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Farewell To Steam

June 2024
11min read

The iron horses that built America are nearly all gathered on the other side of Jordan

It was the way they worked the cord and changed the steam pressure that made the whistle almost seem to talk. Of course, there was a regular language of signals—two long blasts for starting up; one long tremolo for approaching a station; and, at grade crossings, the familiar whoooo, whoooo, hoo, whooooooooo! mournful and infinitely expressive—but within these supposed rigidities there was plenty of room for individuality. An engineer was a man of importance, admired by young and old, and the whistle was his signature. It was the notes of a whippoorwill, they say, that signified to the Mississippi field hands that Casey Jones was roaring by in his fast ten-wheeler, No. 382. But down in the cornfield, alas, you no longer hear that mournful sound, for not only Casey but also most of the steam locomotives in America have gone to the Promised Land, and all there is to hear is the blast of the diesel air horn.

We have grown accustomed in our limes to the ever-accelerating tempo of social and economic change; even so, the whistle of the steam engine seems to have fallen silent with stunning speed. Steam was still king at the end of World War II and had reigned supreme for over one hundred years. Like the dinosaur on the verge of extinction, it had swollen to enormous size, a hard-breathing, towering monster. Yet its hour has struck so suddenly that it seems quite possible that many a child is being born who will never see a steam locomotive, except as a toy or curio.

If the child lives in a city, especially an eastern city like New York or Boston, his chances are pretty slim. The last steam engine on the New York Central, No. 1977, chuffed her last in May, and there has not been a single New England carrier trailing smoke since the (Central Vermont damped its fires in the spring. The smoke pall which so recently filled the train sheds of Boston and dirtied alike the linen of Hack May and the late curtains of Roxbury is but a memory, perhaps not greatly missed. If the child’s lather is determined enough, however, there are a few steam-powered oddities to be seen—the little cog railway that runs up Mount Washington: two snorting ancients that climb about the working’s of the Rock of Ages marble quarry in Barre, Vermont; a brace of narrow-gauge relics which operate at the Edaville Railroad Museum in South Carver, Massachusetts; an old vertical-piston type called a Shay that operates over a third of a mile at the Pine Creek Railroad near South Amboy, New Jersey. There is more of this kind of thing, but very little real steam railroading.

The first steam engine to go, interestingly enough, was the streamlined model, devised lor the flashier passenger services. But the diesel, though first introduced only in 1925, has taken over nearly all the freight services too, so that to see real steam in action one must generally go to far places, to the mountains and the mining areas—in the Rockies on the Union Pacific, where some of the “Big Boy” articulated engines still help ease long freights over the grades; in Canada; here and there in the Appalachians. An occasional coal-carrying road like the Norfolk ͆ Western still diplomatically uses the customers’ fuel. Some huge companies like the Pennsylvania have not quite finished the transition from steam; a few others, like the Nickel Plate, have steam locomotives too new to scrap. But it is very dangerous to use the present indicative these days in writing about such matters, for in the interval between setting down the words “there are …” and printing them, fatal changes are apt to take place.

At the peak in 1924, some 65,000 steam locomotives, aided by a few electric engines, carried on most of the transportation business of America. Most of these steam engines were still on hand twenty years later, but now, all at once, there are scarcely two or three thousand. On the big Class I railroads—those with annual operating revenues over $3.000,000—nearly all the steam will go when the management can get delivery of diesels or, in some more embarrassing cases, raise the money for them. An economic law is at work which has no regard for romance: the diesel is cheaper to operate. And, apparently in a desire to underscore the point, every nerve and sinew has been bent toward making the diesel as ugly as possible.

Most of the surviving steamers, in a few years, will be the country cousins—motive power of branches, short lines, logging and quarry roads. (“Thank God for sand and gravel pits!” cried a railroad fancier’s magazine the other day.) These survivors are generally little fellows of quaint and ancient cut, better adapted than the giants to short trains,light rails, fragile trestles, and uneven roadbeds. Often they are graying at the temples, to say the least. With a little renewing here and there and some deft cannibalizing of sister locomotives, however, a steam engine practically never wears out. Smoky Mary , brought over from England to a Louisiana line in 1832, operated satisfactorily for 100 years, and John Bull , built in 1831 by Robert Stephenson & Company at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is still in working condition, although admittedly it spends most of its time these days just resting in the Smithsonian. In its own museum, the Baltimore & Ohio keeps a number of pre-Civil War engines like the William Mason ready to be steamed up and run out on the line whenever the movie-makers call.

The South, and particularly Georgia, has been a holdout in the era of the diesel, a kind of home to aging steam locomotives, but even here the new prosperity is falling on steam like a blight. And to find a wood-burning common carrier, one must travel a bit west, to the Mississippi … Alabama Railroad, whose 27-mile line connects with the Gull, Mobile R; Ohio at Vinegar Bend, Alabama. On a corkscrew-track the M&A operates a fine old 2-6-2, or “Prairie” engine.


Locomotives, it should be explained, are classified for most purposes by their wheel arrangement. Thus the so-called “American” type of locomotive, of which many specimens are illustrated in these pages, is called a 4-4-0—signifying that there are four wheels under the front truck, four driving wheels, and no trailing wheels under the cab. Wheels under the tender, of course, are ignored. It tends to be the famous older (and smaller) types that survive—Consolidations (2-8-0); freight-hauling Moguls (2-6-0); ten-wheelers (4-6-0) ; Mikados (2-8-2); and Pacifies (4-6-2). Big as they are in relation to the little engines of the Civil War era, they are dwarfed by the great articulated Mallets, with their two sets of driving wheels, each rigged to its own set of cylinders, running in series as complex as 2-10-10-2.

The disappearance of a steam engine is rarely a publicized or even public event; it is a thing done privately in an undistinguished setting. One night old 567 rolls a way freight into the yard, uncouples, hacks off on a rusty spur, and has her Ares raked out and boilers drained for the last time. There she rusts a few weeks or months, depending on the market for scrap iron. Generally someone in authority comes by to chalk her boiler with a notice of disposition (or perhaps some more personal message like the “Goodbye, old Pal,” one traveler observed in a Philadelphia yard) and eventually she goes to the torch. The public is on the highways and there is no audience to see the corpse borne off, like Hamlet’s by the soldiers, with a dead march, drums, and peals of ordnance. Hut the drama is there, for this is the end of something entirely heroic, of a century and a (quarter in which one great invention transformed a scattering of towns and settlements into a united nation.


The story of America and the steam locomotive can be told in many ways. There is, for example, a tale of inventors frustrated and prophets ignored. Consider a strange genius named Oliver Evans, who was chattering about steam carriages as early as 1786. He built a strange, crawling, amphibious monster which he called the Orukter Amphibole ; it moved on land to the Schuylkill River, waddled in and kept right on going. Naturally no one listened to a man like this when he suggested a wooden railway, with steamdrawn carriages to move between New York and Philadelphia at fifteen miles an hour. After him there was John Stevens of Hoboken, who operated the world’s first steam ferry and, at the age of 76, designed and built with his own hands a toy engine which he operated on a circular track in his yard. This was 1825, the same year Stephenson’s Locomotion appeared in England. But as early as 1812 Stevens had been telling all who would listen, a rather select company, that it would be better to build a railway than a canal between Albany and Lake Erie. If he had built the toy first, he might have been more convincing, but, at any rate, after 1825 the dam seemed to burst. Railroad projects sprang up everywhere, and railroading now became a story of inventors not only listened to but acclaimed. And the world had a new toy, viewed with horror by some and astonishment by others. Listen to an elegant gentleman of New York, George Templeton Strong, writing in 1839:

It’s n great sight to sec a large train get under way … As to the engine, the most pithy and expressive epithet I ever heard applied to it is “Hell in Harness.” Just imagine such a concern rushing unexpectedly by a stranger to the invention on a dark night, whizzing and rattling and panting, with its fiery furnace gleaming in front, its chimney vomiting fiery smoke above, and its long train of cars rushing along behind like the body and tail of a gigantic dragon-or like the d—1 himself—and 11 darting forward at the rate of twenty miles an hour. Whew!

When the rails came to Amherst, Emily Dickinson characteristically crouched in the woods to sec the train move off and then rushed home to dash oil a poem ( I like to hear it lap the miles, and lick the valleys up … ) Over in another wood lot, in Conford, Henry David Thoreau was opposed in principle hut could not conceal a certain admiration:

… when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils … it seems as if the earth had got a rate now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!

There is a story of great feats of engineering too—of speed and danger, of wilderness tamed, rivers bridged, tunnels drilled, mountains surmounted. Here, for example, is Henry Flagler, 82 years old, achieving his dream at last, making the first ride across the railroad he built out to sea to reach Key West—twenty miles on embankments, seventeen on bridges. Here between Batavia and Buffalo is the famous speed trial of old 999, making 112.5 miles an hour, back in 1893. Out at Promontory, Utah, is the greatest denouement of all, as the Golden Spike goes down in 1869, in a burst of booze and oratory. Bret Harte writes a poem:

What was it the Engines said,
Pilots touching, head to head
Facing on a single track,
Half a world behind each back?

(They might have said: Achievements pass. For the rails bypass Promontory on a shorter route today, Mr. Flagler’s railroad has been blown away, and old 999 has become a state lair exhibit. Where she passed, the trains today move no faster than at a sedate eighty miles an hour.)


Then, for a time, the railroad story becomes an extravagant tale of wild speculation, swindled bondholders, great systems devouring little ones, Wall Street coups, freight-rate scandals, rival financial titans. The harsh word is robber baron, and there are two notable quotations that come down to us from that era. There is the long argued-over retort of Vanderbilt, “The public be damned!” And there is the more characteristic remark, half aloud, half to himself, of another railroad king, on learning of a little railroad that no one had yet gobbled up: “Great Scott! Is there anything like that still left outdoors?” This was a time when, as Philip Guedalla noted, the names of railroad presidents were apt to be a good deal more significant than those of the occupants of the White House.

There was a railroad of song and folklore, where Jesse James stopped the mail car every night, where the cars just barely cleared the burning trestle, where the brave engineer kept his hand on the throttle, where Dinah blew her horn all the day. But the most significant story is found in a series of railroad maps, by decades. Here at the start are only a few little wiggly lines around Charleston, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. Expanding steadily, as in an animated movie, they eventually envelop America in a giant spider web. They carry the emigrants west. They bring the crops east to be traded for the products of industry. They build cities, and woe betide those they pass by. They make the desert, as the orator said, bloom like a garden. They create wealth and opportunity. In 1848, old Number One of the Galena & Chicago Union smokes her way into Chicago, first steam locomotive to reach what would become the railroad capital of the country. The same story is told over and over again, of all the western cities, until the big balloon stacks appear under the southern California sky to touch off a boom that is not over yet. No wonder the railroad and the steam behemoth that moved along it were the symbols of America.

Steam could not last forever, any more than the stage coach, after the invention of a more efficient device. The perilous state of most railroad finances—beset by subsidized highway, air, and water competition, regulated as though a nineteenth-century monopoly still existed—required some drastic economies, and this the diesel provided. The public, deserting the railroad passenger services in droves, saw less and less of the changeover.

But steam is dying hard, nevertheless, and it retains an ever-growing army of admirers. They turn out by the thousands for one “last” ride after another; they swap endless pictures, spikes, tickets, old timetables, even recordings of railroad noises; and they jabber away happily in professional jargon. They organize a great many clubs and societies; they have authors and prophets like Lucius Beebe and Stewart Holbrook and Archie Robertson; they sustain several magazines of substantial circulation. They organize excursions, a sizable business, and even buy and maintain old engines. They attract rich members like Vincent Astor and the late William Gillette, the actor, who built little lines on their own land. Enthusiasm is their hallmark. Here is an item from one fan publication, offering pictures of the Western Pacific Railroad:

The Take Off! Wide open (running late), drivers spinning, hogger reefs her to the pin, down in the corner! … One of the most dynamic starts in steam I’ve ever lensed. Sanda! L.I. L 3/4 complete, heavy train with desert background—clouds.

The steam lover appeared early on the scene. He insisted on a special preview ride, before regular service began, on the very first train in America. He went on camera excursions to Harpers Ferry before the Civil War. He reappeared in sizable numbers, in the middle twenties of this century, camera in hand and eager to be allowed, please, in the locomotive cab. Just as resolutely, at first, management ignored this unexpected offer of good will. Then, at last, it offered to show the fan around, but it failed abysmally to understand him. Come over here, said management, and see the streamliner. See our new dieself But the fan wanted to ride a local and climb over a rusting steamer out behind the roundhouse. Management might as well have offered a date with a chorus girl to a man standing by the deathbed of his childhood sweetheart.


Perhaps the most outstanding example of what this organized enthusiasm can do is the story of the narrow-gauge Silverton passenger service of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, last survivor of a network of narrow-gauge lines hacked out of the Colorado mountains many decades ago—last, indeed, of all narrow-gauge passenger lines in America. A few years ago, it had dwindled to a twice-weekly mixed train, with a single passenger car, and application was made for its abandonment. Then the steam admirers took notice and moved in, until now, throughout the summer tourist months, the astonished railroad runs a train every day, with all its ten surviving cars packed solid. Not the least of the lures is that the power at the head end is honest old-fashioned steam. As in a horse opera, the rescue came in the nick of time, for the company had been gradually getting rid of its steamers by destroying them in head-on collisions staged for the movies.

From the steam fancier’s standpoint, there is one more heartening piece of news, the situation at Lionel Lines, one of the healthiest corporations in the railroad business. Lionel, which manufactures model trains, has paid steady dividends since 1937 and the future looks only optimistic. As its president explains, he considers that his market comprises some 60 per cent of American males, young and old, and that demand for his product simply goes along with the birth rate. He has nowhere to go but up, and he plans to keep right on making steam engines.



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