The Round House

The Round House

My last winter in Havre, Montana the temperature dropped to 57 degrees below zero one night.  Until that cold spell broke, it stayed below zero, day and night, for six weeks.  It was necessary to keep head bolt heaters in our vehicles and plug them in all night so they would start in the morning.


When parking our vehicles during the day, the parking lot was not equipped with receptacles.  Using head bolt heaters during the day was not an option.  At noon break we would all go to our vehicles and start them up, run them till they got warm, then shut them off and go back to work.  The plan was for the vehicle to be warm enough from the noon idling that they would start at night at the end of the day.  It usually worked.


The winter with the 57 degrees below zero I was on a job wiring the new Roundhouse for the Railroad.  In the days of steam engines the Railroad would use a roundhouse to de-ice frozen train engines.  A frozen up train engine would be taken into the roundhouse and overnight, in the enclosure, the heat from the boiler would thaw out the engine.


The roundhouse was also equipped with a turntable.  The turntable was used to turn an engine around and put it back on the track it had come in on (hence the term “roundhouse”).  With the advent of diesel engines, the roundhouse was no longer round.  A siding would run through the round house with a roll up door on each end.


When a diesel engine froze up they ran it into the “roundhouse” on the siding.  They would close the doors and use hot water hoses to thaw out the electric motors down by the wheels that they drove.  Basically a diesel engine is just a huge, oversized generator.


We had been wiring the roundhouse before the extreme cold weather hit, but weren’t quite done with it.  One of the things left to do was hook up the electric valves on the sand pit.  The sand pit was located outside in the cold!  The valves controlled the pumps that transferred the sand into pipe via air movement, over head and dropped into a tank on the train engine.  The sand was used to provide traction on icy days.


Every time I bent one of those wires, the insulation on the wires would pop off like peanut brittle.  To complete the job, I had to unbolt the valve assembly, bring it inside where it was warmer, warm up the 4 wires with my bare hands, do all of the wiring, then take the whole assembly outside and make one connection.


One morning while we were working there, an engine was brought in to thaw out.  One of the roll up doors would not close.  As the inside temperature began to drop due to the open door, things began to freeze up.  Two carpenters were brought in with long extension ladders and short bar pries to close the door.  With one man on each side of the door, they had to pry the door down an inch at a time.


I have not observed the railroad reverting to steam engines, so there must have been design improvements on the diesel engines since that time.  After all, it has been over 40 years.