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Steam Sells!

I came to the Museum with a few preconceived notions. One of them was that a train was a train and it didn’t matter which locomotive pulled it. I thought that the only thing our passengers were after was a train ride. In fact one of the Dads who saw diesel Locomotive 109 pulling into the station, smoking away, said, “Oh look, we have a steam locomotive pulling us.”

In the many conversations that I’ve had with the Museum staff over the summer, one point that they tried to pound in my head was that steam sells tickets. Well they were right and I was wrong. Steam sells and it sells big time for the Museum. And that is the dilemma that the Museum faces. Steam sells but it also takes a lot of money to maintain and a lot of time to get ready for it’s run.

I’ve been a rail fan since I was knee high to grasshopper. I’ve chased trains and watched trains most of my life to date. I’ve studied them and read about them and I thought that I had a good grasp of railroading. Then I found out real quick why the railroads changed from steam to diesel locomotives over night.

It’s one thing to read about the change over in books and another to experience it first hand. To get steam Locomotive 93 ready for its weekend run the work starts on Tuesday. Problems from the previous weekend are addressed and the locomotive is checked closely. Come Friday, the firebox has a nice bed of coal spread out in it, along with a nice mixture of oily rags and wood. Saturday morning at o-dark-thirty (also known as 4:30 a.m.) the engine house crew, Al and Chris, and a volunteer start getting 93 ready for the public. The firebox is lit off with a highway flare. Then the locomotive is washed.

I need to digress here and explain the washing process. On my first morning, I was working with Al. We lit off the firebox, and Al said, “okay the next thing we do is wash the locomotive.”

I said okay, “Where’s the bucket and water.”

Al said, “I’ll show you where to get the hot water.”

My reply was “Why do I need hot water?”

“So your hands won’t get cold.”

“Why would my hands get cold?” I asked.

Al’s reply, “Because we wash 93 by hand.” Now understand this is at 4:45 a.m. I drove down from Elko the night before AND I don’t wash my personal cars. And here I was going to wash a 100-ton locomotive that stands a good fourteen feet off the ground. Well I did.

After the washing, the locomotive is oiled all around. Some of the oiling points require climbing into the running gear and wheels to get at meanwhile there is this hot boiler right over your head.

While I’m oiling around, Al is tending the fire. This means he is shoveling coal into what looks like a miniature version of hell. The firebox is now over 1,000º F. Through the course of the morning Al will shovel in about 500 pounds of coal.

After the oiling, the locomotive is greased. The grease gun is essentially an air-powered jackhammer. This needs to go onto the grease points and grease is hand fed into the gun as the trigger is pulled.

At 8:00 a.m. the engine crew for that day’s run shows up. The engineer and the fireman assist the hostlers (that’s what Al, Chris and I are called.) We move the locomotive outside to catch the oiling and grease points that were blocked by the running gear. Then the ashes are knocked out of the ash pan. Everything is checked one last time, then 93 whistles off and heads for her train.

Yet before she can couple onto the train she must run the wye. This is three branches of track that allow the locomotive to be turned. After running the wye, its time to couple on to the train. If everything has gone correctly, at about 9:15 a.m. 93 couples onto her train.

Now the real fun begins. The fireman has the most difficult job. It helps if the fireman has the attention span and energy of a 2-year old, because they are going to need it. The fireman is shoveling coal all morning long, about 1500 pounds for one trip, all one shovel at a time. Also the fireman maintains the water in the boiler, rings the bell, watches for the engineer on left hand curves, sprays down the coal in the tender, and keeps the cab of the locomotive clean.

The engineer is operating the locomotive setting the valves, adjusting the throttle, watching the water, speed and the track ahead and looking back and checking the train.

After the run 93 is then moved over to the coal pile and coaled. We use a front-end loader for this chore. The crew spots the locomotive on the coaling ramp and gets out. Al then starts dumping coal into the tender. Every time he dumps a load, a plume of coal dust fills the cab of the locomotive and everything gets covered with coal dust. After loading, 93 is taken down to the engine house.

It’s now about 12:30 p.m. The locomotive is spotted in its stall under the roof vent. The firebox is banked. (This means that a mound of coal is placed in the firebox that will keep the boiler warm all night.) Al, who has been on duty since 4:30 a.m., goes around the locomotive and puts it to bed. This will take him about an hour or so. He’ll go off duty at 2:30 p.m.

Why tell this long tale, because for a 2-hour trip we were working on 93 for 8 hours. So for every hour 93 runs we have invested about four hours of support time.

Now lets contrast this with diesel Locomotive 109. 109 is parked outside the engine house. The engineer and brakemen show up about one hour before train time. Do a walk around, unlock it, start it, do another walk around, whistle off and head for their train.

No need to run the wye. Need to reverse direction? Just change the position of the reversing lever and rotate your seat 180º. Couple up to your train, check the brakes and you’re off. After the trip, uncouple from the train, run back to the engine house, shut off the engine, lock the cab, set the hand brake and you’re done. For every hour 109 runs we might have a ¼ hour invested in it.

To summarize, for every hour 93 runs we need four hours of support. Every hour 109 runs we need a quarter hour of support. This is why the railroads scrapped all of their steam in just ten years.

This summarizes the dilemma the Museum is facing; our ridership on the steam trains is four times as great as the diesel trains. Without a steam locomotive our ridership will plummet. Next week we will go into the economics of the steam locomotive versus the diesel.

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Monday - Saturday | 8AM - 5PM
Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

Our Location

1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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