Henrietta Hay Column April 10, 2009

Steam engines are an important part of the legacy of America

“This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.”

I wonder how many of the people who heard Arlo Guthrie sing that song at the Avalon Theatre recently can remember that long, lonely whistle in the night as the train headed for — well, anywhere.

The steam engine, affectionately called the iron horse, is now a relic for the history books, museums and the memories of the men who made them run. I have seen lots of steam engines, but I had forgotten how huge and overpowering they were.

Most vehicles are steered by a driver looking where he is going. Well, that was before the days of cell phones. But there is no “hole” in front of a steam locomotive.  The engineer sits far back on the right side of the engine and sticks his head out if he wants to see where he is going.

He doesn’t have a steering wheel, but he doesn’t need one. After all he is on steel tracks with flanges and all he can do is follow them. He watches the block signals, which are on posts along the tracks and tell him what is ahead and how to control speed.

The controls are simple. He has a lever that he can push or pull to go faster or slower. And in the early days, there was a rope hanging down that he could pull to make the whistle wake up everybody in town. Readers who have never heard the old whistle have really missed an interesting part of Americana.

The fireman sits on the left, if he can find time to sit. He spends most of his time shoveling coal into the boilers.

Eventually, the rail lines went to diesel and the railroad systems changed.

I had some interesting and informative conversations with Commons residents on the subject of early steam engines.

Mac McKinzie worked on the Union Pacific for 40 years. When he applied for a job there he was told he was too little to be an engineer. I guess he showed ’em. He started as a fireman and was later promoted to be an engineer. He says the pay was good, and it had to be. He had eight children.

Once Mac took his 3-year-old grandson for a ride on one of the big steam engines. He let the little boy touch the throttle lever. The little boy, now over 30, tells people that he drove a
steam engine.

Mac drove trains over most of western Colorado and eastern Utah. He hauled freight. He could be called at any time, day or night, to get down to the round house and get steamed up.

Herb Jones was a machinist. He spent 42 years with the Denver & Rio Grande, starting as an apprentice in Grand Junction in 1936. He had not graduated from high school, but took a third shift on the railroad in order to finish school, and graduated in 1938. He obviously wanted to be a railroad man.

Most of his career was in supervision, most of it in charge of main shops in Denver. He was the guy they called whenever anybody had a problem. He tells about a man who was assigned to the caboose on one trip. He wanted Herb to be the engineer so it would be a smooth ride. The guy’s name was Charlie Lopes and they became good friends.

Charlie’s widow, Margie, lives at the Commons and has her own collection of railroad stories from a different angle.

The iron horse may be a relic, but we will never forget its long, mournful sound.

Henrietta Hay can be reached by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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