Story: Crystal Falls Barber Is Engineers' Trusty Pal

Escanaba Daily Press, January 8, 1947 By Jack Murphy

Railroad publicity men - some of the big brains out of the head offices - like to whistle off about the safety they're putting on the rails, and the comfort, about deadman controls and the automatic block, about club cars and observation cars.

But go down to the C. & N. W. roundhouse here in Escanaba and ask the engineers about comfort and about safety devices. Just ask them, those men who know every foot of track, every switchlight curve, and grade on the Peninsula division - and they"ll tell you that the best and most reliable safety device on the division is a guy by the name of Dickie Welch who for thirty years has run a barber shop alongside the Main Street crossing in Crystal Falls. They'll tell you, too, that he's a big comfort to an engineer breaking over the brow of the Crystal Falls hill with a drag of iron-ore loads shoving him just a little too fast, the thought of Dickie Welch down there at Main Street crossing is the world's biggest comfort.

Dickie Welch has no connection with the railroad, except maybe in his heart, the way lots and lots of guys have.

For almost thirty years, he's been running this barber shop, and for almost thirty years rails have been going there to get their hair cut, even some who don't have much hair any more, because Dickie Welch is practically a rail himself.

For almost thirty years he's been checking every passage on the Tobin hill. He can tell you who's working where, and what time they tied up. He can tell you how much ore the Tobin mine is shipping, and how things are out at the cheese factory. And for thirty years he's been flagging that Main Street crossing in emergencies.

And emergencies are not too rare on the Crystal Falls hill. The best of them run that crossing. Why, even Danny McCrea almost ran it once - but that was a long time ago, and he had an alibi.

Down at the Escanaba roundhouse, the engineers - the hoggers - will tell you that the trickiest hill on the division is the Crystal Falls hill, the old Schaeffer branch, coming down off the Tobin Mine transfer, down through the town, crossing across Main Street.

It's tricky because of that stop at Main Street. The rules say" "Flag that crossing!" And so, light engine or drag of fifty loads, anyone coming down that hill stops at Main Street to let the head brakeman walk ahead and flag the crossing.

It's tricky because another railroad, The Milwaukee Road, uses the C. & N. W. tracks right there - because when the Crystal Falls switch-job (every engineer on the Escanaba board has caught that job at one time or another) is coming down the hill with their first pull of loads out of the Tobin Mine, that little third class Milwaukee Road run, the Wooden Shoe, comes poking its nose up the hill, makes a pass in front of the Milwaukee Road depot, and then scoots out of town.

The hill pitches abruptly at Third street, and the tracks take a long-curving dive down over street crossings, and around, past Dickie Welch's barber shop, past the Milwaukee Road's depot, and down to the C. & N. W.'s yards at the foot of the hill.

The best of the engineers have run that Main Street crossing - have, at one time or another, let off too much air coming down that first steep pitch, and hit the crossing without air enough to stop the train. Maybe the drag shoves too hard; maybe the hogger miscalculates; maybe the retainers set up on the cars don't hold; maybe........

Well, maybe a lot of things. But when that maybe comes up, the hogger reaches for the whistle cord. He sets the blaster jabbering, blowing for Dickie.

And Dickie'll come - fast. He has to come fast, because the engineer in trouble will hold off admitting it, with the bullheadedness characteristic of the breed, until he's almost on top of the crossing, until he's had time to think up a good alibi.

Just give Dickie a chance, the old timers say. Just give him a chance to set his foot shifting. And he'll be there.

The customer in the shop may be half shaved or half shorn, or shivering with his shampooed head dripping over the lavatory - but Dickie comes running. He may flag the crossing with a razor or a barber's apron, but he'll' have her flagged. Just give him a little warning.

Now, rails don't like dead-heads. There's a big law in the books against the old-time railroad's custom of giving free passes to every little two-bit politician and slob-heavy big-shot in the country, and long before the legislators stopped the practice the rails - the guys who did the actual running of the trains - were grumbling about it.

But there'd be no grumbling if the C. & N. W. would arrange to issue a pass to Dickie Welch of Crystal Falls. There's no telling how many smash-ups he's averted at that crossing or how much money he's saved the C. & N. W. Take vote on it among the Escanaba engineers and you'll find that the eagle-eyes figure annual pass, good over the entire system, is small recompense for Dickie Welch, the Peninsula division's most reliable safety device, and the engineer's comfort.