Joe Ganger, president of the Community Historical Society of Colon, gave a PowerPoint presentation on railroads in Colon and the surrounding communities at a meeting of the St. Joseph County Historical Society on Sunday (June 9) at the Constantine Township Library.
“In my lifetime, everything came by rail. The railroad was important. Lots of industries depended on it,” he said. Colon got a railroad on July 4, 1871. By 1876 the railroad hauled flour, hogs, sheep, cattle and grain.
“Stagecoaches only travel 6-8 mph. They flourished until the railroad came along,” he said.
Ganger said the worst train wreck in the history of the Michigan Central Railroad Company occurred in Colon in 1930.
“Forty cars westbound from New York to Chicago over the old air-line railroad piled up in a tangled mass about a mile east of Colon, at the old gravel pit owned by the railroad west of DeWitt’s crossing. The train had 73 cars. No one was injured as neither engine or caboose left the rails. The crash was heard a half mile away. It seemed the rear cars would never stop piling up in that jam. The topmost car was 40 feet in the air. Damage from the wreck ran into thousands of dollars. The cargo on the 40 cars included automobiles, coal, steel, food, most of it crushed or strewn along the tracks,” Ganger said.
He discussed the roll of the “Gandy dancer”, a slang term used for early railroad workers who laid and maintained the tracks. Rail tracks were held in place by wooden ties with a mass of crushed rock beneath. The centripetal force and vibration caused by a passage of a train would produce a tiny shift in the tracks. Such shifts eventually could cause a derailment, and work crews had to pry tracks back into place. Men refilled the ballast (gravel) between the railroad ties, replaced rotted cross ties, and either turned or replaced worn rails, driving spikes to lock them to the cross ties. Each section gang typically maintained 10 to 15 miles of track.
“It was hard work. Section gangs were paid $1.25 a day, worked ten hours a day, six days a week. They earned $399 a year, not bad pay. Compare that to a school teacher. She made $400-$500 a year. The superintendent made $1,000.”
A business meeting was held following the presentation, and refreshments were served.
Joe Ganger will give a PowerPower presentation on Lamb Knit Good Company in Colon at the next St. Joseph County HIstorical Society. It will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 13 at Constantine Township Library. The public is invited. For more information, call (269) 483-9593.
Source: Story and photos contributed by Angie Birdsall.