Keeping the Northern Pacific Railroad Rolling: An interview with Lowell O’Brien, Bridge and Building Crewman

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On February 16, 2016 I interviewed Lowell O’Brien in Bemidji. Lowell and his crew repaired or rebuilt
most of the wooden piling-type train trestles along the Northern Pacific rail line between Bemidji and
International Falls, as well as further south towards Brainerd.

Lowell was raised by his parents, Guy R. and Blanche O’Brien, near Hines, MN. His Grandparents were
living in in Gemmell, MN. at the time—as his Grandfather worked for a cedar pole company. In fact,
Lowell was born in Gemmell—his mother went to there to stay with her parents as the time
approached for his birth (July 7, 1922). His maternal Grandparents were named Frank and Gertrude
Cook. They had moved from the Detroit lakes area to find work in the woods.

Lowell grew up and started work with the Northern Pacific Railroad—January 1, 1949—and was hired
out of Bemidji onto the Bridge and Building crew. That crew had responsibility for projects from
Bemidji to International Falls, as well as other assignments.

An interesting side note is that Lowell and his brother-in- law, Albert Pater Jr., bought the original two-
story train depot in Northome (built in 1903). Between 1950 and 1952 they tore the large depot down
and salvaged a large amount of lumber and maple flooring. They used some of the lumber themselves.
For example, Lowell and his father built a house on the east shore of Gull Lake along the old Main
Street, south of the old Tenstrike logging rail spur (from the main line down to Gull Lake), but north of
the gravel street which runs out to the tar road (Co. Rd. #29). Lowell stated that he moved into the
house in 1953.

As part of his job, Lowell also helped to construct the “new” (replacement) Northern Pacific depot,
(circa 1952), at Northome. It was one story in height and was located on the west side of the main
track— a few hundred feet north of the old, or original depot. That “new” depot was eventually sold.
Steve Dahl and Dr. Don Prosser, a former Northome Dentist, moved it out to the shore of Island Lake
south of Northome and used it as a cabin (Frenzel property in 2016).

Northern Minnesota is a land of lakes and waters and in a number of locations swampland must be
crossed with the rails to carry the train to its destination. One feature of Northern Minnesota is the
lowlands which have extensive deposits of organic or peat soils. The peat is formed from woody and
non woody plants which have lived and then died and formed layers of wet, rotted material.
Sometimes the layers are shallow, but many times they can be 30 to 50 feet in depth or more. Under
the right conditions, they turn into “sinkholes” which, even with today’s equipment, can be a real
challenge to cross with highways or rail grades. Many times in the history of Northern Minnesota,
equipment has settled into the peat and been retrieved with great difficulty or in a number of cases,
the machinery has been lost forever down in the wet, structure less bog, never to be seen again.

When the M and I (Minnesota and International which later became the Northern Pacific) Railway was
being constructed northward from Bemidji, in the fall of 1901 (December 9,1901), the construction
progress was halted because a wide, difficult sinkhole area was encountered by Coburn Creek, in
Blackduck. The crossing required the construction of a trestle of at least 500 feet in length. The trestle
and sinkhole are located just northeast of where the present (2016) Coop elevator is located in
Blackduck.

As part of Lowell’s work duties, he helped to replace the diagonal piling bracing of the Blackduck trestle
in the 1950’s.

The Northern Pacific Railroad Co. (NP) had two different “pile drivers” which Lowell and his crew
utilized in their work of pile driving. Piling is an interesting term describing usually long wooden poles,
sometimes steel in other construction, which are driven into soft ground, deep enough to become
stable and to support heavy loads. Railroads often utilized wooden piling, because wooden piling were
readily available, strong, durable, and would bend a little—but not break easily.

The rotting process of wooden pilings takes place over time through the activity of microorganisms,
usually fungi. The microbes need moisture and oxygen, in favorable amounts, in order to break down
the wood fiber (we call it rotting). As with fence posts around the farm, the most extensive rotting
usually takes place at ground level, or with pilings, where the wood emerges above the surface of the
water.

The preservative treatment to the wooden pilings has to be a product that blocks the growth of the
fungi and penetrates into the sapwood of the piling. Higher up on the piling it is often too dry for rot to
proceed, and down below the ground or water surface, it is too wet or there is not enough oxygen for
rotting to occur. Certain tree species also contain naturally produced chemicals which help to inhibit
rotting (in addition to the treating compounds). Creosote type products seemed to give the best results
for wooden tie and piling preservation). Nowadays the piling is treated with a preservative to inhibit
rot and to help the piling last a long time.

Lowell started out as a fireman on the pile drivers and in a short time moved up to the job as operator.
As I understand it, both the little pile driver and the larger unit were steam powered. The “little” driver
was self-propelled and generated steam by means of a coal fired boiler. To properly operate the
machine, it was necessary to build a fire each morning before work began. The water in the boiler
heated up to a temperature where lots of steam was produced in order to operate the steam powered
pile driver piston and other related functions on the pile driver unit.

Lowell was taught how to fire the machine to get the most steam production by a fireman on that
smaller driver. The fireman was a good fellow and had figured out how to best distribute the coal in

the firebox so as to get the most steam production and most “mileage” or BTUs out of the coal. The
“Working pressure” of steam in the little driver was 145psi.

The smaller pile driver was kept in Minnesota and was utilized when possible. Although one-time
Lowell had to go out to Missoula, Montana to help bring the larger or Western pile driver unit back to
Minnesota. Lowell related that they used the little pile driver at Leech Lake on the trestle repairs, but
in one location especially, the large driver was needed for driving the extra-long (130 feet) Douglas fir
pilings.

There was a deep spot in Leech Lake part way along the trestle that required 130-foot poles instead of
the usual 100-foot ones. This was in the area of the old Ah-Gwa- Ching facility and Shingobee Island.
There are usually 5 pilings in each row on the trestle. The middle one is straight up and down, and the
two pilings on either side are driven at an angle pointing inward slightly. Lowell stated that there
wasn’t a gauge on the machine to determine the angle of the poles. The experienced crewman or
foreman stood out ahead of the pile driver and motioned the operator of what angle was correct for
each pole being driven. The operator would then move the right levers to get the desired piling aimed
properly.

The pilings usually arrived by railcar and before being driven into the ground the men would taper both
ends of the piling so as to minimize the chances of splintering or breakage of the pole while it was
being driven. The tapering was done manually with an adze, which is an axe-like tool—lots of physical
exercise for the men. Often times the dead of winter was when much of the trestle construction or
repairs were done because a thick layer of ice was needed to help support the equipment. Manually
operated ice saws were often utilized to cut access holes through the ice—meaning that you often got
wet and cold on a regular basis.

The larger or Western pile driver was better to operate according to Lowell. It was needed for driving
the longer pilings, and was an oil fired firebox/boiler situation. Lowell said that he would arrive early
and would put waste rags or paper into the firebox, along with a little oil #2 diesel fuel he thought) to
get the fire going. He would then would open the supply valve more and more as the fire grew more
intense and needed more heat. The larger oil-fired pile driver worked out better and often times, with
the bigger machine, they could drive 2 or 3 pilings before they had to add more water (to the boiler)
and oil to the firebox to get the working pressure back up to 145psi.

The driving hammer assembly weighed 12,000 lbs., and its pounding action was controlled by the
machine operator as to how many strokes per minute were desired for the work. Lowell related that
on the big machine, if desired, you could get 90 blows/minute, but if you did, the wooden piling could

easily be shattered and ruined. Lowell stated that 45-50 blows per minute got a lot of work done, and
the pilings stayed in good shape as they were being hammered down into the lake bottom, swamp or
other situation. I asked him how they knew when the piling was down deep enough, and he said that
their rule of thumb was that if the piling was only going down ¾ of an inch per blow, that that was a
solid enough placement. If, for example, the piling was moving downward at 3 inches per blow, then it
was best to keep driving for a more solid placement.

Lowell said that they ran into an unusual repair situation on the old (original NP) trestle by Shingobee
Island on Leech Lake. The original pilings, installed sometime around the year 1900, were round and
were probably from native wood such as Red Pine. The pilings would not have been treated with a
preservative in the early days. Square timbers had been fastened on top of the round ones and then
held by bracing in order to make the repairs. To complete the repairs, the crew had to cut through the
ice with hand (man powered) ice saws and deal with the situation.
At times, old pilings have to be removed. Lowell explained that they would hook onto the piling with
the crane, back up the crane, and pull at an angle in an attempt to break off the piling as low as
possible—down at the soil surface so that the stub remaining would not cause problems for future
activities.
Some of the accompanying pictures (courtesy of Lowell O’Brien) show the construction of a
replacement trestle across Leech Lake, in the early 1950’s. One of the disadvantages of the smaller pile
driving machine was that it was coal fired and had to be “fired” in a certain way to get the most steam
production. You had to distribute the coal around the bottom of the firebox to get the most surface
area and, when the steam pressure got up to 120psi, you would turn on the draft blower to blow air
onto or through the fire to get lots more heat and thus a greater volume of steam.

After driving only one piling, however, the steam pressure or output would drop, and would need to be
fired again—of course adding more water to the boiler for safety reasons and also for replacement of
the water/steam that had been expended while driving the piling. Later on, perhaps at the end of the
day, it was necessary to cool the firebox down, remove the clinkers, etc. That smaller pile driver
machine had a coal tender car coupled or attached for carrying a supply of coal for the boiler/firebox.
Prior to the year 1970, pulpwood in 100-inch lengths was commonly loaded onto train cars—after
being manually loaded onto rubber-tired trucks out in the woods—and then hauled to a railroad siding.
Loading docks or platforms were commonly constructed alongside the railroad side tracks so that the
trucks could drive up by the rail cars and unload the pulpwood into or onto the train cars. Lowell
helped to construct or maintain some of these loading docks. Having the loading docks made the work
somewhat easier for the loggers, although, until the advent of mechanical pulp loaders, it remained
brutally hard work for the woodsmen.

Lowell reported that when he started working for the NP, based out of Bemidji, his starting pay was 95
cents per hour, based on an 8-hour work day. His day was often a lot longer than 8 hours because he
had to tend to the boiler and firebox duties, as well as driving to work quite a distance, depending
upon the location of the project.

Back in the 1950’s, and for a number of years later, while a project was going on it was common for the
NP to have what was called a “work train” which would accompany the pile driver and would have a
bunk car and also a cooking rail car, where the work crew would eat and sleep. The work train would
be parked on a side track somewhere off from the main line, to allow the regular freight and passenger
trains to go by.

Lowell and the crew repaired or rebuilt most of the wooden trestles along the NP rail line between
Bemidji and International Falls, as well as further south towards Brainerd, MN. However, in winter,
when the Iron mines would shut down because of cold weather, Lowell and his crew would get more
work repairing the iron ore loading docks in the Duluth/Superior area. I have worked outside for a lot
of my life and can well imagine how cold the working conditions were for Lowell and his crew. When
you are working in the woods, you usually have the forest for partial protection from the often-present
cold winds—whereas the Bridge crew was nearly always out in the unprotected locations, dealing with
cold and often wet circumstances.

I enjoyed visiting with Lowell about “the old days” and hope that we can continue to learn more about
the life of the railroad workers.

by Bernie Uran  

One thought on “Keeping the Northern Pacific Railroad Rolling: An interview with Lowell O’Brien, Bridge and Building Crewman

  1. Great article and pictures. One of my Uncles Roy Andereson worked on road crew for most or all of his career with NP. Roy might have been a electrician but I am not sure. My father and another uncle worked at the Mississippi shops in St. Paul. I spent one summer working as part of a Bridge and Building crew in the St. Paul area.

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