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Steam Is As Steam Was

May 29, 2009

I must preface this piece by stating what is obvious to most people who know me: I am an unabashed train buff. I have been reading about trains since my age could be counted on my fingers. I began taking pictures of trains when I was ten. I have been fascinated by railroad machinery and history since grade school. That fascination has never left me and while it is no longer my only interest, it is one the will probably always be at the forefront of my life in some way or another.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the most memorable events in life are just a series of days that are different from the every day? It seems to me that this must have always been so. The stuff of legend as time passes, was little more than a day of doing something out of the ordinary at the time.

The recent release of a special edition by Classic Trains magazine has me thinking about such things. A onetime editor of a magazine in the family of the publisher of Classic Trains made a series of journeys with a railroad photographer to search out the last enclaves of the steam locomotive as diesels were taking over. They traveled to north of the border into Canada, across the northeast and the Midwest, and into the high plains of the west to record the last steam engines in operation before they disappeared.

My, how things have changed… or have they? I was born in 1972; twelve years after the last steam locomotives were retired off of the mainlines of North America. Despite this, I too have traveled in search of these rare but still breathing dinosaurs of the steam age. Some of them still run today; some do not.

But just as David P. Morgan and Phil Hastings could sit back and think of days gone by – days in which they watched a New York Central steamer tear through a town in Ohio or watched examples of the largest steam locomotives ever to operate in North America haul trains out of Cheyenne, Wyoming – I have days I can think back to as well.

There was the time I woke up on the floor of a church in Sugar Creek, Ohio, a guest of the gift shop keeper of the Ohio Central who was a member of the congregation and offered to let me stay indoors in the rectory rather than in a tent alongside my car on a gravel road somewhere. Shortly after daybreak I found myself standing next to a locomotive that was slowly being brought to life after its weekly inspection; ready for another week of carrying tourists through Ohio Amish country.

Then there was the time I slept on the ground along the old Southern Railway’s line between Cincinnati and Knoxville, saving scarce money (my companion slept in the car) while putting us in position to film and chase a huge Norfolk & Western locomotive the next day. That day kicked off a three day trip that found us shooting steam locomotives on three lines in two states.

When you think about it, what it the real difference between my experiences and those of the great writers and photographers that came before me? Outside of the particulars of where they went and what the saw, not a whole lot. They enjoyed a chance to get out of the office and engage in a hobby that fascinated them. They traveled in search of the object of their affection, and garnered experiences that they would treasure for a lifetime. That’s not a whole lot of difference between what they did and what I have done. The main exception being that while they documented the end of an era, I have documented a throwback to that era.

But, as David P. Morgan once wrote, steam is as steam was. It is a fire on the grates; hot water in the boiler. It is the whine of a turbo generator. It is the thumping of air pumps. It is the smell of hot oil, steam and smoke from the fire. It is the characteristic sounds each engine makes as it does what it does. It is the volcanic plume of exhaust as an engine takes a heavy train upgrade. It is the thin cloud laying back over the train as the engine lopes along a speed. The particulars may change, but the experience is still the same.

And thank God for that.


Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2010 10:54 am

    I love your writing, it’s elegant and spare and gets to the point. And the photo of 3985 may end up on my monitor as wallpaper for a while. It’s a fabulous shot! And I’m an ERIE fan, which means I have a total of zero preserved steam locomotives (or diesels in ERIE paint, for that matter, except impostors dressed for the occasion) to visit.

    Thanks for what you’re doing with your blog!


  2. March 23, 2010 10:13 am

    I agree with Schuyler about your writing. But I think I would pic the picture of 765.

    I am a fan of the Western Maryland Rwy. Fortunately there is a working WM shay and a 2-8-0 painted up as a Western Maryland engine working on original WM tracks. Do you have a favorite road?

    PS: I found you from your post of the steam loco list and Schuyler’s comments there.

    • March 23, 2010 6:21 pm

      Definitely I have a favorite: the Illinois Central, which happens to be my hometown road. Linked with that is the Crab Orchard & Egyptian, which was a steam powered common carrier on the former I.C. Carbondale District between Marion and Ordill (Crainville), Illinois, until 1986. CO&E #17, a Canadian built 2-8-0, was equipped with the whistle of I.C. 2-10-2 #2807 and the bell of I.C. 2-8-4 #8033. That’s about the closest I’ll get to seeing I.C. steam in operation; but at least I got to cab ride #17 as a 12 year old.


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