Closeup/Adventure

Once more with feeling

All aboard for steam’s last great run

William Marsano May 29 1978
Closeup/Adventure

Once more with feeling

All aboard for steam’s last great run

William Marsano May 29 1978

Once more with feeling

Closeup/Adventure

All aboard for steam’s last great run

William Marsano

Engine 2860 is resting now in a shop in Vancouver, surrounded by hostlers and artificers, being prepared for the summer’s work ahead: hauling excursion trains on a six-hour run to Squamish and back. Six hours! This engine is one of the last of the steam giants: she weighs 182 tons stark naked and can go twice as fast as the rails allow; six-hour runs can’t even warm her up, and are, in fact, a humiliation. Like the caging of Kong, they reduce greatness to mere show. But in April it was different, in April it was grand: 16 cities in 38 days, two nations and 7,500 miles. A daydream come true, which words can hardly touch: but it was, a little bit, like this.

There ought to have been a sign saying

0 “This way to the Dinosaur.” There wasn’t a sign, but there was a dinosaur indeed: a

1 steam engine, a certified mammoth of the 1 Machine Age, with a firebox full of flamg ing oil and a belly full of live steam.

> This train was a tourist lure out of Van£ couver pulled by magic out of history. It g was a long string of Pullmans and exhibit £ cars that had left B.C. at the end of March I and hammered across the country to begin

a tour celebrating the Captain Cook Bicentennial. handing out souvenir buttons and booklets, doing anything else that might scare up tourist trade for the province of paradise.

Free entertainment is appealing enough at a time when a night at the movies has become a significant financial drain, but the main drawing card was Engine 2860 herself. In this effetely dieseled age, she is drama, dreams and romance on rails.

A steam locomotive is a rare sight today, and 2860 is among the rarest and greatest of all: the 4-6-4’s, the lordly Hudsons. The Hudsons were tall and lovely brutes, mainstays of the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited—the legendary express they hauled from New York to Chicago in 16 hours reaching speeds well over 100 miles an hour. Efficient and powerful, incomparably grand and thrilling to look upon, the Hudson would have been the steam engine of the ’60s and even the ’70s had not North America switched to diesel with unseemly haste.

Distinction piled upon wonder: even among Hudsons, 2860 was an engine apart. In 1939, sister 2850 had hauled George VI

and Queen Elizabeth across the country. She ran from Quebec to Vancouver without a breakdown, and won for herself and her magnificent sisters a magnificent name: Royal Hudson.

She is special because of that, but also because everything about steam motive power is special, including the language. Steam locomotives were not merely built, they were erected—like monuments. When 2860, of the H-l-e class, was outshopped from the erecting hall in Montreal in June of 1940, she went to work for CPR hauling transcontinental passenger trains. In only a few years, diesels sent all her sisters to the scrapyards. The cutting torch awaited 2860, too, but she was rescued and rebuilt by crease-faced oldtimers and steamthralled young amateurs who worked for love. And she was taken over by the British Columbia Railway—an arm of the provincial tourist body—which put her to work on the tourist run to Squamish in 1974. No one thought, then, that one day she would

stride across the country again, making ears prick up with the hiss of steam and the long moan of her whistle.

At one point, an alert father spotted the whistle’s steam jet from 100 yards away; stopping his son in the middle of an eightlane roadway, he said urgently, “Listenlisten now! You may never hear that sound again!” The pessimism was unjustified. Half an hour later the same man hoisted his son into 2860’s roomy cab and watched him drink in the heat of the firebox and the gleam of brass gauges. “How do they blow that whistle. Dad?” the boy asked. Engineer Mike Geluch, one of three veteran hoggers on the tour, swept the boy up, closed his small hand on the whistle cord, and said “Pull.” The boy gave a tentative tug; the whistle replied with a muffled woo. “Is that the best you can do?” Geluch asked. The boy yanked down hard and the whistle cried in earnest, its long cold moan rolling out over the tracks, haunting the downtown warehouses, raising neck hairs with its winy blend of dreams and sorrow.

In London, Ontario, the town turned out for two days—much better than the response in blasé Toronto. Smaller cities in general saw the train as a bigger event: they are closer to the days when the railroad was the spine of the local economy and the chief link with the rest of the country. If small towns had their say, the country would be alive with steam while big cities fret over where to put the latest deafening jetport.

“Some of the people here have followed us from Toronto.” said Barbara Herringer. PR in residence. “Some from Ottawa followed us all the way to Quebec City. They really love the train. We can’t stop at every station, and it’s too bad, too—so we slow down, ring the O Canada whistle, and throw buttons to people on the platform.”

“You’ll see the real fans later on,” a tour worker said. “They’ll be lined up at the stations we pass tonight, sitting in their cars with the headlights on, just to watch us pass by.”

Although the London visit officially ended at 7 p.m.. the crowd didn’t leave. It lingered on the platform in the fading

light, gazing dreamily at the polished steel of the engine; wondering at the elegant mass of drive wheels six feet, three inches tall; listening to the hisses and the rhythmic heartbeat of the air pump. As at every stop so far, oldtime railroad men kept trickling in. clambering up to swap memories and lies. And a few small boys’ sneaked in to ask their last questions and share in the folklore.

. . they clocked this one once at 127 miles an hour.”

“I’d like to get you in that spiral tunnel up in the Rockies, boy.”

“Yeah, we had a diesel man in the cab on that trip once. He was all dressed in whites.”

“Boy. wasn’t he pretty, too.”

“He sure was, but when we come out of the tunnel, he looked like he’d been dragged through a stovepipe.”

“I’ve got a son 19 years old. and he asks me, ‘Dad, what's a steam engine?' I try to tell him. and he thinks I'm lying.”

“Either that or he wonders how old you really are.”

“. . . but with a steam engine, it takes a human being to run it. It’s alive, a steam engine, it really is.”

Alive. There were a lot of oldtimers in the cab that night, and they all said the same thing: alive.

Departure time: engineer Ralph Lazzarotto, another veteran who helped run the engine and “teach steam” to the sub-engineers and apprentices, rang out O Canada in farewell, and people in the crowd threw their arms around each other and sang along. The fireman opened the blowdown valve to clear the boiler of accumulated gunk; the crowd was lost in a cloud of steam, but it didn't budge. Sub-engineer Ron Anderson vented the steam chests and cylinders: up forward, a gush of water and oil-perfumed steam billowed out in a great sweet wreath. Still no one left.

Live steam ran into the lines, making its peculiar singing sound (“You operate these things by ear,” one of the men said): the cylinders drank it in. forcing pistons against drive rods, rods against crankpins, crankpins against drivers, smooth as silk. No bangs, no jolts, no lurches, no slams: just 57.000 pounds of tractive effort delivered at the drawbar and a train some 19 cars long eased out with reptilian grace. It was 9 p.m.: dead on time.

In the cars at the rear of the train, the staff relaxed over disco music, a playoff game on TV and sips of wine as they settled

into the sway of the cars. The countryside whistled by at 60, and 65, and maybe more. (“We were really gumbootin’ her last night,” a machinist grinned the next day.)

At the stations en route, the “real” fans were waiting, huddled in their cars for a parting glimpse of 182 tons of rolling thunder. At the grade crossings the gates went down as usual, backing up long strings of homebound cars—all strictly routine. But then came this nightmare spectre in all its brimstone drama, slamming past the station like yesterday’s ghost, whistle crying at the moon, the gunfire sound of her stackblast filling the night and taking little towns apart, big as a mountain, black as a cat. Imagine those placid motorists fidgeting in their seats, wearily waiting for some routinely boring freight to trundle drably through: impossible for them not to snap bolt upright in amazement and in awe: Sweet Jesus—what was thatl

Next stop, Windsor. Sunday had the city in bed or in church, but by noon the crowd began to swell, full of boys wide-eyed with astonishment, men wet-eyed with emotions they couldn’t easily explain, and mothers trying desperately to keep their children clean. Impossible: the kids

climbed all over that engine, posing and showing off and having their pictures taken for memory books. In the cab, they yanked on the bell cord until their arms hurt. “We get some complaints now and then,” engineer Syd Claridge said, “and we have to shut the whistle off. But if it was up to me. I’d let ’em blow that whistle all day long. The kids ought to have a chance to feel what it was like.”

Outside, machinists, firemen and engineers explained everything for the 100th time; the dedicated rail fans took their close looks and their pictures, then hung back on the fringes, their faces frozen with longing, as if afraid to leave. In their heads they heard the pound of pistons and the lilt of sad melodies; they daydreamed of earlier times and steel rails to the sunrise, thought back to days when railroads had names like songs (Atchison. Topeka & Santa Fe, Rogue River Valley), banks (New York Central, Grand Trunk) and fantasies of grandeur (a line in India called His Highness the Nizam’s Guaranteed State Railway comes to mind).

By the time they returned home at the end of the first week in May, the train crew, nine stewardesses, two red-tunicked Mounties, kilted piper, Captain Cook impersonator and sundry others were wrungout tired, grateful to see real beds again, and a flyspeck in railroad history: part of a 7,500-mile round trip, said to be the longest made by a single train.

Behind them they left posters, buttons and souvenirs; memories and dreams; tales to tell grandchildren of the day the great train chuffed through: a sad-bright taste of the little long ago, when North American railroading was a nation unto itself, and rolling thunder was its emperor -