The appeal of steam knows no demographic

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Davidson Ward, one of a new generation that's keeping steam alive. Photo by Scott Lothes
I used to worry that my generation would be the last one to care all that much about steam locomotives. Steam disappeared right smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boomers, and it seemed hard to imagine its appeal would last more than two or three more decades.

Even railroad friends in my general age range hadn’t seen that much steam, truth be told, unless they grew up around the Grand Trunk Western or the Norfolk & Western or Illinois Central or some of those other railroads where steam lingered into the late 1950s.

I never saw much, not where I lived. But an experience at age 5 is fixed in my brain. It was early 1956, and my mother arranged for a brief trip to Chicago & North Western’s Chicago Avenue roundhouse, out of which my great uncle, Bill Meehan, ran steam on commuter trains to Geneva (now Metra’s UP West Line). Uncle Bill hoisted me up to the cab (probably a 4-6-2), demonstrated some of the controls, then opened up the butterfly doors to show the firebox. The inferno inside left me spellbound.

That world is gone now, but the good news is that steam still makes converts. I decided to ask a few of my younger friends why. It would have been impolite to ask them their ages, but I know they’re at least a generation or more removed from mine. So what continues to pull them in? Uncle Bill isn’t around to show them the cab anymore.

Davidson Ward is a good place to start. He works at the consulting firm of R. L. Banks & Associates, has crewed on Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261, and is involved in the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, which, among other things, plans to restore Topeka-based Santa Fe 4-6-4 No. 3463 and convert it to solid biofuels. 

For Ward, the attachment started with the locomotive itself. “I became fascinated by all that engineering, fabrication, maintenance, and operation, all done by hand and resulting in massive yet intricate machines,” he told me. Ultimately, though, for him it became more about history.

“An operational steam locomotive is a visceral link to the past, and there is little more enjoyable than seeing a child and their parents, or even the unsuspecting observer, watch a steam engine chug by for the first time,” he says. “Trying to find ways to keep these historic artifacts running for years to come, and keep a bit of that magic alive for the uninitiated and passionate alike, keeps me hooked.”

Hayley Enoch.
One of today’s most accomplished steam writers is Hayley Enoch, a Texas-based journalist and Trains magazine contributing editor. For her, the appeal of steam is partly philosophical, informed by a book she cites, Allies of the Earth, historian Alfred Runte’s rumination on the relationship between trains and the landscape.

“I keep coming back to the idea that the countryside is one world, and then whatever is happening inside of a train is completely separate, its own pocket dimension,” she explains. “The worlds don’t meet except at very thin margins when the train stops. You have that feeling at big steam excursions, as well, but there’s this added layer of surrealism because the locomotive is from a different era. It’s striking, this palpable feeling that there’s a rift in the timeline and something from the past has seeped through. Sometimes people in the crowd just can’t wrap their minds around what they’re seeing. That’s a thing I keep coming back for.” 

But Enoch loves steam for more tangible reasons, too, something she’s felt on those occasions she’s worked as a fireman. 

“There is something that appeals to be about a job that is very physical in nature. Often it feels like you’re the bug and the engine is the giant creature that could step on you,” she explains. “It is alchemical in the classical sense. You have tricked all of the furies of nature into submission, and you have to know how to balance them to get the result you want. There is no conceivable way in which you could make the locomotive do what you want through force, so you have to hone your senses and study the craft.” 

Kelly Lynch.
Some people compare steam locomotives with dinosaurs, which is just fine with Kelly Lynch, vice president at the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society and a tireless promoter of its Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765. He’s also a prime mover in the organization’s planned Headwaters Junction facility for downtown Fort Wayne.   

“There is a line in Jurassic Park that enters my mind every time I set eyes on the 765. The paleontologist Alan Grant comes into contact with a massive Triceratops and says ‘she was my favorite when I was a kid and now that I’ve seen her, she’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw.’ I can’t shake that feeling when I’m around the 765.” 

When the 765 is in full cry, Lynch likes the effect it has on people, and the way it makes all the hard work on the engine worth doing. “I’ve rarely seen something like a steam engine that can inspire strangers to wave at other strangers. That’s something worth building on.” 

Sara Kammeraad.
Based on what I see on Facebook, Sara Kammeraad must be one of the most active steam fans out there. A Michigan native, she seems to make the scene any time N&W 611, NKP 765, or Pere Marquette 1225 turns a wheel. For her, steam means bringing the family together, hers and others. Steam can do that, you know.

“I can recall my first train trip with my family and how happy it made us feel to be together having fun and feeling special, waving to people as we flew down the track,” she recalls. “I then remember looking around seeing other families looking a bit unhappy, standing on the platform, maybe with fussy children or worries from home on their mind. Then, once on board, all that just went away and for a brief moment nothing else mattered to them but each other.”

Steam shows up regularly in the work of video producer Drayton Blackgrove, an imaginative filmmaker who, working as Delay In Block Productions, is on the cutting edge of not only creating videos but also marketing them. Blackgrove makes use of all the latest tech tools, but he revels in the “old-tech” contrast that steam symbolizes.

“In this era of smart phones, the internet, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of self-driving vehicles on the horizon, it’s amazing to see the ability that steam locomotives have in bringing communities together trackside,” he says. “Even if it’s just for a few minutes.”

I first began turning a wrench on a steam locomotive in college, now more than 45 years ago, and at the time I wondered if my comrades and I were the last wave of people who’d know or care about steam. Sometimes that thought even kept me up at night. It’s nice to know I was wrong. 

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