Locomotive engineer ‘loved’ trips from Erie to Taconite Harbor

Vern Olson of Gilbert started working at Erie Mining Company in the 1950s and became a locomotive engineer hauling taconite pellets on the 73-mile-long railroad to Taconite Harbor on Lake Superior.

GILBERT — Vern Olson of Gilbert was hired at Erie Mining Company in 1953, when the taconite mine was in its early days and he was a 23-year-old Army veteran who had worked on the Range before his military service.

He and his brothers had come to the Range from their hometown Badger in the northwestern corner of Minnesota. Situated in Roseau County, Badger is just three miles from Canada, Olson said.

He was first hired as a haul truck driver at the mine near Hoyt Lakes, then he “switched to the railroad,” Olson said. “They asked for guys to sign up and I did.” He would be with the railroad as a locomotive engineer for the next three decades.

Erie Mining Company had its own railroads, in the mine and to Taconite Harbor for shipping the taconite pellets to steel mills in the East. “I was in the pit to start out, then to the main line. When I retired, Erie had about 14 trains.”

The trip on the 73-mile-long track from Erie to the harbor “could take the whole eight-hour shift, sometimes longer if the ore boats weren’t there and you had to wait for them. Sometimes it took 13, 14 hours.” Olson worked all three shifts — days, afternoons, midnights.

The train had a crew of three -- engineer, brakeman and conductor, who rode in the caboose. Trains no longer have a caboose.

“I loved it,” 88-year-old Olson said of spending so many years driving train-loads of taconite pellets to the harbor, making the return trip to Erie and doing it all over again on his next shift. “I saw deer and moose all the time,” he said. The railroad passed through wilderness on its way to Taconite Harbor.

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