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Capturing a Dream — Part II

by Jerry Cesak

The following is the second and final part of an article by Jerry Cesak as he relates his experience renting steam locomotive 93.

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.

Al was getting steam up, a process, which he explained, takes about two hours when she’s had a fire in her the previous day or four hours from a dead cold start. That was the reply to the first of my thousand questions for Al, who kindly realized that I was not just “another renter”; I was passionate about every moment of this.

I noticed another man on the platform in overalls, armed with a long-spouted oilcan and a pneumatic grease gun. It was Richard Barnes, a hostler, who knows every seal, joint and fitting of the NNRy’s locomotives. He was meticulously giving number 93 her morning lubrication. I decided to give Al a break and spent the next half hour following Richard around like a puppy, lobbing ten questions at him for every drop of oil he squirted.

Back in the cab again with Al, our pressure was approaching the desired 190 psi when a cheerful young man in overalls climbed up and introduced himself as David Turner, the fireman for my excursion. David took over the coal tossing from Al, who climbed through the forward cab window onto number 93’s boiler casing to open the valves for the electric dynamo and whistle.

Shortly, we were joined by a guy who looked like Penn (of Penn & Teller) Gillette’s brother. This was Kurt Dietrich, our engineer. Kurt would operate the engine within the East Ely yard limits, then closely supervise me when I took over the throttle. Meanwhile, he’d inherited the beleaguered Al’s job of fielding the five questions I asked for every one answered. He did so with kindness and patience.

Preparing a steam locomotive to roll is a bit more complicated than putting a key in the ignition and backing out of the garage. For the next hour, David and Kurt cleared and checked the boiler’s two water glasses, verified the water level with the boiler petcocks, and charged the two air compressors above the smoke box. They tested the independent brake system (we’d be pulling no cars, so engine and tender brakes were all we’d need), checked the water level in 93’s 7,500 gallon tender, and ensured that the water injector worked properly. They verified the integrity of her headlight, tender light, and reversal gear. They tested her drive wheel sanding system, her steam-driven bell, and the two-way radios that keep the crew in touch with each other and the dispatcher in the second floor of the East Ely depot.

At last, shortly before 9 o’clock, Richard, who would also be our brakeman, climbed into the cab to report the engine was ready to roll.

“You ready to do some railroadin’?” Kurt grinned at me.

As much as I wanted to stay in the cab for the roll out from the engine house, I wanted even more to see it happen. I exited through the small door in the front of the building as Richard opened the massive roll up door of track number 2.

Imagine my absolute, sheer joy as I stood trackside fifty feet in front of the engine house. The morning had a chilly snap to it; the sun had recently lifted above the mountains to the east, painting the buildings in a butterscotch blush. Number 93 stood waiting just inside, taking up most of the doorway, impatient, powerful, with smoke leaping from her stack into the vent, headlight glowing, and sun sparkling off her red and gold boiler medallion.

I heard the hiss of steam as Kurt moved the reversal gear forward, followed by a rush of air as the brakes released. Her bell echoed through the yard, ping ponging off the buildings. And with no effort at all, she elegantly glided forward.

To steam fanatics like us, there’s nothing more breathtaking than an enormous steam locomotive moving at less than walking speed with her cylinder cocks open, smoke and steam bursting from the stack in great chuffs. As The 93 slowly slid past me, I was mesmerized by the mechanics of turning steam into motion: Cross heads coaxing main rods forward, then nudging them back, drive wheel counterweights rolling over, connecting rods lifting up and down, valves sliding back and forth.

Kurt stopped the engine to let me clamber back aboard, and we were off for a half hour excursion around the yard. Happily, for me, we needed coal added to the twelve-ton capacity tender. Since the NNRy’s coaling tower is not yet operational, this was accomplished with a front-end loader. Coaling completed, Kurt took 93 to the limit of the East Ely yard and stopped the engine. At last my big moment had arrived.

Kurt stood at my immediate left as I took my place on the green cushioned seat box. Good thing he walked me through the procedure to get her rolling; I was too nervous to remember what I’d watched him do before. Under his direction, I first moved the reverse lever to the full forward position. Then I released the independent brake valve to a thrilling whoosh of releasing air. Next, I moved the lever forward to open her cylinder cocks. I flipped the small lever for the automatic steam operated bell ringer and reached over my head for the whistle lever. Two short blasts and I put my hand on the throttle.

Just prior to taking my seat, I’d mounted my video camera on a small tripod behind David on the tender. And right before I eased the throttle back, I turned to the camera and said, “Dad, this is for you.”

I pulled the throttle back a notch, then another. One more and I heard the steam chest fill and NNRy number 93 eased slowly and effortlessly forward. Our journey had begun.

Kurt told me the speed limit on our seven-mile trip to Keystone was twelve miles per hour over most of the route, so I notched the throttle further out to pick up speed.

I quickly learned that sitting in the right seat of a steam locomotive requires almost constant concentration. Above me to my right was a cluster of five gauges: boiler pressure, independent and automatic air brake pressure, steam chest pressure, and a speedometer. I found it necessary to monitor these gauges continually. I was also responsible for watching the track ahead. There are several crossings on the way to Keystone, all requiring bell and whistle warnings. When rounding a left turn, my vision was obstructed by the boiler, so I’d call to David “clear crossing?” or “clear curve?” in order to get his assurance that nothing and no one was on the track ahead. Additionally, Kurt taught me to anticipate gradations in the track level. Activating the controls of a locomotive produces a somewhat delayed response. To maintain a constant speed while climbing a grade, more throttle should be applied just before the incline. Similarly, power on a downhill slope should be adjusted before the actual decline. Throttle and brakes should be applied gently to prevent the drivers slipping or locking. Kurt also taught me to listen to the engine, to the exhaust, consisting of a series of four distinct “barks” issuing from her stack as we climbed a grade—a good way to tell if the reverse lever is allowing the proper steam cutoff to the cylinders.

The seven miles out to Keystone is generally uphill, so I only used the engine brakes to slow to eight miles per hour through the two tunnels through which we passed. Tunnel 1 is my favorite—it’s longer, and in its confines, the greatest aromas on Earth floated into the cab: smoke and steam. The tunnel is a delight for the ears as well: the clang of the bell bouncing off the walls and the chuffing of exhaust from the blast pipe into the stack.

The outbound incline kept David pretty busy. Locomotive 93 uses plenty of steam on the way to Keystone, so David was stoking for much of the time. Behind me, I heard the scrape of the shovel on the tender floor and the hiss of steam as David stomped on the firebox door pedal.

In about half an hour, we’d arrived at Keystone and Kurt took over to maneuver the engine about the wye. I left the footplate at this point to take pictures and video and to watch Richard unlock and throw the switches, which would align us properly for the ride back to Ely.

The ride home was a little tougher to handle: while I used the throttle most of the way to Keystone, the slow decline in track elevation now necessitated a lot of braking, which is not nearly as easy as I’d thought. Again, a lot of it is done by anticipating the trackage ahead and by feeling the engine as she rolls. I had the reverse lever in the full forward position to provide us with dynamic braking, but I still had my left hand constantly on the brake lever. It takes an adroit touch to maintain a constant speed, moving the lever into the slow application position, maybe resting in “lap,” perhaps adding a touch more pressure, then releasing the brakes and returning to “run.” Stopping the engine is also an art. Just as in driving a car, it’s easy to stop with a final lurch but it takes practice to release the brakes just right in order to glide to a smooth halt.

David had a more relaxing time on the way back since we weren’t using nearly as much steam, and he was kind enough to man my cameras to record me operating this magnificent machine.

We were back at the East Ely yard limit way too soon, and Kurt took us on from there back to the station. As we approached the platform, a crowd of sightseers was boarding the string of passenger cars, obviously excited about their upcoming trip and the sights and sounds of the approaching steam locomotive. I couldn’t resist standing in the doorway, waving as we passed them. How could they know that I was just a “guest engineer?” I could not have been more proud.

As Kurt finished coupling up to the passenger train for the excursion, Joan Bassett came to greet me with my Certificate of Operation, stating that on May 22, 2005 I had “operated NNRy Steam Locomotive 93, an ALCO 2-8-0 built in 1909 on the mainline from East Ely to Keystone, Nevada and return.” It was signed by Executive Director Mark Bassett and my engineer, Kurt. Joan also gave me a copy of my train orders for the day.

I had those documents framed, along with pictures of my hand on the throttle, a beauty shot of 93, and three small pieces of coal I’d helped myself to before I climbed down from the cab. (Mark, I owe you nine cents.)

I stood trackside as the excursion pulled out watching 93 pull a train of eager passengers out of the yard, not quite believing what I’d experienced during the past five hours. I’ve been told that when we look back on our lives, we remember our experiences most poignantly as “moments.” Here are moments from that day that will live in my heart and soul forever: Kurt stopping the engine at the yard limit, getting up from his seat, smiling at me, and saying, “She’s yours.” Leaning out the cab window with my hand on the throttle, watching the drivers rolling, the rods sliding, and thinking, “I am making that happen.” Locking my arms in the handrails of the engine ladder behind David, in awe of the absolute power of steam during a boiler blow-down. And maybe the most emotional moment of the day: coming out of tunnel number 1 the track curves close to Route 50. Ahead I saw a car parked by the side of the road. A mother, father, and little boy had heard the engine approaching and stopped to watch her pass. Dad had a video camera. As we passed, they waved. I waved back. I’d spent forty-eight years of my life, both with my father and alone after his passing, standing on the sides of roads watching locomotives thunder past. And by God, now it was me waving from cab. I was the engineer of a steam locomotive. Life had come full circle. And most assuredly magical.

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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