Why I Model the Steam Era

My model railroading interests are firmly anchored in the steam era.  After reflecting on why that is, I found that there really could have been no other outcome, given my upbringing.

The Age of Influence

I was a voracious reader when I was young, and read (or at least flipped through) about every book in my childhood home. Many of them were either history or railroad-related books that my father collected, and the majority of those were written between the late forties and early sixties by a variety of authors, both well-known (Beebe, Clegg) and less so. 

The topics or themes in his collection ranged from histories (Narrow Gauge Through the Rockies, Steel Rails to Victory) to historically romantic (The Twilight of Steam, Railroad Wrecks) to motive power (Pennsy Power 1&2). Some books were written even earlier in the century for the railroad industry. Locomotive and Maintenance Cyclopedias from various years are good examples of those.

My personal collection – with some of dad’s on loan. As his collection dwarfs mine, I have little reason to buy many of my own!

The one thing that almost all of the books had in common was that they were focused on railroads, trains and locomotion during the steam era.

Under the influence of these artifacts, I remember being frankly astonished that the railroads would give up the obviously superior steam power for *diesels*. Furthermore, I found photos of steam locomotives being scrapped heart-rending and misguided. 

The Age of Exposure to the Real Thing

During this influential time, when I was six or seven, dad came home with a steam engine – literally.  He and two friends (Jerry Ballard and Lanny McCaulley) decided they wanted to establish a steam-powered scenic railroad. To that end, they had sourced #33 – a heavy 2-8-0 built in 1916 for the LS&I – from Marquette, Michigan. The locomotive was hauled on its own wheels to Columbus about 1971 and parked on the “Mud track” in the C&O’s Yard A – just west of where today’s Huntington Park is. 

The locomotive was in good mechanical condition and had had very little time on new flues when she was retired about 1960. My memory was that its “restoration” in Yard A consisted of relatively minor tasks; new sheet metal, paint, and general renewal-type work (there was also coach restoration going on).

#33 at Yard A’s “Mud Track”, with two ex-Erie commuter coaches. Notice the Franklin tender booster. Columbus, 1971. Photo by Dick Argo

Dad often took my brother and I along to “help” and (probably) to get us out of mom’s hair.  I don’t remember much of what I helped with – save one day when we were put to work mixing “mud” in a wheelbarrow. Once this cement-colored insulation material was thoroughly hand-mixed with water, it was applied to #33’s cylinders before the sheet metal wrapper was re-attached. Back in the steam days, insulation mud contained asbestos – to this day, I wonder if the mud we mixed did! 

Eventually, because somebody knew somebody, the locomotive was moved to a stall in the C&O’s Parsons Yard roundhouse. Now THAT was cool. I did some gopher work there, but honestly spent most of my time just hanging out.

By this time, being around a steam locomotive (and the railroad more generally) was normal. Climbing into the cab, smokebox and between the frame rails was old-hat. My brother and I would occasionally wander through the rest of the roundhouse. As this was usually after hours, there weren’t many railroad employees around to yell at us. Every now and then, there would be a diesel with it’s hood off being serviced in one of the stalls with high-level work platforms – I would scoff at this inferior form of motive power!

On the turntable at the C&O’s Parson’s Yard, ca. 1974. Photo by Dave Dupler (davedupler.com)

One day there was word that the C&O was short on power, and the railroad asked dad or Jerry if #33 was ready for pusher service up Powell Hill!  From my perspective, this was a great opportunity to show what a REAL locomotive could do!

For whatever reason, the event never happened – to this kid’s enormous disappointment. I vaguely recall dad telling me that #33 would have been too slow for the work. One thing is sure, it would have been a very interesting movement! 

Up and Running in Nelsonville, Ohio

After initially trying to acquire a line into Wellston for the scenic railroad (which was to be named the Salt Creek Railroad), the Hocking Valley Scenic was established in Nelsonville, running up the Monday Creek branch to New Straitsville, recently abandoned by the C&O. This line is relatively flat, with modest curvature, and originally served many mines. However, the rail was light (67-90 pounds), ties were in poor condition and the track structure was generally anchored by cinders and weeds. Not many railroads looked good in the early seventies; so as far as I was concerned, this look was “normal”.

#33 transported herself down to Nelsonville at the start of the first and second seasons, using the C&O (now I&O) main. It was fun watching #33 run alongside Route 33 at about 30 mph. It was a clank-clonking cacophony! I would have loved to ride the cab during one of these trips – I’m sure the crew was quite active keeping up with the steam usage during this long, sustained speed trip.

The first year of the railroad’s operations was a bit like primitive camping. The “ticket” booth was a tarp strung between two trees and the surface of the parking lot was solid cinder recently reclaimed from a forest (via my uncle’s bulldozer). Cinder makes a nice surface when its dry, but is very messy when wet. The following year, the tarp was replaced by a small watchman’s shanty for the ticket booth, then later by a railroad target office from the HV/Pennsy crossing in Lancaster. That one was big enough to include a souvenir counter, which I sometimes manned.

Longstreth “Terminal”. Dad is on the left, by one of the motor car trailer

At that time, #33 was stored in Longstreth between weekends, where she was re-coaled using an ancient conveyor (water was taken from a hydrant at Bessemer). My brother and I would sometimes spend the whole weekend down in the hills, overnighting in the cupola of the caboose, which we were both still short enough to lay down in. There’s nothing like waking up to a light scent of coal smoke and the sound of the locomotive’s dynamo and blower running as steam pressure is brought up! Those mornings still stick with me.

The local Longstreth kids were attracted by the activity, and would sometimes stop by to help out or socialize. Many of them rode around on four-stroke Honda mini bikes. Man, was I jealous of their freedom and having all of the hills to ride in (motorcycling is one of my other hobbies).

Sounds and Smells

During those early years, I spent one or two trips per day riding in the cab of #33 when dad was firing. I remember these experiences like they were last year – not forty five years ago! These experiences are what made steam really get under my skin.

Put on your sensory imagination cap, and I’ll attempt to describe what I saw, heard and smell. I encourage the reader to try to duplicate the sounds – out loud!

#33 looked especially burly from behind and below, as in this photo taken at the Nelsonville end of the line. That’s my grandfather standing at the foot of the tender, and my mom in the cab (with white hat). By this time, the Franklin tender booster had been removed and sold for scrap.

Standing – Steam locomotives are relatively silent while at rest (when compared to an idling diesel). Some sounds were there all the time – like the buzzing whine of the dynamo (the small steam-powered turbine used to generate electricity) and the rhythmic “ssss-chunk-CHUNK, chunk-CHUNK, chunk-CHUNK” of the cross-compound air pump. The feed water heater’s pump made similar sounds, though slower and accompanied by a bit of spitting/fizzing from steam and water getting past the packings.

If required, someone would make the rounds with an alemite gun to force grease into the rod journals. It made a loud “CHI-CHI, CHI-CHI, CHI-CHI” air-exhaust sound.  Then there was the occasional, ear-splitting hissing-ROAR of a lifting safety valve. This would occur without warning and would scare the pants off me!  Fully opening the drain valve on a pressurized air tank is a good comparison – but with a lot more bass and volume!

Starting –  Before starting, someone would begin ringing the bell manually (sometimes my job!) or with the air-powered automatic ringer. #33’s ringer was a single-action device that swung the entire rocker, not just the clapper, so it had a more natural ringing frequency than the fast ding-ding-ding of the clapper type. The air-ringer would make a “pi-sssit” with each rocker swing – and each swing would create two dings. 

After whistling off (two toots), releasing the train brake (PPSSSssshhhhhhhh), and moving the reversing lever forward (“SSSHHHHHhhhhh” from the power-reverser), the engineer would give a tug on the throttle. With a good engineer, steam starts are dead silent and very smooth – so gentle that I had to watch the ground from the cab window to see if we were moving. Math tells me that we could travel up to three and a half feet before the first exhaust was heard. Then, a gentle “Wuff”. Overlaid on these sounds was the sound of the steam escaping from cylinder cocks (“SHHHH………. SHHHH…….. SHHHH…. SHHHH” – in time with the quickening driver rotation) accompanied by a plume of energetic steam angling up and back about twenty feet before dissipating. On chilly mornings, the steam would hang in the air much longer, a very cool (and slightly eerie) effect.

Underway – When accelerating from a stop, #33 had a side-to-side waddle. The location of the cab behind last axle and the view along the side of the boiler accentuated the movement. Similarly, when the locomotive was traveling over uneven track (i.e., the whole railroad), the cab would wag left, right, up and down. That movement was accompanied by the sound of the floor apron scraping back and forth across the tender deck and the groaning and popping of suspension bits, flanges and rail as they protested the abuse.

Whenever in motion – but especially when drifting backward into the station on the return trip – the rods would make a terrific sound – a “clank-clonk-clong-bong” – with every driving wheel revolution. Sometimes it sounded like parts were about to fall off!

Grade crossings got both a ringing bell and wonderful whistling. Jerry’s son would sometimes get to blow the whistle at one private crossing, but I don’t ever remember having that opportunity – maybe I should have asked!  I think the whistle was a three-chime. Whatever it was, it sure was pretty.

Firing – Firing was a grand mix of sounds, smells and other non-visual sensations. Dad usually hand-fired the locomotive; it had a stoker, but it was rarely used.

When firing, there would first be the sound of his shovel scraping the deck at the coal gate, followed by an air hiss and loose, heavy clanking of the fire door opening when he stepped on the pedal of the automatic (air powered) opener. That was followed by a flat ”zhiiing” of the coal sliding off the shovel into the firebox, then another hiss and loud “CLANK-clank” as the door slammed shut and rebounded.

When the stoker was used, it made a grinding/crunching sound as the coal was crushed and moved to the the stoker’s distributing plate. If the fire door was open (HOT!), I could watch the distributing jets fling the coal from the plate into the red-orange abyss – this made a stuttering hissing sound.

Whether firing manually or with the stoker, dad would open the door manually to check the fire. He always said to “fire the bright spots” – the brightness indicated that the fire was getting thin at those points.

Adding water – #33 had two ways of putting water into the boiler; a feedwater heater (used only when underway) and an injector, which was typically only used when standing.

I distinctly remember the injector because of the dance required to use it, and the sounds it made. First, dad would pull down on a large brass handle mounted on the backhead, then crank open a valve below the fireman-side seat box. While his hands were still under the seat box, he would would hang his head outside the cab window (dog-like) to watch the injector overflow just above track level. When water started gushing out of the overflow, he would close the underseat valve, then stand up and pull the injector handle all the way down (at least, that how I remember it). I vaguely remember the sound of the water working its way up the pipe, a mix of gurgle and rushing sounds that increased in pitch as the pipe filled (think of the sound a slide flute makes), then it would stabilize into a steady metallic rushing sound.

When enough water was in, he’d shut the injector handle, which was accompanied by a water-hammer like “CLANK”, followed by a temporary gush of water down at the overflow.

Smells – I’ve read that smells cement memories better than any other sense, and based on my experience on the locomotive, it’s absolutely true. When starting, I would get a nose full of smells – a wet coal smoke smell from the stack, a steam-oil steamy smell from the cylinder cocks and exhaust and a straight saturated steam smell from various water/steam appliances (injector drain, dynamo, whistle, etc.). Alemite grease for the rod journals had it’s own unique smell, as did the car oil used in the journal boxes.

It Sticks With You!

So, given the above described sensory immersion at that young age, how could I *not* have a penchant for steam locomotion?

If you ever see me listening to a sound-equipped locomotive model with a look of fierce concentration on my face – or if I ever comment on or critique the sound that the model is making, you’ll now have a sense of what’s going through my head.

Thanks for reading my blog. If you have any questions or additions, please share a comment in the section below. If you know others that might be interested in this blog, feel free to share the link.

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