The Start-Up Drama of a Steam Locomotives

Penichette docked at a mill on the Mayenne River, 2001
Penichette docked at a mill on the Mayenne River, 2001

Starting is a big deal for a steam locomotive.  Unlike the electric motors in diesel-electric locomotives, which deliver maximum power at start-up, steam locomotives are wimpy at startup and gain power with speed. This is the result of a fixed ratio between the pistons and the wheels: the pistons move too slowly at start-up to use the available steam power (you can’t “down shift”). There are four ways to help the locomotive start: increase the coefficient of friction, decrease the weight being towed, maximize the leverage of the rods that crank the wheels, and temporarily increase the number of driving wheels.

To move a train, the locomotive’s drivers must push back against the rails without slipping. The “coefficient of friction” is the percentage of the weight that can be converted into horizontal force before the wheel slips, about 25% for steel wheels on steel rails. One hundred tons on the driving wheels translates into twenty-five tons of pulling force.

So the first step to beef up the starting force is to increase friction by sanding the rails. For this purpose, steam locomotives carry sand in one or two large domes atop the boiler, kept dry by boiler heat. Tubes from the sand domes, each with a valve, curve around the side of the boiler and then around the perimeter of each driver, terminating just above the rail.

Sand pipe
Sand pipe

The second trick, if you are hauling uncomplaining freight, is to reduce the load you are pulling. This is possible because in American trains  lack the “buffers” used in European trains to keep the couplings taut, allowiwng some slack in the couplings between cars. So you set the brakes at the back of the train, and back down until the couplings are compressed together. Then you take off like a bat out of hell, pulling first one car, then two, gathering more and more cars, until the last car, always the unfortunate caboose, became part of the chain only when the train was already moving at 5 or 10 mph.  Serious injury was the fate of  conductors caught unaware, and broken “drawbars” that connect the coupling to the car were common. The sound of a starting freight train was memorable, as the clank of slack couplings coming together ran like a zipper down the train, a kind of rolling thunder.

With a passenger train this approach can’t be used. It was a matter of pride for the engineer not to “spill the soup” when starting. Instead, you stretch out each coupling so all the cars move at once, with no start-up jerk. You are stuck with the whole load.

The third move is back up a bit until the rods that turn the wheels are at the angle at which they exert the most leverage.

The fourth move was available on a few locomotives, including the SP’s 4-8-4’s. These were equipped with “boosters”, a compact steam engine set between the wheels of the trailing truck, that added the weight on that truck to contribute to the tractive force at low speeds. They added almost 25% tractive force while emitting furious sideways snorts of steam, in detailed counterpoint to the much larger main drivers. It made a glorious show for the enjoyment of a track-side teenager.

So the engineer adjusts the position of the wheels, sands the rails, turns on the booster, applies steam very carefully, and hopes for the best.  A youth at track-side hopes for the worst: the drivers lose their grip, and the locomotive rapidly chuffs and clanks in place, like a trained horse.

The gradually accelerating tempo of the exhaust blasts has been imitated many times in music. Villa-Lobos’ The Little Train of the Caipira is a delightful piece that vividly captures the sound and motion of a train ride (listen and watch the wonderful graphics at ). Prokofiev intentionally or unintentionally captures the essence of a starting locomotive in the second movement of his great 5th Symphony. You can hear it at : the start-up begins at 5:06, but I encourage you to listen to the whole movement – it is a thrilling performance (learn more about this remarkable youth orchestra at the Wikipedia entry for “El Sistema”). Train enthusiast Arthur Honegger’s 1923 composition Pacific 2-3-1  is best heard at I also found a wonderful 10-minute 1949 film that captures the excitement of the steam locomotive, using Honegger’s score. The clearest video on YouTube is at  (it is the better for being without sound).

The Genetics of Steam Locomotives

My experience with and understanding of 20th Century steam locomotives is very limited relative to a locomotive historian, but probably encyclopedic for the average person, especially since no one born after 1960 has seen an operating steam locomotive on a main-line railroad in the U.S. or Canada.

This essay is mostly about wheels, so we need some nomenclature. Per a 2016 Scientific American article, there are three types of wheel: the sort used in a motor vehicle, where each wheel rotates independently on an axle; a wheel set, in which two wheels are rigidly connected to an axle; and a caster, in which the wheel’s axle is offset from a pivoting vertical axis.

Typical railroad car wheel set
Typical railroad car wheel set

Trains run on wheel sets. A frame holding one or more wheel sets and pivoting around a vertical axis is called a “truck” in the U.S. and a “bogie” in the UK. Most railroad cars have two trucks or bogies with two and occasionally three wheel sets each. In Europe, where curves were sharp, cars tended to be shorter than elsewhere, and could be mounted on two wheel sets supported by frames that were rigidly attached to the “wagons”, that is, with no bogies, just a box on four wheels.

Model of a typical British goods wagon
Model of a typical British goods wagon

Locomotives are classified by their wheel arrangement. In Europe, they count the axles, while we count the wheels – so Honneger’s “Pacific 2-3-1” is a 4-6-2 in the U.S. Each wheel arrangement had a name, the Pacific type being perhaps the most common. The numbering system assumes that the locomotive has the usual three or four groups of wheels, and so always has three or four numbers. If any group is missing, the system inserts a zero. For example, you can have a 4-6-2, an 0-6-2, a 4-6-0, an 0-6-0 or a 4-6-6-2.

Pilot Wheels

The front set of wheels supports the front end of the locomotive, and guides it around turns. The rear set supports the rear portion. The center one or two sets are the driving wheels that are powered by the pistons.

The portion of the locomotive’s weight that is carried by the drivers is the result of some complex tradeoffs. The primary tradeoff is between power and steering. “Switch engines” that shunted cars around in freight yards and dock sides had only driving wheels, and often carried their water and fuel without a tender. This maximized its tractive force, but the downside was that it could only operate at very slow speeds. Why is this?

Model of a B&O dockside locomotive
Model of a B&O dockside locomotive

There are two reasons. First, on a turn the heavy locomotive “wants” to continue in a straight line. Without a properly designed front set of wheels (called the “pilot wheels”) the locomotive will lurch around corners and start oscillating from side to side, causing it to derail and damage the tracks. But it doesn’t even need a curve to start oscillating (”hunting”): minor imperfections or simple random motion can set up the oscillations. You need wheels up front that guide the locomotive back to its center position as soon as it tries to rotate sideways, and that help pull the front end to the side when negotiating a curve. Switch engines waddle down the tracks.

By mid-19th Century, the standard locomotive was the ten-wheeler, with six driving wheels, four pilot wheels and no trailing wheels. It struck a good balance of weight between the pilot wheels and the drivers.

Baltimore and Ohio 1907 Ten-Wheeler
Baltimore and Ohio 1907 Ten-Wheeler


The middle number or pair of numbers refers to the driving wheels, or “drivers.” These are the big wheels driven by the pistons that provide the traction to pull a train of cars. They carry as much of the locomotive’s weight as possible, because the pull of a locomotive is about one-fourth the weight on the drivers. The weight on each pair of drivers is in turn limited by the weight-bearing capacity of the rails and roadbed.

You can’t indefinitely add driving wheels, because the locomotive has to negotiate curves, especially at track switches. Three ways were used to extend the wheelbase: make the flanges of the inner wheels a little narrower than the rail gauge; allow the front and rear drivers to move a small amount from side to side (typically held in the center by springs); and/or eliminate the flanges on the middle drivers. The practical limit of the wheelbase is typically about 25 feet. But there were exceptions, like the Union Pacific 9000 class 4-12-2. It worked in the prairies, where the turning radii were large, but not on the mountain routes.

Union Pacific 4-12-2
Union Pacific 4-12-2

To extend the wheelbase, you could use several smaller wheels or fewer larger ones. Locomotives with five or six drivers on each side were made, but they were rare: four on each side became standard in the latter days of steam power, each typically six feet in diameter. The largest locomotives, such as the 4-8-8-2 cab-forward articulateds on the SP the so impressed me as a child, have two complete sets of driving wheels, one of which pivots relative to the other (hence the term “articulated”), thereby doubling the wheelbase.

With more drivers, the weight of the rods connecting the wheels to the piston and to each other limits the maximum speed of the locomotive. That is why the fastest trains used locomotives with only four drivers. The 4-4-2 “Atlantic” locomotives used by the New York, New Haven and Hartford between New York and Boston, was scheduled to reach speeds exceeding 100 mph. It made the trip in about the same time as today’s Amtrak trains. Other locomotives could go this fast, but were not operated at maximum speed.

New York, New Haven and Hartford 4-4-2 "Atlantic" type
New York, New Haven and Hartford 4-4-2 “Atlantic” type

Trailing Wheels

Early locomotives had a narrow firebox that fit between the drivers, so it didn’t need trailing wheels. An older freight locomotive might have four pairs of small drivers and a pair of pilot wheels, creating a 2-8-0 wheel configuration called a Consolidation, like the little engine that hauled my mother and me from Aberdeen to Council Bluffs that stormy night I described in an earlier essay. The Ten-Wheeler (shown earlier) had four pilot wheels and six larger drivers for higher speeds, and like the Consolidation, no trailing wheels.

The power of a steam locomotive also depends on how much heat can be produced in the firebox, which in turn depends on the area of the fire in the firebox. Increasing the area of the firebox made it too wide to fit between the drivers, requiring a trailing truck to carry its weight (see the 4-4-2 Atlantic, above).

Here is another tradeoff, this time between traction and power. The more weight carried by the trailing truck, the less weight on the drivers. The first trailing trucks had two wheels, with four becoming standard in later locomotives. On most locomotives, the firebox was set entirely behind the drivers, but on articulated locomotives, the firebox typically extended over the rear-most drivers – a result of the longer boiler and commensurately larger firebox.

Southern Pacific cab-forward 4-8-8-2
Southern Pacific cab-forward 4-8-8-2

To pull trains over the Sierras, a route with many tunnels and snowsheds, a crew would have to wear gas masks to avoid being asphyxiated by the locomotive’s smoke. This problem was eliminated by turning the locomotive around. The distinctive 4-8-8-2 cab-forward design was possible because they burned oil (which could be piped to the front). The 4-wheeled truck under the firebox now became the pilot truck.

Understanding the basics of wheel classification can tell you a lot about the age, purpose and power of a steam locomotive.

How a Steam Locomotive Works


A typical steam locomotive can be dissected into a few major components: a boiler to produce steam; steam engines to rotate driving wheels; a fuel and water supply; a cab and the engineer and fireman housed therein; all carried by a frame supported by a system of wheels.

Most of the information on the web applies to British locomotives, as steam locomotives are still popular across the pond. However, the basic principles hold true for all steam locomotives.
Here are some URL’s of interest: shows an excellent video animation of a steam locomotive in cross-section; the image below is a still from the video:

steam-locomotive-cross-section is the website for the one-third size Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railroad in Kent; explains the basics quite well;, despite being over the top and rather long, goes into a remarkable amount of detail about Union Pacific steam locomotives in general and the “Big Boy” (one of the world’s largest steam locomotives) in particular. In clips of Big Boys in action, smoke and steam are artificially exaggerated for visual effect.

The Boiler

The purpose of the boiler is to create the pressurized steam that powers the engines. It is a cylindrical tank filled with water, lying on its side. At the back is a firebox in which the fuel is burned, while at the front is a chamber called the smokebox. There spent steam from the engines, still under pressure, mixes with the hot gases from the fire and rushes out the smokestack, creating the draft that keeps the fire burning. The hot gas from the fire passes from the firebox to the smokebox through an array of horizontal “firetubes” immersed in the boiler water. The firebox is also immersed in the boiler water, and together with the firetubes, heat the water to create the steam that powers the engines. The steam is typically at a pressure of 200 to 300 pounds per square inch.

The Engines

A locomotive’s job is to rotate its driving wheels or “drivers” so that the friction with the rails creates a force that moves the locomotive forward or backward.

Unlike a car, in which the wheels rotate independently on their axles, trains run on “wheel sets,” pairs of wheels rigidly connected to their axles. In a steam locomotive, two to six (typically three or four) pairs of drivers are linked together on each side by “connecting rods” so they all rotate as a group. The second or third drivers from the front are also connected to the “main rods” powered by the engines, which move back and forth in a cranking motion, causing the whole array of drivers to rotate together.

On each side of each set of drivers is a steam engine. Its job is to move the main rod back and forth. So a locomotive will always have two engines, one on each side, and will have four if it has two sets of drivers, like the Big Boys. That’s why it is properly called a steam locomotive instead of a steam engine, a distinction lost in common parlance.

The engines are obviously the key element of a locomotive and deserves a detailed look.

Each engine consists of a main cylinder within which a piston is alternatively pushed back and forth by the pressurized steam created in the boiler. The piston does its work by pushing and pulling a “crosshead” that runs on one or more lubricated rails called the “crosshead guide.” The main rod is attached to the crosshead with a rotating bearing.

Above the main cylinder is a smaller cylinder housing a valve that has three functions. First, it controls when steam is sent to the pistons, the job done in an automobile engine by the timing mechanism. Second, it controls the amount of steam in each cycle, analogous to an auto engine’s fuel injection system. Third, it controls whether the locomotive goes backward or forward.


The valve is operated through a complex linkage called the “valve gear”. If the locomotive has a brain, it is the valve gear. The linkage is connected to the main driving wheels, and also to a rod controlled by the engineer that adjusts the position of the gear. The dancing, rocking motion of the valve gear is fascinating to watch and adds a delicate grace to the muscular behavior of a locomotive. Judge any attempt at accurate depiction by how the artist draws the valve gear. This web page has an animated depiction of the valve gear, showing how it reverses:

The steam that drives the pistons is collected in a dome at the top of the boiler, then “superheated” in a series of tubes exposed to the hot gases from the fire. Superheating raises the steam temperature above the boiling point of the water, greatly increasing efficiency. At the typical boiler pressure of 200 psi the boiling point is somewhat above 380 degrees F: superheating can raise the temperature another 300 or 400 degrees. The downside is the expense of maintaining the complex tubing required. Superheating became ubiquitous around 1910.

The efficiency of a late-generation steam locomotive – the amount of the energy content of the fuel converted to useful work – was about 6% to 10%. Diesel-electric locomotives are several times as efficient.

Fuel and Water Supply

Some locomotives burned wood, but most burned coal, and in the west, oil. Whatever the fuel, it was was typically carried in the forward section of a water-filled tender towed behind the locomotive. Slow-moving switching locomotives that need to put all their weight on the driving wheels carried their own water and fuel – Thomas the Tank Engine, for example. In early locomotives, the fireman fed wood or coal into the firebox. As locomotives became larger, automatic feed devices were needed, leaving the fireman to tend the fire and adjust the water supply.

Trackside water tanks and coaling stations were common sights in the landscape:

Typical water tank and coaling station. Hopper cars on an elevated trestle (seen at the back of the photo) emptied coal onto a conveyor belt that moved it to the top of the coal bin.
Typical water tank and coaling station. Hopper cars on an elevated trestle (seen at the back of the photo) emptied coal onto a conveyor belt that moved it to the top of the coal bin.

The Cab, Frame and Wheels

The cab is a weather-protected space in which the engineer and fireman stand or sit. In nearly all locomotives, it was at the rear end of the locomotive, between the tender and the firebox. One exception was the “Camelback” locomotives on the Reading Railroad that had a wide firebox for the slow-burning anthracite coal it used, which pushed the engineer’s cab in front of the firebox to allow visibility ahead. Another was the “cab-forward” locomotives used by the Southern Pacific, which I describe in “The Genetics of Steam Locomotives”. In that essay I also cover the frame, suspension and wheel arrangements.

Steam Locomotives Part 2: Engines, Motors and Turbines

I find it annoying that there isn’t a comprehensive discussion readily available to distinguish the various types of engines, motors and turbines. I think we need this for its own sake, and in order to home in on where steam locomotives fit into the scheme of things.

Engines, motors and turbines convert a source of energy into rotary or reciprocating (back and forth) motion. While the term “motor” is always used when referring to electrical motors, it also refers to engines of various kinds, particularly the internal combustion engines used to power vehicles.

Energy is quite difficult to define because it takes many forms, and we are most interested in its transformations from form to form. The sources of the energy we use on earth are nuclear fission within the earth and nuclear fusion within the sun. And of course, the ultimate source of everything, including energy, is the Big Bang.

A practical definition of energy is the ability to perform “work”. Work is typically defined from a human-centered perspective – it has to be “useful.” Energy typically passes through a cascade of transformations from its ultimate source to useful work. To take one example: nuclear fusion within the sun creates electromagnetic radiation that strikes the earth and heats bodies of water; the water evaporates to form clouds; rain condenses out of the clouds to fill reservoirs; the potential energy of the elevated water is converted into rotary mechanical energy in turbines; the turbines rotate generators that create electrical energy; the electrical energy is converted back into rotary kinetic energy by an electric motor; and this energy does useful work by moving a vehicle, spinning a saw blade, or performing any of the myriad tasks for which we use electric motors.

The example is typical of an energy cascade in having many steps where energy is changed in form. Another example would be solar energy transforming chlorophyll into sugar, which powers the growth of plants, which become food that we consume (either directly or via domestic animals) and transform into sugar, which powers our muscles to do useful work. At each transformation of the source energy, some is lost and dissipated into the environment as diffuse heat. Only a fraction of the original source energy ends up doing what we call useful work, although some processes are much more efficient than others.

Internal Combustion Engines

Four stroke internal combustion cylinder CC BY-SA 3.0, E exhaust port cam I intake port cam S spark plug V valves P piston R connecting rod C crankshaft W water cooling jacket
Four stroke internal combustion cylinder
CC BY-SA 3.0,
E exhaust port cam
I intake port cam
S spark plug
V valves
P piston
R connecting rod
C crankshaft
W water cooling jacket

Engines that operate by burning fuel come in two varieties: internal and external combustion. Both types can further be subdivided into reciprocating piston engines and gas turbines. In an internal combustion piston engine, air and fuel burn in one or more enclosed cylinders, creating heat that expands the air, pushing on pistons that turn a crankshaft to power autos, trucks, motor vessels, small aircraft and equipment.

In an internal combustion gas turbine, fuel and air are burned in an open-ended chamber to create a continuing flow of expanding gas that moves turbine blades attached to a rotating shaft. The turbine blades expend some of their work in compressing the air entering the turbine. In a commercial turbofan or turbojet engine, the maximum amount of energy is extracted by the turbine blades to drive a propeller, with the residual used to provide additional thrust.

Turbofan gas turbine engine
Turbofan gas turbine engine

In the illustration, the fan (really a big propeller in a housing) shown on the left is turned by the turbine blades shown at the right, in the area colored red. Much of the air from the fan escapes around the engine, shown by the dark blue pointed shapes, while the air in the center passes through the multistage compressor, which is also turned by the turbine blades. The compressed air is mixed with fuel in the combustion chamber, creating hot gas that turns the turbine. Residual hot gas exits as a jet exhaust.

The turbines blades in a military jet engine only extract the amount of energy needed to run the compressor blades; the rest of the expanding gas roars out the jet exhaust, its kinetic energy thrusting the aircraft forward. Rockets are yet another kind of internal combustion engine. Instead of using the oxygen in air to create combustion, they carry their own oxidizing material (such as liquid oxygen) and can operate in a vacuum.

Gas turbines are also used to generate power.

A diesel-electric locomotive uses a diesel internal combustion engine to turn a generator, which creates electricity to power motors that turn the wheels.

External Combustion Engines

As the name implies, the fuel powering an external combustion engine is burned outside the engine, transferring the energy of combustion into a “working fluid” that then does the mechanical work. Steam is the working fluid of choice in most cases because changing water into steam stores energy equivalent to raising its temperature 1,000 degrees F. Today nearly all external combustion engines are steam turbines, where steam drives turbine blades to create rotary kinetic energy.

Another form of external “combustion” is nuclear power, where nuclear fission heats either water or a working fluid that ultimately heats water, to create steam for use in a turbine. The turbine either drives a generator or rotates the screws in a nuclear-powered ship.

Turbines have the great advantage of having few moving part, but the turbine blades must be of a high-strength material carefully machined, and were not available until late in WWII, when working jet engines were finally developed. At the very end of the age of steam locomotives, both internal and external combustion turbines were used briefly by a few railroads. They were no match for the diesel-electric.

Finally, we get to the steam engine! The classic design, invented in the late 18th Century, uses steam created by external combustion to move a piston back and forth, creating a reciprocating motion that does work by cranking a shaft or turning a wheel. Such a device was possible in the 18th Century, using the iron-based technology of the time, and burning wood or coal.

We can now derive a technical description of a typical steam locomotive: It is a wheeled vehicle running on metal rails, carrying a boiler to create steam, towing it’s own fossil fuel and water supply, with one or two reciprocating steam engines on each side turning paired driving wheels that provides the traction needed to pull a train of cars.

My Love Affair with Steam Locomotives

“I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”

Arthur Honneger, composer of Pacific 2-3-1

Since early childhood, I have adored trains. I would implore my parents night after summer night to drive to a special spot in Omaha where, at the appointed time (when the train wasn’t late),  the streamliner Eagle, riding behind a diesel on the Missouri Pacific mainline, would emerge round a curve and thrill me with its beautiful striped presence trailing out from the eagle painted on its great nose.  Later, I fell in love with steam locomotives, after reaching an age where the terror of the belching monsters changed slowly over to thrill, but at age 5 or 6, diesels were fine with me — I loved diesel switch engines then as now, if they are the proper kind.


Missouri-Pacific Eagle streamliner, from photo by Tony Howe -


My true love affair with steam locomotives really started in the summer of 1943, just before my 8th birthday.  We spent that summer visiting Aunt Cecil and Uncle Jencks in Ipswich, South Dakota, a farm village 25 miles west of Aberdeen on U.S. Route 12.  It was a flag stop on the Milwaukee mainline, in the section of the line between Aberdeen and Mobridge, where — no surprise — the railroad crossed the Missouri River. Aberdeen seemed very far away to a 7-year-old, and Mobridge, 70 miles to the west, was just a legend.

There was a traditional Main Street running north-south, with a classic one-block downtown complete with ice cream parlor and movie theater. Between the downtown and the railroad station was a block-long stretch of gravel that Google Earth shows is now full of utility buildings, but in my memory is a vacant acreage.

The station is gone, but I reconstruct it from memory as a long Victorian stick-style building, separated from the main line by a narrow wood platform partly covered by a wide overhang of the main roof. A beauty parlor somehow survived in the dusty summer heat on the second floor.  I think I can recall the decorative brackets holding up the great overhang.  It must have been a typical small-town station.

A bay window pushed out into the narrow wood platform on the track side of the station and in that window sat Elliott, the station master.  He was of uncertain age, perhaps 50, and was a famously unmarried curmudgeon.  I started the summer spending much of my day chasing grasshoppers in the gravel next to the station, waiting for the next train, until boredom and curiosity led me to Elliott’s lair.  I asked him a question, and then question after question after question, and he didn’t seem to mind.  Everyone in town was astonished at his patience.  Soon I was a regular visitor in his office, where I swatted flies for my keep, and kept an eagle eye out for the next train, peering down the track from the side window of the office.

Enchanting things happened in that office.  The cycle would start when the telegraph broke the silent droning of flies with a staccato “train order” for the next train, typically instructing the freight to move onto a siding somewhere up the tracks between Ipswich and Mobridge to clear the main line for a passenger train, which in those glory days had priority over freights. After decoding the message and responding to my insistent questions about what was going on, Elliott would type the train order in triplicate on different colored sheets separated by carbon paper, one for the engineer and fireman, one for the forward brakeman who usually rode on the locomotive’s tender, and one for the conductor in the caboose.

To hand up the messages without requiring the laboring train to stop, Elliott tied each message to a loop of string, which he fitted into the forked end of a long stick, the message on the taut segment spanning between the ends of the fork.  Elliott would make up three of these rigs, and have them ready for the train. My self-appointed job was to make sure Elliott knew when the train was approaching as I would see it when only a wisp of smoke was visible far down the tracks, maybe as far as Mina, about 15 miles away toward Aberdeen. The gentle undulation of the great plain limited the perspective of the train to about 5 miles, down to the grain elevator at the crossroads then called Craven, if memory serves. Was that smoke? Yes! It was coming. Slowly the image would form of a locomotive pulling hard, a dark halo around the headlight, crowned with an impressive tree of smoke and steam.


A station master handing up a train order to the passing engineer

Moving 40 or so miles per hour, it grew slowly. My blood would start racing at this point, because with Elliott as cover, I dared to leave the safety of the office and stand on the narrow platform, something I would never do alone. The door to the office opened onto the platform, and if I happened to arrive for my tour of duty just as a train was coming, I would have to decide whether to dash for the door or wait: I would never dare be caught alone on the platform when the locomotive went by.

Standing perhaps 5 feet from the track, I watched the locomotive’s front end grow. It seemed to be coming straight at us, but at some point the perspective changed to a great stretching in height and then I would be next to the wild machinery flying around next to the wheels, holding my ears against the roar of the exhaust and the hiss of steam blasting from the pistons.  Elliott skillfully held up two of the poles so the engineer and forward brakeman could slip their arms through the loops as the locomotive roared past, followed by the orderly raging and squealing of the cars, all scarily close and fast.  I would watch and count the cars, until the caboose came by, the conductor grabbed his orders while hanging off the platform, and the clamor gradually disappeared into the hot summer’s silence.

My mother and I made the trip back to Omaha on a train from Aberdeen to Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha. It arrived in late afternoon behind a little locomotive. I noticed its wheels: 2 in front, 8 in the middle and none at the rear. I am not sure what railroad it was, not the Milwaukee, probably the Chicago and Northwestern. We expected a passenger train, but instead there were 20 or 30 freight cars in front of the last car, an ancient wooden coach with wicker seats, operable windows and hanging gas lights. It was a long night, as we were on what I later learned was a “way freight,” one that picked up and delivered freight to the industrial sidings along the route, with the passenger car an incidental add-on. All through the stormy night we periodically would stop, back, jolt, wait, jolt again, maybe twice over, and move on. It was a long trip.

California and the SP

At that age, the locomotive was an awesome presence, unitary and unexamined. I began to register differences on moving west with my mother, leaving Colorado after a summer at a camp in Estes Park (to and from which we traveled on the still-operating narrow-gauge Denver and Rio Grande Western). We boarded in Denver on an evening of August, 1945, when every train was completely jammed with U.S. soldiers being sent west from Europe for discharge. I think I counted almost 30 coaches, but there was not a seat to be had. Mother and I found a perch opposite a men’s room on a tiny shelf about a foot deep.  Diabolically fitted dead center in the wall behind where one would have liked to lean was a quarter-sphere bronze ash tray about 5″ in diameter, so we could neither lie nor sit but merely perch. And so we did, all night, bathed in smoke, watching soldiers get sick in the bathroom, trying to nap. Finally dawn came, and a pair of compassionate soldiers offered us their seats, a blessed thing. An attendant came down the aisle with a huge vat of coffee, which (when she discovered it had both cream AND sugar in it) my mother refused to drink. But I had some, my first coffee, never yet equaled.

Now I could watch out the window as the train climbed into the Sierras after negotiating the Rockies and the salt flats during the night.  And I saw something profoundly wonderful and odd — the two huge locomotives were running backward, each towing its tender behind what should have been its nose. I watched this marvelous pair dive into large tunnels made of wood, which I correctly guessed were to keep snow off the tracks.  But I was not smart enough at age 10 to understand why the locomotives were running backward. This was my first taste of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which as I grew older, became a synonym for beauty, the subject of my dreams and the absorber of my spare time. I never bothered to delve into its sordid history, except that I knew the Gadsden purchase was made solely to accommodate the route of the SP.


The only surviving cab-forward locomotive

The SP ran steamers well after I started college in 1953, but by the time I graduated in 1959, they were few, and by the early 60’s all were gone, although not from the many dreams in which I discover old steamers still in use. I still have such dreams.  My 11th and 12th grades were spent in Alhambra, now part of the vast Asian settlement in the San Gabriel Valley, before that populated with down-and-out Chicanos, but in the 1950’s still relatively prosperous. It was a walkable working-class town – C. F. Braun had a factory there – but was close enough to the beauties of South Pasadena to still hold onto some professionals. All this I surmise in retrospect — for me, the school was filled with kids who liked sports and cars and rock and roll, with only a few who shared my bookish orientation and love of “serious” music and jazz.

In those days crafts and hobbies were popular, as we had no TV, and the school had an HO gauge model railroad club. I was a member and helped with the large layout at school, while building my own layout in the tiny cellar of our little California bungalow. My interest in model trains was nurtured by the real thing, for the SP’s east-west main line from LA to New Orleans ran through the middle of town. To the east was San Gorgonio Pass, the steep grades of which required two locomotives to pull the long passenger trains, and for the freight trains, several more spliced into the middle or tacked onto the rear (today you just add diesel units as needed). I got to know and love the SP’s steam locomotives.

A little-used city street paralleled the main line for several blocks. I would borrow the family’s 1948 Plymouth, drive to the station and wait for the evening second-class passenger train to New Orleans. I would park next to the hissing locomotive – on good nights one of the big cab-forward articulateds, like the ones I first saw pulling our train up the Sierras. Its bell began tolling, its throaty whistle erupted, and the great machine would hiss and belch a great roar, then another, often spinning its driving wheels struggling to get the long train moving. I would stay alongside the locomotive, gazing at the accelerating dance of machinery with an occasional glance at the road, pausing at stop signs, then catching up again, until it finally outran me a few blocks from the station. The chase was hugely satisfying.

The Missing Giants

The sailing vessel is the steam locomotive’s chief rival in my pantheon of beautiful traveling machines, one that has the great advantage of still being available for close examination. Vessels under sail have an entirely different character from steam locomotives, albeit one with equal merit. Instead of the noisy clanking and swinging, the sailing vessel at full power is as taut as a bowstring, expressing an exquisite balance between tension and minimal structure to contain it. It replaces the compressive vigor of the locomotive with tension, vividly expressed in the taut sail and supporting lines, not one of which could be dispensed with.

Steam engines were inefficient, hard on the trackage, difficult and dangerous to operate and maintain, and an environmental disaster. If WWII had not intervened, they would have been retired years earlier. Steam locomotives were built and owned by the railroad, while diesels are leased, liberating the company from a serious capital investment and allowing periodic upgrades. I would be the last to argue that we should return to the age of steam.

But I do miss them, and cherish my long love affair with these awesome machines. Even now I have vivid dreams in which I discover steam locmotives still in use. I hope you will take any opportunity to experience one of those that remain as tourist attractions.