Huckleberry Railroad through the eyes of a conductor

Larry Coleman, 57, arrives at Crossroads Village as the park is waking up for the day. As village workers arrive and settle in, Coleman is checking out the trains. Every coupling, every brake, every seat in every car needs to be inspected and tested to be sure all is well before the first visitors board the train.

Coleman of Flint is a conductor for the Huckleberry Railroad. He has always been fascinated with trains … and fishing. “I was fishing around Bluebell Beach and a park ranger came down. I asked, ‘How do I get a job working for the county?’ He told me to go to the Administration Office,” Coleman recalls. Now he gets to indulge his love for trains and still have plenty of time to fish.

Coleman joined the railroad crew as a brakeman three years ago. The brakeman proved his mettle and was promoted to conductor. Conductors can train to be firemen—not the kind with buckets and hoses, but the ones who shovel coal into the firebox to keep the steam engine running at peak performance. It’s the hottest job on the train. “That’s the perfect job in winter,” Coleman says. Once a fireman has shown he can take the heat, he can reach the pinnacle of train personnel: The Engineer.

On workdays, Coleman wakes up and dons his conductor’s uniform. As he gets dressed, he goes over safety checks in his mind. Arriving at Crossroads Village, Coleman joins other conductors and brakemen to complete inspections on brakes, the angle cocks providing air flow to the brakes, the cords that connect the sound for narration, and the couplings between cars. “I check that train three or four times before we connect and once or twice while we connect,” he says.

Coleman is committed to safety. In fact, when he talks about the job he loves, it’s a word that comes up often. “I want to make sure they’re safe,” he says, “And happy. I want them to feel invited to ride my train.” Safety and an inviting atmosphere have been his top priorities since he began working on the Huckleberry Railroad in 2014.

When the engine is ready to connect, the brakemen and conductors set the brakes on the first two cars. Once the engine comes out of the roundhouse, where it spends the night, the engineer stops about 25 feet from the cars while the conductor checks the crossing to be sure it’s clear. He gives a radio signal, and the engine is coupled.

Conductors greet riders, count family groups, assign passengers to the various cars, and make sure they are safely settled before the train sets off. Trains run every 35 to 40 minutes. There is a 15-minute time limit to get passengers safely off the train and new passengers boarded. “You have to be a people person,” Coleman says.

Conductors are responsible for safety, coupling and uncoupling cars, knowing the operations of the railroad, determining if the train needs more or fewer cars, and being aware of the schedule for the day. They need to know who is driving the train and who the brakemen are. And, they entertain and educate using a scripted narrative sprinkled with their own personal flair.
During runs, conductors share the history of the railroad, information about the park, and amusing stories. Anyone who has ridden on the Huckleberry Railroad—which originally ran for almost 20 miles from Flint to Fostoria—has heard the story of its name: “The Huckleberry Railroad ran so slow, a person could jump off the train, pick a few huckleberries, and jump back on the train with minimum effort,” Genesee County Parks lore explains.

During Thomas the Tank Engine’s visits the boarding process is even more hectic. “Each day with Thomas is a very special day,” says Coleman. “I go home feeling like I’ve worked a 24-hour shift with no sleep.” Thomas trains pull 14 cars and every run is full. The schedule changes because people want to take pictures with Thomas, so the turnaround takes longer. “Everybody on the platform has to be on the ball. If we’re lagging there, that means we’re not getting people boarding on time.” The conductors don’t do their typical patter on the Thomas trains. They play music and answer questions.

Throughout the day, conductors face several challenges. Each time the train arrives at the station, they perform another safety check. Sometimes passengers are reluctant to sit down before the engine moves which can be dangerous. Weather can cause problems, particularly for passengers in open cars. During one fierce rainstorm, conductors had to stop the train and shuffle passengers into enclosed cars. Rain makes the boardwalk and steps slippery, so conductors pay close attention as people board the cars.

At the end of the day, all the cars are checked again. Conductors look for items accidentally left behind on the train and take them to the Lost and Found in the Attica Hotel. They clean up trash and close windows. They check to make sure everyone is off the train so the engine can be uncoupled and returned to the roundhouse.

“I just enjoy this job,” Coleman smiles. “I’m enthusiastic and happy because of the kids. It brings me joy to see smiles on their faces and know that I’m bringing them happiness.” When he gets home, he thinks over his day: What went right and what went wrong. “I want the customers to be happy and want to come back,” he says.

That’s the reward for a job well done. And at the end of the day, Coleman goes fishing.

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