Select Readings for the Steam Off-Season

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The beginning of each new year brings a bittersweet reality for participants and observers of the railroad preservation industry. After the last Christmas train returns to the station, there will be no more trains for at least two months. Winter weather and the necessary yeary inspections and maintenance force a interlude in operations.  This is welcome news, in some ways: Holiday departures follow a grueling schedule, and by the end of the year, most of the engines are as beleaguered as their operators. The off-months never feel quite as restful and relaxing as they intend to, though, as railroad preservation is one of those rare industries where most people genuinely love what they do.

There is little to take the edge off of this withdrawal, not when the winter break is almost every universal in the industry. The only anecdote is to take what comfort you can from pictures, videos, and other facsimiles of the real thing.

Personally, I combat this desert of vaporized water at the oasis of old railroad books, magazines, pamphlets, and other publications. I have collected enough of them that sometimes I fantasize about what else I could do with the space they take up in the third bedroom and in my closet, but they are invaluable for research purposes and a reliable source of entertainment.  
In this blog we’ll share a few examples, that I have found particularly interesting or relevant to my own experiences.

Our first reading comes from a diminutive book--about 3”x 4” in its dimensions--entitled “Stories Of The Railway.” Printed in 1893, it is composed of four works of fiction about the railroads.  The joy of this book and others like it is that they make it clear that the average person was well aware of the elegance inherent to steam railroading. Consider this passage from the first of the four stories, “As the Sparks Fly,” in which descriptions of the engine set the setting for a bitter argument between a crack passenger train’s engineer and fireman:

“It had been snowing during the early evening, but the flakes had melted as they fell, and the ill-paved roads were full of spreading pools that caught the rays
cast by the glowing embers in the engine’s firebox and, seeming to hold them for an instant in dull reflection, threw them weakly back...As one looks
ahead, there are to be seen by the spreading illumination of the headlights the shining, converging rails and on either side the sodden, half-frozen earth.” 

There are other gems of descriptive wit in the book. One passage describes a busy train station as “an asylum for lost noises.” Taken as a whole, they give ample evidence that that people who lived and worked in the era of unchallenged steam were well aware that the technology made an ideal canvas to project the dramas of everyday life. Putting the steam railroad on an artistic pedestal did not begin when the technology became threatened by erasure, nor was no invention of the preservation era, in which hyperbole helps drum up support for an engine’s continued survival. It is in the very nature of the engines to resonate with the human soul.

We go next to the June 1950 issue of
Railroad Magazine. Sandwiched between a schematic depicting a Norfolk & Western-Y6b tender and an article about shipping bee colonies by rail lies a memoiristic story about a female telegrapher who built a respectable career at the turn of the 20th century:

“I was now 28 years old, the mother of a boy of 11, and, by my own choice, dependant upon my ability as a telegrapher for his support and mine.
It had been an uphill fight to win the approval of officials and fellow brass pounders who had every reason to be critical of a lady op. That scrape
was going to continue on for a good many years while I….built up all kinds of seniority in the female branch of the boomer society.”

For as many words the author spends relating difficult coworkers, out-of-the-ordinary messages and shipments, and the many different railroads for which she worked, there are remarkably few mentions of the trains themselves. Perhaps the constraints of printed media required the author to limit the story to what was immediately relevant to her own life. Perhaps the first draft did include more reminiscing about the machinery but, given the era, editors were leery of presenting a woman who could speak with authority on a technical subject.

In any case, this story touches on a paradox that underpins my own career in railroad preservation. There are no barriers preventing me from taking the throttle of one of the surviving engines and hotfooting it down the mainline, other than the universal ones of experience and certification, but the ability to engage in the work has become so much more limited. Those of us who carry the torch in modern times were born far too late to experience the steam era in its entirety, when the sort of experiences and activities we travel thousands of miles for today were ordinary and ubiquitous.  My exposure to steam in the 21st century is far less frequent than someone in the author’s, but is much more intimate than someone of her gender and era would have been allowed.

Our last reading comes from a more technical volume, Angus Sinclair’s Locomotive Engine Running and Management. I’ve gone to great lengths to find these books in forgotten corners of used book shops and antique stores. Detailed technical manuals like this are almost worth their weight in gold to the individuals seeking to keep steam alive in the era of Wi-Fi and self-driving cars. 

Most of these nuts-and-bolts volumes in my personal library date from the 1940s or 1950s--like the engines they describe, there were simply in common use at the end of steam, so they survive in great numbers. Locomotive Engine Running and Management, though, dates to 1888. That sets it apart from other books for the simple fact that the technology, at this point in its evolution, stood at a point of transition. Designers had figured out the technology of steam locomotion well enough to make it efficient and reliable, but had not yet begun to conceive the enormous size and strengths it would achieve in the 20th century.

More interesting, though, is how thoroughly this book stresses that only a certain type of person has the proper temperament to become a locomotive engineer, and that even those individuals have a long process of learning before they can be considered fully competent in their craft:  

“Graduates to the business do not take charge of the iron horse without the full meed of experience and skill...
The great fund of practical knowledge which stamps the first-class engineer is amassed by general labor during years
of vigilant observation on the footboard, amidst many changes of fair and foul weather.”

That mindset stands in contrast to the way modern training manuals are written. The computer-integrated, warning-light equipped, cause-and-effect nature of contemporary machinery reduces the need for the most fundamental aspect of steam operations: One must amass a knowledge of the working of his machine that encompassess the function of the smallest bolt and, then, be attentive enough to detect when any one of those parts becomes altered in its function.

This excerpt becomes somewhat depressing, if I let myself think about it for too long. I am lucky enough that I have amassed a good variety of steam experiences, and I like to think I’m fairly good at carrying them out. I have fired on main lines at speed, I have marched a train up a rain-slicked hill and kept it from stalling by what felt like pure will, I have wielded an alemite gun, I have coaxed overheated injectors back into their intended function, and identified what repairs an engine needed just by sound.  Being able to do those things today makes me a valuable crew member, but back in the steam era, it would merely have been expected.

The sad fact of it is that though we are competent, I, and most of the other people in preservation, will never be able to amass the same kind of experience as the people who did it day in, day out. Running engines only on weekends and only for a portion of the year simply does not allow us to amass the same sort of hours as crew members in generations past.  

Keeping the preserved engines in service approaches a religious calling, though, and that spot of depression isn’t enough to keep me from looking forward to the 2018 season. I doubt I am alone in that. Here’s to a fruitful upcoming season and, by all means, share what’s tiding you by in the comments!

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