For Michael Gross, ‘Santa Fe’ means ‘Grandpa’

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, December 4, 2020

Chester Gross, grandfather of actor (and railroader) Michael Gross, stands at Fort Madison, Iowa, in 1916, a couple of years after he hired out with the Santa Fe. Michael Gross collection
There’s a good chance anyone reading this blog has a family connection to railroading. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the readers of Classic Trains came to the railroad faith via a relative, mostly likely a father or grandfather or uncle. 

That was never truer than for Michael Gross, the film and television actor and Santa Fe devotee. Gross not only has followed the history and fortunes of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway for most of his life, he also models it and, for several years, even co-owned a small piece of it. Now that’s devotion. 

I got to know Michael nearly 20 years ago when Kalmbach asked me to produce a pair of videos for the model railroad industry as part of a promotion called “World’s Greatest Hobby.” Michael was incredibly generous in offering his services to host both of them, one on-camera, the other as a voice-over artist. We spent three very enjoyable days together, working in Milwaukee-area video and audio studios and doing some filming at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay as well as in the Model Railroader work room at Kalmbach.

We had a chance for a brief reunion a couple of weeks ago when both of us joined filmmaker Rich Luckin on a panel for an online celebration of restaurant and hotel pioneer Fred Harvey, hosted by Harvey author Stephen Fried, whose book Appetite for America is a classic. I think we all had a lot of fun exploring the Harvey myth, and I came away impressed again by Michael’s command of Santa Fe lore.

Chester Gross poses for a portrait at Fort Madison in 1947, the year his grandson Michael was born. Michael Gross collection
Michael comes by it honestly, thanks to his grandfather, Chester “Chet” Samuel Gross, who spent most of his working life at Shopton, home of Santa Fe’s shops and yard in Fort Madison, Iowa. Michael grew up in Chicago and treasured the family’s trips to Fort Madison, where the railroad’s Illinois Division met the Missouri Division. There, young Michael got to do some things a lot of kids only dream about. 

“I rarely saw him on the job, as I would have only been in the way,” says Michael. “My trips were confined to ‘after hours’ and on weekends, when he would escort me through the yard office, roundhouse, reading room, shops, and yards, and let me run through the numerous cabooses on the caboose track.

“One of my earliest memories was accompanying him to the yards where a steam locomotive — probably one of those ubiquitous 4-6-4 Hudsons the Santa Fe employed between Chicago and Kansas City — was taking on coal and water. As I stood next to my grandfather, the safety valve erupted with an explosive shot of steam, and I plastered myself against my grandfather’s pant leg in the effort to protect myself.”

Grandfather Chet was already a second-generation railroader; his father had worked as a boilermaker for both Santa Fe and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. Chet hired out on AT&SF in 1914, just after high school graduation, and stayed for 56 years. Along the way he worked in the backshop at Shopton, then spent time as an engine herder and switchman. He retired as switch-engine foreman in 1970.

Not all the grandson’s memories were related to steam.

Michael Gross beams from the cab of an F7 during his summer as a C&NW fireman, 1967. Michael Gross collection
“In the mid-1950s, I recall riding a Fairbanks Morse diesel switcher,” Michael recalled. “Grandpa hoisted me up to the crew and I spent a couple of hours with them as they switched the yards and took a cut of cars into town for an interchange with the CB&Q. The locomotive was one of those 503-class Fairbanks Morse H12-44s employed up and down the Santa Fe from Chicago’s Corwith Yard to Argentine Yard in Kansas City. Fort Madison had several of them.”

Michael Gross has had an acting career of remarkable versatility, ranging from dramatic parts in television dramas (sometimes he’s even the heavy, so against type) to his signature role as Michael J. Fox’s father in the hit 1980s sitcom Family Ties, and as the likable gun nut Bert Gummer in the long-running series of Tremors camp horror films. His comedic skills are obvious, and are likely inherited in part from his grandfather. 

“He had a magnificent sense of fun,” says Michael. “He often provoked my laughter by kidding my grandmother who would, in a fit of comic pique, turn to me and warn, ‘He thinks he’s so funny. Don’t encourage him — the big lug.”

“I recall being impressed by the fact that so many people in town seemed to know and like him. We frequently visited the Fort Madison depot at ’train-time’ and, as a train pulled in, it was not unusual for baggagemen or conductors to wave from their doors with a ‘Hey there,’ Chet!’ and he yell back with a “How you doin,’ Shorty… Dutch… Smitty?’ or whatever other fanciful moniker these men had adopted for each other.”  

In 1992, when Gross became part owner of new short line Santa Fe Southern, he's back in the fireman's seat, this time on SFS 92, an ex-AT&SF GP7u. Michael Gross collection
Michael has other, more personal memories of the man: of how he attended every Friday night football game at Fort Madison high, of his 67-year marriage to Michael’s grandmother Ruth, and of how he attended to her daily after she developed dementia and could no longer live at home. When Chet’s own health deteriorated, he continued to visit Ruth in a wheelchair, aided by a thoughtful friend. 

Back in Chicago, Michael had dreamed of a Santa Fe railroad career, and even applied for a job there in 1967. As backup, he also put in applications at the Milwaukee Road, the Belt Railway, and Chicago & North Western. The C&NW came through with an offer for extra-board engine service and Gross took it, an adventure he chronicled in “Summer of Love,” an article in the Fall 2011 issue of Classic Trains. Among his memorable lines: “To be perched in the cab of a vintage F7, rounding the great curve at Clinton Street interlocking, was as close to Paradise as it got.”

Even if he couldn’t work for the Santa Fe, it turned out Michael could own part of it. In 1992, he and his wife Elza invested in the Santa Fe Southern, organized to save the former AT&SF branch between Lamy, N.Mex., and Santa Fe, which was headed for abandonment. Looking far ahead, he saw the potential in a possible commuter service between Albuquerque and the state capital, using his short line as the critical last link. That service — the New Mexico Rail Runner — was established in 2006. Of sentimental importance, it also meant one of the three cities in “AT&SF” would keep rail service. 

Gross and his wife Elza are on a Santa Fe business car in the 1990s, when Gross was a national Operation Lifesaver spokesman. Michael Gross collection
“In some ways, I felt our land, 18 miles long by 100 feet wide, was our greatest asset and, if sold off to individual buyers, would prevent any future attempt to create a commuter line,” Michael recalls. “In all honesty, I did not care to own a railroad, but the only way to save the damned thing was to buy the damned thing, so I quickly found myself with a train I did not have to pack away after Christmas.”

Michael and his wife subsequently sold their interest in the Santa Fe Southern, leaving them with a deep feeling of satisfaction. “When the state purchased part of our right-of-way to facilitate their last few miles into town, I felt I had accomplished what I had set out to do: Santa Fe had a commuter train!”

Now, like so many of us, the actor has more time to contemplate things. The Covid-19 pandemic has slammed the entertainment industry and Gross has lost or declined some acting jobs, “out of an abundance of caution.” The latest in the Tremors series — Tremors 7: Shrieker Island — was released to DVD, BluRay, and Netflix in October, obligating Gross to do some publicity. 

“Aside from that,” he says, “I must be content with watching re-runs for now — and making time for some model railroading.” And when he does get back to those Santa Fe trains at home, I’m sure he’ll be thinking of Grandpa Chet. 

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