4 June 2012


It’s always tough to know how to dress for a first date. It’s even harder when your date’s a 105-yearold that weighs 180 tons and is called “Mastodon.”


That means it’s a 4-8-0 (4 pilot wheels and 8 drivers) steam locomotive built in 1906 by
Baldwin for the Norfolk & Western Railroad.

Typical wear for the crew of such a coal-fired behemoth consists of bib overalls and an engineer’s cap, but any greenhorn who climbs into the cab in crisp new overalls and cap would look like a seventh member of the Village People. So it’s best to play it safe and wear jeans, a jersey and an old pair of work gloves — and hope that no flying embers drop down your pants.

Into the Past
Walking through the door into the engine house at the Strasburg Rail Road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I step back a hundred years. Hefty work benches with massive hand tools line the wall, and the atmosphere is thick with coal smoke and steam. Light is limited by the haze and the massive locomotives. I’m led past the colossal and partially disassembled 2-10-0 locomotive and glance at a silent 2-6-0 before turning right to see the source of the smoke and steam — old No. 475 — that will give me a taste of the past.

All Fired UP
In the gloom, three men in work-stained overalls, engineer’s caps and work gloves tend to the locomotive, lubricating the many moving parts. In the cab, the crew keeps checking steam pressure until it hits 150 pounds per square inch. That’s when fireman Dave Boyer switches on the steam-driven air compressor to fill the reservoir for the braking system. As engineer Dan Potts explains, the train doesn’t move until he knows it can stop. And with the engine and tender alone weighing 180 tons, it doesn’t stop on a dime.  Potts made it clear that operating a locomotive is serious business that takes years of training and a series of exacting oral exams. Miss one question about the air brake system and it’s an automatic fail. He’s also scrupulous about knowing the whereabouts of fireman Boyer, fireman trainee Cordell Heffelfinger and our two photographers in the interest of safety. He’s clearly no-nonsense, but agrees that I’ll be able to operate the locomotive in the yard and try my hand at stoking the fire during a passenger run.

In the Office
There aren’t that many controls in a cab dominated by a massive firebox. Valves control the boiler water level and release steam pressure. There are levers for the power reverse (to select direction), automatic brake (the entire train), independent brake (just the engine) and throttle. Critical systems are monitored by gauges for steam and air pressure, and water glasses to indicate the boiler’s water level. Of course, there are also cords for the bell and the steam whistle.

The fireman’s two primary controls are the foot pedal opening the scissor doors of the firebox and a coal scoop. If anyone thinks that shoveling coal is just a matter of tossing those black chunks on the fire, they’re plain wrong. I do pretty well, scooping, turning, opening the door and getting all the coal in the firebox, but I lack the fluid precision of fireman Boyer, who is skilled at scattering the bituminous coal so that the fire is evenly distributed. It’s also exhausting work, considering the fireman can be exposed to extreme heat and cold simultaneously and will get very wet if it’s raining or snowing.

Ready to Roll
With a boiler full of water, enough steam pressure and plenty of compressed air, it’s time to release the toggle-like brake controls, squeeze the stiff vise-grip-style release on the throttle and give the high-mounted lever a shove. And make no mistake, it’s high effort, especially if you’re like me and only weigh 150 pounds. Effort may be high, yet a gentle touch is essential as the throttle is opened. With 40,000 pounds tractive effort — the railroad equivalent to torque — old No. 475’s power seems endless as the huge machine moves forward. Caution is essential, because if you allow too much steam to the cylinders, those eight 56-inch drivers will spin — even if some young Lancaster County scallywag hasn’t greased the rails. It’s even tougher when passenger cars are attached and there’s slack to take up so that the train doesn’t lurch and jolt. But when I ease that power on and hear that steady chug, I am living every boy’s dream. Once rolling I discover that it’s important to keep a steady hand on the throttle — which requires a fair bit of upper body strength. The procedure is even tougher if you’re backing up, because you have to keep your head out the window to watch where you’re going.

Due to safety concerns and physics, acceleration is gradual, but deceleration is even slower as I push the throttle closed and turn the brass toggle lever to apply the brakes. Unlike car brakes, there is little feel to the control, and stopping is downright leisurely, taking close to a minute from a gentle 10-mileper-hour gate. The ever-vigilant engineer Potts reminds me that due to the engine’s great weight, everything requires thinking far ahead.

While it’s exciting to drive the locomotive, nothing quite beats the thrill of pulling the cord to that incredible steam whistle. From a distance it sounds mournful, but from the cab it just adds to the cacophony of hissing steam, clanking compressor, chugging cylinders and pretty much every other mechanical sound known to man. Much of the time, conversation is just about impossible, but with the whistle or bell sounding, you can’t yell loud enough to be noticed, much less heard.

Make no mistake, running a steam locomotive is dangerous and dirty work. There’s coal dust everywhere, including in your eyes and throat, the firebox is brutally hot with temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees — and there are a dozen ways to be injured or worse, with heavy and exposed moving parts at every turn. But there’s also an excitement and glamour to a steam locomotive that can’t be denied. What small boy didn’t want to be Casey Jones or pull the cord on that amazing steam whistle?

A Proud Heritage
Founded in 1832, the Strasburg Rail Road began with hay-burning horsepower, hauling passengers and freight and connecting the small Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, town with what eventually became the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1958, a group of train enthusiasts joined together to save the railroad from certain extinction and began repairs to reinstate service as a passenger carrier in 1959. Steam returned in 1960 and, since then, the railroad has increased its fleet of working steam locomotives to four — not counting a replica of Thomas the Tank Engine — and has enough carefully maintained rolling stock to run three passenger trains at a time.

Today, Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania’s Amish country combines its most visible business of carrying 400,000 tourists a year in beautifully restored coaches and dining cars with a growing freight business and one of the finest steam locomotive repair facilities in the country. In addition to maintaining and repairing its own locomotives and passenger cars, the railroad takes in projects from other lines, provides consulting services and has set high standards for the training of steam engineers and firemen that have been adopted by other railroads. For more information about the Strasburg Rail Road, go to strasburgrailroad.com, or call 717-687-7522.


To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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