Initially Unwanted Gift

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, April 17, 2023

I’ve always liked the EMD SD45.  Considering that these locomotives entered service in the 1960s, in some ways they can be considered to be analogous to the “Muscle Cars” of that era.  Indeed, the first production model, delivered as Great Northern 400 in 1966 was nicknamed “Hustle Muscle”, and bore this nomenclature on the sides of its long hood.  Following the locomotive’s retirement, it has been restored to its original paint scheme, including the nickname, and can be seen at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth, Minnesota.

The SD45 looked impressive; it was large, sported a 20-cylinder prime mover, and featured rakish-looking flared radiators at the rear of its long hood.  While these might have been excellent “spotting features”, in the event, the standard 45 was handily eclipsed by its smaller sibling the SD40, in particular the “Dash-2” version.  All SD45 production was finished by 1975, according to Louis Marre and Jerry Pinkepank’s The Contemporary Diesel Spotter’s Guide, while a total of almost 4,000 SD40-2s were delivered in the U.S., Canada and Mexico between 1972 and 1986. 

When the Wisconsin Central was formed and began operating in 1987, it acquired a large group of former Burlington Northern SD45s as its principal six-axle road power.  Combined with the new road’s handsome maroon and yellow paint scheme, these became must-see-and-photograph targets from my perspective, although I didn’t live anywhere near WCL operating territory.

By the late 1990s, however, the geographic mismatch had been resolved, at least to a certain extent, by the need to travel to the Chicago area a number of times.  The main road out of O’Hare Airport crossed right under the WCL main line, and if you were renting a car, the exit from the principal pickup area deposited you on Mannheim Road. If you headed north, as I did typically, on the way to Evanston, Illinois, shortly thereafter the railroad was right next to you. 

An excellent place to lie in wait for these locomotives was a little further north, in the town of Des Plaines.  Just to the west of the town’s center was Deval interlocking, where the north-south main of the Wisconsin Central (formerly SOO Line) crossed both the C&NW’s Northwest suburban passenger line and the C&NW’s freight belt line from Proviso Yard to points north, also used by the former Milwaukee Road (now Canadian Pacific) north of Bensenville.

First Avenue runs adjacent to the railroad on the west side of the tracks, before turning left and becoming North Avenue as the former C&NW passenger tracks are reached, and there typically was ample on-street parking available to sit and wait for something to happen.

Obviously, the best time for this was in the afternoon, which generally meant that this activity would occur on the return portion of the trip.  Of course what also was desirable was a southbound.  I did see some trains here moving in the proper direction, but none of them were lead by an SD45.  The best was GP40 3010, which looked great on a short local, but it wasn’t a 45. 

I did see them in Des Plaines, leading, on northbounds, however, including one with four of the massive tonnage maulers.  Another time, in the morning, one trailed in a colorful southbound consist of a First Union green and silver leaser (referred to as a “Furby”, in some quarters), followed by a UP six-axle, and then, finally, the WCL SD45 with its nose pointed north against the train. 

Some solace was provided, however, by a properly-pointed, well-lit EMD SD unit of another kind, however.  On one of my first trips to Deval in the 1990s I did catch SDL39 584 hustling a local south.  For those unfamiliar with the model, only ten were built, and delivered to the Milwaukee Road in 1969 to replace older Alco road-switchers on branch lines that had limited weight-bearing capability; the “L” in the model designation stood for “lightweight”.  WCL acquired the nine that remained. 

So, if you had to choose between an action shot of a favorite locomotive at a go-to spot and a true rarity, I suspect that I’m not the only one that would have pressed the shutter and kept the resulting slide.  I had, and continued to see WCL SD45s elsewhere, but never observed an SDL again.

Ed, kudos to the WCL dispatcher on September 17, 1999.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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