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Nostalgia & History > Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all

Date: 03/13/19 04:02
Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: Roadjob

Digging through the pile of "extras" from the Hagerstown file, the one thing that was once again brought home was the uniqeness of the Western Maryland's helper operation at Williamsport Maryland. It wasn't Seventeen Mile grade, or even the WM's own climb west out of Cumberland, but it was a classic in its own right. Only six miles long, but stiff enough for most eastbounds to get a push into Hagerstown. What made it special were the helpers themselves. The shop at Hagerstown had no true formula for what was needed at any given time for the pusher of the day. Hence, every day sitting at the Williamsport helper pocket could have a surprise consist waiting for the next push. If there was nothing there, the dispatcher would time the helpers to arrive just as the eastbound was grinding to a stop. Traffic was never heavy here, but it was steady enough to keep it interesting. Alphabet Route trains frequently had N&W power, Westen Maryland had coal trains and some of its own on line generated freight, and B&O kicked in coal trains and a couple of manifests a day. Not exactly sure why, but on most B&O trains the caboose was cut off west of Williamport, and the helpers would go fetch it and put it behind them for the push. Western Maryland kept the caboose attached and just shoved as is. There were sometimes exceptions to the B&O practice, so I was never informed if this was just a crew preference or not. Bottom line, you could work Williamsport for a day, going up and down the hill at various locations. Another sidebar of the times; I could go into the town of Williamsport, use a pay phone to call the WM dispatcher, and they would give you a lineup. Try that today! 

top...Last mile into Hagerstown Yard, B&O practice of Caboose behind in evidence here.1973

middle...Helper is just arriving at Williamsport. He will go into the pocket just right of the units, and wait for his push. When they did this, it was unsually to clear the main for a westbound that would be coming out of Hagerstown

bottom...Light helpers heading for Williamsport. That second unit is indeed an Alco FA unit.1972


Bill Rettberg
Bel Air, MD

Date: 03/13/19 04:08
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: Roadjob

Some more action:

top..By the time helper is going by the cameers, the power is in 8th notch. 1974

middle...what it looked like just before impact 1974

bottom... One look at the front end of what they could be pushing. WM homegrown coal on the hill 1973

Bill Rettberg
Bel Air, MD

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/13/19 04:10 by Roadjob.

Date: 03/13/19 04:37
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: refarkas

You certainly covered interesting helper lashups.

Date: 03/13/19 06:51
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: cr7998

Bill - great shots of this operation.  Williamsport Hill was quite an obstacle for the Western Maryland.  The main line from Cumberland (Ridgeley WV) to Williamsport had only slight grades, 0.3% or less.  The last six miles from Williamsport into Hagerstown were a different story.  Williamsport Hill is where the WM climbed out of the valley of the Potomac River, and it had a maximum grade of just over 1.0%.  WM could run a heavy eastbound train out of Ridgeley Yard with just two or three units and get it as far as Williamsport.  It was the same with the B&O trains out of Cumberland going to Hagerstown via the connection to the WM at Cherry Run / Big Pool.  Almost all eastbound trains needed a shove for those last six miles, unless the train was unusually light.  In the "pure" WM days, the Williamport helper sets usually consisted of four or five 4-axle units, whatever was available at Hagerstown, whether F7's, Geeps, RS3's, BL2's or FA's.  During the 60's and early 70's there were typically four eastbound WM symbol freights, plus two B&O eastbound symbol freights, plus perhaps two or three coal trains a day (either WM or B&O), plus occasional extras (grain trains, coke trains, or extra manifest freights).  So during a 24-hour period, there might be anywhere from six to ten eastbound trains that needed helpers for the climb into Hagerstown.  The peak of the hill was at the westbound hump in Hagerstown Yard.  WM took advantage of that by putting the westbound hump at the peak, with much of the westbound yard on a 1.0% descending grade.  The hump was a "poor man's" hump, with car riders to set the brakes, it never had retarders.  The eastbound "flat switch" yard, east of the hump, was not really flat, as it also was on a grade.  Yard crews working at the east end of the yard would sometimes struggle to shove a heavy cut of cars into one of the yard tracks.    

Things began to change in the early 70's as Chessie System began to take over and integrate WM operations into its own.  Six-alxe units began showing up in the Williamsport helper sets, and so did B&O and Chessie units.  But one could, with a little luck, still catch pure WM sets into the late 70's.  I haven't been back since, and have no idea how CSX handles the hill for the few trains that use this line today.    

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/13/19 07:49 by cr7998.

Date: 03/13/19 06:59
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: ClubCar

Once again Bill, all great photos from the good-ole-days on the WM.  By the way, the photo of the WM F unit #236, I rode on an excursion trip in 1973 where we had two F units and the 236 was the lead unit coming back to Baltimore, and this same unit has been saved and is in the B&O R.R. Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  The museum used to operate it at times, but not in recent years.  I do not know why as most people always enjoyed riding behind that one and only F unit at the museum.  If one goes onto "Google" and puts in "Western Maryland Days at the B&O R.R. Museum,"  there is a video on You Tube with this F unit in action at the museum pulling the museum's home made passenger cars, and with a consist of WM freight cars and a caboose.  It's worth looking at this video.
Thanks for all the great WM and B&O photos that you share with us.
John in White Marsh, Maryland

Date: 03/13/19 07:35
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: Roadjob

Just to piggyback on the nice operations piece that cr7998 tagged onto my thread. I did have one shot I found of a Chessie late 70s version of the Williamsport helper. Taken in 1978, actually the last time I spent any time at Williamsport. It shows the rather mundane helper combo, and the Chessie caboose just staying on the rear of the train, and not placed behind the helper. Traffic had already dropped off because of Conrail taking out the friendly interchange between the former Reading and WM.

Bill Rettberg
Bel Air, MD

Date: 03/13/19 15:11
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: krm152

Sometimes the helpers went out to Pinesburg.
See my TO post at the link below:

Date: 03/13/19 15:12
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: perklocal

Wow, you did it again Bill !  That piece of railroad from Hagerstown to Big Pool, including the B&O connection at Cherry Run was definitely one of the most interesting and diverse operations going back in the day.

Date: 03/13/19 15:26
Re: Hands down, the most interesting helper operation of them all
Author: warren1977

As on many other x-WM lines, it did not end well on this line, although there still is a pair of daily freights to/from Cumberland, along with the pair of stack trains that go through to Chambersburg,PA.  The last moment of glory for this line was in July 2001, when the Howard Street Tunnel fire led to several days of detour traffic.
Williamsport train order office slowly fell to pieces until 4/14/2006, when the remains were arsoned.
There has not been helpers here for a long time, and the hill was single-tracked in the late 1980s?
The MD 63 overpass used in several photos has been replaced with a high-fenced bridge. The right of way is very treed in, making most of the overpasses useless for photos, and standing on either the I-70 or I-81 bridges might get one arrested or killed, since both bridges now sit at the end of busy ramps.

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