Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Print

Usually our machines simply do what we build them to do. But every now and then, they remind us how to live.

Throughout the early 80’s, the New Orleans chapter of the NRHS coordinated with the Southern Railway to operate several steam excursions between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi – a 225 mile roundtrip.   Like many in the hobby, I owe my deep love of trains to my father, and during my younger years we greatly enjoyed our riding together on these wonderful day-long steam marathons.

While railfans across the southeast during this era benefited from frequent contact with the steam program’s more robust and modern samplings – the ubiquitous J class #611 and A class #1218 – southeast Louisiana fans were not afforded those opportunities. The old Southern Railway trestle across Lake Pontchatrain was an all-wooden structure with low weight limits. We were always told that the high tonnage of the two N&W giants prevented their entrance into the Big Easy. As such, for several years we were treated to the smaller specimens in the stable: Canada’s Royal Hudson on lease, Savannah & Atlanta’s Pacific #750, and of course the classic Baldwin Mikado #4501.

Every trip during these years presented a challenge to its planners. The popularity of the voyage outweighed these locomotive’s more limited drawbar pull. I can remember arriving at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal to find a train of coaches that seemed as long as 20 cars – too much for light Pacifics and Mikados in a solo role. As such, diesel-electric assistants were always called in for backing. Sometimes this would be as ordinary as a GP38-2 (as in 1984 when #4501 was beset with bad coal), but on several occasions, two of the green “Heritage” FP7’s played the necessary second fiddle to the celebrity steamer.

The tickets my father would purchase for us secured two seats in one of the old coaches, but we were never found there. We preferred the tail end of the movement, always claiming a spot in Lookout Mountain, the steam program’s beloved open observation car that racked up thousands of excursion miles over the decades. From its spacious platform, this young kid watched many a mile slip away along the Southern’s pristine, all-welded main line traveling northeast from the Crescent City.

Lookout Mountain turned out to be the locale for one of my most vivid childhood memories. It was the 1985 trip, featuring the much-loved #4501. During the lunch break in Hattiesburg, the crews turned the Mike on a nearby wye for the southbound flight home. Meanwhile, my father and I managed to gulp down the greasy box lunches that came with our tickets – a meal always too cold and too meager. Soon the classy FP7’s took there place in front ofMan O War (another well known excursion car, always at the head end on New Orleans trips). After brake tests, the 4501 once again took her rightful place on the lead. Dad and I hustled our way back to our favorite spot on the rear, and with our comrades in the hobby, waited for our collective departure.

Now this is what I remember: The heavy man next to me, weighed down with multiple cameras and smelling of box lunch chicken, happened to have a radio scanner clipped to his generous belt. Suddenly it crackled to life. My young ears tuned in with great interest.

It seemed the head end crew was experiencing a moment of spontaneity. “How about we let 4501 get us underway?” asked the engineer. A pregnant silence followed. The boss of the FP7’s broke in with what seemed like hesitant agreement. The conductor’s voice came next. His, the final word. Apparently he had no opinion on the matter, except that it was time to get underway. “Highball 4501.”

My mind was electric. No one had to explain any of this to me. I knew exactly what all this railroad chatter meant. The classy little Mikado we all loved was being handed a great challenge: 16 over worn heavyweights, all loaded to the gills with railfan fathers and sons like us, and a few patient wives. This was to be a superlative moment.

Feeling as though I had just broken the Enigma code, I quickly tugged at my father’s sleeve. I felt he just had to know this news before any one else. No sooner had I finished uploading the information when we heard a whistle. Two breathy blasts from afar signaled the start of the fight.

As the slack ran out and the drawbar tightened, the whole train lurched. Everyone was immediately quiet. In the absence of Lookout Mountain chatter, what I already knew now became clear to others: No EMD prime movers could be heard getting underway! Only the deep, throaty chug of a Baldwin stack drifted back to our ears.

Inches turned to feet, each one a victory. Feet became yards, and slowly the city of Hattiesburg began passing us by. But still no noise that resembled FP7s. The message was now clear to all concerned: We were starting on our way home, with no help yet from anything that ran on diesel oil. It did not take long for our forward motion to apogee, a velocity I imagined to be no more than 8-10 miles per hour. Paul Merriam’s old machine had managed to get this heavy train underway, all by herself.

My budding railfan imagination was now in full cutoff, working hard. Understand: Southern’s 4501 had held in my callow mind the status of true hero for some time. To be sure, I was raised a Presbyterian, therefore taught well the dangers of idolatry. But this little Baldwin was a true temptress. My many indiscretions were obvious: I had memorized David Morgan’s book. I was the only kid in my middle school who knew who Walter Dove was. I could recite light Mikado statistics to anyone who asked. (Painfully, no one ever did.)

Given this adoration, I understood well that this feat now taking place before me was perhaps more than her Baldwin designers ever imagined, at least at her age. Even from the tail end of the train, my mind’s eye could see every aspect her effort: Eight 44” drivers “digging in”, Walscherts gear at full cutoff, sand coming down like rain. I could picture her fireman shoveling hard; her engineer, poised, simply hoping for one good grip after another.

I had to imagine all of these sights, but I could feel their results. For what seemed like many a slow mile, as the city of Hattiesburg gave way bit by bit to Mississippi piney woods, the little Mike did her thing, and did it well. Nothing fancy, mind you. No speed to thrill a dynameter chart. No J class ease. But we were on our way, by golly. Sixteen or more coaches and two idled EMDs inching down the line. And just like me, those covered wagons were merelypassengers on this ride. Their reversers in neutral, while the steam kettle they replaced slowly and steadily took care of business.

The end of this promethean struggle for acceleration was soon signaled by another crackle on my neighbor’s revelatory speaker. “Engineer 4501 to engineer 3497, how about some help now?”

At least, that’s what I remember he said. Two blats from a Nathan 5-chime were quickly followed by the unmistakable resonance of 567 prime movers finally getting dressed for work. Another lurch—this time a little stronger—and the clickety-clacks soon picked up in rhythm the way a jazz trio gets its thing together. We were taking on speed, quickly now, making our way back home to New Orleans with a little help from the Electro-Motive Division. Sheer steam determination had, I suppose by necessity, given way to diesel-electric ease.

As a minister now, I find I mostly view this life as a gift of immense grace to be received and responded to, not so much a thing to be conquered through sheer will or dogged grit. But even a theologian can concede that every now and then gritty determination has its place among the virtues. And what’s more, sometimes even our machines teach us the dignity of staying in the fight.

Can staybolts and seams be our heroes? Does a boiler with brakes posses a will? I’m not sure. Is my memory of these moments a bit puffy with time? The details, distended in hindsight? Perhaps. But in my childhood memory there remain a handful of charmed minutes when an outclassed little steamer bravely took on weighty odds … and persevered.

“Slow and steady wins the race,” said the tortoise to the hare.

Slow and steady indeed.