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Winter Steam on the Strasburg

Hostling tour and out on the line, 24 February 2018

In this day and age, seeing steam locomotives operate in the snow has become a rarity in the northeastern U.S.: So few steam locomotives run at all anymore, and almost all of them sit cold for so much of the year, only performing when their keepers can rely on streams of tourists to buy tickets and pay the bills.  And we sure don't get snow like we used to, or at least it sure doesn't feel like it.  Here in Bloomsburg, the National Weather Service says, we have averaged 36 inches a year since 1980 (down four inches since 1895), but except for one two-foot storm last March, we haven't approached anything like that recently.  Down in Lancaster County, the recent average barely tops 18 inches annually -- so I consider myself lucky to have seen the Strasburg Rail Road bring out their 1902-built Russell snow plow a few times, most recently in February of 2016.  But at least we can count on the Strasburg to run steam at all in February: For many years, they have fired up an engine and run three trains each of the three days of Presidents Weekend, and I have tried to make a pilgrimage there most years since 2010, the first in which I had a digital camera to record the action.


The winter of 2017-18 has certainly not brought us a lot of snow; we have had some cold stretches, and I have not enjoyed paying my gas bill.  When Presidents Weekend rolled around, though, temperatures hovered in the 30s and even 40s, and the fans who rode the "Long John Limited" at Strasburg that Saturday (in the open car) did not have to bundle up much.  I missed that, and the snow that fell that afternoon and evening, since I had to stay in Bloomsburg overseeing the Blues festival that my organization produces (; the snow did not even last on the ground into Monday, and by then I did not have the energy to drive to Strasburg and back, having worked a 40-hour week in the previous three days.  Not complaining, just saying -- and at the Festival I got to act as the unofficial official photographer, and I had a new 100-400mm lens to try out, which I used on some of the musicians at our main event on Saturday night, including Bobby Kyle, Carla Stinson, Vanessa Collier, and Victor Wainwright:

Bobby Kyle, Destination Blues
Carla Denise Stinson, Mississippi Heat, Destination Blues
Vanessa Collier, Destination Blues
Victor Wainwright, Destination Blues

Victor calls his current band "The Train", quite apt for their energy and driving rhythm.


For the first time in many years, Strasburg's management decided that they would commence their 2018 regular operating season with Presidents Weekend, instead of closing down again until early March, so perhaps I would still have a chance to see them run steam in the snow.  And on Saturday the 24th of February, they would run four trains: the usual three, at 11 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m., and a charter at 3 p.m. -- not a photo freight, just the regular passenger consist, but still another opportunity.  My friend Ross Gochenaur, who has worked at the railroad for twenty years, would come in to hostle the steam locomotive in the morning and serve as fireman; he had bid in on the day since his church group had chartered that 3 p.m. trip and he wanted to convey his friends to Paradise and back rather than ride the cushions with them.


I got up at 4:45 on that Saturday morning, ate my usual O's, made my usual peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (actually with mulberry jam, which Ross and his children made last year), put the ladder in the car, and headed off into the darkness by 5:22.  Much of the way, on Route 42 through Centralia and down to I-81 near Minersville, and then on 81, I drove through dense fog, here and there so thick that I had to drop my speed into the 40s (roughly the same as the temperature).  At Pine Grove I left the Interstate and crossed over to Pa. 501, by which time it had started to get light, the high clouds showing signs of breaking up.   South of Pine Grove, 501 turns easterly and climbs up and over Blue Mountain, crossing the Appalachian Trail at the top.  I had left the fog behind halfway up, and as the road dropped precipitously down the south flank of the ridge, through the trees here and there I could see the valley below, with the fog lying in thick patches like hastily-spread cream cheese.  I almost stopped to see if I could photograph it, but the lack of a pull-off, and the density of the trees, and the desire to get to the railroad all kept me moving.


After miles stuck behind a truck (from Bethel all the way to Lititz), with nothing good on the radio (the CD player in the Focus died some time ago), my impatience did not abate, and I will confess to ignoring the speed limit entirely once I got onto Route 30 eastbound at the north edge of Lancaster.  No one else paid it any mind either -- and what a lot of traffic at 7:15 on a Saturday morning!  As I have said for years, Lancaster County has gotten loved almost unto death, with more houses and strip malls every year; why, the borough of Strasburg's tiny downtown even has a bypass around it now.  At just about exactly 7:30 I pulled into the employee parking lot at the railroad; Ross's Subaru already sat there, and Ross stood by the backshop, lunchbox and coffee thermos in hand, talking with one of the shopmen.  Ross had plenty of time before he had to go on the clock, and his engine for the day, #89, would take less work to get ready than the other Strasburg engines (partially because, as a 2-6-0, she has fewer wheels, rods, axles, and bearings to attend to, compared to the 2-10-0 and 4-8-0 she shares the enginehouse with), so he took me on a tour of the backshop and its recent 12,000-square-foot addition -- already packed almost solid with machine tools, locomotive wheels, coach wheels, boiler parts, crank pins, the upside-down frame of a two-foot-gauge locomotive, and the Francis L. Suter, a former Pennsy Pullman-built office car that now lives at the Strasburg but travels off-line regularly (and whose owner had a list of work he wanted done to it).  At the end of the building where we came in, the shopman had gone to work on the driving wheels of a narrow-gauge engine from an amusement park, but in the new shop nothing stirred except the blinking lights on a couple of the computer-controlled milling machines, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.


Over in the crew room, Ross signed in, and we walked through the door into the enginehouse.  #90 sat on the near track, in the middle of her annual inspection, with various pieces of jacketing off; she faced the back end of #475, out of service for her 1472-day inspection, while on the next track Thomas the Tank Engine® faced the back end of 475's tender, and facing Thomas's back end, #89.  Sswathed in Tyvek, manning a pressure-washer, Anthony DeBellis slowly worked his way through the enginehouse, cleaning the accumulated crud off the concrete floor.  He and Ross had a brief conversation before each went on with his day.

Ross and I climbed up in 89's cab and he checked the fire; a huge mountain of smoldering coal seemed to fill the entire firebox, the remains of the bank that yesterday's hostler had shoveled in when he got the engine hot -- and she still had 100 pounds of steam on the gauge, practically ready to go to work (the safety valves lift at 170).  Ross sat in the engineer's seat, contemplating the next tasks.  "Don't move," I said.  And he happily posed -- at first naturally, and then he said "How about wicked arty?" and gazed pensively into the distance.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

​Ross went back to work, starting to break up the bank and add fresh coal; doing some running-gear lubrication; climbing up on the tender to add water treatment; starting the air compressor.  The engine had so much steam pressure already that only a few minutes after beginning his ministrations, Ross could back the engine out of the house and over to the coaling stage.  He flipped the lever to activate the bell, and nothing happened.  It took a yank on the rope to get the bell moving; once in motion, the air-powered piston kept it swinging.

A home away from home for the crew, every coal-fired steam locomotive's cab has a broom.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

All of the hostlers have to have proficiency with the front-end loader, but one cannot expect perfect aim with every scoop.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

With the coal bunker filled, Ross backed the engine to the ash pit; someone had moved his "spot", the marker that he uses to gauge exactly where to stop, and with one hand on the brake handle behind him he leaned way to find it.

In the winter, crews have to put the ashpit's hose nozzles away in the backshop to protect them from freezing, so Ross fetched them and hooked them to the hoses and turned on the water.  One of the fittings did not want to hold pressure, and I had to jump out of the way to avoid the sudden spray; Ross got wet.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

With the nozzle aimed into the ashpan, Ross climbed back in to the cab and shook the grates, dropping the ashes from the overnight bank, which still took some raking to break up and spread out.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

With this work done -- and still only a half-hour since he had first climbed into the cab -- Ross backed the engine to the water spout to top off the tank.  He unlocked the supply-valve handle, swung the spout over the tender, climbed up to the tender deck, and opened the valve on the spout.  Water poured out, then slowed to a trickle, then stopped.  Ross climbed down, swung the spout away from the tender -- and water poured out.  So he swung the spout back over the tender, climbed back up --

-- and of course the water stopped flowing again.  "Can you shut the valve?" he asked me, and I did.  From atop the tender Ross spied one of his colleagues, someone who knows the ins and outs of the plumbing system throughout the yard.  Ross hailed him and explained the problem; the water expert disappeared into the pump house, and a minute later water once again flowed out of the spout -- occasionally changing in color rather than quantity, cycling through a couple of shades of brown.  But the tank got filled, all the way to the brim, and Ross climbed down again.


One more task remained before leaving the enginehouse lead: blowing down the boiler.  Ross backed 89 over the steel plates that lie between the rails and protect the crossties from the blast.  Then he climbed out on the running board and pulled the handle, enveloping the engine and himself in a ground-level cumulus cloud.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

Blowing down clears the bottom of the boiler of accumulated particles -- minerals and other impurities -- that can otherwise adhere to the metal surfaces and reduce heat transfer (and also scour the throttle valve, delivery pipes, and cylinders), but it also stirs them up, so Strasburg hostlers do three 10-second blasts with a minute in between, time that Ross used to work on his fire.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

With the last blowdown done, he ​set the blue flag on the track ahead of 89, protecting the enginehouse from unauthorized movements, then backed the engine out onto the main line.  As the only crew member yet around, he had to climb down and throw the switch so when he came back from the engine's morning constitutional he would have it already lined for the main towards the station.  He backed 89 up the hill to the yard limit sign, just before the Paradise Lane crossing at the Red Caboose Motel, then brought her back down into the yard, past the line of photo-freight cars on the siding across from the backshop, bringing her to a stop just past the crossing at the enginehouse, where the engines always sit until the time comes to pick up their trains.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

Now he did the last of the necessary lubrication, adding oil to the driving boxes on each axle and filling the sandbox; on this rainy day, with a seven-car train, it would pay to have the box full, although Ross pointed out that with just a few round-trips (unlike in the summertime or at Christmas, when trains run half-hourly all day long) the rails would likely remain just a little rusty, making the engine less prone to slipping.

Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road
Ross Gochenaur, Strasburg Rail Road

​​The clock now showed a few minutes past ten, and the pressure gauge in the cab showed close to 170 pounds per square inch; in a little over a hour and a half, Ross had woken his engine up and gotten her ready for the day, a day that would see her work 36 miles on the Road to Paradise.


The day's engineer, Dan Potts, arrived, handing his own lunchbox onto the gangway.  For a while he and Ross talked about their respective experiences this past hunting season, and then they had to move the engine to the station to pick up their train.  Conductor Dave Lotfi guided Dan to the very gentle hitch; it had started to rain again: Note the drops splashing off Dave's hood.

Dave Lotfi, Strasburg Rail Road

With my new lens to put through its paces, I headed out on the line to find a good location.  At the Red Caboose I would have to stand in the gauge to have a view looking straight down the track, and that did not seem like a good idea, even at 400mm; Esbenshade Road offered a safe place to look straight down through Groundhog Cut (the track curves just before the crossing), and I would come back there later; but Black Horse Road at Carpenters drew me first.  I watched the 11 a.m. train from the road -- with the engine running tender-first, I did not need to try a photo, but I enjoyed listening to the whistle echo as Dan greeted the "ghost train" across the valley.  Then I pulled the ladder out of the car and set it up by the crossing cabin; I also pulled out the umbrella, since the rain, while lessening, had not quit entirely.  After a couple of minutes of looking through the lens and playing with the zoom, I climbed up the hill to the ancient cemetery, just to see if anything caught my eye.  One thing certainly did: a couple of apples, left on the plinth under one of the tombstones; an offering?  Then in the still air -- the rain had stopped -- I heard the engine working up the grade coming out of Leaman Place.  I slid down the bank to track level, knocked some mud out of my boots, and climbed up the ladder.


Here she came, under an impressive plume, headlight brightening the wet rails, Ross leaning out of the gangway to listen to her work:

Strasburg Rail Road #89 approaching Carpenters

After tossing the ladder in the car, I made haste to beat the train to East Strasburg, where I parked behind the backshop and crossed the main track near the enginehouse lead switch; the coming photos didn't have much pizzazz, but the going-away of Dan leaning out of the cab has some character.

Dann Potts, Strasburg Rail Road engineer

It began to rain again before the noon train's departure, and I went out into the field northwest of the Carpenters crossing to try a photo looking across Black Horse Road to the grade just west of the railroad's only bridge.  I did not manage to capture any of the falling rain in the images, just a lot of murk, so I will not reproduce them here; even in the back of the camera, the location did not seem at all promising for the return trip, so I went to Esbenshade Road, to try the long view down through the cut.  I set the ladder up in the field on the west side of the road, having to move it twice before I found the right alignment.  The rain had stopped, so I left the umbrella in the car.  Next time, I will try a higher f-stop, to see how the lens handles the bright headlight, but I like the softness in the depth of field in these images.

Strasburg Rail Road #89 approaching Groundhog Cut
Strasburg Rail Road #89 approaching Groundhog Cut

Back at the station, I talked with a young man visiting relatives who live nearby; he had come from his home near London, England, with his wife and son, a boy of two or three -- and a boy after my own heart, plainly in love with trains.  The father does not know much -- yet -- about them, but he seemed eager to learn, and we talked about some of the mechanical details of the engine while she sat and hissed and panted while pumping up the train.  Among the more arresting details right then, the overfire orifices that admit air into the firebox, for the purpose of helping to consume smoke; they may or may not work as advertised, but the firelight coming out of them sure looked neat in the clouds of steam that wreathed the running gear.

Strasburg Rail Road #89 at East Strasburg

As the 1 p.m. train pulled out, I photographed two of the brakemen as they passed me, the hind-end man, Alex Merrill, riding the rear steps of the "Reading", the Philadelphia & Reading president's car (available to any passenger to ride for an $8.50 extra fare).

Strasburg Rail Road brakeman
Alex Merrill, Strasburg Rail Road brakeman

I had a spot in mind to photograph the train where a backwards-facing engine would not bother me, from South Belmont Road, more than half a mile from the track on Long Curve.  Ross and I had photographed from the backyard of the Amish garden center near here last August, but the view there does not include the farm that sits between the road and Eshelman Run; a thousand feet down the road, and right from the edge of the road, the farm sits front and center -- well, in the middle-distance, and not necessarily in the center.  The distant silos mark the location of the farm that I visited a couple of years ago where the cow licked me while I waited for the train.  In the second photo, even at full resolution one has to look hard to see the two Amish children rollerskating in front of the house near the center of the image.

Strasburg Rail Road Long Curve, Amish farms
Strasburg Rail Road Long Curve, Amish farms

For the return trip, I moved three-quarters of a mile closer to Strasburg, along Quarry Road.  At the Amish school there, three young children, perhaps eight years old, wore bright yellow reflective vests and picked up trash in the schoolyard; a horse and buggy stood by the front door, and I tried to imagine children that young driving it, but it seems more likely that a parent worked within the school, doing cleanup there.  I parked half on the road and half on the grass and climbed atop the car; the children stared but did not address me.  Now in the left distance, the farm of the curious cow:

Strasburg Rail Road Long Curve, Amish farms
Dave Lotfi, Strasburg Rail Road conductor

Back at East Strasburg, the crew ran around the train; Dave Lotfi seemed happier now that he did not have to stand in the rain.

The crew would have more than an hour to wait before going out again; the charter would leave at 3.  Dan and Ross chatted with the few assembled fans, including the English couple, and a few idle railroad employees.

Dan Potts, Strasburg Rail Road engineer

As time passed, the charter group started arriving, and more and more of them congregated around the engine.  Ross took a few of the men into the cab, to show them his "office"; plainly they had never had the opportunity before, and Ross reveled in his tourguide role with people he knows well in the context of church but with whom he had never gotten to share this part of his life.  I took my leave well before train time, wanting to make sure I would have time to walk in to my last spot of the day; for this one I would leave the long lens in the car, since the location only a quarter-mile from the track relies on the stream in the immediate foreground for its visual appeal.


Ross had showed me this spot last summer, when we walked in to it from the township park on the north side of Amtrak's ex-Pennsy main line, following Eshelman Run through the stone arch that the Pennsy built to span the stream.  At a time of fairly low water, we still had to navigate a narrow, extremely muddy shelf , walking crabways for at least 100 feet on the 20-inch wide stones, with the rough ashlar of the arch in our faces.  I did not wish to try that again, so I parked at the Leaman Place runaround and walked in past the railroad's picnic area, dropping down to the streambank just upstream of the Pennsy bridge.  The run has cut through six or eight feet of topsoil, leaving almost vertical banks, and I did not know where I would cross, but I aimed for the rapids a thousand feet upstream; I had crossed dry-footed there on my second visit, back in December.  Although I had had snow falling that day​, evidently more precipitation had come down now, because the rapids looked both faster and deeper -- not worth risking.  So I retraced my steps past the picnic grove and then turned east along Amtrak, walking on the ballast of long-gone Track 4.  After crossing the bridge, I found a break in the right-of-way fence and clambered down to another right-of-way, now grassy but perhaps once a spur off the railroad, then down through the brush to the edge of the field that abuts the stream.  I'd heard the train approaching -- the whistles at Cherry Hill, Carpenters, and Beiler's -- and now she passed me, at the bottom of the sag between Long Curve and Leaman Place.  Did anyone on the train notice the duster-clad man ducking under the single-strand fences?  A few hundred feet upstream I found the opening in the trees that gave a view of the track at about where the yard limit sign had stood years ago.  Right below me, the muddy water flowed silently.  Noises of the runaround drifted towards me, but the male red-winged blackbird -- the first I've seen this season -- on a tree beyond the track made a much louder sound.  Another, much larger bird caught my eye as it left a treetop farther yet, and I heard what I took for a red-tailed hawk's cry.  Then another bird left a treetop to my right, along the Amtrak right-of-way, and circled away from me.  Man, that one looked BIG.  Trying to follow its flight path, I saw a giant nest in the trees near where it had flown from; the bird came back towards me, but silhouetted against the solid gray overcast I could not make out any details of its plumage.  It settled onto a branch a few trees over from the nest and did not move again.


Now I could hear 89 moving her train, and I put my concentration back to making pictures.  Over the river and through the woods, with Ross at the throttle, the handsome Mogul drew her train away from Paradise and back home.  Even at this distance, you can't miss the overfire orifices in the straight side-on view.

Strasbur Rail Road #89 leaving Leaman Place

I watched the train until it disappeared around the curve, the smoke plume hanging in the damp air, the sound of the whistle fading.  Retracing my steps through the field and back uphill, I kept my eyes skyward as much as I could, and the bird did not disappoint, taking wing as I approached its tree.  And no mistaking it: bald eagle.  As it wheeled overhead, the white tail feathers spread wide, the broad wings beat the air -- even a couple of hundred feet away, awe-inspiring.  When I climbed through the fence and onto the ballast, the red-wing had taken up a perch atop one of the catenary towers, loudly proclaiming his lordship of all he surveyed; the eagle did not reappear, but I wonder what it made of this tiny impostor.

Strasburg Rail Road #89 at East Strasburg passing backshop

89's crew had already cut her off the train by the time I reached East Strasburg, and I watched them drift through the yard to the enginehouse lead switch.  Dan threw it for the siding, and Ross brought the engine past the backshop.

A few minutes later, turbogenerator stilled and silenced, air pump likewise, 89 sat in the enginehouse, the roll-up door closed behind her.  Ross built a bank in the firebox, topped off the boiler water, and put her to bed.  He had special dispensation to join his church group at supper in his work clothes, and he went off to meet them; I aimed the car homewards in the gathering twilight.

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