Help Wanted – Coopersville & Marne Railway Company

Squire ‘rides the rails’ on historic railway

by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL

Old Faithful – this beautifully maintained 1952 General Motors locomotive is the work horse of the C&M Railway. Photo by CLIFF HILL

All little boys love trains and some never lose that fascination. One such is Rockford resident Andrew Kersting. Squire readers will recall that Kersting founded the Rogue River Project. Since 2005 Kersting has joined forces with Trout Unlimited and local citizens for annual litter clean-up days of the Rogue River. This year Kersting was gratified and more than pleased that the annual event was not necessary because the river was amazingly clean. It seems river users had “gotten religion” and are now policing and cleaning the river themselves.

Volunteers all - Engineer Bruce Quinn at the controls of the locomotive and (L to R) Conductor Al Kolpack, Brakeman Trainee Mike Smith, and Brakeman Andrew Kersting. Kolpack and Kersting are both Rockford residents. Photo by CLIFF HILL

Kersting, 23, is an amazing young man. Not only does he have a love of the environment, he is a volunteer Conductor and a Brakeman with the Coopersville & Marne Railway (C&M).

Recently Kersting contacted the Squire and asked if we would like, one day, to take the short 30-minute drive to Coopersville to “ride the rails” on an authentic old-fashioned passenger trail. One of your reporters still has a hand-carved toy train from his childhood and for him the question was a no-brainer…”Lets GO!”

Last Wednesday morning at 9:00 a.m. found us at the C&M engine house, in the heart of downtown Coopersville, to meet the train’s crew as they were about to prep the locomotive for the day’s two runs.

Engineer Bruce Quinn at the controls enroute to Marne. With 12 years of experience with the C&M Railway, passengers are in safe hands. Photo by CLIFF HILL

The railway’s locomotive is a 125-ton General Motors SW9 switcher, #7014. Built in 1952, the engine is lovingly maintained by the all-volunteer staff of C&M. The 1,200 horse power diesel engine of the locomotive turns a generator which in turn feeds 600 volts of electricity to the traction motors that are geared to the locomotive’s 8 drive wheels.

Along with Kersting acting as Brakeman, the train’s scheduled crew of the day included another Rockford resident Conductor Al Kolpack, along with Engineer Bruce Quinn and Brakeman Trainee Mike Smith, both from Grand Rapids. Kolpack and Quinn are both certified by C&M as Brakeman and Conductors and both hold federal Engineer licenses. The two of them have been volunteers with C&M for a combined 19 years. “Although the Engineer is responsible for the operation of the locomotive,” said Kolpack, “the conductor is the boss on all trains. The train doesn’t move until the Conductor says so!”

Photographer Cliff Hill rides the catwalk on the front of the locomotive as it approaches the caboose to re-couple to the train in Marne. Many passengers had disembarked to watch. Photo by CLIFF HILL

At this point, we all climbed aboard the locomotive for the short city-block ride to the downtown Coopersville station to couple the engine to the already waiting vintage railway cars of the train. Along with the locomotive, the day’s train was comprised of five cars – three passenger cars, a dining car, and a beautifully restored gleaming red caboose. The passenger cars were all of the 1920’s era and the caboose was originally built for the Santa Fe RR in 1945.

After coupling the locomotive to the train, a required brake check was then performed. The Engineer set the brakes and the Brakeman and his trainee walked the entire perimeter of the standing train to verify that all of the brakes on every car were operational. Federally mandated, this brake check is necessary every time a locomotive couples to a single car or a line waiting cars.

The C&M crew agreed that 13-day old Luke Benitez was probably the youngest C&M passenger in the railway’s history. From Grandpa Scott Goodson (not pictured) here from Tennessee on down, Luke’s extended family is a family of railroading buffs. (L to R) Mom Kathy Benitez with baby Luke and Aunt Cindy Blanchard holding Luke’s brother Gus, 1 1/2 yrs. Photo by CLIFF HILL

At this point it was only 9:40 a.m. and the train wasn’t scheduled to depart the station with the day’s ticketed passengers until 11 a.m. So guess what, as is their usual routine, the crew made a beeline to the Delly Belly Bakery on Main St. for coffee and donuts. Of course we tagged along and afforded ourselves the opportunity to learn a little about the history of the all-volunteer historic Coopersville & Marne Railway Company.

The C&M was incorporated on July 13, 1989 and began operations on July 4, 1990. Volunteers for the most part carry out the operations. These train buffs, many since childhood, must complete an appropriate training program and be certified before they may participate as a member of the train crew. Other volunteers help with track work, equipment maintenance, ticket sales, painting, and the like.

Conductor Al Kolpack collecting passenger tickets in a beautifully restored 70 ft. vintage railway car. Photo by CLIFF HILL

During summer months the C&M offers two regular round-trip 14-mile train excursions between Coopersville and Marne on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The railroad offers its passengers a trip back to a simpler time of transportation. Each round-trip lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes. During the trip, the conductor punches passenger’s tickets, describes points of interest along the way, and encourages and answers multiple questions. The train travels at a leisurely 10 MPH making it possible to observe abundant wildlife as well as farm animals. The train is also highly visible for a short stretches, to traffic along the I-96 freeway.

At other times, theme trains are the order of the day. Additionally, throughout the year, charter trains are run for a variety of groups for a variety of reasons.

The C&M does some freight service on a portion of its line between Marne and Grand Rapids. In recent years, the C&M has hauled inbound lumber during the winter for a corporate contract.

Bringing up the rear of the train, this classic lovingly restored 1945 red caboose is available for excursion parties on the C&M Railway. Photo by CLIFF HILL

The railroad’s trackage and right-of-way is owned by the company and dates back to 1858. As much as possible C&M stresses the use and operation of vintage equipment, including proper dress for the train crew. Along with daily either walk-on or pre-purchased ticketing, the railroad also offers charters, excursions, and theme trains March through December.

The C&M Railway is operated as a for-profit company but, in reality, is more like a break-even proposition – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

In order to make this all possible, the railroad relies for the most part on volunteers and the benevolent generosity of the railroad’s president, Jeffrey DuPika. DuPika personally owns the railroad’s locomotive in addition to a 250-ton crane and other equipment. In an act of pure philanthropy and the love of historic railroading, DuPika leases this equipment back to the company for a $1 a year token lease.

Enough history – our one-hour coffee/donut break was over (you can do that when you’re a volunteer) and we all took the short walk back to the train station to board passengers already waiting trackside to experience a trip back in time.

Each of your reporters was afforded the opportunity to ride in the locomotive during one of the two legs of the round-trip journey. What a hoot, including multiple blasts of the train’s whistle at each of the many roadway crossings enroute.

In the locomotive cab, with either of us, were the Engineer in the right-hand seat and the Brakeman in the left-hand seat. The Brakeman was the eyes and ears of the engineer on the left-hand side of the train and its trackage. They both were in 2-way radio communication with the “train boss”, the conductor, in the passenger cars to the rear.

After departing from Coopersville and arriving in Marne, the locomotive uncoupled from the train and reversed direction to a spur (a side track) in order to return to the rear of the train via another spur to again re-couple to the back of the train for the return to Coopersville. Passengers were allowed to disembark and witness the re-coupling.

In order for all of this to take place, it was necessary for the Brakeman to disembark in order to physically and manually throw the switches for the spurs in an act in railroad parlance called “bending the iron.” It goes without saying that after re-coupling another mandatory brake check was required before the train could proceed on its return trip.

On our return to the historic train’s station in Coopersville, we learned that the C&M is always seeking new recruits to serve as volunteers in order to keep this slice of railroading history alive. Those chosen, both men and women, must complete an appropriate training program before they can participate as a member of the train crew. Indeed many of the volunteers, after completing their respective training and becoming certified in one craft, move on to certification in all three disciplines – Conductor, Engineer, and Brakeman. After certification and a period of time enjoying the fruits of their labor as a volunteer, some have even moved on to a full-time career in today’s railroading industry. What a great opportunity for one to learn a trade, receive the gratification of serving as a volunteer for a period of time and then moving on a secure future doing something you’ve loved since you were a kid playing with a model or toy train.

So, if the little urchins (of all ages) are bugging you this summer saying, “I’m bored”, consider “riding the rails” on this historic jewel of a railroad – The Coopersville & Marne Railway.

For information about the Coopersville & Marne Railway Co., schedules, ticketing, special events, theme trains, and volunteer opportunities along with training go to: www.MItrain.net or call 616-997-7000.

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