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Fish or Cut Bait

Brakeman's Weather
By Bob Ciminel


May 01, 2006


Wednesday, February 20, 2002, dawned cold and rainy in north Georgia. I was up at 5 a.m. for the one-and-a-half hour drive north to Blue Ridge where I would meet Carl, the Georgia Northeastern Railroad engineer I would be working with that day. I had taken a day off from my full-time job in Atlanta to work on the weekly "log train" the GNRR sent from Blue Ridge to Tate, 42 miles south.

I would not be paid for working the freight train; I was strictly a volunteer. However, the opportunity to work a freight train through the North Georgia Mountains was payment enough. Besides, if they paid me, I would feel like I had to do it and it would become just another job. It was certainly more exciting and physically demanding than my regular weekend stint as a volunteer conductor on GNRR subsidiary, Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, hauling excursions back and forth from Blue Ridge 13 miles northward to Copperhill, TN.

jpg Brakeman's weather

Carl and I went on duty in Blue Ridge at 8 a.m., and he informed me that we would have to "deadhead" to Tate in T-4, affectionately known as "Old Yeller," which was one of the GNRR's bright yellow pickup trucks. The railroad was running two log trains that week, and the previous crew "went on the law" the night before and left our locomotives at Tate, returning to Blue Ridge in Old Yeller. A crew goes on the law after being on duty for 12 hours, and Federal law prohibits them from operating a train without a minimum of eight hours rest.

We arrived at Tate about an hour later, only to find one of our two locomotives with its nose protruding out of the shop doorway. A battery change and work on the locomotive air brakes meant we would be delayed. Neither of us complained about waiting for the brakes to be fixed; we had several long, relatively steep hills to contend with on our way back to Blue Ridge. The first being the 5-mile, twisting 2 percent grade at Cagle Mountain the tracks wound down between Jasper and Talking Rock. A second hill farther north at Ella Gap could also be dicey without effective brakes.

Anticipating several hours delay, I grabbed the digital camera I always carried with me on my freight runs and began taking photographs around the shop and yard. As expected, the sunless sky, gray overcast, and morning mist provided limited opportunities for great pictures, but freight cars and locomotives make interesting subjects for railroad aficionados in any light.

It wasn't long before I heard the North Local blowing its horn for the crossing at Tate Depot. I made several shots of the train as it brought a load of empty log racks and hopper cars into the yard. The crew parked the power in the siding and uncoupled the lead engine to use as a switcher in the yard. Their first order of business was to shove the empty log racks back south on the main track for Carl and I to pick up when our engines were ready.

A short time later, the switcher headed back into the yard to head down the Georgia Marble Lead, a 4 percent grade with two switchbacks, that led to the old marble quarries. There, they would pick up two or three cars - the most that could fit on the switchbacks - of marble slurry for the carpet mills up in Dalton or the newsprint plants down south.

The brakeman had lined the switch into the lead and was about to climb aboard for the ride "down the hill" when I snapped a picture. Unfortunately, my camera was at its limits for capturing good resolution under the existing conditions, and especially when zoomed to 3X, but it captured the mood perfectly.

Our day ended at 8 p.m. with our empty log racks in the Byrant Timber siding north of Blue Ridge Depot and our locomotives parked on the main track ready for the weekend tourist operation. It was a long day, and I worried about staying awake for the nearly two-hour drive back home. A big cup of coffee would take care of the drowsiness, and singing along with the Oldies station would relieve the boredom. All in all, it was not a bad vacation.


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Fish or Cut Bait by Bob Ciminel

Bob Ciminel's articles may include satire and parody, and mix fact with fiction.
He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference. Bob lives in Roswell, Georgia, and works for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.  He is also a conductor on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.
Contact Bob at

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