It occurs to me that there is something inherently sad about a steam locomotive going cold for the last time. Such a machine is as close to a living, breathing, entity as humanity has managed to piece together. And when one of these magnificent creatures falls by the wayside, it is almost (pardon me for using one of the most overused words in vogue today) tragic. The fire that is the life’s blood of such a creature is extinguished, and she slowly grows cold; the spark of life going out and leaving so much dead steel behind.
I was not around for the last gasp of steam in the old days. I wasn’t there when the last New York Central Hudson ran its last mile, or the last Union Pacific Big Boy thundered out of Cheyenne, or the last Norfolk & Western Y filled the hollers of West Virginia with coal smoke and the song of a hoot whistle. I may have missed the great extinction, but I have seen my share.
There were the ones that I missed. I never got to see Norfolk & Western 611 in her excursion days, though she came painfully close to my neck of the woods. I missed steamers on the French Lick, West Baden & Southern and the Whitewater Valley Scenic. They fell by the wayside, almost before I knew they existed.
Then there were the ones of my acquaintance; locomotives I did manage to see before the spark of life that was a fire on the grates was extinguished. I rode behind and chased Norfolk & Western 1218. I spent a day in an almost futile attempt to keep ahead of the Cotton Belt 819 on Union Pacific’s racetrack down the Mississippi Valley in southern Illinois. And of course, there was the Frisco 1522; the loudest locomotive I ever had the pleasure of listening to.
They all still exist, though stuffed and mounted they are a shadow of what they were.
Such things were on my mind as I pulled into Boone, Iowa, on an afternoon in May. Near the depot and museum on the property of the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad is the resting place of the first steam locomotive to make my acquaintance; Crab Orchard & Egyptian #17.
I was a youngster of ten when we first met. She was slumbering that day, parked in her berth in the engine house in Marion, Illinois. Those drivers looked HUGE through the window, and an employee was kind enough to open the doors so I could get a photo of her looking out.
I saw her run for the first time on my tenth birthday, and again twice more before I turned thirteen. Of course, at that age things will always continue as they are. Or so it seems. A year and a quarter after I last saw her run, #17 lost that spark of life; a victim of a mechanical failure that would cost more to fix than the railroad was willing to spend on her. But I never saw her before she left Marion. My last image of her was of her sitting in front of the engine house, trailing a light haze of smoke into the late afternoon air of a warm June day as she waited to be bedded down in her stall for the night.
It was nearly twenty-seven years later that I pulled into the parking lot of the B&SV, pulled a camera out of the truck and walked to her resting place. It was something akin to a visitation; there she lay looking something like she did in life but missing that essential spark that transformed her from an inanimate object into something more. It was sad, really. I had seen pictures of her on display of course, but they were not reality. Well, not mine anyway. No longer. That last view of her, hot with fire in her belly and a haze of smoke rolling lazily into the sky, was now that of the lifeless shell of her former self.
I visited her for a while; remembering the deep steamboat whistle and the ever clanging bell as she shuffled cars around the tiny yard at Marion. Remembering the day my grandmother and I stood behind the house and listened to the distant moan of the whistle on a winter day. Noting some of the quirky modifications the C.O.& E. had made to the locomotive; things I had missed as a child on the cusp of adolescence. Noting a few pieces of coal that had fallen between the tender and the locomotive. Perhaps they had fallen from Chuck Roehm’s shovel all those years ago; he is now gone too, missed by those who knew him.
I wallowed in the melancholy for a bit, thinking back on days gone by as I stood next to the body of a long lost friend. Much has transpired in the ensuing years, but there is nothing like the first experience of youth when everything is new and unexplored. Sometimes it is good to reflect on such things.
Eventually I left the museum and headed to the hotel for the night. By the next evening I would be in the cab of another steam locomotive; this one very much alive and one I had wanted to see since the time that I first made #17’s acquaintance.
I’m glad I got to stop by to see an old friend, but I rather think I would prefer to remember that last look at her decades ago when she was still animated with that spark of life.
Copyright 2012 - Mary Rae McPherson