The new golden age of steam

Posted by Justin Franz
on Friday, June 30, 2017

Monson No. 3 in Portland, Maine. Photo by Justin Franz.
My Dad likes to tell a story of watching Union Pacific No. 844 (then No. 8444) and No. 3985 storm up Peru Hill in 1981. He and his brother were chasing the two locomotives west on their way to the California State Railroad Museum’s Railfair 1981 and had ventured to Wyoming to witness what was commonplace just a quarter century earlier.

As the excursion roared west, the two locomotives blanketed the countryside with thick black smoke. My Dad says it’s still one of the best steam shows he’s ever seen. After the train had passed, another railfan, legendary photographer and author Lloyd Stagner, turned to my Dad and uncle and simply said, “Boys, you just witnessed the way it used to be.”

I’ve seen the photos and it was indeed a spectacular show. As a kid growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I thought that I would never have the opportunity to see such spectacles. Insurance costs were rising, locomotives were being sidelined and it seemed as if the “golden age” of preserved steam was done. Thankfully, the last few years have proved us wrong. As you’ll find in the new Big Steam is Back, the United States is in the midst of a main line steam renaissance. In last few weeks, UP No. 844, Norfolk & Western No. 611, Nickel Plate Road No. 765, Milwaukee Road No. 261 and Southern Pacific No. 4449 have all wowed crowds from coast to coast.

Southern Pacific No. 4449 in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Justin Franz.

And it’s not just main line steam that is in the spotlight. Across the country, smaller locomotives are on the move and, at least in my observation, operators are taking historic accuracy a little more seriously. While the 1970s and 1980s were a great time for steam fans, plenty of historical sins were committed. There was a Reading T-1 running around with a kitten on its tender. A Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 was touring the southeast masquerading as a Southern Railway locomotive. And, perhaps most egregious to this fan of Canadian steam, a certain museum in northeast Pennsylvania that eventually became part of the National Park Service, relettered two different locomotives for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (My Dad likes to recall a trip to Scranton where a group of Canadian fans nearly had heart attacks when they saw Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 No. 2317 repainted with “Pocono Mountain Route” on its side).

One of the first steam locomotives I ever saw was Monson 0-4-4T No. 3, a two-foot gauge steamer at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum in Portland, Me. After spending 30 years moving slate in northern Maine, it ended up at the Edaville Railroad in Massachusetts, one of the earliest tourist roads in the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, No. 3 and its siblings were outfitted with balloon stacks, big headlights, brass boiler bands and white tires, extravagant additions that were never found on the frugal Monson. When No. 3 returned home to Maine in the early 1990s, it still had some unnecessary accessories, specifically a cow catcher and brass boiler bands.

Nevada Northern No. 93 in Ely, Nevada. Photo by Justin Franz.
Then came along Wesley Heinz and Jay Monty. During No. 3’s most recent rebuild, Heinz, Monty and the rest of the MNG crew worked tirelessly to bring the locomotive back to its original appearance. Gone was the cow catcher, the brass bands and oversized lettering (large things like the balloon stack and old timey headlight had been taken off years earlier). While some exceptions had to be made (the locomotive needs a headlight and the Federal Railroad Administration isn’t too keen on doing what the original Monson did with an old Model A headlight strapped to the front), No. 3 now looks as close to original as she ever has.

No. 3 could quite literally fit inside the firebox of some main line locomotives, but it’s just another example of how we really are in a new “golden age” of steam. Get out and enjoy it.

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