Farewell To Steam


The South, and particularly Georgia, has been a holdout in the era of the diesel, a kind of home to aging steam locomotives, but even here the new prosperity is falling on steam like a blight. And to find a wood-burning common carrier, one must travel a bit west, to the Mississippi … Alabama Railroad, whose 27-mile line connects with the Gull, Mobile R; Ohio at Vinegar Bend, Alabama. On a corkscrew-track the M&A operates a fine old 2-6-2, or “Prairie” engine.


Locomotives, it should be explained, are classified for most purposes by their wheel arrangement. Thus the so-called “American” type of locomotive, of which many specimens are illustrated in these pages, is called a 4-4-0—signifying that there are four wheels under the front truck, four driving wheels, and no trailing wheels under the cab. Wheels under the tender, of course, are ignored. It tends to be the famous older (and smaller) types that survive—Consolidations (2-8-0); freight-hauling Moguls (2-6-0); ten-wheelers (4-6-0) ; Mikados (2-8-2); and Pacifies (4-6-2). Big as they are in relation to the little engines of the Civil War era, they are dwarfed by the great articulated Mallets, with their two sets of driving wheels, each rigged to its own set of cylinders, running in series as complex as 2-10-10-2.

The disappearance of a steam engine is rarely a publicized or even public event; it is a thing done privately in an undistinguished setting. One night old 567 rolls a way freight into the yard, uncouples, hacks off on a rusty spur, and has her Ares raked out and boilers drained for the last time. There she rusts a few weeks or months, depending on the market for scrap iron. Generally someone in authority comes by to chalk her boiler with a notice of disposition (or perhaps some more personal message like the “Goodbye, old Pal,” one traveler observed in a Philadelphia yard) and eventually she goes to the torch. The public is on the highways and there is no audience to see the corpse borne off, like Hamlet’s by the soldiers, with a dead march, drums, and peals of ordnance. Hut the drama is there, for this is the end of something entirely heroic, of a century and a (quarter in which one great invention transformed a scattering of towns and settlements into a united nation.


The story of America and the steam locomotive can be told in many ways. There is, for example, a tale of inventors frustrated and prophets ignored. Consider a strange genius named Oliver Evans, who was chattering about steam carriages as early as 1786. He built a strange, crawling, amphibious monster which he called the Orukter Amphibole ; it moved on land to the Schuylkill River, waddled in and kept right on going. Naturally no one listened to a man like this when he suggested a wooden railway, with steamdrawn carriages to move between New York and Philadelphia at fifteen miles an hour. After him there was John Stevens of Hoboken, who operated the world’s first steam ferry and, at the age of 76, designed and built with his own hands a toy engine which he operated on a circular track in his yard. This was 1825, the same year Stephenson’s Locomotion appeared in England. But as early as 1812 Stevens had been telling all who would listen, a rather select company, that it would be better to build a railway than a canal between Albany and Lake Erie. If he had built the toy first, he might have been more convincing, but, at any rate, after 1825 the dam seemed to burst. Railroad projects sprang up everywhere, and railroading now became a story of inventors not only listened to but acclaimed. And the world had a new toy, viewed with horror by some and astonishment by others. Listen to an elegant gentleman of New York, George Templeton Strong, writing in 1839:

It’s n great sight to sec a large train get under way … As to the engine, the most pithy and expressive epithet I ever heard applied to it is “Hell in Harness.” Just imagine such a concern rushing unexpectedly by a stranger to the invention on a dark night, whizzing and rattling and panting, with its fiery furnace gleaming in front, its chimney vomiting fiery smoke above, and its long train of cars rushing along behind like the body and tail of a gigantic dragon-or like the d—1 himself—and 11 darting forward at the rate of twenty miles an hour. Whew!

When the rails came to Amherst, Emily Dickinson characteristically crouched in the woods to sec the train move off and then rushed home to dash oil a poem ( I like to hear it lap the miles, and lick the valleys up … ) Over in another wood lot, in Conford, Henry David Thoreau was opposed in principle hut could not conceal a certain admiration:

… when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils … it seems as if the earth had got a rate now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!

There is a story of great feats of engineering too—of speed and danger, of wilderness tamed, rivers bridged, tunnels drilled, mountains surmounted. Here, for example, is Henry Flagler, 82 years old, achieving his dream at last, making the first ride across the railroad he built out to sea to reach Key West—twenty miles on embankments, seventeen on bridges. Here between Batavia and Buffalo is the famous speed trial of old 999, making 112.5 miles an hour, back in 1893. Out at Promontory, Utah, is the greatest denouement of all, as the Golden Spike goes down in 1869, in a burst of booze and oratory. Bret Harte writes a poem: