Chasing the Blue Tornado
Port Clinton to Jim Thorpe, October 2017
Over the course of three and a half days this fall, I put something like 900 miles on my Ford Focus running hither and yon, by way of Cross Keys, Hecla, Zehners, Barnesville, Grier City, and Quakake, not to mention better-known burgs including Port Clinton, Tamaqua, and Nesquehoning, all for the purpose of pursuing Reading & Northern 425 as she pulled fall-foliage excursions on former Reading and Central of New Jersey tracks in Berks, Schuylkill, and Carbon Counties, Pennsylvania. Happily, I had company on all of those days, a total of eight people sharing the car with me, ranging from grizzled railfans like myself to the rawest of neophytes. This episode of Travels with Oren takes us on a one-way trip towards Jim Thorpe on the last day the engine ran, Sunday the 15th of October.
the house by 8 so we could meet up with the train along its route. My friend Chad Hubler, a young videographer, recently did a stellar job of capturing a quarter-mile pace of 425, and I wanted to introduce Chiso to steam locomotion (he had never seen it before) in full immersion, where we could drive right alongside the loudest locomotive in the land at full cry. Chad's location, along Lowland Road between Hamburg and Port Clinton, allowed for just that. We got there around 9:20, in plenty of time to sit and wait at the south end of the straightaway. I made one photo to document our presence; down the track, mile marker 76 shows the distance to Reading Terminal in Philadelphia.
My chase mates that day included my son, Jem; my daughter, Maia; and Maia's boyfriend, Chiso. Maia and Chiso had a long weekend off from college, and they came home more to go to Knoebels than to chase a train, but I traded them the afternoon at the amusement park for spending the morning with me doing crazy stuff -- like getting up at 7:30 to get out of
Other fans showed up, and then more, but they took respectful positions behind me; I got out of the car and asked the pair next in line if they needed a particular position with respect to the engine, but they indicated flexibility, so I could in clear conscience aim for my preferred spot, right alongside the smokebox. Jem sat beside me up front, with Chiso behind him and Maia behind me; Chiso and Jem would have the engine 20 feet from them. After a while we heard the whistle, and then the oncoming roar of exhaust, louder and louder. My pulse quickened; I started the car's engine, craning my neck to look out the back window for the headlight. There! I shifted into first gear, started rolling -- and here she came, a haze of smoke at the stack, rods and Walschaerts valve gear turning expanding steam into forward motion, 69-inch drivers rotating at two and a half times every second. Quickly accelerating to 30 miles per hour, I got us right abreast of the steam chest. With all of the windows open, the car completely overflowed with noise, and for 2000 feet we had the next-best experience to riding in the locomotive's cab. We reached the end of the straightaway and I whipped the car to the left and up the hill away from the track; someone said "That was cool."
In Port Clinton, just a mile up the highway, I parked on the side of Broad Street and we walked down the access road into the Reading & Northern's yard. The train had gotten there before us, and I made a beeline for the engine, where I wanted to thank Chris Bost for helping us honor Glenn Brogan the day before. "Are we allowed here?" Maia asked as we crossed a couple of yard tracks. "The crew knows me," I told her. "I've brought some first-time visitors," I said to Chris as we stood under the cab window. "Bring them on up,"
he said, and all four of us crowded into the cab. The crew actually looked a little harried (they had seen smoke coming from one of the drifting valves and needed to determine its cause), so we did not linger, but I got to show Chiso the fire and give a quick tour of the engineer's controls -- and I had time for a picture of Chiso and Maia:
Back on the ground, I stayed in tour-guide mode, explaining the principles of the machine to Chiso, who listened patiently; thanks to Maia for making the photo:
All three kids consented to pose with the engine:
Chris came over and said that they had found that the piston-valve lubricator had gotten turned up too high, rather than too low, and the smoke had come from an excess of oil rather than a lack, so no damage done. We put our pennies down on the rails and waited for departure at 10 o'clock.
How many other yards do you know that have lit switchlamps anymore?
Our squashed pennies came out great, a few of them showing signs of having had many wheels go over them.
We did not rush to get back to the car -- a brisk walk, not a run -- and we still caught up to the train as the observation car on the tail end cleared the cornfield at Miller's Crossing in Molino, just a few miles up the line. A little farther along, I turned onto Hawk Mountain Road so we could watch through the windshield and listen to the engine go by, then did a K-turn and hit the highway again before the train cleared the crossing. Next stop for us, New Ringgold:
Since we had had such a good pacing experience on Lowland Road, and I knew how crowded the highway next to the straightaway at Zehners gets, I took us to Tamaqua for another runby-at-a-crossing; we had plenty of time before the train would arrive, and we spent part of it admiring a Monarch butterfly on the flowers in the parklet across the track from the station before it flew away. I had intended to make my photo of the train from atop the base of one of the streetlights east of the Broad Street crossing, but as the warning lights started flashing and the gates dropped, a van pulled up right into the middle of my frame, so I jumped down and panned Chris going by; the van still appears, but not as centrally:
At our next stops, I left the camera in the car and just took in the experience. At East Mahanoy Junction, three of us walked out onto the open-grate bridge -- Maia remained on solid ground -- and got to have smoke blown up our pants legs as 425 blasted by underneath. Jem spent a while thereafter picking cinders out of his hair, and I had to find Chiso a couple of Band-aids from the bottom of the glove compartment because a few especially aggressive cinders had actually left him with minor cuts on his legs. At Quakake, we kept a respectful distance from the track as the engine loped by.
I had one more location I wanted to go to, the long pace down Park Avenue on the west side of Nesquehoning, a mile of side-by-side running, although at sixty feet away from the train rather than twenty, and downhill. Following some long-overdue trackwork through here, the railroad's speed limit has risen to 25 m.p.h., from 15, making the pace more dramatic (especially on the westbound, uphill leg), and I could not resist getting the camera out; I let Jem drive, so I could keep two hands on the camera, and I climbed into the back seat. Brian Messinger, one of the Connecticut Valley Railroad's engineers and a regular on 425 in October, joined the crew in the cab for this trip, and these next pictures include him as well as Chris. One could call this first one "Over the River and Through the Woods":
Just in case you think engineers don't pay attention to railfans, Chris demonstrates that he does, at least some of the time:
But then he goes right back to business:
Where Industrial Road crosses the track and intersects Park Avenue, Park has a stop sign; having instructed Jem to blow right through it, I promise to stop twice the next time I get there.
After we watched the train pass in the center of Nesquehoning, and I got to wave at the passengers, we listened to the whistle fading into the distance . . . Then we went to Knoebels, where the clouds parted, the sun shone in a clear blue sky all afternoon --
-- and I could not resist trying just a couple more pan shots, of the Impulse roller-coaster:
I've no idea which part of the day Chiso will remember best, or Maia or Jem, but in the end it doesn't matter: We had a great day together.