- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
News of our experiment reached the front office, and our new deputy director came downstairs. I invited Doug Evelyn to climb up on the deck for a closer look. After a demonstration he asked to handle the throttle. How do you say no to the boss? Doug would be called a fast runner if he were a railroad man; the engine came to life with a burst of rapid chugs and made a terrifying—at least to me—lurch forward. Fortunately the cable holding the front wheels to the rails held, and the blocks and jacks didn’t fall over. After an awful moment of rocking to and fro, the air pressure fell off to a few pounds and the wheels slowed down. Our wild ride was over just in time. Doug wanted to know why I looked so strange.
Although the air tests and visual inspections were reassuring, they were also superficial and in no way proved the feasibility of operating the engine under its own power. I sought an expert opinion—and who could be more expert in such matters than the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company? Their director of marketing development, John Eklund, thought it was a great idea, and after a few weeks of negotiations he convinced the Hartford’s management to lend us their best inspection team gratis. These gents normally deal with such ultrasophisticated pressure vessels as the massive boilers that produce steam for generating stations. Their equipment and methods are equally advanced, but they looked on the John Bull as a challenge. Before the flying team came to Washington, Hartford sent a young man from their Baltimore office to make a visual inspection. David Spinelli would, in fact, be on hand for a whole series of tests and proved wonderfully patient and helpful to us. He was definitely not a “fast runner”; befitting his profession he was a man of utmost caution and rarely was given to any undue optimism about the trustworthiness of a fire tube.
In March the Hartford team did their duty. Sheets of photographic film were laboriously placed around the boiler. The X rays showed no serious cancer. Each rivet was tested. An ingenious electronic device traveled through the boiler tubes recording the precise wall thickness. The final report, though couched in the most cautious language, remained positive. Next, we resorted to old-fashioned hydrostatic tests. The first two were minor disasters as water sprayed from a dozen places. John and Larry dried themselves and worked on doggedly—a thicker gasket here, more compound or a new set of bolts there. Fearful of putting too much pressure on the soft wrought iron bolts, we removed many and replaced them with modern steel ones. Certain fittings also had to be replaced for safety. We installed modern safety valves and feed-water check valves, reseated the throttle, and mounted a second steam gauge near the original, even though the old one was reasonably accurate. All this work was done with the utmost care to conserve and preserve the original machinery. No new holes were drilled. Nothing was welded or changed. Every single part removed will be replaced after the anniversary trip. I was determined to do nothing that would diminish the John Bull as a historic specimen.
With every reasonable stationary test behind us, it looked certain the engine could be operated safely. Nevertheless, it struck us as more than advisable to take the great grandfather of all American locomotives out for a trial steaming up. Since no one could predict just how she would react to fire and water in her belly, it seemed prudent to seek as remote a spot as possible for the wet run. Months before, the Chessie System had agreed to our staging the public event on their Georgetown branch and they would most likely have consented to an earlier trial. But their tracks ran through a much-used National Park that begins in densely populated Georgetown—too many joggers, cyclists, children, and dogs. We needed something out in the country but not too far away. I asked my friend James Bistline, an official of the Southern Railway System, if we could borrow their Calverton branch. After he recovered from the shock of learning why we wanted it, he said he would find out. The line sees only one freight a week so it posed no major problem for the operating department. But the lawyers were worried. Would we “indemnify, defend and save harmless the Southern Railway System in perpetuity. …” Our legal department added another thirty or so pages to the already massive document, and once enough boiler plate had been created, both sets of counsel gave their reluctant blessing to the operation of a 149-year-old steam locomotive over a common carrier railroad.
Meanwhile Jim, John, and I looked over the Calverton branch. It was perfect. Calverton, Virginia, is about fifty-five miles southwest of the city, and the track runs roughly ten miles to the county seat of Warrenton over nearly level ground through beautiful farm land. No big towns, no major highway crossings, and very few people. The local fire and rescue companies were willing to cooperate. Neither had heard of the John Bull, but since the Southern had run excursion trains over the branch in recent years, the local people understood what was needed to service a steam engine. Bill Smith, chief of the Catlett Volunteer Fire Department, assured us we would have all the water we needed and his men would put out any brush fires we might ignite. Mary Embry of the Cedar Run Rescue Squad promised to be there in case of an accident.