Steam still hooks the next generation

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Aaron Chicwak cleans the running gear of Reading Co. 0-4-0 “Camelback” No. 1187. Cate Kratville-Wrinn photo
When I look back on my first involvement with steam locomotives — that would be in 1970 at Michigan State University, where I joined a band of dreamers working on Pere Marquette 2-8-4 1225 — I can’t help but remember the myths of the naysayers, those opinionated people who told us why we were wasting our time.  

Most of it came from railfans, but the baloney occasionally came from railroaders. The mantras were familiar: “You won’t find a railroad to run on.” “All the servicing facilities are gone.” There was even the C&O p.r. executive — I’ll leave him mercifully unidentified — who told us, “The bridges won’t hold her weight.” Say what?

My favorite, though, was the notion that all the expertise needed to run steam would disappear once the last generation of boilermakers and machinists and engineers died off, at the time a looming prospect. It was as if working on steam was some sort of Medieval dark art, like alchemy, something inevitably headed for the grave.

Obliterating that myth is the fact that we’re now into our third generation of post-steam-era steam professionals, a group that has managed to learn everything the old timers knew and then some. Proof of their expertise is clear every time another engine makes news. Just Google C&O 1309 or Reading 2102 or Santa Fe 2926 if you don’t believe me.

I thought about all this recently when I caught up with Sara Kammeraad, as good a representative as any of the “next generation” of steam people. A native of western Michigan and an accomplished classic car geek (you should see her beautifully restored 1984 Dodge d150 Ram pickup), she’s now on the staff of the Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugar Creek, Ohio, where she is learning a whole new set of skills.

Sara Kammeraad in the fireman’s seat aboard Morehead & North Fork 0-6-0 No. 12. Age of Steam photo
Kammeraad must be in nirvana. The 1920s-era engine terminal that the late entrepreneur Jerry Joe Jacobson created and opened in 2011 is really a miraculous place, with its 18-stall roundhouse filled with locomotives, its adjacent repair shop busy with projects, and a depot and visitors center that really says “welcome.” Everything at the place is impressively authentic, from the vintage “Locomotive Cyclopedias” in the mechanical department to the big black phones on the roundhouse walls. 

I’m guessing Kammeraad is in her early 30s, far removed from the lost world of steam railroading, but all that proves is that steam’s appeal is everlasting. For her, the work is a calling.

“I feel like I’m helping to make a difference in the world of preservation,” she explains. “Even the smallest task can have the greatest impact in this setting, whether it’s helping to tighten a loose bolt or inspiring a young child to pursue their love of trains. The sense of teamwork and drive I get from the crew only inspires me to want to do more.”

There’s plenty of “more” at Age of Steam. In addition to learning the basics as a shop laborer, Kammeraad is managing the AoS gift shop, handling social media, booking tours, and training as a tour guide. When she isn’t cleaning presses and lathes, she’s liable to be working as a car host. 

“I love making the trips fun while sharing the history of each piece of equipment we pass in the yard,” she explains. “The biggest challenge so far is learning a lot on a short notice, but we’ve adapted rather well. It takes a lot to make special events happen, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy and it’s always the most rewarding.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but this veteran of both the classic car show circuit and a full-service auto body shop sees parallels with her work at the roundhouse. 

“I’ve learned that whether it’s railroading or hot rods, take care of what you have and they will take good care of you for many years down the road,” says Kammeraad. “Never settle for less than the best. I think the emphasis on safety with classic cars is the same for railroading: always handle things with care, look for any potential dangers, and be sure to always encourage safety with others.”

Kammeraad grew up seeing versions of steam in TV shows and movies such as “Thomas the Tank Engine,” “Shining Time Station,” and “Back to the Future 3,” but vicarious experience wasn’t good enough. Over the past several years she has ridden most of the top steam tourist railroads and volunteered for operations as diverse as Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765, Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611, and the Nevada Northern Railway. 

She’s also had some excellent advisors along the way, among them Age of Steam founder Jacobson, longtime Nickel Plate 765 engineer Rich Melvin, Nevada Northern’s Mark Bassett, as well as steam crews on N&W 611, at Strasburg Rail Road, and the North Carolina Museum of Transportation. And we should mention her current boss, Age of Steam Chief Mechanical Officer Tim Sposato. “Tim has taught me a lot about equipment care and given me encouragement and advice about operations,” says Kammeraad. “He’s been the most patient mentor I’ve ever seen.”

The late Trains Editor Jim Wrinn and NKP No. 763 at Age of Steam, February 2022. Cate Kratville-Wrinn photo
A transformative experience for Kammeraad was 2009’s Train Festival at the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Mich. “That experience sealed the deal,” she explains. “After seeing the 1225, the 765, Little River 110, the 4-4-0 Leviathan, and world-famous Daylight 4449, I knew in my heart I belonged in this world, even as a volunteer.” 

Now she’s more than a volunteer. Steam railroading means a paycheck, and for Kammeraad, there isn’t a better place to be earning it than the Age of Steam Roundhouse.

Addendum: another person who truly loved Age of Steam was the late Trains Editor Jim Wrinn, who made his last visit in February, not long before he died on March 30. As Jim said at the time, “Age of Steam is an incredible gift to all of us who love steam locomotives and want to see them well cared for a preserved in an appropriate setting.”

One of Jim’s last acts as editor was to spearhead a special day of photography at the roundhouse, scheduled for May 20 and featuring locomotives ranging from tank engines to 4-8-4s, enhanced by re-enactors in period clothing. A few tickets remain available for the event. For details, visit:

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