It’s monstrous, even at rest. So big that you have to lean your head way out the cab window to see the front end. It smokes, bangs, steams and hisses; cinders fly, coal blackens the floor, a fire blazes within. The 80-ton, black iron dragon wants to move. You tug on the long, steel bar of a throttle. Scalding steam releases at the pistons. The drive wheels screech against the rails. Thick smoke jets out the stack. You tug a short blast on the whistle. Your engine is rolling down the line.
Steam locomotives have gone the way of so many other once ubiquitous machines. Yet they endure deep in memory like a lost love, even in the hearts of nearly all of us who are far too young to recall a time when the smoke from a big passing steam train was a frequent sight. Dave Conrad has spent much of his adult life fixing and running steam trains. He’s the vice president and chief mechanical officer for the Essex Steam Train, which operates historic sightseeing trains over the original Valley Railroad line out of Essex, Connecticut, along the scenic lower Connecticut River. Conrad also teaches the railroad’s “Your Hand on the Throttle” program.
Participants spend an hour in class—a vintage dining car—learning the principles of steam engines and their operational basics, from the laws governing blowing the whistle at crossings to handling the engine on the line’s steep grade. Then—one by one—the engineers-for-a-day climb into the cab for an hour-long run. Despite the $500 price tag, the program regularly sells out.
“Steam locomotives are compelling,” finds Conrad, “because people anthropomorphize them. When they’re sitting, it sounds like breathing. When running, you can tell it’s working hard. The size, the heat, the smells, and just the feel bring out the train engineer in each of us.”
Conrad says you can learn to run a steam locomotive in a couple of hours, “but to really get a feel for an engine, it takes years.”
For those out west, Nevada’s Northern Railway Museum’s Locomotive Rental Program offers a similar opportunity to get into the cab.
Floyd Barwig of upstate New York steps out of the cab after his hour at the throttle, a huge smile fills his face. He says proudly, “It’s the ultimate smoking experience.”
Visit essexsteamtrain.com and nnry.com.