Taking the Hostling Tour at Strasburg

12 August 2016

With apologies to William Shakespeare:


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
What good will such a likening bring?
To your eyes, outshining the sun, the darling buds of May,
while a well-proportioned steam locomotive makes my heart sing.

Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly blowing down the boiler on #90

Also, I would not compare anyone (well, hardly anyone) to the sort of day we had that August Friday: Although the temperature only reached 95 degrees in Lancaster County, the humidity must have exceeded that; I cannot remember a more uncomfortable day.  However, I had it easy, photographing steam locomotives and not having to service and fire them.

 

On an earlier visit to the Strasburg Rail Road, I had met Steve Barrall, their stationmaster, and we kept in touch.  In the spring of 2016, he invited me to come down to document the Hostling Tour that the railroad now offers on most Friday mornings: For $30, guests "[s]ee first-hand how our steam locomotives are prepared for the day’s travels to Paradise, PA and back to the historic East Strasburg Station," according to the railroad's Web site.  "We railroaders call it hostling the engine.  Your small group (of no more than 10) will see the locomotive anatomy and hear some history, fun facts and intriguing trivia.  It’s also the only time you can climb aboard the engine and get a very up-close look at the mechanicals or peer inside the firebox.  You’ll see the iron horse come alive and chug out of the enginehouse on her way to a day’s work at the Strasburg Rail Road."  When I knew I had a free Friday that summer, I e-mailed Steve, put the appointment in the calendar, and eagerly awaited the date.

 

I had just acquired a new lens for my camera, a Tamron 15-30mm zoom that came highly recommended by my good friend Glenn Brogan; I bought it with making photos in locomotive cabs in mind, but I wanted to test its versatility, and it stayed on the camera for the entire day.

 

Leaving home at an ungodly hour, in complete darkness, I made it to East Strasburg well before 7:30, and I walked around the yard for a while in the quiet.  The railroad would shortly break ground for a significant addition to the backshop; equipment had moved around and the "backyard" looked quite organized compared to recent years, when locomotive and turntable parts casually lay everywhere.  With the backshop doors open -- no air conditioning in there -- I could see a couple of people at work, including an unidentifiable mask-wearer wielding an arc welder atop a small boiler.  Towards 8 o'clock a father and two sons waited by the enginehouse door, and then a few more of us joined them.  Our guide, Anthony DeBellis, ushered us into the crew room, collected our tickets and release forms, gave a brief safety lecture, then led us into the enginehouse proper.  On the near track, Thomas the Tank Engine® faced the west doors, with four-wheel gasoline-powered switcher #2 behind her (him?), and ex-Norfolk & Western #475 behind that, smokebox door open.  On the far track, tenderless 2-6-0 #89 awaited attention, partway through her 1472-day inspection, with simmering 2-10-0 #90 behind; #90 would power this day's eight trains (hourly from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus 7 p.m.).

Anthony explained the workings of the locomotive --

Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour with Anthony DeBellis, in the enginehouse

-- and what we would see the engineer attending to, including lubricating the running gear.

Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour with Anthony DeBellis, in the enginehouse

Darin Esterly, the hostler and the day's engineer, had already started his ministrations before we appeared in his "office", although not long before: In twenty minutes in the intense tropical heat he had already sweated through his shirt:

Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly hostling #90 in the enginehouse
Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly hostling #90 in the enginehouse
Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly hostling #90 in the enginehouse

Anthony took half of our group at a time into the cab, where he explained the controls and gave everyone a look at the fire.

Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour with Anthony DeBellis in the cab
Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour with Anthony DeBellis in the cab
Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour with Anthony DeBellis in the cab, showing the firebox

At the right in the third photo above, Richard Hertzler of the LNP Media Group (Lancaster's newspaper and associated on-line outlet) videotaped the proceedings in anticipation of a feature story; he also made photographs, including this one of me with the group:

Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour in the enginehouse

While Darin got 90 hot, mechanic Dave Lotfi worked on 475, preparing to light a fire in her for the weekend's two-train operation.  Before the diesel pulled her outdoors (keeping the enginehouse less smoky during fire-up), Dave closed the smokebox door.

Strasburg Rail Road mechanic Dave Lotfi and #475 in enginehouse

With pressure raised and air pumped up, Darin backed 90 outside, cylinder cocks open, Rick and me capturing the spectacle -- it never gets old.

Strasburg Rail Road #90 leaving the enginehouse
Strasburg Rail Road #90 leaving the enginehouse with LNP Online photographer Richard Hertzler

After filling the tender with coal --

Strasburg Rail Road hostling tour watching #90's tender getting filled with coal

-- Darin backed the engine farther out the ready track and lubricated places he could not reach when still inside (with the siderods now in a different position), then worked on his fire and checked the sandbox.

Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly shoveling coal into #90
Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly checking #90's sandbox

Best of all, he got to wash the engine, which meant plenty of relatively cool water splashing back on him.

Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly washing #90
Strasburg Rail Road engineer Darin Esterly washing #90

By now the day's fireman had joined him, Earl Knoob -- a well-known personage in steam railroading (Cumbres & Toltec, Texas State Railroad, Cass Scenic) and in 2016 a Strasburg engineman.  Earl dresses to impress, even when cleaning an ashpan --

Strasburg Rail Road fireman Earl Knoob cleaning #90's ashpan
Strasburg Rail Road fireman Earl Knoob cleaning #90's ashpan
Strasburg Rail Road fireman Earl Knoob cleaning #90's ashpan
Strasburg Rail Road fireman Earl Knoob talking to the hosting tour group

-- and of course he knows how to talk to the guests.

​Only one task remained before Darin and Earl would take the engine for her morning constitutional up to Paradise Lane and back: blowing down the boiler.  Darin backed #90 to the spot while Earl watched.

Strasburg Rail Road engineer Earl Knoob with #90 on the blowdown track

Then Darin came out on the running board and pulled the handle.  Blowing down always looks great on a cold day, with clouds of condensed steam wreathing the locomotive, but this hot summer day surprised me: With the stifling humidity, the condensate hung in the air almost like it would in the winter, and combined with the backlighting it made for unexpectedly dramatic photos.

Strasburg Railroad engineer Darin Esterly blowing down #90
Strasburg Railroad engineer Darin Esterly blowing down #90

​After the crew took 90 out onto the main, the tour ended.  We all thanked Anthony and went our ways -- the newspaper photographer to another assignment, Anthony to work in the freight yard, most of the rest of the group to ride the 11 a.m. train.  I had a day of photography ahead -- one preview here:

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