- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Meanwhile Jim, John, and I looked over the Calverton branch. It was perfect. Calverton, Maryland, 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.
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.