Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page
 Chapter 7


We set out exactly on time. As so often, the line followed a river, this time a sleepy little one which lay in a surprisingly wide valley between ranges of hills. The only trouble was that the valley curved gracefully to the north while we wished to go west. It was therefore necessary for the line to gradually climb the hills on the left bank until it reached an opening.

Our train now ran to fifty five cars, and, looking forward from the right side of my observation platform, I could see it strung around the curve. My end of the train was close to the river, only some fifteen feet above it, but the locomotive had already climbed a good deal, and was eating up track that had been notched into the hillside.

Ideally, our round-the-circle fleet of trains would be headed by a class of fast powerful freight engines which would be able to keep the trains averaging twenty five to forty five miles an hour, depending on terrain. On all divisions, the engines would have to get their trains up to sixty on the flat and downhill sections in order to make up for starting and the climbing of grades. While the newest engines coming from the builders were capable of that with our trains of moderate weight, Mac's financing stopped short of enabling us to scrap the existing locomotives and replace them with new ones. As he said,

"Son, I learned on the C&G that even the sorriest most defeated engine can do a good job if you care for it properly and use it with ingenuity."

It had been part of railroading from the beginning that men spoke and thought of locomotives in the personal way in which they had formerly spoken and thought of their horses. Mac was no exception, and he obviously thought that the middle-aged Mikado pulling us up the grade could succeed with our encouragement.

Steam locomotives are classified by their wheel arrangements, and one can say a good deal about the capabilities of an engine if one knows only its arrangement. Moreover, by this time, each wheel arrangement had a name and a skeletal personality which needed only to be filled out by a few other facts and figures and a few intangibles.

A Mikado, such as the one up in front, had a 2-8-2 wheel arrangement. The two small pony wheels up front were meant to guide the engine into the curves, and also to support some of the weight of the cylinders. A yard switcher, never exceeding some twenty five miles an hour, could negotiate curves without any help, and, if it rocked backwards and forwards a certain amount, that hardly mattered. At the other extreme, an express passenger engine would have a four-wheeled pony truck to keep the front end precisely aligned as it entered a banked curve at speed, and to achieve the best possible weight distribution at high speed.

Our engine, if it ever got to the summit, would never be called on for much more than sixty. At that speed, the engineer and fireman would get a rough ride, but the arrangement of wheels would still provide a reasonable level of safety.

The cylinders, in this case having a diameter of 27" and a stroke of 32", converted the pressure of the steam to linear force. It was then applied to the driving wheels through the main rods. The drivers, coupled together by the side rods, represented a straight-forward compromise between power and speed. A small number of high driving wheels, of as much as seven feet, provided speed. But they put the cylinders at a mechanical disadvantage and made it impossible for the engine to start a heavy train. Numerous small drivers, of as little as four feet, provided good traction and great power, but the engine having them might be limited to as little as forty miles an hour. Our Mikado, with its eight 63" drivers, favored power over speed, but not excessively so.

The trailing truck of an engine had the primary function of supporting the weight of the firebox. The size of the firebox had no influence on the tractive effort of a locomotive, the force it could exert at rest in starting a train, but it determined the steam supply, and hence the capability of the engine to maintain a sustained speed with a given train.

The early engines, both freight and passenger, had been provided with only small fireboxes which required no trailing trucks at all. Then, as more power at speed was required, the fireboxes were enlarged and supported with two-wheeled trailing trucks, as with our Mikado. However, at the beginning of 1932, the newer engines had yet larger fireboxes with four-wheeled trailing trucks, and it was that, more than anything else, which dated our Mikado.

In other respects, it was a good engine, liked by the men. As Odie had said to me when the choice of engines for A1 was made,

"The USRA heavy Mikes aren't new and fancy, but they're well built and well proportioned. They're also good looking, and that don't hurt. The men want them to succeed, and they'll bust their guts to make them do it."

I myself liked the look of the engine. Thick and compact, yet graceful, I knew that it could exert a force of 60,000 pounds on its drawbar. That was enough to yank one of our freights out of a yard quite handily, but, unfortunately, the heavy Mike, with its modest-sized firebox and boiler pressure of only 190 pounds per square inch, would, without help, be over-matched by the grade in front of us. We thus had a pusher engine, which was coupled right behind my car, almost deafening me with its exhausts. By any accounting, it was a peculiar engine.

Just before the Great War, the Imperial Russian Government of Czar Nicholas had ordered no less than twelve hundred 2-10-0 freight engines from the American and Baldwin Locomotive Works. Ten drivers were specified, not so much for additional power, but because the Russian roadbed was so bad that the weight of even a fairly light engine had to be distributed as widely as possible.

The Russian revolution came before the last batch could be delivered, and they wound up on American railways. The latter didn't much want them, but the Erie had gotten a batch very cheaply at auction. Before they could be used at all, special tires had to be fitted to the wheels to convert them from the Russian 60 inch track guage to the American 56 1/2 inches. Not being up to main line freight work in terms of sustained power at speed, they were used mostly as helpers on grades such as this one.

While the Russian engine behind me produced impressive volumes of smoke, steam, and sound, the Mike up front wasn't getting as much help as it needed. It was one thing to meander over the steppes of Central Asia with light trains, and another to haul the raw materials and products of American heavy industry over country that was often difficult.

I was looking at the speedometer installed near the railing of the observation platform when Odie appeared and said,

"Speed's doing exercises, so I came back to see how you were doing."

Seeing that I was keeping a close watch on the speedometer, he said,

"The fires in both engines'll still be green."

A newly built fire in a coal firebox was said to be green before it reached maximum efficiency. I replied,

"We've dropped to eleven miles an hour. Even if we get a little more power from the engines, we'll still lose momentum."

Even as I spoke, the Russian engine showed signs of being overtaxed. With its small drivers, it could push hard at very low speeds, and had helped to get us started up the grade, but the sound of the exhausts had slackened noticeably. Indeed, I suspected that boiler pressure had dropped to the point of forcing the engineer to almost shut down.

At that moment, a sudden shaft of sunlight disclosed John Henry's lead engine silhouetted black against the white of the stone wall which was lining the cut and holding the hill back. I could see the locomotive bucking and swaying as it fought for ground while most of the train attempted to roller-coaster back in the other direction.

Even at that distance, and despite the distraction of the engine behind us, I could hear the crack of the lead engine's exhaust, released with each piston stroke, as it ricocheted off the stone wall of the cut and filled the whole valley. The locomotive, with almost no help from the rear, was obviously being worked very hard. Indeed, it was only Odie, always the optimist, who believed that we were gaining momentum. I pointed out,

"The needle's still on eleven."

"That don't read accurately enough to record very slight changes. You'll see it move up soon."

It was only a minute before I heard renewed action behind me. Evidently, the steam pressure was back up to the specified 180 psi. Even as I watched, the speedometer needle seemed to edge up from eleven to almost eleven and a half. Odie, seeing it, said,

"I told you so."

"That's only because this engine started pushing again. We were losing before that."

Odie smiled the smile of a man who feels confirmed by the objective data and can dismiss idle theory.

At that time, quite a lot hinged on the question of whether we could get our freights up the sorts of grades that abounded on our lines with the locomotives that we had. It would take only one failure, with the engines having to back down to try again, to throw the whole schedule off by an hour or more.

Here in England, I have discovered that there's a group of young RAF pilots who have taken it into their fool heads to run up the steepest hills for fun. One of them recently wound up in the bed next to mine, his leg broken in a training accident. He could talk only about Spitfires and running. On the latter score, he remarked,

"In our club we've found it helpful to imagine that there's a giant hand in the middle of one's back pushing one up the hills."

I don't know what Odie might have replied if I had suggested that there was a giant hand, suitably concealed behind the Russian engine, which was pushing us along. Even Odie's optimisim didn't extend that far. On the other hand, while not a man given to fantasy, he had a great toleration for eccentricity. He would probably have nodded politely while changing the subject.

When John Henry's engine did reach the summit, we were going almost thirteen miles an hour. A man on the pilot deck of the Russian engine pulled a lever, and it dropped back. Since the Erie was double-tracked, and we used only one track for our operation, the helpers could cross over to the other track and drift back down without holding up the next train. In this case, A2, a couple of miles down the valley, had already begun its attack on the grade.

Up ahead, the track straightened and then curved away to the west. The intense black shape of the engine disappeared around the bend, and there remained only the tall column of smoke and steam being blasted upward to mark the route the railway surveryers had found through the line of hills. At the summit, we looked back over the length of the valley. Elton was just visible beyond the smoke of A2, sitting beside the slate gray river.

I had been sufficiently transfixed by the scene to become chilled to the bone without realizing it. Odie seemed to be warm enough, but he accompanied me inside and took coffee in one of the swivel chairs while I pressed myself to the radiator to get some warmth into my body. Odie watched me, perfectly comfortable himself, but quite willing to extend his undemonstrative sympathy to anyone in the neighborhood, no matter how bizarre their afflictions.

Even without looking at the second speedometer I had had installed, this one in the lounge, I knew that we were accelerating to fifty or more. Indeed, Odie had a look at it and said that we were hitting sixty five. That was because we were descending the hills into a valley on the other side. In due course, there came a jolt as the cars, rolling even faster than the engine, caught up with it. Odie, managing his cup easily, said,

"I understand that you had an accident when we started out."

"I can see that my stewards have already begun to gossip about me."

Odie made a pleasant gesture with his free hand, as if that were only to be expected. He didn't betray outward amusement or tease me about getting hot coffee in a sensitive place, as Speed would have. But one felt that Odie mulled over things for a long time, twisting and turning them, and extracting everything possible from the remembered or imagined event. I was sure that, in the course of this, Odie wouldn't overlook the humorous aspects of my little accident. He probably wanted more detail, but I replied only,

"There'll be another good jolt when we go up the next hill."

The jolt duly occurred when the engine, in its perpetual race with the train, won again. Both Odie and I were ready for it.

We passed through a number of towns, including those which had special significance for the railway, the points B, C, and D. Since they were focal points for the collection and distribution of local freight, these towns had their own yards and small engine facilities. In most cases, they had existed prior to the coming of Mac, and were now being adapted to the needs of the system. However, the engines of A1 - A13 didn't stop even for water. Rather then lose the momentum which had been so painfully gained, our engines towed extra tanks when necessary. As a result, we bombed through the B point, my car being buffeted by the air bouncing off a string of box cars on the next track.

The audience at B, C, and D was made up in large part of railwaymen who had already been working on the Erie. They didn't cheer wildly like the people at Elton, the ones who had managed to believe that Mac would make them rich. These men had undoubtedly heard of John Henry, and were certainly not reassured if they recognized the face of the man himself thrust out of the cab window of the premier train of the new era.

On the other hand, most of the Erie men probably had a vague feeling that big doings were on the way, and there was hope mixed with fear. At the C point, I stood on the observation deck as we passed at speed. There were men leaning on picks watching the train, but they seemed to take no notice of me. When I went back in and reported as much to Odie, he replied,

"Well, Jimmy, I don't think this is going to be like the Lackawanna, where there was pretty good feeling from top to bottom. The management was always hated on the Erie, and a good many of these other lines. I doubt that most of them'll like us much better."

With that thought in mind, he departed to see if Speed had finished his exercises.

By steaming at fifty or more, we made up for the slow ascent of the long grade out of Elton, and arrived at Sumatra a minute early. Sumatra, New York, looked like a railway town, pure and simple, one of those places where almost everyone works on the railway, or is pretty directly dependent on it.

The Erie, called "The Weary Erie" by the locals, wasn't a terribly good thing to be totally dependent on. Eclipsed by the New York Central, with its water-level route, the Erie bumbled along, never prospering but never quite failing. That, of course, was before Mac, or "BM" as certain kinds of people later came to say. On this day, with the arrival of A1 at two nineteen in the afternoon, his presence was just beginning to be felt.

There was no brass band this time, but, since the railway line ran down the main street of the town, there were plenty of onlookers. Just past the station, at which we didn't stop, there were buildings on both sides. On the left, where I was looking, there was an Italian restaurant, a bicycle shop, the inevitable Railway Cafe, and a couple of bungalows with wide porches. Rather surprisingly, there appeared an ice cream shop with a gay striped awning.

In the gaps between buildings there was visible a pretty little river flowing over rocks. Since most of the houses were built on concrete blocks and raised several feet above the ground, I gathered that the river had a tendency to flood. Indeed, as we slowed, with the usual series of crashes and bangs, I noticed a mark commemorating the highest level which had been reached by a flood. Since the mark was higher than the line, I hoped that the flood was long ago and exceptional. We could hardly afford to have the whole Eastern Circle immobilized by a flood in Sumatra.

The inhabitants looked cheerful enough, evidently not traumatized by the memories of floods. A few of the children waved little American flags. I went out on the open platform in my role of ambassador, and waved back. It then occurred to me that, even in a company town, there would be two different reactions to a reorganization such as the one we were instituting.

A good many of the workers would lose their jobs or have their pay reduced, and, until they found out which were to suffer in that way, the whole work force would regard the management with some mixture of suspicion and hostility. On the other hand, that would not affect Smith, who worked at the bank, or Jones, who owned the insurance agency. If the railway as a whole prospered and the local work force tripled, much more money would come into the town. Smith might be promoted, and Jones' profits would soar. They wouldn't be likely to worry much about the plight of those who had been laid off. After all, those men had never been on social terms with Smith and Jones. I was willing to bet that the children with flags were the offspring of Smith and Jones.

Just as I was about to come in, I heard a loud voice say,

"Well captain, what do you think? Is this town worth pillaging?"

Shepherding Speed back into the warmth of the car, I replied,

"There's not much here to pillage, but I think it has a definite charm."

"We should come back in the summer. We'll rent bicycles and ride out to welcome the A series of trains as they arrive. The, we'll stuff ourselves with pizza, get drunk at the Railway Cafe, and shove some ice cream in on top of that. Then we'll wade out into the river in our underwear and sit on rocks in the rapids. We can barf and shit into the stream as the water gurgles around our tummies."

"It's a little hard to imagine that in January. But the restaurant part might be a good idea. Whatever the quality of its food, it looked warm and comfortable. Want to come?"

"Naw. I'm going to eat here with Odie. If you don't come back, we'll tell the police you've been poisoned."

I thought to myself that the restaurant looked cozy enough to satisfy even Vignis. Then, after what would probably be a good meal, the abstemious visitor could go down to the ice cream shop, brightly lit against the threatening weather, and have a nice hot cup of cocoa. After that, he could take his rest in the small hotel across from the ice cream shop. I was sure that there would be a fire in the lounge, and that a man so inclined would be able to swap lies with a travelling salesman or two. By the time that we rolled into the yards, just beyond Sumatra, I told Speed that I was resolved to return to sample the delights of the town.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page