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A Hot Time on the Old Line

12 August 2016

Strasburg Rail Road #90 climbing up Long Curve

With apologies to George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward: 


Summertime and the livin' is easy
Trains are runnin' and the corn's gettin' high
Oh the whistle will blow, and the cinders will rain down
So hush little baby, don't you cry

On an incredibly hot and humid August Friday, the Strasburg Rail Road's crews greeted riders and ran their train across the Lancaster County countryside as they always do, with spit-and-polish service and on time, even as the few photographers along the way wilted in mid-afternoon.  My day there had started with the Hostling Tour and continued by the enginehouse as David Lotfi ministered to #475, building and lighting a fire and cleaning the engine; the 110-year-old 4-8-0 would join 2-10-0 #90 in pulling the eleven scheduled trains each of the next two weekend days.  The railroad itself dates to 1832, "America's oldest shortline"; I look forward to the bicentennial celebrations.


Dave builds his fires starting with coal, an even bed across the entire grate area, then wood, carefully arranged in perpendicular layers.  After the wood has burned for a while, and the hot embers have started lighting the coal below, he slowly adds coal on top.  Without steam pressure to run the blower, an air line from the compressor in the enginehouse provides the draft.  Built to fit on then-existing Norfolk & Western turntables, 475 has a deckless cab, so the engineer sits fully next to the boiler, as in a camelback, while the fireman works from tender deck.  It makes for a tight place to make photos, and my then-new wide-angle zoom lens came in handy.

Strasburg Rail Road hostler Dave Lotfi firing #475
Strasburg Rail Road hostler Dave Lotfi firing #475

(Every image accompanying this story, as with the hostling tour story, got made with the 15-30.)

Before pulling into the station to couple up to the train for the first trip of the day, #90's crew stopped her on the main alongside 475.  I changed cabs briefly to capture Darin Esterly doing some last-minute spitting and polishing, then climbed back aboard 475 to watch the 11 a.m. train head east towards Paradise.

Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly polishing #90
Strasburg Rail Road train behind #90 departing East Strasburg as seen from cab of #475

All of Strasburg's engines carry the railroad's name, but each has a lettering style that reflects her heritage, and 475 looks like a Norfolk & Western locomotive: From the brass numberplate on the smokebox to the tender flanks, she wears the distinctive font that the N. & W. used throughout the steam era.  Early in her tenure here, 475 wore a fancier scheme, with lots of stripes on cab and tender; I like how she looks now.​

With the fire in good shape, ​​Dave got out the soap and scrub-brush and worked his way down both sides of the locomotive and tender.

Strasburg Rail Road hostler Dave Lotfi cleaning #475
Strasburg Rail Road hostler Dave Lotfi and #475
Strasburg Rail Road hostler Dave Lotfi cleaning #475
Strasburg Rail Road hostler Dave Lotfi cleaning #475

As the best kind of manual labor, taking care of a steam locomotive can lead to great satisfaction.

As steam pressure came up and Dave began opening valves, he discovered one that had apparently failed: With the main turret valve open but the valve to the turbogenerator still shut tight, steam nonetheless flowed to the turbogenerator.  Although officially off for the day, Ross Gochenaur had stopped by to get a little work done in the brake shop, and he joined Dave atop the engine to diagnose the problem (solved with minor disassembly and re-lapping of the valve).

Strasburg Rail Road hostlers Dave Lotfi and Ross Gochenaur atop #475, diagnosing valve leak

​A young fan named Michael Wilson met me at the station at mid-day, when sitting in the shade felt awfully good.  Michael and I had made acquaintance via Facebook when he posted some striking pictures of Strasburg trains made in the sublime glow of late-day light and all made with his phone (one here).  ​He and I spent the rest of the day photographing together, alternating with sitting in the shade at the station, watching the Cagney train come and go and talking with some of the railroaders, among them brothers Ryan and Alex Merrill; Brent Lefever and Mike Barron, conductor and trainman on the passenger train this day; and Erich Armpriester, machinist/mechanic/engineer.  I also got to thank stationmaster Steve Barrall for the opportunity to photograph the tour in the morning.


We did manage to bestir ourselves and go out on the line for the 1 and 2 o'clock trains, the former seen crossing the flats between Esbenshade and Paradise Lane and the latter coming off Long Curve, both under beautiful cumulus clouds; for all of the sweat in our eyes, the air did not hold a lot of haze.

Strasburg Rail Road #90 westbound on the flats between Esbenshade and Fairview
Strasburg Rail Road #90 westbound climbing up Long Curve

By 3:45, the clouds had thickened considerably.  The sun still shone at the station as 90's crew cut off and ran around their train, but the skies to the north and west looked increasingly threatening, and the wind had started to pick up.

Strasburg Rail Road #90 under storm clouds at the Pennsy signal on East Strasburg station runaround
Strasburg Rail Road #90 and Earl Knoob under storm clouds at the Pennsy signal on East Strasburg station runaround

I suggested to Michael that we ride the 4 p.m. train, and the rain started just after we boarded, although it didn't last (nor did it cool anything down).  We chose the baggage car, fourth car of nine eastbound, standing at the wide-open baggage doors -- not luxurious, but a real pleasure in this day of "sit down, keep your heads and hands inside, and don't walk in the aisles" on many railroads.

At Leaman Place, a late-running Amtrak Keystone Service train streaked past, headed for 30th Street Philadelphia and Penn Station, New York:

Late-running Amtrak train 670 eastbound at Leaman Place, Pa., from Strasburg Railroad passenger train

Brent and Mike joined us in the baggage compartment, minimally outfitted as a crew lounge; most of the live narration happens on the outbound leg, so Mike did not have much to do on the return.

Strasburg Rail Road trainmen Brent Lefever and Mike Barron aboard baggage car

The clouds had continued moving east, building height but opening up great swaths of blue; as we crossed the flats, a farmer and his team made hay while the sun shone.

Amish famer with three-horse team cutting silage, seen from Strasburg Rail Road train, Lancaster County, Pa.

For the 5 p.m. train, Michael and I went out to Cherry Hill, now the site of a major tourist attraction, the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm.  Although nominally agriculturally-based tourism, the place has grown exponentially in the past decade or two and now qualifies, in my opinion, as sprawl -- fortunately, about the only place where things have substantially changed along the railroad itself in the 45 years I have known it.  Sure, Route 896 now has almost continuous development from U.S. 30 to the center of the borough of Strasburg, and a bypass of that quaint town square opened a few years ago; 30 itself has become a miasma of strip malls -- but the rural aspect of Lancaster County remains as appealing as ever to passengers on the trains.  And even at Cherry Crest, the developers have -- so far -- left a broad spread of lawn between the Poly Pong and Tug-O'-War booths, sweeping down the hill from the Pick-Your-Own field to the railroad.  Michael checked with the person at the ticket booth, who gave us permission to walk out onto the property as long as we parked in the proper lot (no more pulling in behind the railroad's Cherry Hill "station"), and we slowly made our way past the Pizza 'N' Pop and Slushie stands, past the Ballcade and the Pillow Jump and the Obstacle Course.  Michael set up his video camera by the site where the Straw Bale Tower will rise in the fall; I walked up to the back porch of the Country Pig Races & Show and sat for a while out of the sun, emptying the fourth water bottle of the day.


The returning train made a brief stop at Groff's Grove to pick up passengers who had gotten off there earlier in the day -- perhaps to have some adventures at Cherry Crest -- and then #90 came marching past us, her smoke trail a punctuation to the natural clouds above.

Strasburg Rail Road #90 climbing Cherry Hill past Cherry Crest Farm

Back in the yard at East Strasburg, the crew had switching to do, dropping the private car that had tagged along on the first seven trips and then moving other cars back onto the sidings across from the depot.  Ross appeared, camera in hand, and he and Michael and I recorded the proceedings, including from a vantage point atop a stack of concrete castings that would shortly become the bed of the tracks in front of the enginehouse, to collect the oil and grease that otherwise seep into the ground; I cannot imagine how far down the crew will have to dig to find uncontaminated soil, Strasburg's engines having dripped in those exact spots for well over half a century.


Conductor Lefever and trainman Patrick Plummer protected the shove move on the Pennsy caboose.

Strasburg Rail Road Pennsylvania Railroad caboose, cabin car, at East Strasburg, with Bren Lefever and Patrick Plummer

From ground level, I watched Darin bring #90 ahead, then captured the workaday scene as the crew chatted while waiting for the conductor's next signal.

Strasburg Rail Road #90 engineer Darin Esterly
Strasburg Rail Road #90, fireman Earl Knoob and engineer Darin Esterly

With the switching done and the train ready for its last departure, the three of us photographers went back out on the line.  We got to the Esbenshade crossing only seconds before the train; Ross jumped out of his car and climbed on the roof to get a photo of #90 backing past the corn, as high as an elephant's eye.  I would have photographed him, but at the wheel of my own car I did not have a camera to hand in time.  We parked in the field on the north side of the track and walked downhill toward Groundhog Cut, the clouds now playing tag with the sun.  Ross and I opted for low vantage points right at the edge of the soybeans, while Michael took a more conventional stance.  The temperature had just

Strasburg Rail Road photographers near Groundhog Cut

barely started to drop and I took shelter in the shadows of the plants.

As #90 climbed the hill, heading for the sunset with Earl at the throttle, the waxing gibbous moon peeked over her bell:

Strasburg Rail Road #90 climbing westbound past Groundhog Cut under a crescent moon

The whistle faded into the distance, and for us a day of photography had ended.  But we saw no need to rush off, and for an hour the three of us stood in the field talking steam -- operations, restorations, and aesthetics -- until close to dark.  Eventually we decided to part, Ross heading home and Michael and me making one more stop at East Strasburg so Michael could get into his own car (loaded up with all of the worldly goods he had stuffed into it that morning at his college dorm).  I retraced my steps, around Lancaster City, through East Petersburg, Manheim, and Mount Hope, stopping south of Lebanon for cheap gas and a Made-To-Order hoagie at a remarkably busy Sheetz -- remarkable at almost 9 p.m., anyway, I thought.  The CD player in the Focus has quit working, so no bluegrass kept me company in the darkness, but enough radio stations came in that I could stay awake through Lickdale and Ravine, Lavelle and Locustdale and Aristes.  240 miles and 18 hours after leaving home in the predawn dark, the car and I stopped in the driveway in Bloomsburg, another happy day done.


Reading & Northern #425 would run in the Lehigh Gorge over all three days of the succeeding Labor Day weekend, pulling trains from Jim Thorpe to Old Penn Haven and back, so I had plenty to look forward to.

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