- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The official (but, as we have seen, the second) live steam trial of the John Bull will take place on September 15, 1981—the day the Smithsonian Institution has chosen to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the locomotive. She will pull an 1836 railway car northward along the Potomac River from downtown Washington over the tracks of the Chessie System’s Georgetown branch. Plans for more permanent commemoration of the anniversary include the issuing of a special U.S. postage stamp, the filming of a documentary movie, and publication by the Smithsonian Press of a handsomely illustrated book written by our author
Rather than wait until other events or inside support groups came up with new ways to obstruct the experiment (the Smithsonian insurance office raised a last-minute objection but too late, we were on the road) we settled on October 14, 1980, for the wet run. To save money we would do our own rigging. Eric Gaardsmoe and Richard Farr, both of the Smithsonian staff, offered their expertise and muscle to move the engine in and out of the building. John, Larry, and our labor force all pitched in. We removed the cowcatcher, smokestack, and the copper safety cover pipes to lower the engine’s height, and eased back the partially stripped locomotive on a wooden crib. Heavy rollers permitted the rig to move over the terrazzo floors to the east freight elevator. Down she went to the basement and along a hallway to the loading dock. Monday, October 13, was a holiday, and while the museum floors above us were packed with tourists, we were busy inching the John Bull onto a flat-bed trailer. The smokestack, tools, oil, and other small parts went into my aging blue pickup truck. While this was taking place, a second crew and truck were at our Silver Hill, Maryland, warehouse loading the tender. Weeks before, we had started work on the replica tender—a 1930 reconstruction of an 1876 replica. The original water tank was hopeless so it was removed and two 250-gallon fuel oil tanks took its place. Once loaded, the tender was brought to Fourteenth Street, near the museum, where it would join the locomotive for the journey south.
Our curious caravan was on the road by early afternoon. As the truck pulled over the bump of the driveway apron, I thought I heard the bell peal softly. Was the old girl glad to be outside under the open sky after all her years as a shut-in? I was struck to see the engine pass the Washington and Jefferson monuments; both the classical revival in architecture and the introduction of steam railroads occurred during the same decade.
The trip took two hours. We were blessed with a beautiful fall day. We were also blessed with a fine unloading site at Calverton, where a wye track unites the branch with the main line. One leg of the wye had a broad, flat gravel area just right for unloading. While this was under way, I went off in search of firewood and found a local farmer willing to sell me a truckload at an inflated price. When I returned, the tender was already on the track and the engine was being eased along the trailer bed with a hand-powered cable come-along.
Not long after unloading, an employee of the Southern stepped over to ask if we actually intended to run that old thing. When I said yes, he shook his head. Boy, she looks mighty broken down to me, he said. Now if you got up a steel frame, a new boiler, and some roller bearings you might have yourself a good-running little engine. Happily, our chief of conservation didn’t overhear those remarks.
The late-afternoon light painted the engine a golden orange as we hurried to reassemble her before sunset. We finally had to resort to a portable generator, and while we fastened down the last pieces, John went off in search of the fire chief. The fire company had a meeting that evening and he didn’t arrive until about 10:30. John wanted to introduce the water through the rear inspection plate just below the throttle. This was a mistake, for removing the plate tore the gasket. In all the supplies we brought with us, no one had remembered to include a roll of sheet gasket. But we had a tube of compound sealer that a Washington supply man had praised to the heavens. It was late. Nothing was open. We were fifty miles out in the sticks. So we tried it; it might work. We put a heavy coat on both sides of the torn gasket and rebelled the plate. Bill Withuhn, a Cornell graduate student who was working with me as a Fellow, advised us to overfill the boiler so that we would have plenty of water to cool her down. We filled the boiler and prepared to light off. As the wood took to flame, pale gray smoke almost immediately wafted out of the stack. She had a beautiful natural draft.