A Sojourn with C.N.J. #113
Just over the hill from Bloomsburg, more or less, Railway Restoration Project 113 maintains the largest 0-6-0 in the land. The almost-all-volunteer crew of Central Railroad of New Jersey #113 takes the engine out to stretch her legs a few times a year, including to help mark the start in Schuylkill Haven of the annual Schuylkill River Sojourn. During the Sojourn, canoeists and kayakers take seven days to paddle the 112 miles downstream to Philadelphia, celebrating the river's history and natural beauty. (Just for comparison, Reading RDCs made the trip in 2 hours and 4 minutes in 1964, with ten intermediate stops.) What better way to make a memorable send-off than to have a live anthracite-burning locomotive at the park where the boaters gather, a locomotive that they can climb aboard and whose whistle they can blow. Thus 113's attendance has become a tradition at the event.
In 2016, I had intended to take the first Friday of June off from work and follow the engine south from Minersville, photographing along the way, but one meeting after another after another came up, and I did not get out of the office until 5:30; the engine had gone south at 2 p.m. or so, first holding clear of three Reading & Northern freights (one from the coal loadout just north of Minersville, one from the Tremont branch, and one from Pottsville). While waiting, the engine also made a round-trip to Mar-Lin, two miles below Minersville, with a special passenger, five-year-old Thomas Wagner: One of her biggest fans, Thomas had told his parents that he did not want birthday presents this year, but people should put the money they would have spent into a donation to Project 113 -- to "Big Buddy", as he calls the engine. Inspired by this, his family ended up collecting more than $500. I would have loved to photograph Thomas and his ride; at least I can share two of the photos Thomas's father, John, posted to Facebook later that day:
As it happens, I do have my own picture of Thomas and his sister, Addison, at Minersville last December before a Santa train:
The Sojourners gather in Schuylkill Haven at Island Park, which has a large pavilion and baseball, softball, and soccer fields; the river flows around the north and east sides of the area, while the former Reading right-of-way runs southeast-northwest behind the backstops, making the park an "island" cut off from the rest of the borough. Many of the yard tracks have disappeared, but the Reading & Northern stores freight cars on four of them, accessible from the west end at Cressona; just northwest of the park, at CP Mine, the Minersville branch peels off the main line, which continues on to Pottsville. When I turned the Focus into Island Park at a few minutes after 7 p.m. on that Friday, the gravel parking lot had already filled with boaters' vehicles, many with kayaks on roofracks, others pulling trailers stacked with canoes. I could see the engine through a break in the trees, and I drove past the "Authorized Vehicles Only" sign, stopping among a small cluster of cars and trucks belonging to 113's volunteers.
The engine simmered on the main line, a feather of steam coming from the dynamo, her safety valve about to lift, and a happy visitor pulling on the whistle cord. I knew almost everyone on and around the engine: the dedicated and indefatigable people who keep 113 up and running. Bob Kimmel, the project's leader, stood next to the drivers, talking with 30-year-veteran Reading & Northern engineer Christopher Bost (a railroad employee has to run the engine when out on the road); Krista Hertz, Bob's sister and the one responsible for merchandise sales (and so much more), had taken a break from the t-shirt table and sat on the tender footboard; high-school student Chris Hohman had the oil can in use around the running gear, assisted by Brian Wowak; another high-schooler, Evan Getsky, sat in the coal pile. In the cab, John Oross and Mike Fenstermaker kept watch on the fire and the water level, assisted by Mike's son, Shaine. Tyler Fenderson, Jim Garraway, and Bernie Perch had also come along; and Bob's and Kris's mother joined the group this day, as she has for decades: Her husband, Bob Sr., volunteered on the Wanamakers, Kempton & Southern starting in the 1960s, and Bob Jr. got his first cab experience there at age 3 or 4.
Bob Kimmel Jr. and his engine:
Bob with Chris Bost:
Chris Hohman and Brian Wowak at work:
Chris Hohman had brought along the genuine C.N.J. lantern he recently bought; later in the day, he would light it and pose for some night pictures.
As the crew prepared to depart, I asked Chris Bost if I could ride along, to try to get pictures of the fireman at work; Chris referred me to Bob, who referred me back to Chris. They agreed they had no problem with an additional passenger, as long as I didn't mind riding the tender -- too crowded in the cab. This worked for me: Without a super-wide lens -- 12mm or perhaps even wider -- I could never capture what I wanted from in the cab or gangway. So I climbed up the ladder on the back of the tender and staked out a spot at the front of the coal pile.
Before we left, Krista came up into the cab again; Ed Kaspriske had gotten a good photo of her sitting in the engineer's seat earlier in the day.
Now I got pictures of her as she blew the whistle -- for the very first time, amazingly enough -- two longs, a short, and a long. Plainly, blowing a whistle makes everyone who does it happy.
Mike Fenstermaker would shovel coal all of the way north, mostly upgrade, and he had his fire nice and hot before Chris whistled off. It had taken the crew quite a while to learn how to fire the engine, starting back in 2013 with pure anthracite and a light bed; that had not worked well -- the engine just would not make steam -- but a mix of anthracite and bituminous, and a thicker bed, has done the trick. If you look carefully at the photo here, made just up the line as we passed stored tankcars, you can see the pressure gauge at 180 psi, close to lifting the safeties.
We left Schuykill Haven in style: First, Chris backed the engine from Island Park through the Main Street crossing, stopping in front of the station, now Reading & Northern's passenger offices. Then he put the reverser down in the front corner, gave two short blasts of the whistle, and opened the throttle. 113 does not accelerate like a racecar, but she does get up and go, and by the time we passed the Park again she made an impressive enough sight to those on the ground.
Most of the people who work on the engine also photograph her, at least occasionally, and as we headed north, John Oross had his phone in his hand, leaning out of the left gangway and capturing the sight of the smoke rocketing skyward with the setting sun behind it; just south of CP Mine, it looked like this from my perch in the tender:
Visible on the right in the photo above, the visiting hooter whistle; I do not remember whom it belongs to. We did not hear it much during the day -- the C.N.J.-style whistle (on the left, under the curve of the dynamo's steam) sounds so lovely, why use anything else? We did hear the hooter to a considerable extent later, as you shall read.
Railroad employees and fans often make a fuss over their "gear" these days; much discussion centers around hats. Chris Bost has a clear favorite, the blue-and-white-polka-dotted Kromer. Here he passes more stored oil cans approaching West Cressona:
My companions in the coal pile included Evan Getsky, who sat on the lefthand side and had something of the look of a golden retriever hanging out of a moving car, and Chris Hohman, taking photos as well:
His smile says it all about the joy the volunteers get from having their engine out on the line.
Also on the tender, Jim Garraway made himself comfortable on the water hatch, and Tyler Fenderson sat on the top of the tank leaning on the back coalboard. All of us enjoyed the coal-scented breeze as we waved at the fans we passed --
-- and took in the scenery: Even as the light grew dim, the intense emerald greens of the trees, ferns, and other wetland plants stood out. The track crosses and recrosses the West Branch of the Schuylkill in the woods between Cressona and Minersville, and a few hundred yards from the highway the country feels quite wild. After sitting quiet and pensive for a while, Jim said "This is my favorite part of Schuylkill County." As we rolled northwards under a rolling cloud of locomotive exhaust, I could understand why he feels that way.
Meanwhile in the cab, Mike had kept steam up; the safety valves lifted at least twice on the grade below Mar-Lin. As it got darker and darker after sunset, the camera could only see the light coming from the fire when Mike opened the clamshell doors; the camera had some trouble focusing, and it did not help that I had to shoot wide open, f4 at ISO 4000, the shutter at 1/500th of a second to try to stop the action on a bouncing 0-6-0 with the tender and cab usually going in at least two different directions. A couple of the exposures worked:
We rolled into Minersville, passing the station and the small crowd of well-wishers there who waved at us. Project 113's C.N.J. business car had spent the day on the siding north of the Sunbury Street crossing, and we had to fetch it and bring it back to the station siding (formerly the start of the Wolf Creek branch) where the car and 113 live. John unloaded from the engine and threw the switch, guided Chris to the coupling, and protected the back-up move.
With 113 back home, the crew set to work battening her down; it would take hours for the pressure to drop: Once that anthracite starts burning it takes a long time for it to cool. But the marker lights got taken down, the coal pile in the tender tarped, and a myriad other tasks done. Chris Hohman lit his lantern, and we tried a few pictures. Jim, working on the markers, snuck into the first one, and a few shadowy figures appear in the next, a one-second exposure.
In his coveralls and coating of grime, Chris Hohman makes a realistic brakeman:
On his way home to Hamburg, Chris Bost gave me a lift back to my car, which still had all four of its wheels (rumors of Skook's dangers notwithstanding), and I drove back to Minersville in the dark. If you would like to see more from this day, Tyler Fenderson's video has the southbound run, and Brian Wowak's video captures much of the south- and northbound trips; at the very end, about 11:13, a photographer sitting in a coal pile waves. Brian also captured the hooter whistle when Bob blew it with the engine sitting at the station; for reasons still unknown, the lever stuck open, and for a minute and a half the whistle blasted -- and I do mean blasted: Where we stood on the station platform, the soles of our feet vibrated, and thank goodness for industrial-strength ear protection, or Mike Fenstermaker would have gone stone deaf as he closed the steam valve to bring blessed silence. Some love the hooters, other less so (consider me among the latter), but one thing for certain: You'll know when an engine bearing one heads your way.
It took until after 11 o'clock for the steam pressure to fall below 150 pounds; Mike had put the last fresh coal on the fire three hours earlier, but sitting still, even with the dynamo and air pump going, 113 doesn't use much steam, compared to the enormous boiler, and with her new lagging and jacketing she certainly loses a lot less heat than she used to. Most of the crew left to get clean and go to bed; John, Mike, Bob, and I stayed behind, telling stories and enjoying the experience of steam at night: a dimly-lit cab surrounded by darkness, the generator singing and the air pump periodically thumping, and the rest of the world, well, worlds away. At long last the stack got capped, the turret valves shut, the air tanks drained, and we went our ways, grateful for the company we get to keep and for the reason we gather, 168 tons of 93-year-old locomotive