WINNSBORO — Little boys playing with train sets dream of wearing the hat of engineer, of hearing the screech of the steam escaping a smoke stack and the chug of pistons firing as an engine moves toward a hill.
Thanks to an interactive program at the South Carolina Railroad Museum, the child inside of men and women has a chance to fulfill that dream of having an engineer experience under the watchful eyes of Engineer Rufus Timms.
The Engineer Experience was held on two Saturdays this fall, and on Nov. 17, I had the privilege of a hands-on assignment, accompanying several other train enthusiasts and a team from the railroad museum along a track of the section of the Rockton, Rion and Western Railroad.
I and several train aficionados boarded the open air car behind the engine and then Timms started the lesson for the first passenger/student, young adult novelist Claudia Delorme who drove the locomotive as part of her research for a book about a 13-year-old boy during the Great Depression. After a move from New Jersey to South Carolina she began working on the novel which was on her bucket list and she said the time spent with Timms and his 10-year-old son proved invaluable to her research.
We watched as Timms explained to her about the Johnson bar, a device similar in function to a car’s gearshift that sets the amount of steam that is in the cylinder containing the piston, the pull horn, brakes and the lever that worked like an accelerator.
The museum workers actually installed the actual train whistle from the No. 44, a locomotive the museum is raising money, over $200,000, to restore. The No. 126 locomotive from the Lehigh Valley Coal Company was rented for the Engineer Experience day and proceeds went to the museum.
Assisting Timms in his tutelage were Conductor Chris Rambo and Brakeman, Tim Hill, who maintained the crucial coal-water balance. If those two elements came out of balance, a boiler fire or explosion could result. The 126 had an extra safety feature installed to mitigate that risk, though. The brakeman assists the engineer with diesel engines, too, by throwing switches and conducting brake tests on the hand brakes on the cars.
Other railroad museum staff manned the fire train that followed us along as a safety precaution. Rambo enjoyed chatting about the conductor’s role as the engineer’s eyes relaying information by radio while the train backed up the tracks. He has been around trains since age 10. At 18 he began driving motor cars, joined the crew at 21 and now is studying as an engineer in training to become qualified to drive diesel locomotives. Rambo runs a chainsaw a lot, limbing trees and keeping the five miles of track from the museum clear, the five miles on which the trains can operate. All total the Railroad Museum has 11.5 miles of track though some is not usable at present.
I became excited as I saw the black smoke billowing from the smoke stack, an indicator that the boiler area was still heating up. As the smoke turned to white the outer residue had burned off so that only coal remained. The result was a far hotter fire that produced more heat and therefore more steam.
With a tug on the Johnson bar, we had the locomotive ready to move forward and pull the cars into the turn. I pulled off on the brakes and eased onto the throttle and we were under way. It was a thrill to tug twice on the pull chain and make the horn blow twice-the signal of our departure from the station.
We eased along about two miles of track with Timms guiding me as I added speed and Hill shoveled more coal into the boiler to keep up.
“It’s a real job if you could imagine maintaining this across the country. It’s a real job and we only do it for about an hour,” Timms said. You can say that again.
On the trip back I encountered more resistance than I expected. As we approached a turn the train was gaining momentum, so Rufus motioned for me to apply the brake to the locomotive. I did so but did not realize that friction from a curve in the track would slow the train down as well. Since I got into the brakes a little too heavily, we slowed down almost to a stop and he had to take over for a bit.
During the drive equal amounts of steam pressure had built up on either side of the piston, causing it to halt mid-stroke. The resulting vapor lock meant that we were not going anywhere until the actual engineer with the assistance of the brakeman lessened the pressure on one side of the piston to get the wheels ready to turn again.
Other than that one slight hitch, the day went smoothly and I learned a lot about locomotives.
At age 10, Timm’s son, Scotty, has been around trains his entire life. He knows the basics and even drew me a picture to explain many of the various workings of the 126 locomotive and the steam engine. Scotty and I also found a cool vantage point for taking action shots of the Lehigh Valley No. 126, a 1930s era iron horse that was built for hauling rock from quarries in addition to coal yards as it passed.
Danny Pipes of Columbia rode the trains as a boy, especially the Carolina Special from Columbia to Saluda, N.C. Later as a scoutmaster, he took his boys to see trains as part of their camp outs at Camp Barstow. He tries to take at least one Amtrak trip per year and is a third generation train enthusiast.
Lexington’s Paul Cutter was driving the locomotive for the second time, having done the engineer experience the year before.
“I had a blast driving the train back and forth and took videos and pictures last year,” Cutter said.
He plans to bring his 4-year-old son some day to share in the engineer experience.
His son’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine on television got the father interested in trains and the love of locomotives grew.
“It’s very hands-on,” Cutter said. “They show you and let you run the steam engine.”