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Hauling Salt



Sunday, January 27, 2013
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 acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.