What I did with my weekends for 2-1/2 years
I suppose I have Don Wirth to thank for this. Don and I worked at Sunnen Products Co. during the early 1980’s. In the summer of 1983, my wife Judy and I had ridden one of the local National Railway Historical Society excursions out of St. Louis. The train was pulled by N&W steam locomotive #612. We had received the ticket information from Don. In addition, Don and I are HO scale modelers who share an interest in the Frisco Railroad. Don had hooked up with a group who were just starting restoration of the Frisco 1522 mountain type steam locomotive out at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County.
In the spring of 1986, Don asked if I would like to help to restore the locomotive working on weekends out at the Museum of Transportation. Prior to this I had not turned a wrench on a steam locomotive. I had worked on sports cars, doing modifications for racing as well as restorations since 1970. The same mechanical skills such as machining, metal fabrication, design and drawing applied to the locomotive, so it was a good fit. There is only one way to describe a steam locomotive – big, heavy and dirty.
I remember the first day very well. Our chief mechanical officer Pat Cravens asked if I knew how to use a cutting torch. I responded positively, so he asked me to cut off the bolts holding up the power reverse cylinder, a device located just above our heads. I told him I would be more than happy to do that if he could point the power reverse cylinder out to me. Pat took this in stride and I was on my way to becoming a steam train guy. Pat was one of those guys who was consumed by the project and just naturally assumed everyone who came out to work on this thing was a steam enthusiast. After that, I learned the terminology and the technology of the 1926 Ballwin 4-8-2 Frisco 1500 series mountain type very quickly. I also learned that weight on the driving axles was a key factor in steam locomotive design. Apparently you could not have too much. For example, the step that allowed you to climb out of the cab and up on the boiler was made from 3/4″ thick iron. There were 5/8″ diameter bolts holding it. I believe this arrangement could have supported the weight of our entire crew if we could have all gotten on it.
It was classic on the job training. In no time at all I had become caught up in this project and was doing everything from designing and drawing revised engine air braking to creating an additional lubrication system. I also ended up with the job of removing 74 boiler studs. I then made drawings for replacement studs so that Bill Webster, another Sunnen employee, could machine new studs working on Saturdays at Sunnen. I then installed these on the boiler and they withstood 210 pounds per square inch of steam pressure for the duration of the operation without leaks. That was one whole summer of my Saturdays. To put this in perspective, one of our steam train engineers calculated that for every hour he sat at the throttle, he had spent 400 hours working to get there.
Planning to go on the road
Skip ahead many Saturdays to 1988 when we took our newly restored locomotive out on the road. Looking back on this I am still amazed we were able to talk the Chicago Northwestern, Burlington Northern, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern Railroads into letting us get out there. Our organization was fortunate to have the support of the railroads. Every time we made a trip, the preceding 6 months had been spent doing the up front work of negotiating with at least two railroads and sometimes with Amtrak to get over the road. We were always treated well by everyone we encountered. When the end came, it was the cost of ongoing maintenance and insurance that caused us to cease operations, not any of the many railroad organizations we dealt with.
The steam excursions we ran were good for generating revenue and publicity, but the break in runs where we went out on the Burlington Northern with a string of freight cars in tow were the fun part. On these trips we seldom went too far; usually to someplace like Newburg, Missouri where we could wye the locomotive (turn it around) and return to the BN Lindenwood yard in one easy day. We kept these trips quiet to minimize the inevitable crush of rail fans running around on railroad property whenever word got out that we were running the engine. This also helped our relationships with the railroads as they were not happy with people trespassing on railroad property.
A little history of steam on the railroads
One of the big things missing from today’s railroads is the infrastructure that supported the labor intensive operation of the steam engine. Up until about 1953, all railroads had water, fuel and maintenance facilities every 50 to 100 miles depending on the terrain. When diesels took over, all of the water tanks and coaling towers were torn down and many smaller towns were eliminated from the maps. When the railroad quit stopping in your town, employment went with it. This is why you can still find towns that have dried up along railroad right of ways. Newburg, Missouri is a classic example. In 1894 it was a division point on the Frisco with a roundhouse, maintenance shops and 800 railroad jobs in town. All of these people had families and those families required the normal support offered by a small town. Today there are about 700 people living there and all evidence of the railroads extensive facilities are gone.
Supporting the Steam Engine in modern times
When we went out, my job was crew chief for the service crews. I usually drove a vehicle ahead of the train to the next scheduled stop. When I arrived, I would get the local Fire and Police briefed on what we were going to do, how long it would take, what we needed from them and then try to let them know in general terms what to expect from the horde of rail fans about to converge on the town. I also had the job of opening and flushing the fire hydrant we had selected on our scouting trip. Sometimes it would take 1/2 hour to get the water to run clean. I guess there were never any fires down by the tracks. If we were taking on fuel, I would spot the fuel truck in a position near the fill valve on the tender. Sometimes this required blocking traffic at an intersection (something we tried to avoid if at all possible). Meanwhile back on the train, our service crew teams of two to 5 people were busy changing into greasy coveralls and filling oilcans in preparation for the service stop.
Every scheduled stop included filling the locomotive tender and auxiliary water car with water and adding chemicals to treat it for use in the boiler. We had hundreds of feet of fire hose that we rolled out to reach a nearby fire plug at each stop. Unrolling and hooking up the hoses was the most labor intensive work at a service stop, so the younger people were assigned to this job. Additional duties were lubrication and taking on fuel. The locomotive burned bunker C crude oil. This fuel closely resembled STP in consistency, but was black and very tar like. This was delivered in heated tank trucks so it could be pumped into our fuel bunker on the tender. Scheduling a fuel stop out on the road was always a challenge because we needed a place where there was direct access parallel to the tracks for a tank truck as well as a fire hydrant for water. We would spend weeks out on the road scouting water and fuel stop locations prior to each trip.
Once we were stopped in Creston, Iowa for water and a new guy was assigned to hook up the hoses and turn on the hydrant. He did not know the hydrants have left hand threads on the valves. The water crew was waiting for the hoses to fill up and nothing was happening. The guy on the hydrant got excited and really laid into the wrench (turning it the wrong way of course). The hydrant valve stem broke off in the wrench and he came running back to the crew car in an absolute panic. We had to scout a second hydrant further down the block and then run all the hose we carried in order to reach it. That was not one of our better stops.
Servicing the Steam Locomotive
Our service crews had one of the best jobs on the team as they only went to work when the train was stopped. They spent the rest of the day riding in our crew car enjoying the steam excursion experience. We had a baggage dorm car converted for our crew car. The baggage door was fitted with a set of boards acting as a railing so they could hang out and watch the scenery roll by. I always thought they looked like a bunch of dogs riding in a pickup truck. The main activities were waving at people on the roads and at grade crossings and telling stories about who did what at the previous service stop.
On the longer trips lasting two weeks or so, we had a Pullman sleeper (private car) with room for 22 crew members. This car also had a shower at one end. The service crews really loved sleeping in the Pullman. It was like being at rail fan camp on wheels. I only did it once on our first trip. We were set out on a siding right off the main line at Schiller Park yard in Chicago. All night freight trains came into the yard on this line. Every one had to announce its presence to our passenger consist by blowing the horn in passing. I guess they did not want any rail fans jumping out to take photos at 3:00 in the morning. The resulting loss of sleep convinced me to get a hotel room from then on. Hotel reservations were made in advance for those not wanting to sleep on the train. We stayed in some real railroad hotels that were right next to the property. They tended to be clean and offered the minimum of amenities. These were my least favorite. We also stayed in regular motels and old hotels. My favorites were the privately owned motels and inns where you could get a decent meal on site. I was often the last to bed and one of the first to rise due to the nature of the job. I would stay with the service crews on nights where we had to fill the water tanks on the passenger cars, then I would be up at 5:00 am to get the stationary fireman out to the engine so we would have steam for a 6:00am crew call.
Steam and the general public
Stationary firemen sat on the engine during display weekends in places like Galesburg, Illinois and Topeka, Kansas. We had a set of stairs and a little platform we set up next to the cab so visitors could get a close look at the inside of the cab. The “engine crew” were some of our guys who had the gift of gab and could be counted on to present our story and answer questions about what we were doing. The most common was “how do you get a job like this?” We all had to work long hours and did it willingly because we knew this was our time in the sun so we had to make the most of it.
At each service stop and when we were on display, we had a souvenir car that had it’s own crew. They would open a baggage door on the depot side and sell hats, tee shirts and whatever else we had going at the time. We made good money on these items. The revenue was always put to good use due to the high cost of maintenance on the locomotive. Every year we recorded record profits from souvenir sales; a real pleasant surprise for our treasurer.
We were always amazed at the number of people who turned out at trackside to see the locomotive. Every service stop was planned well in advance of a trip, so police, fire and city officials put out the word in local communities. Everyone wanted a picture of mom or grampa and the kids in front of the engine. This led to some interesting moments especially if the locomotive was sitting for a couple of hours in one spot.
All steam engines have two large steam cylinders at the front that power the wheels. These cylinders have a drain valve (cylinder cock) on them that is controlled from the cab. When the engine sat, the cylinders collected water which could do damage if not drained before moving the engine. We would always shoo the folks away from the front of the engine to prevent anyone from getting sprayed by the mixture of water, steam and nasty black steam oil that inevitably spewed forth from these valves. Occasionally a rail fan would wait until just after everyone was out of the way and then rush in to get a photo of the engine with nobody in the way. The next thing he knew he had been sprayed with a sticky black mess from the knees down. This always got a big laugh from the engine crew.
Another myth was the bellowing black smoke of a steam locomotive. This effect is created when the fireman opens the throttle valve on the locomotive and dumps excessive fuel into the burner. We used to dump the fuel on request for photographs thus creating huge clouds of black smoke, but in the days of steam operation any engine crew who did this was reprimanded for wasting fuel. The railroads preached the sermon of the clean stack. The only time you saw smoke was if the flues were being sanded, or the engine was working up grade with a heavy train. Passenger trains were always run as clean as possible. We would sometimes see people standing on a bridge yelling for smoke as we approached. The fireman could oblige, but when the engine went under the bridge, everyone directly over the track was covered with soot.
Several times we were out on the road stopped for service or for the night and some family would bring Grampa down to the engine for a look. These old guys were really misty eyed and often described hearing the steam whistle and thinking that it was not possible for this to be happening. I was down at Union Station in St. Louis one Sunday morning when a black couple came down with an older gentleman who was dressed in his Sunday best. The old guy was a former Pullman Porter and told us of the many happy days he spent riding the rails out of St. Louis. He was most interested in seeing the restored private passenger cars and in reliving fond memories of the time he spent as a railroad employee.
Another time we were in Wisconsin and a family brought down an older former steam engineer who ran on the Milwaukee Road. He had a tale for us about the time he was running a fast freight and one of the tires came off a driving wheel on his engine. It was the most exciting time of his life and he loved retelling the tale to us kids.
Once we stopped at a grade crossing for a public relations event. There was no need to service the engine, so the crews stayed on the train. I went forward to see the P.R. event. It was a group of school children that had heard we were coming past the school and had made a banner to welcome the steam engine. They also presented the Burlington Northern P.R. person Susan Green (we nicknamed her “the Queen of Steam”) with a big card signed by the teacher and all the students. It was I believe what you would call a “Kodak Moment.”
On another occasion I remember passing behind a school in the middle of Nebraska and seeing all of the children out in the yard waving at us. They could hear the whistle for miles out there… it must have been a real treat to see this piece of living history.
These tales and many more were one of the rewards of running steam on modern rails where the old engines had not been seen or heard of in 40 years or more.
The Boys in Blue
St. Louis Steam Train Association crewmembers wore a uniform of blue pants and shirts with a yellow oval SLSTA patch and 1522 red patch on the front combined with an American flag on the sleeve. Many of the service crew had blue coveralls for use during servicing so the uniforms stayed clean. We all had to wear safety gear such as hard hats, steel toe shoes, eye protection and hearing protection when doing our jobs. The resulting professional organized look was one of our selling points when approaching railroad management for permission to run. On the other hand, our detractors referred to the look as that of giant cub scouts. More than once a group of us would be out on the town in a hobby shop or doing laundry dressed in uniform and we were mistaken for some sort of police – go figure. I had 7 sets of uniforms (medium starch on hangers) and changed daily or sometimes twice if we were hosting a dinner event for local railroad and civic personnel.
A day on the road
A typical day on the road on a long trip would consist of a 6:00 am crew call followed by an 8:00 am departure then numerous service stops with city and railroad people touring the train and engine. After a lunch stop, with more tours and photos, we would head to the overnight stop and the dinner on train for railroad employees and civic people. Then more tours of the train followed by everybody crashing for some sleep before the next 6:00 am crew call. We did this for as much as two weeks at a time and no one ever complained about being overworked. Some times we had the use of the Burlington Northern executive train staff and passenger car fleet. These people were the best of the public relations folks and were always up and cheery. On these trips we ran employee specials where the BN employees from each selected stop were allowed to ride on the train from one point to another. These trips were fun for us as well because we did not have to service the passenger cars after each day. We also ate very well. The chef for the BN was very capable and could serve up delicious meals on the road. One night we had arrived very late due to the inevitable Murphy’s law and dinner was not going to happen at any reasonable hour. The chef, in a stroke of creative genius, simply ordered all of the pizzas he could get from the local Pizza Parlor. This was the biggest night of the year for that small business and I believe they were big fans of the railroad for the rest of that year.
The St. Louis Steam Train Association
The St. Louis Steam Train Association was a not for profit group whose purpose was the restoration and operation of the locomotive. Our charter included a statement to the effect that we would return the locomotive to the Museum of Transportation in the same, or better condition than when we started. This was done and then the group was dissolved.
The locomotive is now once again on display as a restored piece of railroad history. During the 17 years of restoration, operation and repairs we had a membership of about 35 people who were actively involved in the effort.
One of the more common questions about what we were doing was the one about how we did this? For one thing, the group was all volunteers. No one got paid. We all bought our own uniforms and safety gear. We were fortunate to have a few very good corporate sponsors and some private individuals who donated considerable funds for the initial restoration. After that we raised money by leasing the locomotive and our crew to the National Railway Historical Society and to the Burlington Northern Railroad. These groups sponsored trips either for the general public, or for railroad employees. We furnished the engine and were compensated in dollars per mile or flat fees for a fixed period of time.
Contrary to some beliefs, we did not own the locomotive. It was leased to us by the Museum of Transportation. We also leased a tail car (observation/business) from the Museum. We purchased a baggage dorm car, 2 baggage cars and an old IC water car. These were all modified and re-built to suit our needs. In addition, we used a lounge car and a Pullman sleeper that were private cars owned by St. Louis area people. When we disbanded the group in January of 2002, all assets were donated to the Museum of Transportation and the Transport Museum Association.
The reality of operation
One of the major drawbacks to operating our steam locomotive on private property was the lack of track out at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation site. We were always at the mercy of the Union Pacific, Amtrak and the BN when we wanted to go somewhere. Even a simple break in run required permission from the UP to use their tracks down to a connection with the BN near Union Station. Sometimes we also had to get permission from the Terminal Railroad and Amtrak to get over to the BN line to Hannibal, Missouri.
Many times we all had to sign releases of liability prior to getting on the property. A pilot was required when we were out on the road. Even if we were only going 200 feet on Amtrak, we still had to have an Amtrak pilot on board. All of this costs money. All of the costs had to be taken into consideration prior to making a trip. Of course this was transparent to most of the volunteers. For those on the board of directors, the joy of running the engine was always tempered by ever increasing costs of operation, insurance and maintenance. Fund raising was never ending. Maintenance costs began to get out of hand when we experienced several breakdowns out on the road. Pretty soon it became obvious that we had to make a major decision regarding continued expenditures for minimum return. When we decided to disband, it was a sad day for all concerned. Today the engine rests at the Museum in need of another major rebuild. When I am asked if it will ever run again, I always say I don’t know. If for example Bill Gates wants it to run, and the Museum is willing to co-operate, then the answer is, yes it is possible. Any of the current crop of multimillion dollar lottery winners could also afford the expense. I guess the ideal candidate would be a former railroad employee who likes the Frisco and has won the lottery.
My contribution to the history of the Frisco 1522 are photos in scrapbooks, newspaper and magazine articles and my continued friendships with several of the original board of directors. This was a unique experience, one that I will not repeat, but one that I will always have fond memories of.
In addition to his 12″ = 1′ railroading, Dave’s efforts in HO have made him the Gateway Division’s newest Master Model Railroader.