Article: Dispatching the C&O in the 1970's and early 1980's

By Doug Hefty

In Saginaw, there were three dispatcher desks on the 1st (day) shift. The west end dispatcher office was located on the top floor of the Washington Avenue tower in Saginaw. This dispatcher handled the CTC machine on the Ludington Subdivision, the Bad Axe Subdivision, and the branches to Kinde, Sandusky, and Harbor Beach.

The Chief Dispatcher and south end dispatcher were located in the freight house. An Assistant Chief Dispatcher handled the Grand Rapids to Petosky subdivision and branches.

The south end dispatcher handled Hoyt (in Saginaw) to Alexis (just north of Toledo), via Plymouth. Also at this location, a third dispatcher desk handled the Elmdale and Port Huron Subdivisions. One of the reasons for a third dispatcher during the day was to serve as a "switchboard" function. This was "pre-computer" and when any of the agents wanted to talk to zone accounting, car distribution, yardmaster, etc. in Saginaw, the third dispatcher would dial the extension and "patch them through" on the dispatcher's line so the agents didn't have to use their "Bell" phones. This cut down on phone expenses at the agencies.

On the 2nd (afternoon) and 3rd (midnight) shift, the west end dispatcher handled everything, except the Hoyt to Alexis route.

There was some variation to this plan on Sundays.

In 1984, the Ludington Subdivision CTC machine was moved over to the freight house and there were only two dispatchers on each shift.

C&O also had dispatchers in Grand Rapids.

I dispatched in the late 1970's and I can recall sitting in front of a large CTC machine with lots of lights: red and green (signals), white (switch positions), and yellow (track occupancy). The CTC board operation stretched from Hoyt, south to the switch at the north end of Plymouth. Then, there was a blank spot because the operator at Plymouth handled his own area for you. Then, back on the CTC machine, there were switches at Newburg and Glenwood Roads in Wayne. South of Wayne, the CTC didn't resume until Erie (north of the Michigan/Ohio state line), which was formally a major PM yard.

In the late 1970's, there were still operators stationed at Washington Avenue (WS), Plymouth (JY), Wayne Jct. (WA), Romulus (MU), Carleton (CN), Alexis (N), Hallett, and Walbridge (WB). The dispatcher talked to Rouge Telegraph (MF) via the Bell phone. Dispatchers had no direct radio contact with trains. Most of the operators had radios, as well as the yardmaster at McGrew, in Flint. To talk to the dispatchers, crews had to come to a line-side phone.

The "Chief" [Dispatcher] gave us the mark ups on southward trains out of Saginaw. Washington Avenue gave you all the "dope" on trains starting from McGrew as well as car counts, breakdown and pick ups, including at Grand Blanc. Almost every manifest train worked at McGrew, Grand Blanc and Lincoln (at the Lincoln plant in Wixom). Southward trains working at McGrew could either go down the main line at Mt. Morris or into the siding, depending on northward traffic. The dispatcher would not "code" the signals at Kearsley (GTW crossing/interlocking in Flint) until the train was ready to depart McGrew, so as not to tie up the diamond for the GTW. The dispatcher would notify Washington Avenue when northbound trains leave McGrew to get a head-in track at Hoyt (the south entrance to Saginaw Yard). The dispatcher would keep the Yardmaster at McGrew updated on all trains with set offs or of the northbounds that terminate there. You would also keep Plymouth advised, especially of trains that turn the corner there so that the Grand Rapids dispatcher would be ready.

When southbound trains go by Wayne Jct., the dispatcher would call Alexis and give them the mark up on the trains and a figure at Erie (using 1 hour running time). That information would be relayed to the Toledo Terminal dispatcher, otherwise the train would sit at Alexis until he received it!

Walbridge would give the mark up on all northward trains and the dispatcher would clear them with a Form A. When they showed up at Hallett, Alexis would call for permission to "let them go". Going by Erie, you would clear them on any orders at CN (Carleton). The dispatcher would advise Romulus to hold the train or keep it going. He would then instruct Wayne Jct. if he wanted them on the main or in the south pass, and would then notify Plymouth likewise.

Plymouth would let the dispatcher know when westbound trains were by Oak (in northwest Detroit) and whether they were destined to go north (towards Flint/Saginaw) or south (towards Toledo). Same for eastbound trains going by Brighton or South Lyon. Trains from the west required Form A at JY (Plymouth). Trains out of Rougemere from the east got their Form A at Rougemere Telegraph.

As a dispatcher, I would pray that trains wouldn't get stopped at Wayne Jct. This interlocker was controlled by a Penn Central operator, and he would hold the diamond while the PC worked the yard and auto plant, sometimes for over an hour. When this happens, you would hold your trains in the south pass, they are stacked up at Romulus north, and at Plymouth south. Sometimes it was necessary for the crews to cut crossings. When they finally did get the signal, it might be 20 minutes or more before they "knock it down" (pass it). 

Dispatcher's also kept their fingers crossed, that northbounds would have enough power and wouldn't stall on the hill at Northville. West Olive coal trains would re-crew at Plymouth. When they were ready to go, you would send the pushers down through the pass to shove them all the way to South Lyon. Trains needing to run the "wrong" main between Erie and Romulus required train orders (e.g. "Extra 4027 North has the right over opposing trains on No. 2 track, Carleton to interlocking limits Romulus"). 

You also had maintenance forces and track patrol to protect, as they worked on the right of way. Dispatchers kept a record of all authorities and orders in the train order book, and recorded all movements on the train sheet, a document which was about six feet long and 2 1/2 feet wide. Besides "trains", all road switchers were recorded whether they left a particular town or not. At one time, Grand Blanc has six jobs working in one town.

Lincoln (Wixom) had several local jobs and Wayne had at least eight. Some of their local jobs ran to Oak, Kelsey Hayes, and Carleton and were always needing the light north of Glenwood and at Newburg Road to switch. 

Yard jobs from McGrew would need to switch both mains at Kearsley and make runs back and forth at Atwood Jct.  A good shift would be one where you kept things fluid. A bad shift would involve stalled trains, dead trains, unexpected track problems, derailments, and short tempers! There were a lot of bad shifts!

A long time ago when the Pere Marquette line went straight north out of Baldwin, there was a diamond, interlocker and tower operator. When that line was discontinued in favor of trains going north via Walhalla and Manistee, the Ludington line eventually became all CTC and was controlled from Saginaw. At Baldwin, there was a signal and switch which controlled off the west wye and the dispatcher could either line them down the main or into the siding. Trains coming from Grand Rapids enroute to Saginaw (i.e. ML-18 and chemical trains) would call from the south switch before coming around the east leg of the wye at Baldwin. There was no signal off that wye, but the switch had an electric lock which was controlled from Saginaw. Then, the next signal was the "hold out" signal east of the M-37 crossing.

In Saginaw, the south end was the most challenging, almost constantly busy because of the number of trains. I "forgot" to eat my lunch many times or "scarfed" it down when I could. The west end was a little more relaxed, although it had its moments.

Regarding the west end from Grand Rapids, it is my understanding that the original CTC machine was installed at Waverly (in the yard office which is still there by the east leg of the wye). I think it covered west from Lamar (interlocking on the west side of Wyoming Yard) to East Saugatuck. Around 1947, it was extended to St. Joseph, with an operator at the station in Benton Harbor. The last section to Porter was controlled by an operator at New Buffalo. At some point, it was all moved to Grand Rapids. I've got photos of some of the CTC panels from the C&O Historical Society. The single panel at Waverly was dated 1947, the one with both panels from Lamar to St. Joseph was dated sometime in the 1950's, and the one with all 3 in Grand Rapids was dated in the 1960's.


Doug Hefty was a C&O and CSX Dispatcher in Michigan in the 1970's, up and until CSX dispatching operations were transferred to Jacksonville, Florida. These are notes from his posts on the RRHX bulletin board about dispatching.