I do not know when I got my first ride in the cab of a steam locomotive. I do know that at the age of eight, along with my father, I went to the top of Bald Knob in West Virginia in a Shay with legendary Cass Scenic engineer Artie Barkley, taciturn but friendly, and his cheerful older fireman, who teased me for the length of my hair.
Cass Scenic Railroad engineer Artie Barkley at Cass, 1973
The following summer, my father commended me to the care of a Steamtown crew in Vermont and I rode by myself to Chester with another legend, Andy Barbera, a steam and diesel engineer on the Lackawanna who, less than a decade before we met him, had run the last Phoebe Snow streamliner.
Oren with Andy Barbera, 1974; John E. Helbok photo
The next year my father and I rode the Arcade & Attica’s #14, and in 1976-78 we volunteered on Jack Showalter’s Alleghany Central in Virginia: My father learned to fire the ex-Canadian Pacific 4-6-2, a sister to the 1246 above, by hand (the stoker never worked during our years there), and I sat on the fireman’s seat and ran the injector and kept an eye out for cars at the infrequent crossings on the 16-mile line.
Oren at the Arcade & Attica, 1975, and the Alleghany Central, c. 1977; John E. Helbok photos
Forty-five years after Bald Knob with Artie Barkley, I can count about 30 steam locomotives that I have ridden. At least two of the experiences barely count: In the summer of 1983, a friendly nighttime hostler in the Norfolk Southern steam program let me sit on the fireman’s seat of N. & W. 611 while he moved the engine about a hundred feet in the yard at Alexandria, Va., and in the winter of 1996 the engineer of Milwaukee Road 261 invited me up while the engine sat in the turntable at Steamtown in Scranton, Pa., and I stayed in the cab while he moved her into the roundhouse – about 150 feet. (My clearest memory of 261: the gold-plated throttle lever – not at all authentic to the engine as built in 1944, but a nice touch by her restorers.) On the other hand, I have ridden up and down the 16-mile grade between Cumberland and Frostburg, Maryland, aboard two locomotives and in different eras: Jack Showalter’s 1238 in 1989 and the Western Maryland Scenic’s 734 in 2012.
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad fireman Donnie Shaw, 2012
In 1990, I bought my future wife and me cab passes on Nevada’s Virginia & Truckee #29; if memory serves, the two tickets set me back $14 (and this remains Sara’s one and only ride on a steam locomotive). And in September of 2016 I rode Reading & Northern 425 on a deadhead from Port Clinton to Jim Thorpe, Pa. – at about 42 miles, the longest single trip I have made in a cab.
Reading & Northern engineer Shane Frederickson, 2016
In all of this time, I have gotten to run two steam locomotives, both of them narrow gauge, and the first of those occasions also barely counts: During our month on the road in 1975, on the same trip that we rode at the Arcade & Attica, my father and I visited the Pinafore Park Railroad in St. Thomas, Ontario, and I rode a number of times around the one-mile loop of 42-inch-gauge track on 0-4-0 saddletanker #2. When it began to rain, the engineer put the engine into the shed, and for reasons now forgotten the engineer let me move her about six feet. Two years later, my father and I visited the Kings Dominion amusement park near Richmond, Va., which at the time had a two- or three-mile loop of three-foot-gauge track and a pair of Crown Metal propane-fired 4-6-0s; we had met at least one of the crewmen at the Alleghany Central, and we got invited to visit him at the park. On the day that we showed up, probably a weekday, with the park not too crowded, I
got invited to ride the engine, and then to fire it, and then to run it. I barely remember what I did (as with so much of my life, much of what I do remember comes from the photos I took, rather than the experiences themselves), but I know that one of the crew took my father to Richmond, to look at the local historical society’s collection of rail equipment, leaving me – age 12 – and the other crewman to run the train through the afternoon and into the evening. Precedent existed for people other than the regular crew to operate the engines: Various of the pretty girls who served as “car hosts” had gotten their turns on days when the train ran largely empty.
Oren aboard the "Patrick Henry" at Kings Dominion, 1977; John E. Helbok photo
I remember one cautionary tale I heard as part of my Kings Dominion “training”: The loop of track had some pretty steep grades – in the tradition of narrow-gauge track everywhere – and dropping down one of the longer ones an engineer had to make a pretty big set on the engine brakes (if memory serves, the three- or four-car train had no brakes at all). At the bottom of the grade, the track started right back steeply uphill, and the engineer had the open the throttle pretty wide – but if he forgot to release the brakes, the engine might slip wildly, and the sudden increase in draft could actually pop the smokebox front right off the engine and onto the track. (Only three bolts held it on, and apparently Crown had designed this “feature” in as a way to prevent greater damage to the engine.) At least one of the pretty girls had had this happen to her while in the engineer’s seat, and I managed not to have it happen, so I considered my few hours as an engineer as entirely successful. (Whether we paid to get into the park or my father talked his way in I do not know, but he and I did ride the “Rebel Yell” roller coaster together, and I did not ride another big coaster for another 36 years. In common with David P. Morgan, I can keep my lunch down aboard a galloping old war horse of a 2-8-0, but I cannot on a roller coaster.)
For most of the last 45 years, I have largely considered my railfanning and photography as inseparable (and in fact as a child I could not understand why anyone interested in trains, even the great DPM, would not photograph them), but I have just a handful of photos made on film in locomotive cabs. Using Plus-X at ASA 125 and even Tri-X at 400, I could not capture much in dim places, and I never tried doing anything in a cab with flash. So I have only one good photo of Black River & Western volunteers John Konn and Tommy Bartkovsky, two of the world’s good people and gone much too soon, on the day they graciously hosted me and a friend aboard #60 in 1986, and one good photo of Steamtown’s Seth Corwin, with whom I briefly worked as a volunteer trainman in 1996.
John Konn and Tommy Bartkovsky during brake test at Flemington, 1986
Seth Corwin taking BLW #26 up the hill in Scranton, 1996
But two things have changed in more recent years: Digital cameras have made capturing photons, even relatively few of them, much easier, and (more importantly) I have realized the importance of documenting the human aspect of railroading. I made my first wholly successful photo of a fireman shoveling coal in 2012. Now when I climb aboard a locomotive, I almost always do so with the full intention of making pictures of the crew at work. In addition to the personal satisfaction I get out of creating these images, I have also quite baldly used them to get additional access – for as I learned at my father’s knee, giving a railroader a picture of himself almost always makes him a friend forever.
Nonetheless, in some ways I remain the same eight-year-old who excitedly rode that Shay up a mountain, wide-eyed in wonderment at the sight of coal getting shoveled into a white-hot firebox, awestruck at the all-enveloping sounds of injector, dynamo, clanking steel, the rush of air from the brakestand, the hiss of boiling water from a leaky turret valve. And when the opportunity to ride a locomotive comes my way, I jump at it. Every now and then, an engineer recognizes my enthusiasm (or possibly takes pity on me) and spontaneously says the words I love to hear – “Come on up.” (This of course happens much more often after I have given that engineer photos.) Sometimes it takes initiative and planning on my part, as with that ride on R. & N. 425 in 2016, when I wrote to the company and asked for permission (and offered any photographs made on the trip for their use). On rare occasions, I have actually paid for the privilege, as on the V. & T., and more recently on the New Hope & Ivyland in Pennsylvania (back when they charged $40, the same number as their locomotive; the price has since increased to five times as much); on the Western Maryland Scenic, I traded a framed photo of their engine, made on an earlier visit, for the cabride (which even in 2012 would have likewise cost $200). But usually it comes down to sizing up a situation and an engineer and simply asking. I’ve had disappointments, but not so many.
Many thanks to all of the crews who have welcomed me, and I look forward to seeing you again.
Oh, I have ridden in diesel and electric cabs as well, and had some memorable experiences -- standing in a darkened GP7 cab running through the Mount Royal Tunnel with an early-morning deadhead commuter train; taking the throttle of a Burlington Northern Geep in the yard in Greybull, Wyoming; doing 76 miles per hour eastbound in a New Jersey Transit GG1 in the Hackensack Meadows; taking the throttle of a different NJT GG1 around the loop at Sunnyside Yard in Queens at age 17. I will tell those stories someday.
Black River & Western engineers Frank Capalbo, 2016, and Don Lachenauer, 2018
Strasburg Rail Road engineer Ross Gochenaur, 2018
Everett Railroad engineer Jason Lamb, 2017
Reading & Northern fireman Chuck Trusdell, 2018