Frigid winter air measures in the single digits and the fallen snow that covers the wilderness floor nearly doubles and triples that number in inches. Distant chugs bounce off the rocky hills, echoing through forests of pine trees and filing the otherwise dead, quiet air with a refreshing sign of life. Traits such as these are how one could describe winter operations on the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railway in Michigan's northern Upper Peninsula. An ore carrier with a storied history that dates back to 1896, the LS&I of today still remains a scene of those days gone by, shuttling around rolling stock dating back to pre-World War II while operated by some of the last General Electric U30C and C30-7 locomotives in the country. A far cry from the over 100 miles of track this joint used to operate over, the current 20 mile section stretching between the city of Marquette and the Cleveland-Cliffs Tilden Mine near Ishpeming is all this railroad needs to keep trains operating around the clock shuttling jennies full of steaming iron ore to anxiously awaiting freighters docked along the shore of Lake Superior.
Today's "7-Tilden" job, piloted by the railroad's only pair of ex-BN U30C "U-Boats," bends through the rugged hillside as they drag 60 fresh loads out of the mine for the docks at Marquette, passing the searchlight distant signal for the begin CTC with Canadian National at Eagle Mills Junction just around the corner.
Against all the odds, reaching their late 40s into year 2022, the clock is ticking on these old, worn-out, cascade green and white workhorses and one could maybe mistake the sound of their chugging 7FDL-16s motors for the beautiful song of a swan crying out just before its death. Newer AC traction wide-cab locomotives have dwindled the fleet of the "Universals" down to just these last two and word on the street is that this could be their last winter turning a wheel in revenue service for LS&I.
Keep Calm and Chug on