Helper Districts...

Michigan's Internet Railroad History Museum






Submit a Former Helper District in Michigan





     Railroads use helper engines to push or pull heavy trains over mountains or other unusual track grades.  Sometimes the locomotives are inserted into the middle of the train and operated by remote control from the lead engines.  Michigan has few mountains, but some railroad grades did require the assistance of additional motive power to get over the grade.  Few, if any helper districts are used in Michigan now.  But many existed in the past and this RRHX Gallery attempts to document them.


     To submit a former or present helper district, click on the link at the left.  The example should be in Michigan, or within 50 miles of the state border in an adjacent state.  Please give the location of the grade, the railroad, the base where helper locomotives were based, the location of the end of the district where the locomotives were cut off and returned, the years of operation (if known), and any interesting notes about the operation.  It is our goal to list regular helper operations, not occasional places of operation.


Location - Railroad


Base of Operation

To... Turnaround Location

Years of Operation

Notes about Operation / Source






Big Hill, west of Ionia/ PM


Near Haynor Jct.

Early 1900's

"This was called the 'Big Hill', and by all rights, it was.  Help engines would push west from the Ionia yards were the grade started.  The grade continued north and northwest to just past Haynor Jct. where the line split to either Greenville or Stanton.  The line was operated by the Detroit, Lansing & Northern, and then by the Pere Marquette".  [David Boerema]

Miller Hill



west of MC station.



The Michigan Central and New York Central had helpers for Miller Hill, the westbound grade out of Kalamzoo on the main line.  Helpers were based at the former Kalamazoo & South Haven roundhouse, just west of the MC station.  [Ben Higdon]

Elmira Hill/ GR&I Boyne Falls south Elmira Unknown Turntable for the helper locomotives at Boyne Falls was located on the west side of the GR&I north of the road to Boyne City. [CB]
Elmira, north Boyne Falls Unknown Turntable for the top of Elmira Hill was located on the west side of the GR&I track north of the Village of Elmira.  [CB]

Homestead Hill/AA



Until end of AA Operation

The Ann Arbor used double headers and pushers on what was called the Homestead Hill between Beulah (Crystal Lake) and Tompsonville. Two engines in the front were used, but occasionally a pusher was added. The helper was kept in Elberta, and went as far as Thompsonville, then returned.  [RS] 

Osmer Hill/ AA

Ann Arbor Ferry Yard



AA 10-wheeler helper, pushed trains west (north) up over the Huron River and then to Osmer.  From AAT&TW video. [Steven Williams]

Salem Hill / PM...CSX


South Lyon

Until about 1993 but still occasionally used

1-2 pusher engines attached to the rear of coal and other heavy trains leaving Plymouth for Grand Rapids.  Trains were pushed westbound to South Lyon, where the engine(s) were cut off and returned to Plymouth.  [DJB]

Saugatuck Hill/PM...


Holland (Waverly Yard)



"Helper", near Saugatuck

Until early 1980's but still occasionally used

Saugatuck Hill on the Grand Rapids Sub of CSX.  Not used regularly now, but had a dedicated crew stationed at Holland (Waverly) right up till the early 1980's.  If your train was under a certain weight you were pulled up by the helpers.  Anything over that weight and you were shoved up the hill. The helpers were then cut in at Wells Siding, just south of Fennville., behind the caboose.  When you were pulled up the helpers were attached at a point called "Helper".  There is still an absolute signal there governing the "hill". At one time a short pocket track and wye were in place to turn the steamers used on almost every train at that point.  More info.  [Doc/JEEB]



Saugatuck Hill (CSX)... Crew worked out of Holland (Waverly)... Went west with a two unit set and helped trains up Saugatuck hill, either from Wells siding (w of Fennville) or from Helper (w of New Richmond) to East Saugatuck. If train was "helped" from Helper, it would be a head end helper.  At Helper there was (is)  e and w absolute blocks with about 300 ft between them.  East bound train would stop at the the signal leaving room for the helper engines.  After stopping train would turn off its headlight and the helper set would back down on top of him.  Disp. was usually on the ball and gave the signal to proceed. From Wells it could be at either end of train, depending on the flow of traffic. 
Actual distance really needed was about 2 1/2 miles.  Very high seniority job.  Conductor often patched into trackside phone box with wire, alligator clips and a speaker. Listen to the dispatcher from the engine, and know when a east bound train goes by St Joe bridge when bridgetender OS's him.