Cab ride in R. & N. 425
9 December 2018
The engineer looked down from the cab and said, “I can take one of you.”
I turned to my friend standing behind me. Which of us should go?
Matthew and I had spent most of this December day photographing the Reading & Northern’s Santa trains between the railroad’s namesake Pennsylvania city and its headquarters at Port Clinton, 16 miles each way. (In 2018, the railroad ran Santa trains on three weekends, up to and including Christmas Eve; the events related here took place on the first Sunday.) Now in the early evening, the steam locomotive, light Pacific #425, would go back to Port Clinton – called PN on the railroad – to rest. Matthew and I had talked to the engine crew at Port Clinton that morning, so we knew the passenger cars would remain in Reading, and we expected the engine to run light (i.e. by herself) northwards, as she had done southwards before the first trip of the day. At some point in the afternoon had I expressed an idea to Matthew: Perhaps we could hitch a ride on the engine on that deadhead move.
We I had met at Port Clinton at dawn, so we could photograph the crew getting the engine ready, greasing and oiling. We left his car at PN when we followed the 425 towards Reading around 8 a.m., and we spent the day chasing in my vehicle; if we did in fact arrive back at PN in the evening by train, we would not find ourselves stranded. After the second trip of the day we went down to the boarding area at the railroad’s Outer Station so I could talk to the engineer.
Photographer Matthew Malkiewicz kneels at the altar of steam
R. & N. engineer Chad Frederickson starts #425's air pump
#425 comes off the Port Clinton turntable, 8:47 a.m.
Shane Frederickson has worked for the Reading & Northern since long before the railroad had that name, signing on with the 13-mile Blue Mountain & Reading after its start-up in 1983; 35 years later, he holds seniority position number one on the 300-mile R. & N. system. I have photographed Shane since 1985, when the railroad restored the 425 to service; my father and I first saw her operate on a Reading-to-Norristown “shoppers’ special” in December of that year, with 17-year-old Shane as the fireman and Charlie Kachel on the righthand side of the cab. (Charlie hired on with the Reading in 1941 and worked the next 35 years for the company, then another five years for Conrail, so he had four decades of railroad experience – half of them with steam – to share with his young protegés on the B. M. & R. Charlie died in 1994, but his memory remains fresh in this part of the world.)
So I’ve known Shane as a passing acquaintance for more than 30 years, mostly as I waved from trackside as he went by in the engine, but we have talked occasionally; always friendly, Shane also comes across as economical of speech, not a spinner of yarns like some of the engineers I know. One day at Port Clinton, as I photographed him while he got the 425 ready for a trip to Jim Thorpe, he said, with what might have passed for mild exasperation, “Don’t you ever get tired of taking pictures?” Initially abashed, I knew he meant no offense, and I asked in return “Don’t you ever get tired of running the engine?” He smiled; we had reached an understanding.
Although I’ve given Shane a fair number of prints of photos I have made of the engine and of himself at work on her, I felt some apprehension now as I approached him alongside the 425 as he oiled around: As much as I love riding in locomotive cabs, I do not like to impose inordinately on the crews who give me access to their workplaces and allow me to stick my camera in their faces. So I said to him, “I don’t want to be that fan who always asks for things, but could my friend and I ride with you back to Port Clinton tonight?” “You’ll have to check back with me at the end of the day,” Shane said.
With only this noncommittal answer for us to hang our hopes on, Matthew and I did not talk much during the day about our expectations for a ride, and what we hoped to get out of it – and not just the experience: In the past few years, I have had the privilege of photographing engineers and firemen while aboard more than a dozen steam locomotives in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, and I especially enjoy the challenge of capturing images of firemen as they shovel coal to keep their engines hot. This looks by far the most dramatic at night, when almost the only light in the cab comes from within the firebox. In addition to Shane, this day’s 425 crew included his son, 19-year-old Ryan, as the fireman; while I had made photographs of Ryan with the engine before, I had never done so while he fired.
After photographing the train’s first Santa run in the morning at Peacock’s Lock Bridge north of Reading, and before going back there for the passage of the third trip, Matthew and I stayed close to the village of West Leesport, five miles north of Outer Station, for most of the day. A short block of storefronts facing the track and a semi-abandoned mill building made for good foregrounds and backgrounds, and under the solid-gray sky we experimented with odd angles, including framing the train through glassless windows in the old brick walls of the mill. At Peacock’s Lock late in the afternoon, we got permission to photograph from a lawn overlooking the bridge, and the property owner also gave us a tour of his Studebaker-filled garage, including a ’52 pickup and a pristinely-restored ’53 coupe, the latter still a vision from the future, all metallic black paint and curves and recessed grilles. Oh, the places you’ll go . . . when out chasing trains!
Southbound Santa train at the old mill in West Leesport
425 northbound at the Lee Street crossing, West Leesport
Northbound 3:30 p.m. Santa train crossing the Peacock's Lock Bridge over the Schuylkill River
Now in the gathering dark I parked the car in the Outer Station lot and we walked down the slope to trackside. The 425 sat still coupled to the passenger train, her air pump occasionally panting and her turbogenerator singing the sweet song of steam. Shane stood in the cab gangway on the fireman’s side, and I looked up at him. “I can take one of you,” he said. “Okay,” I said, “give me a minute.” We had not considered this possibility, only expecting a yes or no. I knew how much Matthew would enjoy this ride.
“Shane says he can take one of us,” I said to Matthew. “Do you want to go?” “No, you go,” he said. “You sure?” I asked, somewhat incredulously. “You go,” said Matthew with finality.
“Okay. THANK YOU.” I would not ask more than twice; my full-face grin must have reflected in Matthew’s eyes. I should have shaken his hand in gratitude as I handed him my car keys and said, “I’ll see you at PN.”
Shane already had the gangway chains undone and I climbed up, squeezing through the narrow space between cab and tender. Ryan greeted me genially, and Shane pointed me to the fireman’s seat; I stowed my camera bag ahead of it, in the narrow space between the cab wall and the boiler backhead. Another crewman stood in the engineer’s side gangway; I did not recognize him, but I did not have time to introduce myself, nor to wave goodbye to Matthew: Almost as soon as I sat down, Shane got radio clearance to proceed from his conductor back on the train; with the reverse lever in the front corner and the brakes released, he whistled off and pulled out the throttle.
Sixty-three years earlier, in December of 1955, a young man named David Plowden worked for the Great Northern Railway as an assistant trainmaster in Willmar, Minnesota. An aspiring art photographer, he had taken the job after his teacher and mentor, the great American photographer Minor White, told him that he would never amount to anything until he got his “damned engines . . . out of [his] system”. Plowden never did get trains out of his system, but he went on to a very successful career as a photographer, author, and teacher himself, with more than 20 books to his name. His first book, Farewell to Steam, devoted to steamboats and steam locomotives, came out in 1966, the year I turned one year old, and my father bought a copy; I have looked at those pictures since long before I could talk, let alone read, and they helped shape me into whatever sort of photographer I have become in the half-century since. Plowden’s work – photos of bridges, barns, steel mills, and Midwestern landscapes, as well as trains – has profoundly influenced me, and I consider him one of my photographic heroes.
Some of his writing has gripped me too. In his 1987 book A Time of Trains, Plowden tells the story of an experience he had during that sojourn with the G.N., when a steam locomotive stood in for the regular power on the Fast Mail one night between Willmar and the Twin Cities and Plowden, ostensibly in his official capacity, bummed a ride in the cab: “I was damned if I was going to sit in the office that night.”
I knew that I would be expected to stay in town, but my duties were really quite irrelevant – at least I certainly hoped so right then. . . . I went into the chief dispatcher’s office and told him I was going to ride the engine on Second Number Twenty-Eight. He nodded his head without even looking up from his trainsheet. That was all I needed.
Even by the time of Plowden’s trip, diesel locomotives had taken over the passenger duties on the Great Northern; only the flood of Christmas cards and packages and lack of available diesels to pull a second section of the mail train made possible his ride, on a 32-year-old 4-8-2.
The 2505 was doing the job alone. Moreover, the P-2s were in a class by themselves. When they were built in 1923 they were the last word in passenger locomotive design. They had pulled the grand old Oriental Limited and the Fast Mail when it had been billed as “the fastest long-distance train in the world.”
And he had an engineer every bit the equal of the locomotive:
Brown was a taciturn thin fellow, probably in his late fifties or early sixties. He was the head of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and as such was regarded as a rather hostile figure by the people in the trainmaster’s office. I myself had come to think of Brown as more a union man than a railroad man. . . . But it was Brown who greeted me, with no more than a grunt . . . . Engineers and firemen, most train crews, as a rule, hated it when trainmasters, especially trainmasters’ assistants, rode with them. . . . However, as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t there in my official capacity. I was there to ride the 2505.
Somewhere around three o’clock in the morning on that freezing-cold night, Brown coaxed the engine and her 14 or 15 following cars into motion, his window wide open so he could listen to the sounds the engine made at every instant.
As I listened the sound of the exhaust assumed a greater sense of urgency as the speed began to increase. This was the Fast Mail after all, “the fastest long-distance train in the world.” We were hours late, and as they had with the “silk expresses,” the Great Northern had given us the railroad. There was nothing in our way and Brown knew it.
When Shane got the 425 moving that evening, nothing in the circumstances seemed as dramatic as on Plowden’s ride: The temperature stood in the 40s, no chilly winds blew, we had no snow on the ground or in the air, and we did not have an hours-late train to try to make up time with. In fact, on that first movement, as precipitously as it began, Shane had only to shift the train its own length, so the diesel on the tail end could cut off and move onto an adjacent siding. (To expedite the Santa trains, the 425 had remained on the north end all day, and she ran backwards on the southbound legs with the diesel on the south end doing the work.) As abruptly as we had started, on the radioed word from the conductor Shane brought us to a stop. After the diesel got out of the way and with the switch relined, Shane answered another radio command by backing us to just about our starting point; the diesel engineer would do whatever rearrangement the coaches required, and we could head north.
I made a few photos of Shane during the switching moves, although with dim light within and outside the cab they did not turn out especially interesting. I had also leaned way out from the cab to photograph the length of the engine’s boiler and the great plume of exhaust as we pulled ahead, all of this under the floodlights of the industry parking lot alongside the North Reading yard tracks; the sky had not completely darkened yet, and its dusky blue made for a good background.
Meanwhile, in the cab, Ryan had tended to his fire, and I photographed him as well. Each time the firebox doors opened, the glow lit him fairly dramatically – although nowhere near like it would once we got underway for real and the draft of the exhaust whipped the flames almost white hot. In his overalls and hickory-striped hat, Ryan looked as much the part of an engineman as his father of 35 years’ experience. While I do not try to fool anyone into thinking that my images come from any era earlier than our own, I also want them to have as few clues to modernity as possible – and Shane and Ryan, in common with most of the long-tenure Reading & Northern steam crewmen, carry on the tradition of dressing appropriately for the job, something that I as a photographer and chronicler appreciate a great deal.
Also to his credit as a fireman, Ryan had the engine hot, with the needle on the steam-pressure gauge pointing to close to 210 pounds per square inch, the level at which the safety valve would lift. Earlier in the day, a third engineman might have joined Shane and Ryan in the cab – Chris Bost, a few years older than Shane and holder of seniority number two on the railroad. But now Chris had charge of the diesel switching the passenger cars, and Ryan had the fire pretty much to himself. And our trip would shortly get more challenging.
The Reading & Northern has a thriving freight business – more than 30,000 loads moved per year (up 50 percent just since 2012) – and on a Thursday in September 2018 the railroad set an internal record of 21 crew starts in a single day. Even on a Sunday evening in December, the railroad had cargo other than the passengers to move, including a nine-car freight train now sitting at the upper end of the North Reading yard, ready to go to Port Clinton. Listening to the radio chatter, I came to understand that the 425 would join that train, but I did not know the lay of the land in the yard area well enough to know where we would have to go to find it – not that the three-track yard would present too many possibilities.
On a lantern signal from behind him, Shane uncoupled the engine from the coaches, keeping only the auxiliary water tender, and then stopped so we could pick up one more rider in the cab, another young R. & N. engineer named Carter Jones. In addition to running diesels on the freights, Carter has started getting experience firing and running the 425. Shane then ran the engine the length of the yard, about a mile and a half, to where the freight waited on the siding west of the main track. It had gotten almost completely dark now, and the flashing red light on the end of the last car blinked brightly at us as we approached. I did not count the freight cars as we rolled past them, but I did notice the diesels on the head end, two of the MP15 switchers known as “pups.” Ryan seemed surprised to see the two of them. It still had not occurred to me that the 425 would pull this entire train on her way home.
But in fact she would. Shane backed the steam locomotive against the diesels, a brakeman cut in the air, and then the steam locomotive dug in, pulling the two diesels and nine cars (as we had heard on the radio) out of the siding and onto the main. The brakeman lined the switch and Shane backed the train south to pick him up. With the brakeman aboard, we had the railroad. The reverse lever went back into the front corner, Shane gave two short blasts of the whistle, and he hauled on the throttle. However they had arranged it I did not catch, but plainly Shane had told the diesel engineer to keep his own reverser in neutral and simply enjoy the ride. Ahead of us, 15 miles of some of the oldest main line in America, now with heavy ribbon-rail and deep ballast – a raceway and a test track for a light Pacific built in 1928 and a fireman born in 1999.
Less than a mile north of the yard, we had already accelerated to a good clip – not that I can define the velocity with any accuracy: With the engine’s exhaust an indistinguishable roar at anything more than 20 miles per hour, and in the dark, I had no idea of our speed. I leaned my head way out of the window to enjoy the sound and the feel of the December air whipping past me; wearing my knitted stocking cap instead of my usual Indiana-Jones-type fedora (to photograph a Christmas train I wanted to look seasonally appropriate), I could pull the cap way down over my ears and to cover my neck – both to keep from getting cold and to keep the cap from blowing away. The sound of the engine changed as we came out of the woods and crossed the bridge at Peacock’s Lock, the water of the Schuylkill somewhere down there in the blackness. Then we charged into the 3,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep cut that the railroad’s builders had dug by hand in the 1840s, and the sound’s intensity increased – exponentially, thrillingly. Just a few feet from me, a small patch of the rock face, illuminated by the light from the cab, blurred by; right in front of me, a few thousand gallons of boiling water provided the energy that accelerated us past it; right next to me, a teenager my own son’s age hurled shovelful after shovelful of 300-million-year-old bituminous coal into the furnace. Across the cab, Shane had his eye on the track ahead and his hand on the throttle.
All the while, Brown had not spoken a word . . . . He was sitting there hunkered down on his seat, one arm hung over the throttle, silently tending to his business, completely absorbed, one with his engine, oblivious to everything else. By now he had the 2505 working full out. I kept my eye on the speedometer, watching the needle climb. There was a 79 mile an hour speed limit for passenger trains on the Great Northern, and the P-2s were supposed to be limited to 70 miles an hour, but I don’t think anyone was terribly concerned about speed limits that night, and Brown had obviously decided to ignore my “official” presence.
As I watched, the needle reached 80, and then a little later 85. The next time I looked it was nearly 90. As we approached the outskirts of Litchfield about 25 miles east of Willmar, it had reached 92, and there it stood . . . . Whatever the actual speed, from the way it felt inside the cab it might as well have been “warp speed.” The old engine was shaking so much that I had to hold onto the window sill to keep from falling off the seat box. The noise was incredible. The roar of the fire, which was now white hot, the cacophony of clanging and crashing metal was deafening. The sense of being propelled forward was so exhilarating that it felt as if we were no longer connected to the earth.
Actually, the 425 rode rather well, and while I would not have wanted to try my hand at throwing coal through the narrow firebox opening, I could sit pretty comfortably. Of course, Plowden saw the speedometer on the 2505 resting at 92 miles an hour for mile after mile of his trip; I could not see the speedometer in front of Shane, but I suspect it did not show anything close to that.
For a while, Ryan did have help at the shovel – shovels, actually, as he and Carter teamed up, each one of them throwing in scoops from opposite sides of the firebox doors, one after the other. Nonetheless, not two miles from our standing start I looked at the pressure gauge and saw it at 175 pounds and falling. A doubt crept into my mind: Did this kid have what it took to keep the engine hot on this fairly high-speed run, with as much as 1400 tons behind her? In the engineer’s seat, Shane betrayed no concern, his torso leaning forward and his left leg bent at the knee so his calf angled down against the near side of his seatbox – another Brown, completely absorbed, one with his engine.
Above me, the swirling cloud of steamy and smoky exhaust lay back over the engine’s boiler and disappeared into the darkness behind us. Up ahead, beyond the pale glow of the headlight on the track, I could see the flashing lights start to blink at Cross Keys Road, the first grade crossing north of Outer Station. Shane reached up for the whistle rope.
Suddenly Brown’s hand moved from the throttle to the whistle cord and over the din rose the voice of the 2505, proclaiming to all that this was Second Number Twenty-Eight, the Fast Mail coming through. Brown played the whistle for all it was worth, made it moan and shout and wail as if to rouse the sleepers from their beds and bring them to their windows to celebrate the event. He was unrelenting.
I leaned way out of the cab, savoring the ear-splitting whistle blasts that added to the din from the stack. A car had stopped at the ungated crossing, and as we flew by its lights briefly illuminated the engine’s running gear, a blur of shining rods and whirling wheels. I raised a hand to salute the waiting driver –
But you always have to be a little blasé when you wave from the cab of an engine. After all, you are looking down on ordinary people.
Back in the cab Ryan and Carter had kept up their tag-team shoveling, and I took a great number of photos of them – in the hope that at least one would turn out all right. A digital camera gives me the huge benefit of instant feedback, so I could tell that I had the exposures more or less right – I actually had to increase the shutter speed when I saw that the intense light from the fire overexposed their faces. As my friend and longtime locomotive hunter Gary Hunter wrote to me later when I told him about this ride, “I’ll tell you what you already know: A hard-working locomotive uses a tremendous amount of steam. When that steam blasts up through the smokebox nozzle, it induces tremendous draft. The draft sucks a storm of air into the firebox and through the firetubes and superheater flues. The storm kicks the fire into a hot fury; its heat inspires a surge in steam production. (Remember that much of the combustion occurs in the tubes and flues; initial combustion of coal in the firebox produces gases that burn as they shoot through the boiler.) In short, the fireman could work his ass off but, without that tremendous draft, all of his efforts wouldn't budge the needle. The needle climbed to 210 and stayed there because the fireman and the locomotive worked together as a team.”
And the needle had indeed climbed back above 200 p.s.i. Even as we accelerated (but also crested the small grade between Peacock’s Lock and Cross Keys Road), the firemen – and particularly Ryan – had kept the fuel coming, placing it in the right spots across the 54 square feet of grate area so the fire would burn evenly – although most of the lighter pieces of coal must have combusted in mid-air and never landed at all. In fact, after every scoopful went in but before the doors closed, I could see a cloud of coal dust rushing past Shane’s foot and into the firebox, the powerful draft reaching out all the way to the tender, the dust going airborne there each time a scoop disturbed the pile.
Every now and again since I had come aboard, Ryan had reached past me to pull on the injector handle to put water into the boiler. First he would open the waste valve, using the handle atop the stem coming up out of the floor beside the seatbox, so I would know to lean out of the way; then he would grasp the handle on the side of the backhead and pull hard. But he would have to sense whether the injector had “lifted”, pushing water ahead, or if it had blown steam back – not easy to tell, over the all-encompassing din; he must have done it as much by feel as sound. Now, with the needle on the gauge almost on the pops, he opened the injector and just let it run, and for the next dozen miles the engine used steam as fast as water went into the boiler – about as hard as an engine can work.
A mile past Cross Keys Road, we approached West Leesport, at the end of the four-and-a-quarter-mile-long straightaway that started just north of Outer Station. Two closely-spaced road crossings lie in the “center of town,” followed by a third just north of the abandoned mill. From my side of the engine, I could barely see the streetlights in front of the block of storefronts, and my experience of town consisted mostly of the whistle outcry and the flashing red lights at Main Street, Lee Street, and, as we heeled into a lefthand curve, Schuylkill Avenue. The flashers briefly illuminated the boiler and the drive wheels, then the plume of exhaust as I twisted to look back along the train, but we almost instantly left the town behind and sped along the river in the dark.
The Philadelphia & Reading’s builders had of course taken the path of least resistance as they worked their way northwards along the Schuylkill back during the John Tyler administration; here and there they had left the riverbank and cut straight across the meanders through farm fields, but between those easy stretches they also had to cut through ridges that dropped precipitously down to the water, leaving sheer rock walls right next to the tracks. (The P. & R. had the first all-double-track main line in the U.S. when completed from Philadelphia to Pottsville in 1843.) Conrail tore out the second track in the 1980s, and the one remaining track seems to cleave to the inland side of the right-of-way, right up against the cuts. I knew that I would not endanger myself by leaning a little ways out in these places – surely the railroad had built in a margin of safety – but I decided against taking any chances and enjoyed the increased roar of reflected noise from wholly within the cab.
We flew across Bellemans Church Road in Dauberville, leaning into a righthand curve, and then up another half-mile straightaway. South of Main Street, Mohrsville, we passed between lines of stored crude-oil tank cars – I again kept my head well inside the cab – and then for a mile and a half made a long, broad, shallow curve to the west as the river undulated out of sight to the east. Approaching Shoey Road, which bridges the river from Shoemakersville, I could see that a car lit up the crossing; in the instant as we passed, a stooped figure appeared silhouetted against the headlights, and I realized I recognized the vehicle and knew the person: Chad Hubler (Blue Comet Productions), bent over his camera, capturing our passage. Again I waved, but you cannot tell that in his video: As the earthbound meteor streaks past, the red crossing flashers illuminate the boiler and cab, all of it a blur insufficient to pick out the grinning figure on the fireman’s seat.
I kept having the feeling that somehow I shouldn’t really be here, that I hadn’t yet earned the right to have such an adventure. But I had my gold pocket watch and my pass which said “good on freight trains and locomotives,” and I was, after all, here tonight officially as a representative of the management of the Great Northern. I was on their payroll. I had been told to go out and learn railroading, ride trains and engines. But in the bottom of my heart I knew that this was just a rationale – a ruse. I should have been back in the office just in case John Boyd, the trainmaster, might have called up to ask me how things were. It was too late to bother with that now. The hell with it. Nothing would have prevented me from taking this ride.
When Ryan had a break in his firing, I grabbed him by the shoulder and put my face right by his ear. “How fast are we going?” I shouted. He looked over at his father. “I have no idea!” Ryan shouted back, and he picked up his shovel again. I looked across the cab at Shane; something in the cab drew his attention, and he looked at it and then at me. A grin on his own face, he gave me a thumbs-up with his right hand, then turned his attention back to the track ahead. Aside from that gesture, Shane and I had no communication at all from the time I got on the engine until after we stopped at PN.
He was sitting there implacably, stretching the 2505 to its limits, making it reach to even greater heights, asking that wonderful machine to pour forth everything it had. Suddenly, Brown was no longer an adversary, the local representative of the Brotherhood. He was magnificent, a real engineer, this union man.
For two and a half miles we did not cross another road, and after leaving Fisher Dam and River Roads behind we would not cross another one for another two and a half miles more. Racing through the woods, mostly on the floodplain well inland of the river, 425’s cab, with just the five of us in it, became the whole world, the rhythmic clanging of Ryan’s shovel and the firebox doors adding to the undifferentiated pandemonium of exhaust, draft, injector, wheels on rails, and rushing wind. I leaned out of the window as far as I could, holding onto the armrest with one hand and onto my hat with the other. Up ahead, the golden incandescence of the headlight played off the track and the trees; the bright green class light at the smokebox front sent a long reflection down the boiler towards me. Overhead, the smoke lay back, seemingly almost in reach, just barely illuminated against the starless black sky.
“We’re going 35!” Ryan yelled at me, showing three gloved fingers and then five after a chance to look at the speedometer. He could as easily have said 50, or 70; I had never ridden in a steam locomotive going so fast and had nothing to compare this to. But compared to almost anything else I had ever done, this felt better.
The sense of being propelled forward was so exhilarating that it felt as if we were no longer connected to the earth.
Now we entered the broad righthand curve through West Hamburg. Shane blew a long crossing signal just for the fun of it – like Brown, Shane “played the whistle for all it was worth” – and we swept over old Route 22 and then under the Route 61 concrete-arch bridge, the noise in the cab increasing as the sound of the exhaust echoed down at us off the slabs above. Only a mile and a half remained until we would hit the Port Clinton yard limit; Shane started to reduce throttle.
And then suddenly without warning it was there in the eastern sky. Almost imperceptibly at first, but gaining force, light began to come and with it the terrible realization that the run was nearly over. I turned quickly away and looked in the other direction, but when I turned back it was unmistakably morning. The world was finite . . .
The Cabela’s sporting-goods store at the 61/I-81 interchange gets more than seven million visitors a year, and dozens of other businesses – stores, hotels, fast food, gas stations – have grown up like mushrooms around it. In the darkness just over the hill from the bright lights and the traffic of that commercial strip, our train rolled past the small suburban houses facing Lowland Road, a perfect stretch to pace the train in one’s vehicle, the pavement separated from the track by less than 20 feet for a distance of almost half a mile. Chad Hubler caught one of the Christmas trains here, but on this Sunday evening we did not see anyone on the road at all; perhaps someone in one of the houses looked out of a window as we passed. Almost certainly no one stood on the former Pennsylvania Railroad bridge that crossed overhead, 800 feet beyond where Lowland Road turned away from the track; the John Bartram Trail now uses eight miles of the Pennsy right-of-way from Hamburg to Auburn, and another friend and I saw hikers and dog-walkers on the bridge when we photographed the train there later in the month.
All at once, something was different. The laboring exhaust became easier. We had reached the top of the grade [between Minneapolis and St. Paul]. It was all downhill now. I could almost feel the 2505 beginning to relax. But I could not; with all my heart I was trying to soak up those mesmerizing locomotive sounds and smells: Absorb as much as I could before it was over. I wanted to be back on the platform at Willmar again, about to mount the steps to the cab, or howling through Litchfield again, anywhere but here. It had all gone so fast. Brown closed the throttle, the engine began to drift.
Passing KERNS, the railroad’s name for the southern Port Clinton yard limit, our speed had dropped to twenty miles an hour or so, the sound of each sharp exhaust now just about distinguishable. On the long lefthand curve approaching the gap in Blue Mountain within which Port Clinton lies, a line of stored freight cars sat on the track to our right, and the engine noise bounced back off them. Then we canted right, on the last curve before the yard, with another string of stored cars to our left, just outside my window. Shane blew one more long crossing signal as we came around the curve to within sight of the yard, but the exhaust noise drowned out the echoes in the narrow valley. We passed the diesel dead line to the left, and the diesel shop, and the carshop on the right. With the throttle almost closed, Shane played the brake handles – application on the train brake, release on the independent – until we rolled to a stop in front of the railroad’s office building, right under the dispatcher’s bay window.
And literally at the exact moment that the wheels stopped turning, the safety valve lifted: Ryan had brought us into town with the engine hot. Once the pressure dropped and the safety quieted, Ryan closed the injector on his side. The cab seemed unnaturally quiet. Someone from the freight crew dropped down to make the cut, and on his signal Shane accelerated the engine away from the train, now pulling just the auxiliary tender again. We rolled up through the yard and across Broad Street, Shane on the whistle making sure that everyone in town knew about it. He pulled us past the enginehouse lead, Carter dropping off to throw the switch so we could back in. On the lead, Shane stopped again while Carter relined the switch for the main.
No sooner had we come to a halt than Brown suddenly sprang to life. He uncoiled himself from the crouched position he had been sitting in most of the night – he was a tall man, I realized then – and without a word to me or the fireman he climbed down out of the cab. The moment he hit the ground he turned and rushed over to the engineer of the Chicago train [stopped on the next track] and grabbing him by the straps of his overalls, he exclaimed pointing to the 2505, “Look what I brought into St. Paul this morning!”
By then I had come down from the engine myself. Brown wheeled around and threw his arm around my shoulder and said, “Boy, can that old girl run. Boy, did we ever get her worked up tonight. My God, what a run we had, eh? God, what a run!”
Taciturn old Brown, the union man. Every time I saw him after that, his eyes would light up and he’d say, “Boy, do you remember the run we made? Remember that night? Boy, could she run! Will you ever forget it?”
As we sat on the enginehouse lead, waiting for our brakeman to come back, Shane got up off his seatbox and came over to the other side of the cab. He grabbed his son in a giant bearhug and said “You did a great job, buddy!” I couldn’t see Ryan’s face, but I knew his smile would have at least matched his father’s. I certainly do not know Shane well, and I have no idea how he relates to his children from one day to the next, but this brief display of physical affection moved me deeply. Had Shane set out to test his son by pushing the engine so hard? Or had he simply wanted to see what 425 could do? In either case, I cannot believe he would have let Ryan fail; it would have hurt no one’s feelings to make the trip at 25 miles per hour rather than 35. But the kid had passed the test with the needle on the pin, and the father let him know what that meant to him.
Carter climbed into the cab. Shane knelt on his seatbox, facing the back of the engine, and he backed us slowly along the uneven lead. Carter and Ryan climbed down on opposite sides to watch the wheels make the jump across the gap from solid ground to the turntable bridge; we made the trip across without incident. On the far side, Shane backed the aux tender into the enginehouse, where it got cut off and left indoors, safe from potential freezing. He pulled the engine outside, stopping just clear of the doorway so the overhead door could close; then he blew one short blast on the whistle and centered the reverser, and my ride had ended. The engine would slowly cool before getting put away indoors as well. I did not linger: The crew wanted to get the engine buttoned up and then go home. So I shook hands with Shane and Ryan and Carter and went to find Matthew where he waited for me across the tracks.
“The whistle sounded great echoing in the valley as you came into town,” Matthew said. “You look like you’re on Cloud Nine.”
I said, “That was AMAZING.”
From a little 0-4-0 on a loop of track in an Ontario park in 1975 to a Canadian National 2-8-2 pulling seven cars up the hill out of Scranton on a Steamtown excursion in 1996 or so; from a Shay to the top of Bald Knob in West Virginia in 1973 to Norfolk & Western 611 on the wye in downtown Roanoke in 2017 – I have had a wide range of cabride experiences. None match David Plowden’s for distance or speed – or “authenticity”, all of mine having taken place years and decades after the end of regular steam operation. I wouldn’t trade a minute of any of them, of course, but for unforgettable moments almost nothing I have seen around railroads matches a father sharing his pride in his admirably capable son. Thank you, Shane and Ryan, for sharing it with me. And thank you, Mr. Plowden, for sharing the story of your ride with Brown and the lifelong inspiration you have given me as a photographer and writer.