- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
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.
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.