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.