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Capturing a Dream — Part I

by Jerry Cesak

The following is an article by Jerry Cesak. He rented steam locomotive 93 last year. For those of us in the business-around steam locomotives on a daily basis-one of our greatest dangers is to become passé about this mechanical marvel. We sometimes forget how steam captured us and forget the sense of wonder that steam can weave over an individual. When you read Jerry’s article, you can travel back to the excitement of discovering steam again. I need to point out that this is important. At our teenage RailCamp, the campers were not interested in steam on the first day. But by the last day (excuse the pun), they were all fired up. Jerry removed the blindfold from my eyes as he tells his story about his experience renting steam locomotive 93. Thanks Jerry.

I fell in love when I was six years old. Not a preteen crush or puppy love, it was serious. My father introduced us and forty-nine years later, the love affair is more passionate than ever.

“Jerry, wake up,” my dad whispered. It was a morning in August 1957. My parents, my sister, and I were visiting our grandparents in Winnipeg, Canada.

“Get up and get dressed. We’re going to see magic.”

The conspiratorial nature of my dad and me sneaking out of the house before dawn was magic in itself; I was dressed and in the kitchen in under thirty seconds.

I trembled with excitement and curiosity. “Where are we going? What are we doing? What kind of magic?”

“You’ll know as soon as we get there,” he smiled. And then he said something I clearly remember five decades later: “Pay attention and remember today forever. Because what we will see and do is going away soon and it’s never coming back.”

A short time later, I stood next to him, holding his hand, overwhelmed by the sight and sounds of the biggest thing I’d been close to in my entire life. Her massive body blocked the sun, colossal and black with arms of silver and white-walled wheels. Her perfume was that of hot oil and lusty coal smoke. She spoke to me in hisses and chuffs and I felt the earth under my shoes vibrate as she breathed.

My father had arranged a day for us riding a CP steam locomotive around the Winnipeg freight yards. My love affair had begun. I felt my father’s hands under my arms as he lifted me up until I could peek into the cab. Then the fireman’s hands replaced my dad’s and I was standing on the deck of the backhead. This was the steaming cauldron where the magic was created.

Most of the wonders of that day remain with me: The hiss of the firebox doors opening and the great fist of heat that pummeled me before they slammed shut. Sitting in the fireman’s seat, my dad holding my belt as I leaned out the window to see the drivers turning. The whoosh of compressed air when the brakes were released. My dad holding me up to reach the whistle cord. The scrape of the shovel on the deck as it slid under coal in the tender. My dad and the engineer having discussions both physical and mechanical that I couldn’t comprehend.

I’m sure that I asked a million questions and my father answered them all. He was a patent attorney by trade and a mechanical genius by nature. When he couldn’t afford to buy a car, he built one from spare parts that he’d bought at a junk yard. For my tenth birthday, he used a twelve-volt battery, grain-of-wheat bulbs, and a logic circuit he designed to build me a computer that played tic-tac-toe. If I have one shining memory of my father, it is this: I never asked him a question to which he replied, “I don’t know.”

For several hours on that most memorable of days nearly five decades ago, we rode in the cab of the engine as it switched cars and made up trains. My father had been right about the magic.

I spent the next forty-eight years of my life fascinated with trains, particularly obsessed with steam and fixated on the dream of being in the cab of a working locomotive again. The closest steam power to our Maryland home was in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. My dad and I made many trips there. In later years, I visited Baltimore’s B&O Museum, The Empire State Railway Museum in New York, and the Wilmington and Western in Delaware. I rode behind steam whenever and wherever I could. I set up my cameras for the run-bys, and strained my neck muscles on the platform trying to see into the cab. But I was never again allowed to ride up where the magic was conjured—never even invited up. At places like Steamtown in Scranton, I climbed into cabs of static displays. But being on the footplate of a static display is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

And then it happened. I saw an advertisement in Classic Trains magazine with words that stopped my heart: “Your hand on the throttle.” The ad was for the Nevada Northern Railway. Did they really have steam there? Could you go for a cab ride? Did the words “Your hand on the throttle” mean you could operate a steam locomotive??? I raced to my computer and got on the NNRy website. Yes, yes and yes! Just before I passed out, I remember reaffirming my belief in a God.

Fast-forward to my arrival on a Friday afternoon at the East Ely depot. I’d flown to Las Vegas from San Diego and rented a car for the 250 mile drive northeast to Ely, a small town nestled a mile in the air within spectacular high desert scenery.

My engine rental was scheduled for the next morning but I wanted to take the prerequisite written exam so that I could be in the engine house as early as possible the next day. I was greeted warmly by the wonderful Joan Bassett, NNRy museum curator. Based on material previously sent to me by the railroad, I aced the test, then signed waivers and was further welcomed by the remarkable Mark Bassett, the affable and tireless executive director of the NNRy.

As I was leaving for my hotel, I asked Mark how early I could come back in the morning. He told me the hostlers reported at 4 a.m. and I was welcome then, but “they’ve got a fire lit off in your engine right now if you want to take a look.” Someday I’ll ask Mark if I left a trail of smoke behind me when I tore out of his office at just under the speed of sound, heading for the engine house.

To enter the NNRy engine house, you must first pass through the massive machine shop. I opened the shop door and stopped short at the sight of the NNRy #40, a stunning, high-stepping Baldwin 4-6-0 built in 1910. She was undergoing repairs in the shop.

“Hi. Come on in,” I heard from somewhere among the behemoth machinery. It was Dave Griner, the chief mechanical officer. As excited as I was, being a “renter” at this expansive operation was a bit intimidating. Dave’s friendliness assured me that everyone at the NNRy would be just as nice. “Go through the sliding door straight ahead,” he invited.

I heard her before I saw her: from beyond the door to the engine house came the whoosh of her blower. I slid the door aside, entered the engine house and there she was, sitting impatiently on track number 2: NNRy’s magnificent Number 93—massive, black, shiny, alive. A column of gray smoke climbed from her stack into the smoke hood in the ceiling. The glare of the vapor lights caught the gleam of her rods and lit the small tendrils of steam escaping from beneath her cylinder casings. The perfume of steam, hot oil, and coal smoke cloaked me as I stood in awe in that doorway. It seemed impossible that tomorrow morning, my hand would ease her throttle back and all 200,000 pounds of her would glide forward under my control.

I walked over to her and began my tour of this splendid 2-8-0 Consolidation, built by the American Locomotive Company in 1909. I slowly passed down her left side, around her tender, and back to the front, marveling at the mechanism—gleaming connecting rods, black pipes and tubing racing along her boiler, the orange glow pulsing from the air intake below her firebox.

The engine house was quiet and her hostler was not in evidence, so a visit to the cab seemed inappropriate. Time to head for the hotel and a night of no sleep.

Before I left, I put both my hands on her cylinder casing and closed my eyes. I listened to the rush from her stack, the clinks and pops in her firebox. I smelled the sweet, hot fragrance of steam and smoke. I felt her slight, eager vibrations in my fingers and hands. And for perhaps thirty seconds I stood there, my senses soaking up the soul of the machine. Magic!

During dinner that night at the hotel, I reflected upon what I knew about the magnificent Nevada Northern Railway. In 1983, the railroad discontinued operations with the closing of the area copper mines. Remarkably, the owners of the Nevada Northern gifted everything (and I mean all of it) to the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, which was organized to receive, administer, and develop an operating railroad museum. The “gift” included fifty-six acres containing more than seventy buildings and structures, steam locomotives, diesel engines, and over fifty freight cars. In addition to the yard and shops, the museum owns thirty miles of railroad track.

It is a truly remarkable place, unlike any other on earth. William L. Withuhn, curator, History of Technology & Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution, said: “Among all railroad historic sites anywhere in North America, the Nevada Northern Railway complex at East Ely is—no question in my mind—the most complete, most authentic, and best cared-for, bar none. It’s a living American treasure and a stand-out one.”

Even assisted by Ambien�, sleep that night was as hard to catch as a wisp of steam. At 4:15 I got up, dressed, then had a quick breakfast in the casino coffee shop and raced to my car.

My rental time that morning was 9 o’clock. I opened the door of the engine house at five. My new girlfriend was awake and waiting for me, building steam for our first date. She sat as I’d left her last night on track 2—proud, regal, and majestic.

Above the whoosh of the blower, the scrape of a shovel drew me to the ladder leading up to the cab. Then a hiss of steam and the slam of the firebox doors. Shop foreman Al Gledhill looked to the platform eight feet below.

“You must be the renter!” he called down.

I stood there in my pristine new overalls and work shirt, spotless engineer’s hat, immaculate gloves, sporting two camera bags, a water bottle, and the face of a six year old about to climb onto Santa’s lap. How Al didn’t mistake me for the Chief of Motive Power for perhaps the Strasburg Railroad, I don’t know; maybe the Strasburg CMP is taller than I am.

“Come on up!”

I tossed my bags onto the footplate and for the first time in forty-eight years, I climbed up into the cab of an operating steam locomotive. I will remember those ten seconds with great fondness for the rest of my life.

Jerry’s story continues next week when he takes the throttle of a steam locomotive for the first time.

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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