LETTER TO THE EDITOR: How the coal tipple worked

Jan 26, 2012


My dad was the coaling tower operator. Fifty-ton-capacity hopper cars were placed on one of two tracks inside. These were over a pit with slopped sides.

This emptied into a skip hoist hopper. This was a railed structure, inside which had skip cars that ran up and down the hoist. These would travel down into the hopper and scoop out the coal, bring it to the top of the tower, and dump it in.

The square cement flat-topped building was where the electric motor was to power the skip hoist. This skip hoist was similar to what steel mills use to charge the blast furnace with coke (fuel), iron ore and limestone.

There was a track on the river side and two coal chutes on the side. These could coal two engines at once. This was handy when the train had two engines, which is called a “double header.”

Being close to the Pere Marquette (C&O), it is likely that at times PM/C&O engines also coaled there. By the early 1950s, both the GTW and the PMRR/C&O were phasing out steam and replacing it by diesels; although the GTW ran steam up until about 1962, along with the Norfolk & Western.

With steam gone, my dad went to the section gang and later to the roundhouse in Muskegon.

GTW’s Grand Haven roundhouse was located by the smoke stack of the Story & Clark Piano Factory, where the Porto Bello restaurant is now. This whole complex was part of the GTW mainline, which ran from Grand Haven where the GTW had its carferry operation until about 1932, through Spring Lake (over a swing bridge by Johnston Boiler), Coopersville (now the Coopersville & Marne) to Grand Rapids, over the Leonard Street bridge and over the Grand River (which you can see from U.S. 31). It then went to Durand, where it met with the Port Huron, Detroit & Chicago mainlines. It was to be double-tracked.

But a tax dispute (that’s what my dad told me) led the GTW to move to Muskegon, where it ran its trains over the Pennsylvania (the one on the Monopoly board). This PRR track connected to the Grand Haven line about 4 miles east of Coopersville at a place called Penn Junction. The PRR track is now the Musketawa Trail and the GTW Grand Haven line is the Lakeshore/Grand Trunk/North Bank Trail.

I think this tower should be preserved. With a little alteration, it would make a good observation tower. The only other coaling towers I know of are at Baldwin, Ludington and by New Buffalo on U.S. 12. This is a tower that spans the double track (former New York Central Detroit-to-Chicago main line, where Amtrak now goes).

The only active steam locomotive water tower I know of is in Grant, next to the Grant Depot restaurant. It is used to store city water.

The cement could be patched using techniques similar to repairing highway overpasses. If you look at the tower, you can see the 2-by-8 or 2-by-10 planking used in the concrete forms. My dad took photos of it under construction. I posted these on my Youtube channel (strobx1), along with photos of the GTW yard facilities and roundhouse in use.

The rock group Grand Funk Railroad was named after the Grand Trunk Railroad; until the GTW’s parent company, the Canadian National, sued. They then became the Grand Funk.

As for the GTW, since NAFTA, the CNR didn’t need a U.S. subsidiary; so they merged it wholly into the Canadian Nation System. As for the Grand Funk, with the Grand Trunk not existing anymore, it went back to being the Grand Funk Railroad.

— Dave Stroebe, Spring Lake


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