GLIO - Great Lakes Iron Ore - discussion of railroading, 1930's and later


Gandy Dancer
This is the start of a blog about various railroad topics using the GLIO as an example. Questions and comments are welcome.

The GLIO is my first route. I missed my railroading days and thought to build my own railroad to enjoy. Because I actually had railroad experience, it would be as real world as I could make it. The starting idea was to build a route that I could run many different types of trains. I, as a child and adult, was always fascinated by the iron ranges of Minnesota and the operations on the ore docks of Duluth, MN and Superior, WI. The route would have an iron range, with mines, collection yards, sidings, etc. The port would have an ore dock, sorting yard, roundhouse, etc.

There are at least three factors to consider when building a railroad. What type of railroad would this be? The answer, it will be built for heavy trains. It is not a glorious trans-continental high speed mainline. The other two factors interact with each other. Construction costs vs operating costs. Flat and curve less track means cheaper operating costs. The decision, after an initial fictional survey, would be to build a mainline from the collection yards to the docks and to not have long uphill grades of more than .5% and short downhill grades of 2%. In the diesel DC traction motor era, the rule of thumb is 1 hp per 1 ton per 1% grade. Four EMD F-7s, 1500 hp each, should be able to pull 12,000 tons. Roughly 120 ore cars.

The considerations to build track to the mines is different. Mines open and get depleted and then close. The goal is to get to the mine cheaply. Higher operating costs are OK.

My goal was to also make enough scenery changes to make it interesting. The Missabi iron range is part of a large geological uplift, hence the various rock features. The marshes and forests are a predominate feature around Lake Superior which I feature around the mines. The trees are primarily quaking leaf aspen which has replaced the old growth pines cut down in the 1800’s. I tried to help GPU loads by using lakes, fields, cut timber areas. There is some small-scale farming in the Great Lakes area. I also used many railroad building construction practices to keep the .5% grade, fills, cuts, horseshoe curves, and tunnels.

As it turned out, the route's hardest sustained pull for a loaded ore train is coming into the Hillcrest siding. The Soo Line had a 20 mile .5% hill from Genola, MN to Onamia, MN. This branch line was mostly used for grain trains to the ports of Duluth and Superior. The trains were always at the maximum tonnage for the horsepower used. Being really bored, I would get off the caboose and run behind the train. That is the reality of bulk tonnage railroads.

Enough for now.
Gandy Dancer
I remember this route from your pre-release thread. I just love it, because of attachments to the region and the time period. Where did you say it was available from? I`m trying to remember if I made an exception to my no-routes rule for your beautiful work. Is there a free-drive session?

Edit: No, that was a model railroad route that I downloaded. Sorry. I`m still salivating over your route, though.
The route, 4 sessions, rolling stock, and other items are all prefixed GLIO on the DLS. Perhaps the fastest way to find them is by author "rcwarner1953". The route and sessions have a documentation directory which contains information on where non-DLS kuids can be found. Edit the route/session using explorer to view the documentation. Note, route and sessions were built in TRS22.
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Ore Cars and Ore Trains
A loaded ore car, generally slightly overloaded, weighted 95+ tons. That was heavy for its era. Empty, they weighted slightly less than 20 tons. They were 24 feet long. The typical boxcar was 40-50 feet long, empty 22+ tons, loaded 73+ tons. Not often fully loaded at their maximum weight due to the weight per cubic foot of the cargo.
Ore cars were the dirtiest rail cars to work on. They were covered in dust from loading, rain washing off the load, and from the wind blowing dust off them. The crew in the caboose sometimes had to keep the window closed even though it may be a miserably hot day. That dust was red iron oxide. It stained clothes red and any other thing it came in touch with. Also, see picture, the wheels extended out from the car body and the wheels were coated in a dirty oil so when a man had to hang air hoses it meant making contact.


Engineers running ore trains were specialists. The ore train handled like no other train. They were either fully loaded or fully empty. An empty train having a minimal brake reduction (6 pounds, train line feed valve set at 90#) would slow immediately and could embarrassingly stop the train. Loaded trains were the opposite. Depending on weather and grade, sometimes a full-service reduction (26 pounds) would take a long, long time to slow down or stop the train. They were far heavier than any other trains.

The car air brake valves in that era were not as sophisticated as today’s. The time to set or release brakes could be measured in minutes at the caboose. The advantage ore trains did have, as mentioned above, was the shorten length of the brake pipe from engine to the caboose. This advantage may not have existed because some railroads ran 220 ore cars in a train. This number of cars, air pipe length and number of brake valves, greatly increased the time to charge the brakes and to apply or release of the brakes. See Wikipedia “ “ for information on the details of air brakes.

All that weight of a loaded train was in one half to one third the length of a mixed freight train. That meant on the GLIO’s track dips and humps, the train behaved like a roller coaster, as in real life. A long-mixed freight would go over the dips and humps with little need to brake or increase power. This is due to the compensating factor that part of the train is going uphill and the other part is going downhill.

It was interesting sitting in the caboose watching the loaded trains slack run in and out. For example, the train’s engine would reach the crest of a hump. All the slack was stretched out. Then the front would start downhill. The caboose would crest the hill and the rear of the train would run into the front. You could see exactly where the slack changed. At the point, the humped ore load on the car would settle and sometimes spill ore off the sides. It went from front to back until you felt the impact in the caboose.

The penalty for poor train handling was a broken drawbar knuckle. All trains carried spare knuckles. The knuckles were meant to break, but sometimes they did not and the car was “gutted”. This is a term for pulling out the drawbar. Severe poor train handling could also result in derailments. Very uncommonly, a train would lose its brakes and crash/derail.

Well for now, good luck in your train handling. Perhaps in another entry I will talk about replacing knuckles.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Gandy Dancer

The GLIO railroads were more than just iron ore. Perhaps their next biggest commodity originating in the iron range areas was pulpwood. Trains composed of almost all pulpwood and chips were common.

The original forest covering was huge ancient pines. All were cut before and after 1900. There were miles and miles of nothing but stumps and debris. Towns sprang up with gambling, taverns, and prostitution as the big attractions. They lasted until the trees were gone and then became lost memories. This timber fed the building booms of this country. Homes, barns, stores, and whole cities built with this timber. The precursors of the GLIO railroads participated in the shipping of the lumber.

After the trees were gone, some of the land was sold to those desiring to farm. Most remained owned by the Federal and State governments. There were also large holdings by the logging companies. After iron ore was discovered around Lake Superior, mining companies acquired vast land areas as well.

In a remarkably short time, 1930 or so, the forests reappeared with aspen, popular, jack pine, birch, and other tree species. These trees grew quickly and thrived on the disturbed soil. Timber companies also planted soft pine plantations. It should be noted that there were also huge uncontained fires of the debris from the earlier logging. The Peshtigo Wisconsin fire of 1871 killed as many as 2,500 and burned 1875 sq. miles. The Hinkley Minnesota fire of 1894 killed at least 418 and burned 390 sq. miles. This contributed to the change of tree and animal species.

The new forests species were needed by the paper mills, and other wood product industries. The industries of northeast Wisconsin were a common destination. The GLIO railroads primarily used gondolas to transport pulpwood in about 8 foot “sticks”. In the GLIO era; a farmer could cut pulp in the winter and then order, from the railroad agent at the depot, a gondola. All the labor was manual. The use of railroad provided ramps, made loading the gondola easier. The companies, large and small, ordered gondolas as well. They may have used cable booms to load. Many had their own private sidings.

The big technology change came with the modern chainsaw which commercially became available in the 1950’s. These chainsaws were big and very heavy. It wasn’t until machinery, using hydraulics, that the whole nature of logging changed. Still, gondolas transported pulpwood.

Woodchips were also common. They were shipped in boxcars. Cars were spotted next to sheds with the chipping machinery. The shipper blew the chips into the boxcar. The regular car door was not used but left open. A temporary door of lumber, steel bands, cardboard, or a combination thereof, was installed on the door frame. At the delivery point, this door was literally torn off. The chips spilled into a sub ground vault. The car, in the modern era, was on a hydraulic track table which tilled the car and then lifted it up back and forth spilling out the chips. I was forced to use hoppers in the GLIO route/sessions as I could not find items matching above.

Pulpwood was a nightmare to switchmen in the yards. The sticks commonly shifted and stuck out of the car. At night especially, you could get hit by one as you hung onto the side of cars. The railroad tracks, between cities that had a lot of pulp traffic, had pulp sticks scattered here and there that shifted and fell off. A shifted pulp load also could cause damage to a train met at a siding. The shifted loads also made a car “bad order” and it had to go to the rip (repair in place) tracks and be restacked before leaving a terminal. Bulkhead flats caring pulp sticks parallel to the track is the current way to ship pulpwood. They carry more pulpwood, but perhaps more importantly, address the problems noted above.

The GLIO sessions have loaded pulpwood gondolas. I was not able to find a realistic load but made due with a load create by Dave Snow for a bulkhead flat. If anyone knows of a better load (see picture above), please let me know.

Questions and comments are welcome.

Gandy Dancer
Ore Dock and Yard Operations, Part 1

The railroad operations at the mine collection yards were simple. The mines called the railroads and ordered empties. A mine job would deliver the empties and then pull any loads. Each car was tagged by the mine with ownership and other information needed by the docks. A simplified waybill also was handled by the carrying train. Loads were brought to the collection yards and put on the next train being created going to the dock yards.

There are many types of iron ore. Each mine, and within a mine, may ship different types. For example, mines on the Minnesota Cuyuna range shipped iron ore with high manganese content. This made it ideal for tank armor. The receiving dock yard was given instructions by the steel companies how they wanted this ore loaded into the ore boats. On the great lakes, all ships were called boats.

The largest ore docks in the world were located at Superior, Wisconsin also known as Allouez. There were four docks each approaching 2400 feet long with 400 pockets spaced at 12 feet apart. Each pocket could hold 4 ore cars. The dock superintendent with (remember this was before computers) a large staff of clerks tracked the loading of a total of roughly 1600 ore dock pockets. Each pocket was loaded with a mix of ore specified by the steel companies.

All ore cars were weighted. Then the yardmaster, clerks, and switch crews broke apart the received trains so that when a string of cars was shoved to the dock, every other car would be over the correct ore dock pocket. Allouez had 96 classification tracks use to assemble the shove. An ore car was twenty-four feet, pockets were twelve feet. The hatches on the ore boats accommodated this spacing as well. A typical ore boat in the 1950’s era held about 20,000 tons and was plus or minus 650 feet long. The railroad spotted roughly 300 cars over 75 different pockets for each boat. The boats would winch themselves up and down the dock to get their hatches under the correct spouts.

The steel companies coordinated with the mines on what ores they wanted. The desired ore was mined and placed in ore cars. An ore boat was scheduled to be at the dock when the ore dock was fully loaded with the boat’s cargo. Loaded ore cars were expected to be dumped into the docks pockets as soon as possible and returned back to the mines. A full dock pocket, four cars, required four different strings of cars. The dock had four tracks with each pocket having two tracks above them. The docks were not meant for storage. See the picture of the docks, the boats maybe waiting for a complete load. I don’t know the details on who paid the waiting costs.

I was told by long time employees at the Allouez ore docks, the peak years for the Allouez docks was in the 1950’s. Some days saw 4,000 cars unloaded on the docks. The railroad employed thousands of men to keep the ore moving. Most of the men were employed seasonally. Ore could not be shipped frozen. The season, depending on weather, generally started in April through November. Also, Lake Superior froze and was not open to navigation in the winter.

At the shared harbor of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin; there were three ore dock complexes. The Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range RR had one. The Great Northern RR had another. The Northern Pacific RR and Soo Line RR shared one. All four railroads interchanged iron ore cars to meet the iron ore requirements of the steel companies
There was a mix of ownership of the company’s involved in iron ore. United States Steel owned mines, the DMIR RR with its ore docks, ore boats and steel mills. There were other ownership combinations of mines, ore boats, steel mills. The DMIR RR was a common carrier regulated by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, ICC. It carried ore and docked it for other companies as well as United States Steel.

We will detail the ore dock operations in part 2. Questions and comments are welcome.

Gandy Dancer
By 1975, processed taconite pellets had mostly replaced the depleted raw iron ore. Dock 1, far left on the picture above, had its railroad tracks replaced by a conveyor belt unloader combination on its left side. The conveyer belt carried taconite pellets from stock piles to the south. Dock 1 is probably where the Edmund Fitz had loaded taconite and departed from. There is a small chance that one of the other docks was used for taconite. If boat loading demand exceeded dock 1 capacity, taconite could be unloaded from ore cars into the dock pockets, but I doubt it.

Gandy Dancer
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