- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The summer job led to a permanent position and soon I was the John Bull’s caretaker. I came to know its history and basic dimensions almost by heart—but I never was quite able to perceive it as an actual working locomotive. Once, early in my training as a curator, I saw in the Egyptian Gallery of the British Museum the body of an ancient Pharaoh. He was remarkably well preserved and yet I walked away with no sense that this dry, blackened corpse had really been a living human being. I could not overcome the conviction that what I had seen was more a grisly papier-mâché representation of death than anything to do with the world of the living. I suppose ancient kings and locomotives are not comparable, but I equated the old Pharaoh with the John Bull . At least I did until October 14, 1980.
My thinking began to change as the 150th anniversary of the John Bull approached. Just how should we celebrate the event? We had to do something about the birthday of the oldest complete locomotive in North America. First thinking on the subject was conservative. A ceremony beside the engine, with a new label, some sherry, invited guests, a short speech by the director, followed by a news release. All tasteful and modest. Perhaps we could pipe in some compressed air and blow the whistle. Maybe we could put in a bigger line and make the wheels go around. And now the thinking began to get bizarre: maybe the John Bull wasn’t like the old Pharaoh, maybe it could be steamed up and run in public. But this was wild and foolish. It was surely anti-preservation. We don’t use artifacts, we conserve them. It would be expensive. It would be dangerous. It would be undignified. The dead are forever dead. Don’t tamper with history. Forget it.
But the idea became obsessive, and at last I gave in. One morning in the first days of 1980 I asked my long-time associate John Stine to meet me on the main gallery floor just to have a look at the John Bull. There was nothing unusual in that; we routinely inspect major specimens to make sure each part is secure and that they look presentable. But when I began to ask about house jacks and a ready source of compressed air, John realized this was not the beginning of an ordinary day. Was I really intending to… ? Yes. Now John is one of the most resourceful technicians on our staff. He can pull together materials and labor with amazing speed and is a master at circumventing the bureaucratic procedures that deaden or kill too many projects. Later the same day I noticed two big jacks and a pile of short timbers nestled to one side of the engine. Just before quitting time, John asked me to come downstairs. He and Larry Jones, another technician and a first-class mechanic, had removed both cylinder heads. I was delighted to find the interior surface shiny and free of pitting. They had already jacked up the rear drivers and, with gentle application of a long two-by-four used as a bar between the spokes, demonstrated how freely she would turn over. We decided to make an air test as soon as the more suspicious gaskets were checked or replaced. Most of these dated, I presumed, from 1927 when the engine was last under steam as part of the Baltimore & Ohio’s centennial pageant.
After a few more days of fussing we were ready. A rented air hose wound a serpentine course between the cases across the tool-exhibit floor to the Power Hall, where it was connected to a house air pipe. Early on the morning of January 9, before most employees were present and hours before the public was admitted, we opened the air valve. We were dealing with the original wrought iron boiler built by Robert Stephenson & Co. in 1831, and while I was wondering what problems had developed during its long hibernation, the pressure mounted inside its rusty, dull brown walls. We began to notice some small leaks, but none from the boiler shell itself. They seemed to be around fittings that could be tightened or regasketed. So far, all the news was good.
When the gauge registered forty-two pounds, the rear safety valve began to rattle and lifted slightly a few seconds later. The compressor was holding its own against the leaks, assuring us that nothing was radically wrong. I had intended to conduct only a leak test that first day, but John and Larry had more ambitious plans. With the jacks and timbers already in place, the rear wheels could be lifted from the rails with a few clicks of the ratchets. Why not? The day before, they had doused all the bearing and running surfaces with oil. I was persuaded to crack the throttle and see what would happen. In the excitement of the moment I nearly forgot how to engage the valves, and after some fumbling with the levers and reach rods, John and Larry coached me from the floor at the head end of the engine. We finally got her in gear. The safety valve began to rattle, and I tugged at the throttle before it lifted again. Air surged down the dry pipes through the valve ports and into the cylinders. An instant later the old fossil roared back to life. After a hoarse bark of exhaust and a great cloud of dust from the stack, she settled down to a quiet ticking sound no louder than a well-oiled steeple clock.