What is it about a steam locomotive I find so alluring? Why do I feel such deep emotion whenever I hear its whistle? Why do so many others find it so enticing and enchanting? On Wednesday, October 10, 2019, my son and I got up before 5 am, and left Santa Monica for Yermo, California. Newly restored Union Pacific 4014 steam locomotive stopped there overnight before continuing to LA in preparation for scheduled weekend excursions.
More than 100 enthusiasts gathered at the Yermo UP yard to take pictures, stare, talk with the crew, and watch the dragon come alive in the predawn darkness. The assemblage included railfans, photographers, children of many ages, old railroaders, and the curious.
After leaving Yermo, we stopped in Barstow, CA, to watch the monstrous #4014 pass. The locomotive has a 4-8-8-4 configuration and is 132 feet long. After Barstow, we proceeded to Victorville, where 4014 paused, to perform routine greasing of vital parts and a 45-minute rest. A large crowd packed the area of the Amtrak station with those wanting to see this marvelous machine.
The rest of the day was more of the same. Wherever we went, there were hordes of people assembled eager to see this almost 80-year-old mechanical marvel come alive again.
My fascination with steam locomotives began sometime around age 4 or 5 in Fortville, Indiana, a small bedroom community northeast of Indianapolis. It is located on what was then mainline of the New York Central Railroad. I was drawn to and fascinated by the big locomotives hauling freight as they passed through the center of Fortville at 60-70 mph.
Why do I react so emotionally? Is it pure nostalgia, or does it originate somewhere in my psyche? Maybe I connect these machines from my early childhood to my feelings of rejection by my father. He ignored me and showed significant partiality to my older brother.
I understood at 4 or 5-years-old, my father didn’t care about me, wasn’t interested, and purposefully ignored me. It was only the last year of my mother’s almost 104 years of life that she revealed he had tried to have the doctor abort the pregnancy and thus me.
I was reminded of when our youngest son purchased throttle time for his brother and me to control another steam locomotive. Nickel Plate #765 is owned and operated by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It has always been and remains one of my most memorable moments. To be in control of a machine weighing close to a million pounds was an unforgettable experience.
I have shared many such moments with my sons throughout our lives. We lived close to the Norfolk Southern Railroad, and our oldest son was fascinated and attracted to every freight train that passed by. His younger brother later joined him, but the big turning point came a bit later.
Locomotive Nickel Plate #765 was rebuilt in 1979 after spending almost 20 years perched along the St. Mary’s river in a Fort Wayne park. The “Berkshire” locomotive was built by the Lima Locomotive Works in 1944. It was principally used to haul freight. Nickel Plate 765 weighs 800,000 pounds, loaded with 22,000 gallons of water in one tender and 22 tons of coal. Because the water towers once used to refill steam locomotives have vanished, 765 has an auxiliary tender with a second 22,000 gallons of water.
When our sons were 8 and 10-years-old, I took them on an excursion behind Nickel Plate 765 from the railyard in nearby New Haven to Peru, Indiana, and back. The excursion route flooded me with many boyhood memories. It passed through Wabash, Indiana, where I saw what remained of the woods and fields where I played. I saw “my” house from the railroad standing on the hill in the distance. It was home to three generations of my family and to me for 18 years. I felt a momentary pang of pain.
The old Wabash line of the modern Norfolk Southern Railroad follows the broad flat Maumee Spillway carved from the glacial lake once covering the area. The railroad was built in places on the old Wabash & Erie Canal towpath. You can often see the old canal bed. You also see the remnants of the old interurban railroad that ran along this same route.
The rich farmland, some of which was once a swamp, appeared as a sea of browning corn broken by the green trees. There were birches, willows, box elders, maples, ashes, hickories, oaks, some walnuts, and others.
There has always been something special about steam locomotives and listening to their high-pitched whistles piercing the stillness. I recall listening for two longs, a short and another long blare of the whistle as the engine approached another crossing. Seeing a steam locomotive and especially hearing the whistle lying in bed in the still of the night is akin to the mystical experience many feel going to the ocean. It is a compelling experience.
The old Wabash Railroad line is physically a central feature of my life. My paternal grandparents lived in a house located next to the Wabash yard in Peru, Indiana. My maternal grandparent’s house, where I grew up, is located near the railroad. The house we lived in when my sons were introduced to trains was close to the railroad. I have lived somewhere near this railroad most of my life.
These thoughts filled my mind as I sat in the backseat while my two sons discuss our route and strategy for chasing Union Pacific 4014. We stop periodically at strategically identified locations where we can get out and find a vantage point to observe and take countless pictures. At every stop between Barstow and the Union Pacific’s West Colton Yard in Bloomington, California, east of Los Angeles, we are met or joined by hordes of others gathering for the same ill-defined mystical purpose. We are all attracted to the same magic and enchantment of this magnificent relic of a lost world.
As the days passed, my thoughts turned to my hometown of Fort Wayne. The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society proposed a rail and transportation history center to be included in the city’s riverfront development plans. Some who are influential in this proposed development have failed to see the value of such an attraction. Sadly, they recently removed the idea from the riverfront plans with a promise to help The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society find a suitable site nearby. I hope they are sincere, but experience has taught that governments are overly adept at using this tactic. It is a useful tool derailing and putting in “as soon as hell freezes over” projects and ideas beyond their vision. It’s analogous to Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.
Headwater’s Junction, as the proposed rail history attraction was called, would attract thousands of visitors to the city’s downtown. The plan included a roundhouse filled with other FWRHS locomotives and rolling stock, Interurban display, meeting room, restaurant, and other facilities. The proposed location placed it on a site where a railyard had been. It was also adjacent to property connected to the city’s interurban past. It would also have allowed for building a future short connecting these attractions to the city’s acclaimed children’s zoo. It did not happen. Vision is the rarest of traits and is not often associated with politicians and established interests. We can hope the next turn of the wheel will bring new leadership with a different perspective and willingness to take advantage of the opportunity it represents. At this point, it is only a wish and a hope.
Throughout the days of these excursions, I watched the large crowds in wonder. People lined the more than 100-mile route. They chased 4014 in cars and gathered at the most photogenic locations. As a witness, I could not help but ask myself what it is about these awe-inspiring mechanical machines of a simpler age that so many find enticing and irresistible. Large caravans of cars jammed Interstate 15 and side roads, doing best to tag along, follow, and chase 4014 wherever it went. I watched as we stood in awe, joy, and even a few tears. These machines invoke something deep inside us. They rouse emotions, unconscious feelings, and yearnings we never realized were there, waiting for the proper stimulus to be awakened.
I stood on the bridge over the West Colton Union Pacific Yard surrounded by 200 or more people of all ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities. We were all part of the same tribe with the focus of attention on a colossal black bemouth belching smoke and steam, filling the air with its rhythms and its music as it passed under us.
I cannot explain the attraction. I have tried to understand it. I have tried my best to understand and express it, but I really cannot explain it. More importantly, it does not matter. I simply enjoy being in the moment and letting the experience wash over me and consume my awareness. Next year, if the opportunity arises, I will do it all over again.
As with all things, Wabi-sabi
Also available at: jerrymlawson.medium.com