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Historic railroad speeders visit Duluth

Fourteen putt-putts ran the North Shore Scenic Railroad rails from Two Harbors to Duluth and back Monday.

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A line of maintenance of way speeders, commonly called "putt-putts" because of their engine sounds, nears the Duluth Depot on Monday, July 19, 2021. Members of the North American Railcar Operators Association brought 14 speeders for a trip from Two Harbors to Duluth and back on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
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With the “toot-toots” of small air horns and the “putt-putt” of single-cylinder gas engines, 14 pieces of history pulled into the Duluth Depot on Monday.

Brightly colored MOW (maintenance of way) speeders, commonly called "putt-putts" because of their engine sounds, traveled from Two Harbors to Duluth and back on the North Shore Scenic Railroad on Monday. The parade was hosted by the North American Railcar Operators Association, which includes people who collect, restore and operate putt-putt cars.

Among the putt-putt drivers was Hal Johnson, of Bloomington, Minnesota, who inherited his interest in railroads and railroading. Although he never met him, his grandfather was a railroad engineer on a Milwaukee-Chicago run.

“Somewhere in the blood was an interest in railroads,” Johnson said.

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With Kathleen O’Connor, 14, from left, and Lizzy O’Connor, 12, helping weigh down one end, Mike Ford, Mike O’Connor, and Paul O’Connor turn a putt-putt car around near the Duluth Depot so it would face the right way for the trip back to Two Harbors on Monday, July 19, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

After a childhood of family rail trips and through a stage of model railroads 22 years ago, Johnson bought a Fairmont speeder used by Southern Pacific Lines.

“I have 29,000 rail miles on it” from trips all over North America, he said.

His putt-putt has a top speed of 45 mph, but he usually goes 20-25 mph.

“Speed isn’t important,” he said.

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Katie and Hal Johnson ride their Southern Pacific Lines 1952 putt-putt car to the Duluth Depot on Monday, July 19, 2021. Hal Johnson has put 29,000 rail miles on the car. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Railroad employees used speeders putt-putts to travel to work sites. They were lightweight and easy to lift off the tracks to allow trains the right of way. And although not as fast as trains or cars, they were called "speeders" because they were faster than the manually operated handcars that preceded them.

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Speeders were superseded by trucks and SUVs adapted to run on rail and roads.

“Many of them were scrapped in the 1990s,” Johnson said of speeders.

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A speeder rolls past a North Shore Scenic Railroad locomotive at the Duluth Depot on Monday, July 19, 2021. Hal Johnson has put 29,000 rail miles on the car. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Steve Kuchera has worked in daily newspapers since 1989 and at the Duluth News Tribune since 1993. He has a master of arts degree in visual communications from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism. You can reach him at skuchera@duluthnews.com.
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