The Wyllie Project
As part of the National Railroad Memorial, we are creating an archive of memories: photographic, written and oral history of the individual men and women, who played a role in our railroading heritage across the nation and the railroad families that love and continue to honor them. We call this collection the Wyllie Project. The following are a few of our favorite stories.
THE SEEBURGER SPEEDER
Sheldon Seeburger worked as a trackman and foreman in Maintenance of Way. When he was a young man, his dad was a track foreman who drove a Fairmont speeder. Although it had an engine, he complained about the weather and the bugs. Sheldon got a used Model T windshield and rooftop and proceeded to modify the speeder using some of Henry Ford’s best car parts.
Other track foreman and rail workers kept Sheldon busy modifying their speeders. Sheldon’s most important renovation was for Herman Varblow, a supervisor in Maintenance of Way and one of his big bosses. Afterwards, when Sheldon asked permission to marry his daughter Helen, Herman said yes. Fairmont later produced an enclosed speeder but Sheldon never got any credit from them. However, he and Helen were married for sixty-eight years. NRMI board member Jan Brownson is their granddaughter.
THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR WRECK
On Tuesday, June 5, 1923 at about 9:30am, the Knights Templar special train from Grand Rapids to Flint left the track about a mile west of Durand, completely wrecking the engine and three coaches, killing four persons and injuring thirty others. The train carried delegations of Knights Templar from Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Ionia and St. Johns.
Mr. Parker and Mr. Persall were two of those killed. The two men, close friends, left Durand Monday night for Grand Rapids, apparently in good spirits. Their wives did not go with them but, as had been planned, were at the depot awaiting the arrival of the train, expecting to go to Flint for the day, when the news of the accident was brought to them. It was later determined that the cause of the accident was the failure of the Railroad Company to keep its roadbed in safe condition. The State Journal reported, “The large number of broken, defective and rail-cut ties, together with low joints, loose spikes, braced rails, poor ballast and generally bad track conditions in the vicinity of the accident will not permit of the safe operation of high speed trains.”
The engine, GTW Engine #5030, was repaired and put back into service. Through the years, engineers and crew assigned to the engine felt it was cursed, and no one wanted to operate it. The engine was eventually donated to the City of Jackson where it serves a stationary memorial.
BOOTS BOUTIN AND THE BRAND-NEW DIESEL
On a lighter note, there’s the story of Walter Simeon Boutin (known as “Boots” Boutin), born in Alpena in 1900. He wanted to be a railroad man while his best friend wanted to work on ships. Both realized their dreams. Boots started out at age 17 and worked his way up to engineer. He retired in 1965 after a long and respected career based in Durand. Mr. Boutin had a strong relationship with his crews, and even after he retired to Florida, the men who worked with him would visit. Boutin’s daughter, Barbara Thomas, remembers her father as being very serious about his work, the safety of his crew and being as good as he could. He never talked much about the change from steam to diesel except to say that with diesel, he went to work clean and came home clean. But there was a story he wasn’t telling.
After he retired, Owen Rood, the local Durand Express newspaper owner, published a story about the only blemish on Boots’ record as an Engineer. Mr. Rood wrote in the paper that Boots Boutin had taken a “new” diesel engine out for a ride and decided to see what the engine could do. He took a curve too fast and flipped the engine over on its side. The crew righted the engine and repaired any damage – and NO ONE including his family knew about this incident until Mr. Rood teased him about it in the hometown paper.
SHARE YOUR STORIES
If you or your family have a story to share for the Wyllie Project, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What kind of stories are we looking for? Anything about how your life or your family's life has been shaped by the railroad. Listen to this harrowing tale from StoryCorps for a sample: