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A Steam Safari

June 9, 2009

I was working at Waldenbooks in the University Mall in Carbondale. One Sunday evening toward the end of my shift, a man walked into the store wearing a hat that caught my attention. On the black hat, embroidered in gold thread, was a circle containing the number 4960.

“Like the hat,” I told the wearer.

“Yeah, right,” the wearer replied. After all, what was this skinny kid of a bookstore clerk going to know about it anyway?

“You know what it is?” he asked haughtily.

“Sure,” I replied. “A Chicago, Burlington and Quincy class O1a Mikado.” There was an audible thud as his jaw hit the floor.

Less than a month later, we were rolling off the miles on the interstate through northern Kentucky in search of steam. June 1991 found plenty of steam within an easy drive of southern Illinois. There were several tourist lines I had never been to, along with mainline excursions operated by Norfolk Southern. This set the stage for our trip.

We planned to start off chasing a N.S. excursion running from Cincinnati to Knoxville, break off the chase to ride the Kentucky Central, resume chasing the mainline excursion the next day, and break off that chase to see the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. Three active steam locomotive in two states over three days.

What could be better?

We arrived in the Walton, Kentucky, area south of Cincinnati late in the afternoon. Even though the train was leaving out of Cincinnati the next morning, we decided to stay in Kentucky and increase our chances of shooting #1218 climbing the hill out of the Ohio River valley the next morning. In addition, we decided to forego the comforts of a motel room in favor of saving money. My companion slept in the car. I lay on the ground in a sleeping bag alongside the old Rathole all night. Not the most comfortable night I ever spent, but I survived it. Shortly before dusk, a southbound Norfolk Southern freight passed our “campsite.”


June 8, 1991, dawned a beautiful day. Perfect for starting off a trip of shooting steam. I took position on an overpass in Walton, where #1218 made a grand sight steaming southbound with hardly a gray haze at the stack to show for its efforts.


After following the mainline trip for a time, we broke off the chase and headed east for Paris, Kentucky, and the Kentucky Central Railroad. The railroad was firing up its Baldwin 2-6-2 for the day, and volunteers readied the locomotive in the finest tradition of the shortline railroad.

#11 had plenty of shortline experience too, gaining fame in later years as one of three active steamers on Arkansas’s Reader Railroad. She later ran in Georgia on the Hartwell before relocating to bluegrass country.


#11 put on a good show of hauling its train of fans and tourists up the line to Carlisle. At Carlisle, the engine cut off and ran around the train for the return trip. In charge of the maneuver was a conductor who at first glance gave off the air of the stone-faced, grouchy conductor of lore. Of course he could have been like many others in that looks can be deceiving. We didn’t test that theory, however. We were too busy getting to know the old gal from Eddystone pulling his train.


The next morning found us back on the road with N&W 1218. My companion and I decided to repeat our strategy of the previous morning and divide our forces; I set up shop in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, and he headed east of town. It worked well the day before. This time… not so well. I waited for nearly two hours with a perfectly framed shot; only to have it fill with railfans moments before the train arrived. The grab shot I got as I ran down the street was a bit disappointing.

Down the road a ways, the mainline train headed north for Cincinnati while we headed on our way to Chattanooga and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. Operating that day was one of the newer steam locomotives to be found, former U.S. Army 2-8-0 #610. This 1950 graduate of Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton certainly looks better than she did in G.I. garb after being modified by the museum with a larger cab and a visored headlight centered on the smoke box front.

We spent the afternoon with #610, shooting her comings and goings along the line. As afternoon was turning to evening, we bore witness as the museum crew banked the fire and tied the locomotive down for the night.


Day three of our Steam Safari found us in the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum’s yard bright and early. #610 was looking fine in the soft light of the early morning.

The museum’s volunteer crew set to work on the locomotive; cleaning the fire, dumping the ash pan, blowing down the boiler and building steam for another day of operation. Once the engine was hot, engineer Billy Byrd ran it around the yard and spotted it next to the coal pile for a load from a bucket crane.

Soon #610 was tied to her train and while passengers were boarded for the first run, I walked up the track to Missionary Ridge Tunnel. Soon the train came along as I shot it from atop the tunnel portal.

A short time later the train returned, staring down the bore of a tunnel that has seen the passage of countless steam locomotives since it was driven through the bedrock before the Civil War.

Mid afternoon came all too soon, and as the last train of the day departed Grand Junction it was time for us to call it a trip and head for home. As 610 accelerated around the curve and hurried off toward East Chattanooga, we knew it was time to return to the era of interstate highways and diesel power.

The return to an earlier era, brief thought it may have been, was just what the doctor ordered.


Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

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