The Power Of Live Steam

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Until 1955 steam locomotives were the dominant form of power on American railways. They pulled the fast passenger trains and the plodding freights. Their rapid replacement by the colorless but efficient diesel-electrics was very poss, iprecedented in technological history, where major shifts tend to be gradual because of capital costs. But the steamers disappeared from main-line railroads in just five years.

 

Until 1955 steam locomotives were the dominant form of power on American railways. They pulled the fast passenger trains and the plodding freights. Their rapid replacement by the colorless but efficient diesel-electrics was very poss, iprecedented in technological history, where major shifts tend to be gradual because of capital costs. But the steamers disappeared from main-line railroads in just five years. Thousands went to the scrap lines, but a small number were preserved, and an even smaller number are maintained in working order on some seventy tourist railroads in the United States. They can be found from Maine to California. Some operate for a few miles over a level track, while others blast their way forty-five miles up perilous mountain grades. Some run only on weekends; others operate on a daily schedule during the tourist season. Clearly there is no way to deal with such a number or variety of operations within the limits of a single article, so I have selected what I consider some of the better tourist railroad operations in the United States.

 

I’ve been contemplating steam railroading for most of my working life. It has been a fascination of mine that grew out of a passion for history that I suppose was innate. But I’m also certain this passion was brought into focus when I was about eight years old because of a cultural war I imagined between the households of my two grandparents. I was periodically dropped off for weeklong visits to either set of grandparents while my parents went off to do whatever grown-ups did when they needed to get away from the kids. Even as a child I found the differences in the households obvious. The English grandparents’ house was a bright and sunny place full of four young daughters about to be married, with much coming and going and loud with modern swing music. It was a lively and upbeat household, and I hated it.

My widowed german grandmother’s home was entirely different: an old house filled with dark woodwork and ancient Victorian furniture. There were no up-to-date gadgets anywhere in the house. Electricity did exist, but gas lighting was preferred, and as for music, my grandmother, a graduate of the “conservatory,” would practice an hour a day on what may have been the most ornamental upright piano ever constructed.

For reasons that cannot be completely explained, I felt drawn to the world of my German grandmother—that is, to the past—and in time this identification with her backward gaze carried me beyond an affection limited to antique furniture and old buildings. As I matured, early machine tools, riverboats, and steam locomotives came to fascinate me. A summer job at the Smithsonian developed into a thirty-two-year career at the National Museum of American History, where my very first task was to plan two new transportation galleries and where in time I became curator of transportation.

In the course of my career I visited a great many live-steam operations. The ones that follow have, for one reason or another, kept an especially tenacious hold on my memory. All these steam rides will help you and your family relive some aspect of our railroads’ past. But steam railroading was so vast and complex a world that none achieves the recreation process very well. Nor is that really their intent; despite protestations to the contrary, about all they can hope to do is offer you a safe and comfortable ride behind a cinder-belching iron horse. Most patrons of tourist railroads do not, I suspect, climb aboard for an educational experience. Most are looking for a little entertainment, a diversion, or a taste of nostalgia. For others it may be the mere novelty of train travel, for many younger Americans have never before gone by rail. And so even if a carefully crafted historic train ride were offered, it probably would be lost on the large part of those on board. Still, the basic characteristics of railroad operations can be picked up by any observant train rider. Just listening to the sounds of the locomotive or the car wheels going clickety-clack over the rail joints is a history lesson in itself. That lesson is best learned with your head near an open coach window; the sounds are real, not electronic simulations of a tape or disc, and the hot cinders bouncing off your head and arms are very real too. The bristly roughness of the mohair-covered seats is yet another unfamiliar reminder that train travel was not like a trip in the family auto or on the USAir shuttle.