Slowdeath & Revival
I wrote most of this blogpost about four or so months ago, but forgot about it. While reorganizing some files today and working on other posts, I decided to go ahead and do a quick editing pass and post it. Without further ado, please enjoy this brief post on this important piece of Milwaukee Road railroading history!
A few weeks ago, I received a direct message from a friend with a heads up, one I had never been expecting to get. Usually the heads ups I get are something to the effect of a heritage unit or IC or something coming near me - but this one was a little out of the way. The Pan Am Railways (Maine Central) #609 had arrived in Mervis Recycling in Decatur, IL, to be scrapped.
Why did somebody tell me about a Pan Am engine when I'm not even interested in the Pan Am?
Because this isn't original to Pan Am, Guilford, or Maine Central - whichever name the questionable company wants to go by today. This is the legendary Milwaukee Road #156.
And here it was, ready to be scrapped.
In 1972, the Milwaukee Road purchased 90 SD40-2s from EMD, 41 of which arrived that year. Numbered 3000 to 3040, the new SD40-2s were built with small fuel tanks and other weight-stripping measures to help ease the Milwaukee's fragile and crumbling trackage. Some claim that this purchase from EMD - along with other motors, including GP38-2s and the like - was part of what helped bring down the Milwaukee, based on the cost of new diesels vs electrification plans out west.
SD40-2 #3026, frame 7396-27, was one such SD40-2, no different than the others. It and its 40 sisters operated in their numbers for barely a year.
As the next batch of SD40-2s arrived in 1973, the original 41 were renumbered (after the first five of the second run had already arrived) down to 130 - 170. #3026 received the new number of #156.
Then in 1975, the railroad decided to join the bicentennial hype - railroads across the country were selecting locomotives to be painted in special red, white, and blue (and sometimes yellow!) paintschemes to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the creation of the United States of America. The Milwaukee Road decided to choose one of their new SD40-2s, being one of the newest engines on the railroad. The 156 was the unit picked for the paint booth, and away she went.
With sweeping strokes of red, white, and blue crossing the sides, fresh lettering in new locations, and even painted trucks and fuel tank, the 156 was a striking engine. So much so, that when one of the mechanics on the Milwaukee moved to the Long Island Railroad, he liked the paintscheme to much he brought it with him, adopting it as the new paintscheme for all of the railroads units! (Only LIRR 252 arrived with the MILW-esque red stripe, others received blue - and the blue the LIRR used was notably darker than MILW's)
The 156 was paraded around the railroad between 1975 and 1977. In 1975, it met with seven other railroad bicentennials for a photoshoot for Trains Magazine's 35th Anniversary at the Belt Railway of Chicago's yard.
At some point in 1977, the bicentennial paint was covered up by standard Milwaukee orange and black, the Prime E-bell removed from the roof and replaced with an EMD bell behind the conductors rear cab window, and the unit became just another nameless Milwaukee engine in the railroads final decade of operation.
Of course, things changed when the Milwaukee Road went into its final, irreversible, bankruptcy in 1977. The railroad was done - plagued by horrendous mismanagement, corporate sabotage, and corruption to the highest degree. In 1985, the locomotive was given to the Soo Line along with the rest of the company. The Soo renumbered it to 6333, banditized it, and ran it for two years - though no photos exist of this time.
In 1987, the 156, now 6333, was sold to the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico (NdeM). It would first go to Morrison-Knudson for a rebuild, where it received its full-sized fuel tank after 13 years of a short one, among other unknown changes. It was shipped out of MK in 1988, At NdeM, it was given the new number of 13022 and worked there for nearly a decade.
As with everything, it didn't stay for long, as the Mexican government brought about the end of the railroad in that form. With NdeM collapsing and split into four companies, the 13022 was given to TFM (which would shortly come under the control of KCSM) and renumbered to the 1420. The engine would operate on various trackage for years to come, finally returning north of the border after over a decade away in the mid 2000s.
Painted in the TFM colours, the unit was purchased by Pan Am Railways in 2010, along with other TFM SD40-2s, and shipped up to Maine. The 1420 was rechristened to the 609, and after a few weeks of patches, was given brand new Pan Am blue and white.
For 8 years, the MEC609 operated on the Pan Am/Guilford system, an unspectacular career but a fair one all the same. Information quickly found online points to the locomotive heading to Altoona, PA in 2018, but from there, the trail goes cold. It was difficult enough to pinpoint the prior info - but what happened in 2018?
A bit of further digging netted the discovery that 609, along with at least two other MEC SD40-2s, were purchased by GATX, and the Altoona sighting suggests it was sent there for work.
It never turned a wheel for GATX as far as I can tell. In fact, I don't even know where it was between 2018 and 2021. Did it sit in Altoona the whole time? A GATX facility? Some spur in the middle of nowhere? I have no idea. For the last few months, I've jokingly asked "yeah but where's the MEC609?" as a gag online. I didn't expect to make that joke and a few hours later actually get the answer.
I was informed early in the morning on Monday, June 7th, with a photo and heads up that Mervis now had the 609. As soon as work was done, I sprinted to Decatur to sneak a quick photo. It was sort of heartbreaking to see the bicentennial sitting there, parts missing, and in line to be scrapped.
It's a sad place to die. The poor thing seemed dead in the water, doomed to a slow death at the scrappers facility. Though Mervis is known to work fast, the past three years of uncertainty for the engine certainly make that a slow and drawn out end.
I emailed the company about trying to buy the horn off of the engine, and maybe even other parts - the bell, headlights, anything else I could possibly take with me, but they never responded to me (I would later learn they were no longer very friendly to railfans for some reason). Instead, I was just forced to sit back and watch as the 156 met its end.
Then, a glimmer of hope. The Milwaukee Road Historical Association and the Illinois Railway Museum had been alerted to the 156s plight. Nothing certain, but something at least. Or so it seemed. The IRM apparently had its meeting and decided not to pursue it, and the MRHA would be very limited in what it could do. It felt as if the slight spark of hope was gone.
And then I received another message. Rumours that the scrapyard was making a deal with someone, as some posts about the 156 were asked to be taken down so as not to blow up the yard owners phone with notifications. Who could be interested in the 156?
But then, just a few days later, I was given new information from multiple people - the 156 had been purchased by the Bruggers & Monson company, known also as Dieselmotive or simply BUGX. The deal had been struck and the 156 had been saved!
Where is it now? Apparantly, still Mervis. Since I wrote all of the above back in July (mid November now), I haven't been back to Decatur (and with gas prices as high as they are right now, I'm not about to head over just to check), but I've had more than one photo sent to me of the 156 still sitting in that same position. Ultimately, I'm not really sure where it really is going or where it is right now. It might well be still sitting there, waiting for transport to California for BUGX, or maybe a shortline is taking it in as one rumour claimed, or maybe it's just sort of in purgatory.
At any rate, there was reliable enough info from one or more people involved with the scrapyard to claim it wasn't being scrapped anymore, which does certainly bode well. A friend of mine with contacts explained to me what damage it had, apparently nothing severe or that couldn't be fixed, but it would take a bit of work all the same. So, perhaps we'll see the 156 return to service somewhere, perhaps it'll sit idle in a shop for a decade, or maybe it'll continue waiting for a future to never come. At this point... I just don't know. If anyone reading this happens to know, please let me know, I'd love to find out what its future holds.
If nothing else, I'm glad I did go and see it there. There's only so much one can do from the outside after all.
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