Years ago, they called them “Gandy Dancers”. Men who laid and maintained railroad track. There seems to be a lot of confusion about the term Gandy Dancer and how it originated. The first recorded use of this term was in 1918, and it was used in reference to the worker tamping down ballast between the ties. Since he moved in a circle, it may have resembled dancing. There is another theory also. Some believe that the actual tool they used was called a gandy, and was made by the Gandy Manufacturing company in Chicago. However, research has failed to find any record of the company in railroad trade journals.
This last and final theory is my personal favorite. These men had to work in unison to align track. One man couldn’t do it alone, the whole crew needed to move as one. The foreman would use a song rhythm to coordinate their effort. Simple verses like; pick an’ shovel, am so heavy, heavy as lead, pickin shov’lin, till I’m dead. Music and movement says dance to me, but gandy is still a mystery.
What isn’t a mystery, however, is the how the track is laid today. Or perhaps I should say, how it was laid in St. Johns this past week. Our crew of Gandy Dancers laid 120 feet of track in a single day at the Historic Grand Trunk Depot. With the use of modern equipment, the driving force of the work songs wasn’t needed. Yet another romantic bit of railroad history lost forever.
Chris and Calvin Cook, graded and leveled the new railbed, threw ties down, and moved track next to the site. Jim Crosby of Crosby Mint Farm provided time and equipment to move ballast, and lift track into place on the ties. Sunbelt Rentals of Dewitt donated the use of a Commercial Diesel Air Compressor to drive the spikes. Even with the help of all the new fangled equipment, it was still hard back-breaking work for this crew who donated their time! The whole “dance” was directed by Phil Perri from Bancroft. Phil is a retired track foreman, and was just named Railroader of the Year in Durand. He will be featured in the Parade on May 20th at 1:00 during Durand Railroad Days.
“1905” is stamped into the rail that was used to build our track, and it fits very nicely into the theme of the turn of the century railroad museum which will occupy a section of the old platform at the Depot. Two railcars will be placed on this site. The first car to be placed is a 1926 Ann Arbor Crew Car. Maybe you have seen it sitting in the old Wal-Mart parking lot! This car was brought to St. Johns from Traverse City by Mark Kalis from Howell Michigan. He and his crew are experienced in moving these antique treasures. The complicated procedure of loading, hauling, and unloading the rail car was “a piece of cake” Kalis said.
Unlike the first railcar to become part of the museum, (The 1902 Barney & Smith sleeper car), the Crew Car is very close to being ready to show. A thorough cleaning, and a fresh coat of paint will put the car back into service in the newly formed “Clinton Northern Railway Museum” In the past the car functioned as a “wreck” car that housed and transported crew to the sight of a derailment, or wreck on the line. Its new charge will be to house railroad memorabilia and art.
M. Elaine Twichell is the Project Manager of the Railroad Museum. For more information call 989 66 TRAIN