- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
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.
By suppertime we were left alone with the engine. Bill took his boy home so he would not miss another day of school. John and Larry and I decided to take a break and refuel ourselves after a long and exciting day. Now it was dark and we were ready to drop the fire and blow down the boiler so the truckers would find a cool engine to reload in the morning. But there was still some wood left and a fair head of steam showing on the dial. What about one last run—a moonlit ride on an open-deck woodburner? We put a big flashlight in the headlight case and built up the fire. Once under way we were amazed by the dense shower of fine sparks flowing out of the stack. Now I know what Charles Dickens saw when he looked out a coach window at “a whirlwind of bright sparks, which showered about us like a storm of fiery snow.” This magical ride began a new phase in my twenty-year association with the John Bull . I could no longer think of the engine only as a symbol of America’s industrial past. I now can see her as a working piece of machinery, used by ordinary people as a tool to ease the burden of everyday life. The people are long gone but the locomotive remains, a link with a distant past.