Conductor Don Baldwin, left, and employee Bill Walker, of the Claremont Concord Railroad, bang away at a car to dislodge the last bits of salt caked to its sides while unloading at Eagle Leaf Transload in Claremont. The four employees of the sister companies unload some 600 tons of rock salt every day into trucks on their way to supply town sheds across New Hampshire and Vermont. The rest is taken by conveyor belt into a nearby shed that holds up to 7,000 tons in stockpile. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Wilder Moffit walks back to his engine after closing a switch on his way to the engine house. The Claremont Concord Railroad has about two miles of track in Claremont with limited side tracks, making it a juggling act to get full cars to the end of the line and empty cars out to where they can be picked up. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Wilder Moffit works at the helm of his engine with direction from Baldwin as they stow cars away at the close of the day in Claremont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Clouds of salt dust fill the air inside the Eagle Leaf shed as Andrew Chandler levels out mounds so more of the essential winter resource can be offloaded from train cars. The salt is tough on the machinery, cell phones and clothes. On windy days, as he unloads cars, Chandler can taste it in the air. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Jonthan Hawes, of Mak’s Trucking, watches as a load of road salt is poured into his truck in Claremont. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bill Walker looks out from his station at the Eagle Leaf salt shed in Claremont as a truck approaches. The work is similar — although with lower stakes — to his logistics duties as a member of the Vermont National Guard while deployed at fuel depots in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2010. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Wilder Moffit, the Claremont Concord Railroad’s general manager, looks through a stack of paper-jammed documents for the following day’s orders at the engine house in Claremont last week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Claremont — The Claremont Concord, a shortline railroad, is a hub for all sorts of enormous, awkward items. The materials that reach it via the New England Central Railroad are measured in tons, not pounds.
Powerheads for the Lempster, N.H., windmills came through the interchange at the Plains Road Amtrak station, and recently, subcontractors used a crane to move a transformer weighing about 75 tons onto a flatbed trailer waiting to carry it away.
Most often, though, the company, which has a similar site in West Lebanon, carts commodities — lumber, concrete and propane are some of the most common — and workers in Claremont move about 600 tons of salt a day to the end of the line, two miles away on Mulberry Street. There, it’s loaded into trucks bound for businesses or state and municipal salt sheds. Some is stored at the site in a building owned by the railroad’s sister company, Eagle Leaf Transload.
Moving salt down a two-mile stretch of track sounds simple enough, but that’s not always the case, said Wilder Moffit, the general manager and engineer.
“The railroad is a lot like a chess game,” said Moffit, who lives in Grafton, Vt. “You try to be efficient and use the side tracks.”
But sometimes the short sections fill up with “empties” waiting to be carried away by a passing train, and workers find themselves juggling in order to reach the loaded cars.
“The more cars you have on the property, the tougher it is to get everything where you want it at the end of the day,” he said. “You can sort of paint yourself into a corner if you’re not careful.”
The cars are often carried on several railroads before reaching Claremont, said conductor Don Baldwin, so schedules can change in an instant, due to weather or mechanical problems hundreds of miles away.
“We expected a boatload of cars today,” Baldwin said Wednesday morning. “Nothing happened.”
He and Moffit make up half of the Claremont team, with the others based at the salt shed. They are used to visitors — a movie scene was filmed there last year, and people often stop by to photograph the trains.
“We get a fair amount of … train nuts,” Moffit said, enthusiasts who can recite the history of a particular car.
He wouldn’t drive cross-country to snap a picture of a particular car, Moffit said, but growing up in Bellows Falls, Vt., and hearing trains pass sparked a certain interest in trains. He especially likes those made by the American Locomotive Co.
“I like the way they sound. I like their styling. I like the way they perform,” he said. “I don’t even know why.”
Before joining the railroad 12 years ago, Moffit had a long career as a welder and had also taught the trade for more than a decade. But he had long been curious about working with trains.
“I’m getting older every day,” he remembered thinking. “If I’m going to see what it’s like, I may as well jump.”
Early Wednesday morning, Moffit and Baldwin, both bearded and both in their 50s, prepared to make their first trip of the day to the shed. Inside the engine house, they pulled on thick coveralls, hats and gloves. The temperature was well below freezing, and the National Weather Service had posted a wind chill advisory. Baldwin wore ice grippers over his boots, a precaution against falling on the frozen, snowy ground.
During the trek on the yellow and dark-green diesel and electric locomotive, they communicated by radio. Moffit drove the 1953 Alco, pushing three carloads of salt. Baldwin, who rode and walked alongside the train, served as Moffit’s eyes, telling him when to slow down and when to stop. At the crossing on Mulberry Street, he told him to “make some noise” with the horn.
The railroad, which runs parallel to Maple Avenue, is in a heavily wooded area, and he’s spotted red fox, snapping turtles and deer on the route, Moffit said. “You can hardly believe it’s right in town.”
He and Baldwin generally maintain the tracks and provide the train service, but their roles aren’t rigid, and they all pitch in with whatever comes up. As with any outdoor job, extreme weather makes their work even more challenging.
Last summer found them shoveling coal slag out of scores of train cars.
“It was 100 degrees in there,” said Bill Walker, who works at the salt shed.
On Wednesday, what might have been a quick trip to drop off salt dragged when a gate beneath the train stuck shut. Working together, they finally pried it open. Rather than close it and risk it sticking again, the men left the gate open and waited for another truck to come empty the car.
The employees are like a family, said Moffit, who uses humor to keep everyone motivated.
At the salt shed, he greeted Walker with a playful bear hug and answered his reminder to make a phone call with, “Yes, dear.”
“It’s long days, hard work and adverse conditions,” Moffit said later. “We might as well have fun if we can.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.