GB&W crew remembers its last train

Posted by John Gruber
on Tuesday, August 28, 2018

As the last GB&W train arrives at Wisconsin Rapids on August 28, 1993, its crew walks to the office for final instructions. Photo by John Gruber
It was 25 years ago (Aug. 28, 1993) when the Green Bay & Western’s last train pulled into Wisconsin Rapids, ending service on Wisconsin’s 255-mile east-west railroad famous for its Alco locomotives.

I was the only photographer there at 5 a.m. to record the event. Usually, the freight train went through to East Winona, Wis., but because of the sale to a Wisconsin Central subsidiary, it was terminated at the Rapids. The last train, No. 1 (extra 311 west), left Green Bay at 9 p.m. with caboose No. 115. It pulled into the Rapids with 49 loads and 12 empties. The railroad officially shut down at 5:55 a.m.

“We had a very easy trip and when we came into the Rapids we tied up. John Milquet who was in charge of the Rapids came out and said you are all done. We have a taxi cab here and we are going to send you home,” said Ken Johnson, the locomotive engineer who joined GB&W in 1955. His farewell sign, taped to locomotive No. 311, stayed on the engine for the whole trip.

Mike Ostertag and Bob Vander Leest review paperwork after the last GB&W train pulled into Wisconsin Rapids a few minutes earlier. Photo by John Gruber
Robert Vander Leest, the conductor, signed the register for the last time at Wisconsin Rapids when the trip ended. “It was pretty much a routine trip to the Rapids. They had us run a little later so we could clean up everything in Green Bay. We met No. 2 at Oneida. They went in the siding, we held the main line. We did the rest of the work along the way. We picked up or set out at Black Creek, New London, Manawa, Plover, and Americold. We got to the Rapids, put the engines on the roundhouse tracks, went back home in the cab,” according to Vander Leest, an employee since 1966 and chairman of the United Transportation Union. From the time the sale was announced in January 1992 he wore a cap saying, “Green Bay & Western: More Than the Name Will Change.”

Vander Leest recalled fast running near New London when he was riding in the caboose. “Kenny said something about the welded rail around New London. ‘Let her go all you want, Kenny,’ I replied. I never knew how fast he was going because I didn’t have a speedometer in the caboose, but he was going. The generator in the back, it was howling. We were passing cars on highway 54. I don’t know how far, or how much he let her go, but he let her go.”

Unlike the other two, Mike Ostertag, the brakeman, had worked for the GB&W for less than a year. He did not know it would be the last night until he showed up at the yard office. “We all signed everything in red pen, including the track warrants, made sure it was known this was the last set of paperwork. It seemed like just another trip, sounds cliche, boring, other than our own pomp and circumstance. We were told to turn in our keys, put power away, that was it. I felt really lost, like someone ripped my heart right out of my chest,” he said.

The last GB&W crew lines up at Wisconsin Rapids for an informal portrait: Bob Vander Leest, Ken Johnson, and Mike Ostertag. All live in Green Bay today. Photo by John Gruber
Because of the New York Dock labor protection agreements negotiated by Vander Leest and other union leaders, Wisconsin Central had to hire Ostertag. He went to work for WC and now works for its successor, Canadian National. Johnson retired in 1996 and Vander Leest in 1997.

“I loved it. To this day guys that worked or are still working out of Green Bay, when the GB&W gets brought up, they always talk about it with great passion and respect,” Ostertag said. In addition to Ostertag, Bob Anderson is working as locomotive through Sept. 14 in Green Bay. Three also are working in the Rapids area: Steve Hintz and Darrell Tolzman (conductors on GB&W, now engineers) and Kylie Murray (still a conductor).

Itel sold its other railroad, Fox River Valley, incorporated in 1988, at the same time. It and the GB&W had been jointly managed at the time of the sale.

For most, the attraction was GB&W’s all-Alco locomotive roster. For me, it was the opportunity to record the employees at work, such as the three interviewed here. I showed my photos at a holiday party in the Rapids in 1992, and was pleased to find they were impressed.

In addition to its locomotives, GB&W will be remembered for its dependable freight service, self-contained repair shops, financial structure, family traditions, and well-maintained property. But most of all, it will be recognized for its dedication to traditional railroading, right to the end.

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