Unexpected, but meaningful big steam encounters

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Saturday, June 17, 2017

"It looks like it’s heavier than the stuff on the rails today, doesn't it?"


A pair of van drivers have wandered up to the side track where the 765 and its train have halted, in repose but tumescent with enough steam to lift the safety valves at least once. For a time they watch from a distance, arms folded across their chests, rolling their body weight from their ankles to the balls of their feet, watching raindrops evaporate into little cotton-puffs of steam as they fall onto the 765's carapace. Then comes a question— “Why does it have so many smokestacks?-- and then the answer—”those are actually valves and sand domes and other apparatus.

The answers quiet them for a time,  and then the question comes again: “Don't you think the 765 is heavier than the stuff we use today?”


Moving a steam locomotive from its home base to the site of an event, like this weekend’s Joliet Rocket excursions,, often takes the train through active freight yards. For a few fleeting moments, the 765 infiltrates spaces that have been meticulously sanitized of every sign that its kind once held unchallenged influence here, and holds its own against its replacements.

This juxtaposition of equipment often catches employees in the yard, like the two van drivers, by surprise.   A few of them, you can tell from their body language or the look on their faces, are made of the stuff that resonates and enlivens in proximity to the engines. Most are more subdued. They are risking their jobs if they stop long to gawk, after all.

No matter how the people witnessing the train’s passing react, though, there is always a sort of reverential humility apparent in their demeanor. They may have some vague idea that steam preceded the diesel locomotives rumbling and rolling around them, but never realized how complex and finely calibrated it was.  If the train lingered longer, or they had a few moments to spare, no doubt they would linger and ask questions like those posed by the van drivers:


"How much of it is full of water?"


"Are those back wheels cleaner because they were just replaced?"


"It must weigh more than the engines in the yard, I'm sure of it."


The first time they ask it, I tell them they are correct. The 765 weighs about 800,000 pounds if the tender is included (its exact weight would depend on how much fuel and water it is carrying.) That  is more than double the weight of most diesel locomotives. handling today’s freight.


They don’t find this technical answer to be completely satisfying, and continue to posit some variety of this question--how heavy is the 765?--throughout the sparse conversation.  Eventually, it begins to dawn on me that this isn't really a question at all. The van drivers’ inquiries are, rather, their way of putting the ineffable nature of this experience  into words. It is an acknowledgment that this yard  somehow became different with the arrival of the 765's heat, its sheath of humidity, the flurry of cinders it leaves in its wake.  They grasp that it has the gravity to pull in visitors from all corners of the United States into the Chicago area. They can sense and appreciate the sense of community binding the train’s crew together.

In that sense as well, they are correct. The 765 is far heavier than the stuff on the road today.

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