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The Railroad in Spicer

In 1886 the St. Cloud and Sioux Falls Railroad was being built through Kandiyohi County, coming through Spicer at that time. Two passing tracks were built at the same time in Spicer, so trains could meet and pass each other.

In 1886 Al Whittaker became the first depot agent. In 1888 A.G. Mardin became the second agent, followed by W.R. Andrews. Charles Martinson was the first section foreman. Ole Thorvig became foreman after Martinson in 1904, having been employed in the Willmar yards for several years before. He was section foreman 47 years before retiring.

The length of the section was from the junction of the Willmar railroad to two miles south of New London. The foreman would have to go to the depot each morning to find out if there were trains coming so the section crew would not be caught by a train. There was no telephone or radios – only the telegraph on which the depot agent would get the messages. Before going around a curve with the handcar, Thorvig would get on his knees, put his ear to the rail, and he could hear a train coming one-half to one mile away. If so, the crew would pull the handcar off the track and wait for the train to pass. The first handcar, which was pumped by hand, was used for many years. Then the motor car was built, motorized with a gasoline engine.

The work of the crew was to replace ties that were worn and rotting and to check the rails for broken ones, which had to be replaced right away. All the weeds on the track were hoed up by hand, and the brush along the track had to be cut. In winter the crew had to remove snow from the depot platform, switches and crossings, and wherever else necessary.

In 1915 heavier rails had to be placed on the track because larger and heavier engines and cars were coming into use. At this time a special work crew was sent to Spicer. About 20 to 25 men lived in two boxcars parked on a side track. One car was the bunk car for sleeping and the other was for cooking and eating. A full-time cook was with the crew. He made an oven by digging out the dirt in a bank along the track, lining the hole with bricks, and building a fire in the oven. He then closed the opening. When the bricks were hot and the fire burned down, he would put all their bread to bake in the oven on a wood board, closed the opening, and the bread would bake. Cookies were baked the same way.

These special crews were mostly foreigners from such countries as Turkey, Syria, and Armenia. They were a rough, fighting bunch of men who always carried knives and were quick to use them, but they never hurt anyone outside of their own crew. Only two men in this crew could understand English. Thorvig, the local section foreman, would have to tell these two men the orders for work, and they would have to tell the crew.

The railroad provided a house for the foreman, called the section house. School was held in one room of the section house for a few months while the first school was being built in Spicer. The teacher was Matilda Larson.

The section laborers usually kept their jobs for a long time. One such crew picture in about 1916-1918 shows Ole Thorvig, foreman; Jack Feeland, John Knudsen, Fred Johnson, Even Myhre, Martin Olson, and Ole Arthun.

There were two train wrecks in Spicer. In one, on November 30, 1895, four engines and 13 cars were derailed and tipped on their sides. In the other, in 1932, a new large engine tipped, along with several cars, as the engine was going into a side track. The switch was too sharp for the big engine. In two days the train crew tried again, and the engine went off the track again. The switch was rebuilt.