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 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 big. Helper engines would push west from the Ionia yards where the grade began. 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, a 1.41% grade and a rise of 500 feet. 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 railroad 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, and occasionally a pusher was added. The helper was kept in Elberta and went as far as Thompsonville, then returned. These helpers were used until the end of AARR operations. [RS] 

L’Anse Hill on the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic. The DSS&A branch between Nestoria and L’Anse had a significant downward grade as it arrived at the Keweenaw Bay. The railroad maintained a helper crew at the L’Anse depot at the foot of the hill and they had a siding near the top of the hill to reverse the engine.  L’Anse hill had several notable run-a-way accidents over the years, with at least one overturning on a curve at the bottom which wiped out the original L’Anse depot. [BRO]

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 which pushed trains over this hill. [Ben Higdon]

Osmer Hill, between Ann Arbor's Ferry Yard and Osmer on the Ann Arbor Railroad. An AARR 10-wheeler helper pushed trains west (north) up over the Huron River valley 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 Subdivision of the CSX. Not used regularly now, the hill 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 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) crews worked out of Holland (Waverly). They went west with a two unit set and helped trains up Saugatuck hill, either from Wells siding (west of Fennville) or from Helper (west 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 the trackside phone box with wire, alligator clips and a speaker. He would listen to the dispatcher from the engine and know when an east bound train would go by St Joe bridge when the bridgetender OS'd 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.


The following sources are utilized in this website. [SOURCE-YEAR-MMDD-PG]:

  • [AAB| = All Aboard!, by Willis Dunbar, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids ©1969.
  • [AAN] = Alpena Argus newspaper.
  • [AARQJ] = American Association of Railroads Quiz Jr. pamphlet. © 1956
  • [AATHA] = Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association newsletter "The Double A"
  • [AB] = Information provided at Michigan History Conference from Andrew Bailey, Port Huron, MI

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