Helper Districts

Though Michigan is not a mountainous state, it does have hills and some steep railroad grades. In other states with mountain ranges and railroad grades approaching 3%, helper locomotives are still common.

A helper locomotive normally attaches onto the rear of a freight train at a designated point, and assists by pushing the consist up and over the hill, detaching from the train at the top and returning back to wait for the next train to assist.

With the advent of high powered, high adhesion diesel locomotives, there really are not any helper districts left in our state. But this was not the case between 1850 and 1950 when helper locomotives were deployed in various locations throughout both peninsulas.

Here are some of the locations where helper locomotives were regularly used in Michigan:

Big Hill, west of Ionia on the Pere Marquette. 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". Time period: Early 1900's. [David Boerema]

Elmira Hill, between Elmira and Boyne Falls on the Grand Rapids & Indiana. For southbound trains a pusher hooked up at Boyne Falls and pushed up hill. There was a turntable for the helper locomotives at Boyne Falls (located on the west side of the GR&I north of the road to Boyne City). A turntable was also located at the top of Elmira hill to turn helper locomotives from either direction.  For northbound trains, a helper hooked up at Elmira. [CB]

Homestead Hill, between Elberta and Thompsonille on the Ann Arbor Railroad. The Ann Arbor used double headers and pushers on what was called the Homestead Hill between Beulah (Crystal Lake) and Thompsonville. 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. These were used until the end of AARR operations. [RS] 

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

Osmer Hill, between Ann Arbor's Ferr Yard and Osmer on the Ann Arbor Railroad. An AARR 10-wheeler helper pushed trains west (north) up over the Huron River and then to Osmer which was east (south) of Whitmore Lake.  From AAT&TW video. [Steven Williams]

Salem Hill, between Plymouth and South Lyon on the Pere Marquette/C&O/CSX. One or two pusher engines were attached to the rear of coal and other heavy trains leaving Plymouth for Grand Rapids in an effort to get over Salem hill. Trains were pushed westbound to South Lyon where the engine(s) were cut off and returned to Plymouth. This continued into 2010. [DJB]

Saugatuck Hill, between Waverly Yard in Holland to "Helper" near Saugatuck on the Pere Marquette/C&O/CSX. Saugatuck Hill was on the Grand Rapids Sub of CSX. Not used regularly now, it had a dedicated crew stationed at Holland (Waverly Yard) 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. Saugatuck Hill (CSX) crew worked out of Holland (Waverly). They 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) east and west absolute blocks with about 300 ft between them. East bound trains would stop at the the signal leaving room for the helper engines. After stopping a train would turn off its headlight and the helper set would back down on top of him. The dispatcher 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 2.5 miles. The helper was a very high seniority job. The conductor often patched into trackside phone box with wire, alligator clips and a speaker. He would listen to the dispatcher from the engine and know when a east bound train would go by St Joe bridge when bridgetender OS's him. [Doc/JEEB]

Wolverine on the Michigan Central. The Michigan Central maintained a permanent pusher crew for northbound trains north of Wolverine. Wolverine also had a wood coaling tower and large wooden water tower.