Farewell To Steam


It was the way they worked the cord and changed the steam pressure that made the whistle almost seem to talk. Of course, there was a regular language of signals—two long blasts for starting up; one long tremolo for approaching a station; and, at grade crossings, the familiar whoooo, whoooo, hoo, whooooooooo! mournful and infinitely expressive—but within these supposed rigidities there was plenty of room for individuality. An engineer was a man of importance, admired by young and old, and the whistle was his signature. It was the notes of a whippoorwill, they say, that signified to the Mississippi field hands that Casey Jones was roaring by in his fast ten-wheeler, No. 382. But down in the cornfield, alas, you no longer hear that mournful sound, for not only Casey but also most of the steam locomotives in America have gone to the Promised Land, and all there is to hear is the blast of the diesel air horn.

We have grown accustomed in our limes to the ever-accelerating tempo of social and economic change; even so, the whistle of the steam engine seems to have fallen silent with stunning speed. Steam was still king at the end of World War II and had reigned supreme for over one hundred years. Like the dinosaur on the verge of extinction, it had swollen to enormous size, a hard-breathing, towering monster. Yet its hour has struck so suddenly that it seems quite possible that many a child is being born who will never see a steam locomotive, except as a toy or curio.

If the child lives in a city, especially an eastern city like New York or Boston, his chances are pretty slim. The last steam engine on the New York Central, No. 1977, chuffed her last in May, and there has not been a single New England carrier trailing smoke since the (Central Vermont damped its fires in the spring. The smoke pall which so recently filled the train sheds of Boston and dirtied alike the linen of Hack May and the late curtains of Roxbury is but a memory, perhaps not greatly missed. If the child’s lather is determined enough, however, there are a few steam-powered oddities to be seen—the little cog railway that runs up Mount Washington: two snorting ancients that climb about the working’s of the Rock of Ages marble quarry in Barre, Vermont; a brace of narrow-gauge relics which operate at the Edaville Railroad Museum in South Carver, Massachusetts; an old vertical-piston type called a Shay that operates over a third of a mile at the Pine Creek Railroad near South Amboy, New Jersey. There is more of this kind of thing, but very little real steam railroading.

The first steam engine to go, interestingly enough, was the streamlined model, devised lor the flashier passenger services. But the diesel, though first introduced only in 1925, has taken over nearly all the freight services too, so that to see real steam in action one must generally go to far places, to the mountains and the mining areas—in the Rockies on the Union Pacific, where some of the “Big Boy” articulated engines still help ease long freights over the grades; in Canada; here and there in the Appalachians. An occasional coal-carrying road like the Norfolk ͆ Western still diplomatically uses the customers’ fuel. Some huge companies like the Pennsylvania have not quite finished the transition from steam; a few others, like the Nickel Plate, have steam locomotives too new to scrap. But it is very dangerous to use the present indicative these days in writing about such matters, for in the interval between setting down the words “there are …” and printing them, fatal changes are apt to take place.

At the peak in 1924, some 65,000 steam locomotives, aided by a few electric engines, carried on most of the transportation business of America. Most of these steam engines were still on hand twenty years later, but now, all at once, there are scarcely two or three thousand. On the big Class I railroads—those with annual operating revenues over $3.000,000—nearly all the steam will go when the management can get delivery of diesels or, in some more embarrassing cases, raise the money for them. An economic law is at work which has no regard for romance: the diesel is cheaper to operate. And, apparently in a desire to underscore the point, every nerve and sinew has been bent toward making the diesel as ugly as possible.

Most of the surviving steamers, in a few years, will be the country cousins—motive power of branches, short lines, logging and quarry roads. (“Thank God for sand and gravel pits!” cried a railroad fancier’s magazine the other day.) These survivors are generally little fellows of quaint and ancient cut, better adapted than the giants to short trains,light rails, fragile trestles, and uneven roadbeds. Often they are graying at the temples, to say the least. With a little renewing here and there and some deft cannibalizing of sister locomotives, however, a steam engine practically never wears out. Smoky Mary , brought over from England to a Louisiana line in 1832, operated satisfactorily for 100 years, and John Bull , built in 1831 by Robert Stephenson & Company at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is still in working condition, although admittedly it spends most of its time these days just resting in the Smithsonian. In its own museum, the Baltimore & Ohio keeps a number of pre-Civil War engines like the William Mason ready to be steamed up and run out on the line whenever the movie-makers call.