May 17, 2018, 05:56AM

Steam Age

No. 40 is as complicated as her 20,000 parts, as simple as boiling water.

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My earliest memory of a home is an apartment in a subdivided mansion on Saratoga Ave. in Waterford, New York. We climbed three floors up an external staircase to reach it. Outside the back fence, perhaps 500 feet away, was the Delaware & Hudson Railroad. Several times a day, I'd hear the crossing signals clanging and run to watch the trains roar past.

One afternoon, I was sitting on the stairs, passing time between passing trains by reading the Troy Times Record. I was four and hadn’t yet attended kindergarten. My father returned from work and asked what I was doing. I told him. Then he asked me to read aloud the first paragraph of the leading article. I did. By reading aloud to me every day, my parents had taught me to read.

The D&H began as a canal company serving northeastern Pennsylvania coal mines. Soon it began owning and operating mines. Then it built railroads with horses drawing coal cars from the mines to the canal. Then it bought a steam locomotive, then bought some more, and began linking its railroads together and extended its lines across the Pennsylvania border to Binghamton, New York. The Albany & Susquehanna Railroad, completed in 1866, linked Binghamton to Albany. The D&H wanted it.

So did the flamboyant James Fisk, who controlled the Erie Railway in combination with his partner, Jay Gould. The battle went into the State Legislature and the courts. When Fisk saw himself losing the judicial battle, he took direct action. His employees seized a train on August 10, 1869 and ran it north toward Albany, dropping men off at each station to physically seize the property.

The D&H, not to be gainsaid, seized its own train and ran it south toward Binghamton, also seizing stations as it went. The trains met, head on at full speed, just outside Tunnel, New York. It wasn’t pretty. The survivors then went at each other with axe handles, shovels, and whatever was at hand until the state militia arrived to restore order at bayonet point.

This may have been the most exciting thing that has ever happened in Tunnel, New York. The collision provided the dénouement of Edna Ferber’s novel Saratoga Trunk and the movie made of it in 1945 starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. The A&S was managed under martial law for six months. Then the D&H leased the A&S. That is how the D&H came to run outside our back yard.

Essex, Connecticut, is nearly three hours by car from Antrim, New Hampshire, where my wife and I live. We drove there on Thursday, October 26, 2017 to make the acquaintance of No. 40, a steam locomotive owned, maintained, and operated by the Valley Railroad, a tourist operation that leases state-owned tracks along the Connecticut River valley.

The line was completed in 1871 by the Connecticut Valley Railroad. By 1876, the CV was in receivership. It then became the Hartford & Connecticut Valley, which in 1882 was leased by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. By the early 20th century, the New Haven was dominated through sheer force of personality by J. P. Morgan, as much a financial statesman as an investment banker. Charles S. Mellen, the New Haven’s president, later testified that the railroad’s board of directors without J. P. Morgan would have been “as lacking in interest as a herd of cows deprived of a bull.” Morgan wanted to eliminate competition: he saw the railroad as a means to monopoly over southern New England’s surface transportation, literally controlling “everything that moved.”

By 1912, Mellen had achieved it by combining over 100 separate railroads. Through new construction, stock control, or lease, the New Haven operated over 2000 miles of track: nearly every inch of steam railroad and trolley in Connecticut and Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. The New Haven even controlled the coastal shipping companies such as the great Fall River Line and its huge white wedding-cake four-decker steamers Commonwealth and Priscilla. The heroine of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 ends her journey aboard a thinly disguised Fall River liner.

The New Haven appeared a titan. Yet it was merely a house of cards, and Mellen’s creative accounting and the winds of time blew it away into successive bankruptcies and eventual disappearance. When the Fall River Line collapsed in 1937, its entire fleet was sold to the scrappers for only $88,000.

In 1968, after decades of neglect, the New Haven abandoned the Connecticut Valley line, which came to be owned by the State of Connecticut in 1969. The State then leased the line to the Valley Railroad Company, a group of enthusiasts with some money behind them. On July 29th, 1971, they ran their first steam train. They have done so now for 47 years.


Few inventions are as fascinating as the steam locomotive, now vanished from our daily lives. Thus, it’s acquired an additional glamour, much like the Concord stagecoach or the clipper ship. They’re remembered with affection for their beauty, strength, and innately dramatic operation. Henry David Thoreau commented on the thunderous exhaust and ground-shaking qualities of the steam locomotive: “It seems as if the Earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.” As David Weitzman wrote in our time: “...all the senses are touched...The noise is superb, as breathtaking and big as the machine itself—a raging firestorm, hundreds of tons of steel rolling on steel, hissing steam, puffing blasts of exhaust, whistle shrieking.”

Time has blinded us to their imperfections.

From the moment its fire is kindled, a steamer requires about two hours to steam up: before her firebox has brought the water to a boil so she may get underway. Each steam locomotive needed to have its own crew.

By contrast, a diesel-electric locomotive in good order starts immediately after the engineer effectively turns a key. The Electro-Motive Division of General Motors perfected multiple unit capacity in 1940. It enabled one crew to operate two, three, four, or more diesels through electrical, mechanical, and pneumatic connections between the units. In that year, EMD unveiled the FT, perhaps the first practical diesel-electric road engine, and sent it on a nationwide tour of the railroads. It was efficient and flexible. It marked the beginning of the end of the steam age.

Within a generation, Lucius Beebe mourned the steam locomotive: they “have disappeared from active service...as completely as the Sharp's rifle, the Saratoga trunk, and the Amoskeag steam fire engine...They are...the devices and coat armor of a way of living as vanished as the longhorn and as distinctive as Medford rum." Between 1830 and 1950, the United States built some 160,000 steam locomotives. Only 1800 are left. Fewer than 200 are in working order.  


No. 40 is as complicated as her 20,000 parts, as simple as boiling water. A lid rattles on a pot of boiling water because the liquid expands to 1700 times its original volume as heat transforms it to steam. The expansion lifts the lid. The steam escapes. The lid falls back on the pot until the expanding steam lifts it again. The same force works your teapot's whistle.

In No. 40, the steam expands into two cylinders, one on each side. The pressure moves a piston, connected to a driving rod, linked with ball bearing joints to the driving wheels. When the piston reaches the cylinder cock, the steam exhausts and the piston returns, its motion moving the locomotive.

As locomotives go, No. 40 is small and elegant. No. 40 and her tender, which carries the coal and water, are 57 feet, three inches long. The locomotive alone in working order weighs 89 tons. She is classified as a Mikado. That means she is a 2-8-2—two pilot wheels (one on each side), then eight drivers (four on each side), and two trailing wheels (one on each side) supporting the firebox, which holds the fire that transforms water into the steam that makes her run. The name Mikado recalls that some of the first locomotives with this wheel arrangement were exported to Japan. From 1910 to 1950, they were America’s most common fast freight engine.

No. 40 was built in August 1920 at the Brooks Works, Dunkirk, New York, southwest of Buffalo on the shores of Lake Erie. Brooks was part of the American Locomotive Company (nicknamed Alco). She was an oil burner, one of three identical units built for the Portland, Astoria & Pacific Railroad to haul logs and lumber. The PA&P failed. No. 40 was then sold to the Minarets & Western Railway of Fresno County, California.

Called by its admirers “the finest logging line ever built,” the M&W was constructed at enormous expense to mainline standards. It cost too much to build, was buried in debt, and never turned a profit. The railroad and the lumber company that owned it went spectacularly broke in 1933. Among their many creditors was the M&W’s mainline connection, the Southern Pacific, whose 19th-century history of corruption and exploitation is the basis of Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus.

The SP took No. 40 in lieu of some debt. She was too small to be useful on the SP, which sold her to the Birmingham Rail & Locomotive Company, a used locomotive dealer that has done business in Alabama since 1899. BR&L then sold her to North Carolina’s Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad, “The Road of Personal Service.”

The A&R is a short line, 49.6 miles long, founded in 1892 by John Blue, a local businessman and Civil War veteran. Described by Beebe in Mixed Train Daily as possessing the “charm of the improbable which derives from a highly solvent and briskly functioning railroad far off the beaten track of conventional commerce and travel,” the line is still owned and operated by the Blue family.

No. 40 cost the A&R almost $7000: serious money in 1935, equivalent to $128,016 today. The A&R’s master mechanic installed new flues and a new firebox while changing the locomotive’s combustion system, the way in which she transformed water into steam. Another $10,505 later, No. 40 now burned coal rather than oil. She’d become what railroaders called a “hand bomber,” requiring a fireman to shovel coal into the firebox. No. 40 was the most powerful locomotive on the railroad and proved a useful, flexible hauler. The A&R used her to pull freight and passenger trains until 1952, when she was retired.

No. 40 had served her owners well. Instead of selling her for scrap, the Blue family stored her deep within the railroad’s engine house. There she remained for a quarter century. She was kept in excellent condition and rolled out for display during special community events. Then she was steamed up so children might make her whistle blow.

In 1977, one of the Valley Railroad’s founders was on active duty as a reservist at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He learned about No. 40, visited the engine house, found her in working order, and persuaded his colleagues to buy her.

On September 20, 1977, the locomotive and tender were each loaded onto flatcars, hauled by the A&R’s No. 205, one of the diesels that had replaced No. 40, to its mainline connection, the Seaboard Coast Line (now CSX), and thence traveled over 700 miles to Essex, Connecticut. There, on June 17, 1978, she began another career pulling trainloads of tourists and, from time to time, providing amateurs with the opportunity to put their hands on the throttle.

No. 40 burns two tons of low-sulfur coal and evaporates about 6000 gallons of water every day while pulling a 400-ton train a total of some 50 miles. She requires a crew of at least two: an engineer to run her and a fireman to shovel the coal into the firebox and maintain the proper level of water in the boiler.

Keeping a 98-year-old machine in prime condition is a challenge. Experienced steam locomotive mechanics are hard to find. There are no easy sources of spare parts, and replacements often have to be fabricated from scratch. Happily, the Valley Railroad has a fully-equipped locomotive shop and a well-trained crew capable of routine maintenance or heavy overhauls.


The Valley Railroad’s Hand on the Throttle Program involves home study of materials covering railroad safety and basic steam theory and operation. They gave me a humbling sense of the mass of knowledge and muscle memory engineer and fireman had to possess, day by day, to safely operate a steam locomotive, down to definitions of an engine, a train, restricted speed, yard speed, main track, yards, and various engine whistle signals, a form of communication necessary before the invention of radio.

The instructions called to memory my great-grandfather James Hart, who worked in the New York Central Railroad's shops in West Albany, New York. In 1923, he was standing by a live locomotive when its cylinder head burst, enveloping him in high-pressure superheated steam. Three days later, he died, and his wife, prostrate with grief, soon followed. Today, we might call her death stress-induced; then, they said she died of a broken heart.

On October 26, the Valley Railroad began my one-hour classroom session at noon. We climbed into an ancient dining car, now transformed into a classroom. The instructor reviewed the safety rules, steam locomotive theory, and basic steam locomotive controls (throttle, reverser, and the automatic and independent brake valve).

Amid the lecture, I was gazing at the instructor when I heard a steam whistle’s soft moan in the distance. A bell began ringing. The curtains on the track side of the instruction car were drawn. In the window behind the instructor I suddenly saw reflected a plume of smoke and steam moving slowly past.

The instructor administered the written safety rule test. I passed. Then we walked some 200 yards down the station platform to No. 40. The smoke rose from her stack and steam from the cylinders, and her air pump pounded away. She was alive, much as any animal or human may be, breathing, hissing and panting.

Through luck of the draw, I was first to gain my hour on No. 40. I climbed the ladder into the cab and shook hands with the engineer and fireman. I was dressed in a denim jacket and blue jeans, clothing that could be easily laundered, because steam locomotives are innately hot and dirty. To this I’d added a cap, gloves, safety glasses and heavy work boots.

I looked to see whether she had the engine tools, coal pick, and shovel. I went through the engine inspection checklist to ensure No. 40 was in good order. I’d watched the fireman reload her tank with water. I asked whether the sandbox had been reloaded with sand, should we encounter wet or greasy track, and it had been.

I examined the controls: the brake stand, throttle, whistle cord, reverser, and bell valve. The lever that operated the cylinder cocks was on the floor of the cab. All seemed in order. Time to go.

Following the engineer’s instructions, I opened the cylinder cocks to drain any water that may have collected in the cylinders. That prevented damage to the cylinders or the pistons. Then I pulled the reverser so No. 40 might work in full gear. There was a quiet “pffft.” I released the brakes. There was a sigh as eight sets of brake shoes rose from her drivers. Then I took a deep breath and pulled on the throttle. It was a bit stiff and I had to put my back into it. Steam and water whooshed from the cylinder cocks. No. 40 slowly moved forward. There was a chug, and another, and another. I closed the cylinder cocks, flipped on the bell valve, and blew two quick shorts of the whistle.

The arrangement of public streets and railroad track in Essex required us to cross three roads within 45 seconds. The bell rang on and I repeatedly sounded the whistle to warn anyone who might be crossing the tracks that we were coming. There were no fatalities.

About half an hour passed as we went slowly (five to 10 mph) through Essex, Centerbrook, and Deep River, carefully sounding the whistle and flipping the bell valve at every crossing. I tended to pull the whistle cord a little earlier than a professional might have done.

Then, just north of Deep River, a Valley Railroad track crew came in sight up the line. They were working on the right of way, the jargon for the rails, ties, spikes, ballast, and all the rest of it. A speeder, a small self-propelled rail car, laden with tools, sat on the track before us. I gently applied the brakes and brought No. 40 to a stop. My engineer went down to the roadstead and spent some time talking with the crew’s supervisor. Then he returned.

Following his guidance, I pushed the reverser forward, opened the throttle, turned in my seat, and leaned out the cab window, peering past the tender. She began to back up. So I brought her back to Essex, my mentors hovering over my shoulder. I was still sounding the whistle earlier than a professional might have. My mentors suggested that some living along the tracks might resent the noise. But then I am an amateur, a lover, and not a professional.

As we entered the terminal, I applied the brakes and No. 40 slowed to a halt. I recalled the old railroader who quipped, “Anybody can make ‘em go like hell. It takes an engineer to stop ‘em like heaven.” I am no engineer, but had played one for an hour.

Before I left my seat, I pulled her whistle three times, long and loud, to proclaim No. 40’s enduring and heroic defiance of time, and of the modern world.


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