- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
A night-long vigil began. We bedded down in a rented motor home parked next to the engine. I could see her from my bunk window just a few yards away in the pale moonlight—with the sight and smell of wood smoke and the faint glow of the fire on the ground under the ash pan, who could sleep? Every few hours we would go out and drop in more logs. By 4:00 A.M. the warmth had reached the full length of the boiler. By daybreak we were all up and moving. We piled in a good load of wood and watched the gauges. One of the needles lifted off the peg. Steam at last! The needle kept inching up. The fire crackled and the water made muffled surging sounds as it turned to steam. But when the gauge registered twenty pounds, the gasket under the rear inspection plate cover ruptured. The wonder compound melted into a worthless red goo and blew away with the escaping steam and water. Damn it! It was seven o’clock; the director and his entourage were due at ten to see an operating engine. We could drive back into town for gasketing but the morning traffic rush would soon be under way and we could figure on a three- to four-hour round trip. John volunteered to go look around in Manassas, the closest suburban community of any size. After he left, we pulled the burning logs out of the firebox, propped open the safety valve, and opened the right-hand blowoff. The water had to drop below the level of the inspection plate.
About an hour and a half later John returned. Success in Manassas. A local plumber had saved the day. While we fashioned a new gasket, John went off to raise the fire department—we needed more water. After a long wait we decided to try to refill by hand. With the help of a plastic wastebasket and a large funnel we managed to raise the water to a safe level before the volunteers returned. A new fire brought us back up to twenty pounds in about an hour. All eyes were on the new gasket. The edges curled but it held. By ten the gauges registered fifty pounds and the safety opened with a roar.
The great moment had arrived. Steam was up, the track was clear, it was time to see if the John Bull was indeed the oldest operable locomotive in the world. Two blasts on the whistle, John began working the bell rope, we latched the valve into forward position, and I tugged at the throttle. It didn’t want to move. I gave a more definite pull.
We were moving. Out of the stack came an eruption of scalding water, steam, and soot. The boiler was overfull so she was priming badly, but after the first few exhausts expelled most of the surplus water we rolled slowly around the curving track on a slight downgrade. I shut off steam and we coasted to a stop. By god she works! I reopened the throttle valve and we went down the track over the switch and stopped again. I couldn’t have been more delighted. All those months of planning, talking, and working. A dream had come true.
We continued short practice runs back and forth between the parking area and the switch. Every member of the four-man crew took his turn at throttle, bell, and foot brake. This last station was actually rather pleasant, being elevated some ten feet above the ground on the roof of the tender. The view was wonderful though occasionally cinder-laden. After our confidence grew, we took the engine downgrade and over the highway crossing. Now, ready for a more adventuresome ride, we headed for the next village, Casanova. Several autos followed us, loaded with museum staff and friends. They clocked our top speed at fifteen miles per hour. The trip seemed very long and I could hardly believe it was only two miles. We passed a field where several horses were grazing. Like their ancestors, they wanted nothing to do with our panting and screeching behemoth, and they galloped away in panic. The engine ran straight and true with only a moderate rocking motion, but the open cab exaggerated the sensation of speed. The steady grade exhausted the steam. We had been firing too timidly and were down to twenty pounds by the time we reached Casanova. Throughout the trip we had to keep reminding each other to watch out for the levers. While the engine is running, the two large reversing levers are in a constant and deadly scissoring motion, totally unprotected and just about the most lethal devices one can imagine having on an open-deck locomotive.
For the moment I was more worried about backing down the grade to Calverton than getting entangled in the levers. We worked just enough steam to get her moving. Then we began to work the brakes. The effect was hardly noticeable. She just rolled downgrade, daring something to get in the way. I tried not to think about headlines like ANCIENT LOCOMOTIVE RAMS SCHOOL BUS Or COLLISION WITH GASOLINE TRUCK TORCHES NATIONAL TREASURE. One trip down was enough to convince me to stay on the level until we did more work on the brakes.