panama Limited, passed through town.
Even though it was five years after the Illinois Central/Gulf, Mobile & Ohio merger, dispatching of the former GM&O lines was still performed by GM&O dispatchers in New Albany, Mississippi. Since MBB and BBM had the unique distinction of traveling on former IC and former GM&O lines, the Brookhaven operator had to copy Train Orders from the ICG Chicago dispatcher for the Brookhaven to Ferguson segment, and then contact the GM&O dispatcher to copy Orders for the Ferguson to Bogalusa segment. The Brookhaven operator then had to OS MBB with the Chicago dispatcher and notify the New Albany dispatcher of its expected arrival in Wanilla. It was a painstaking process and one that usually tried the operator’s patience.
In the accompanying image, the Engineer is notching out the throttle on the quartet of Paducah rebuilds after slowing to pick up orders from the Brookhaven yard clerk. The head brakeman is reviewing the pickup and set-out list before exiting the locomotive to align numerous hand throw switches and guide MBB into the former Mississippi Central yard just east of the ICG mainline. The fireman is entering the locomotive cab to deliver the pickup and set-out list and Train Orders to the engineer. Inside the Freight Office, the Brookhaven operator is in the process of sending arrival OS to the Chicago dispatcher and notifying the New Albany dispatcher. This was local railroading as its finest, with every employee doing a specific job that made the entire business work.
Although the business still exists today, it is radically different. Trains now serve the Ferguson and Bogalusa paper mills out of Jackson, Mississippi, approximately 60 miles north of Brookhaven. McComb is now a mere shadow of its former self, with a greatly reduced presence and minus the shops, large classification yard and crew change point that once graced that location. The triple track IC mainline is now down to a single mainline track through downtown Brookhaven. The Freight Office is still there, but under Canadian National ownership. The connecting track where MBB rode is long gone, removed nearly 20 years ago along with the former Mississippi Central yard and diamond.
Call it what you will—progress, innovation, downsizing, efficiency improvement—these changes leave us all a little poorer. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see the railroad business as it was then, because it will never be like that again.
Danny Johnson – Text and Photographs Copyright 2018