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Speeders were superseded by trucks and SUVs adapted to run on rail and roads.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