Trial by firing

Me and my good friend Chris Abbott after three back-breaking days as apprentice firemen at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum.
The lessons I learned dramatically changed my approach to designing, building, and operating model railways.

In the mid-2000s I made four trips to Portland to learn about the Maine two-footers. This is the story of those trips, and how they changed my approach to railway modelling. (Grab a beverage: It’s a long read.)

The first trip, in the summer of 2006, was with a friend who is not in the hobby. It included visits to Monson, Phillips, Bridgton, and Hancock Pond – all place names that will be very familiar to modellers of these Lilliput lines. But the most memorable part of the trip was a day spent in the right-hand seat of Monson Railroad 0-4-4T Number 4 as part of the “Engineer for a Day” program at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum.

I enjoyed the experience but also realized two things. First, I had a lot to learn. Second, and more importantly, “Engineer for a Day” programs aren’t the way do that. They’re like parachuting with a seasoned skydiver strapped to your back. The expert is doing all the real work, while you’re enjoying the view.

I asked my handler for the Engineer for a Day experience how I could learn more about actually working a steam locomotive. His reply was something along the lines of, “Come back for a long weekend in December and apprentice as a fireman during our Santa Festival. We do 12-hour days in the cold. The trains are heavy and the spray of the ocean ices up the rails. We also run steam heat to the passenger cars so the boiler is constantly losing pressure. That’s a real education.”

I was keen to apprentice and confirmed with the steam team that I could come. But I didn’t want to make the trip alone. It’s a long drive, and I hoped I could share the experience with someone so we could talk about it later. Doing this with someone else would also give me a chance to socialize in the off-hours.

Fortunately, my good friend Chris Abbott was game. So in December of 2006, I made my second trip to Portland. The steam team was happy to have not one, but two enthusiastic bodies to order about.

I’m at the throttle of Number 4. This engine, and other small Forneys like it, had cabs so small that it was common practice for the engineer to sit out the window like this. It also provided a much better view of the track ahead.

The work was hard – but amazing.

Chris and I knew we would be doing long days with no breaks, so we got up early and had big breakfasts at Becky’s Diner on the Portland waterfront. (Really big: like – two plates big.)

Then we’d meet the rest of the steam team, use the museum’s diesel to pull a cold Monson Number 4 out of the engine house, and start the long process of raising steam, oiling around, cleaning brass, and generally prepping for the day. (For the first time, I appreciated why railroads were so keen to abandon steam. A diesel is ready to work in 30 seconds. This little steam engine took almost three hours to get up to working pressure.)

For the rest of the day, Chris and I alternated trips in the cab with breathers in one of the coaches. We learned to fire the engine – to master the Holy Trinity of coal, water, and steam.

The locomotive was a perfect venue for this education. Built more than 100 years ago, it had all the things a locomotive needed to operate, but none of the extras that might make the job easier or more distracting. The backhead of Monson #4 is decorated with the minimum number of gauges, valve wheels, levers, and other appliances required for operation – and nothing else. One could really focus on the job at hand.

We worked through the day and into the evening, taking a handful of steam-heated passenger cars loaded with several dozen tourists up and down the track, keeping an eye out for people, cyclists, dogs, and other potential hazards, ringing the bell for crossings, and topping up the water tank after every second trip. We got into the rhythm of checking water and steam levels, injecting more water – but not too much – into the boiler as needed, opening the blower when stationary, and how to make quick assessments of the fire while mastering the pattern of adding coal in six places. We always kept safety in mind – not only ours, but also the safety of the public around the train.

At the same time, we learned to relax and have fun with the event. We’d invite a parent to bring their kid into the cab while at the station, explain how the steam engine worked, and take pictures for groups in front of the locomotive. And when the Imp of the Perverse inspired us, we’d blow down the sight glass and laugh as the guests jumped out of their boots to escape the noise and steam that billowed forth from below the cab.

When the last trip of the day was behind us, we still had another hour or two of work to drop the fire and prep the locomotive for a safe night. When dinner finally came, Chris and I would head to J’s Oyster Bar – also on the waterfront – to reward ourselves before the kitchen closed.

We then repeated the experience the next day – and the day after.

During that December, 2006 trip, the steam team encountered a problem: One of the two water injectors failed on us. Water is the most important part of the coal-water-steam trinity: In addition to providing the force to drive the engine, it’s what keeps the coal-fuelled hellfire from melting the crown sheet and causing a boiler explosion. You don’t mess around with water. This is one reason even a simple locomotive like this has more than one injector.

If we could not get this injector working, we would have to scrub the rest of the train rides in the name of safety. Fortunately, the steam team was able to quickly diagnose the problem. The filter in the water line was clogged with dirt and leaves. We cleaned it and were back in business.

We traced the problem back to the water supply. To fill the tank, we used a fire hose. Fire hoses are designed to weep so they stay wet and don’t catch fire. But in our case, when the hose was lying on the ground between uses, debris would cling to it. When we dropped the end of the hose into the tank, the dirt would wash off – and eventually it clogged the filter.

Over breakfast the next day, Chris mused that a traditional Maine two-foot style water crane would solve the problem by keeping the hose out of the dirt. When we returned home we discussed the idea further and figured out how we could build one.

And then we did.

My sketch of the crane. Since it was built in Canada and headed for this USA, this formed part of our documentation for customs purposes.

For this, we recruited another friend, Pierre Oliver. At the time, Pierre had access to a fully equipped shop that could do metal fabrication, and he knows his way around a welding rig.

I managed to secure a donation of a flexible coupling from a manufacturer of liquid loading components, to allow us to swing the crane through 90 degrees. Pierre used his professional connections to round up the rest of the materials.

We used metal angle iron for the base. This made the water crane sturdy enough that the museum could move it with a backhoe, since the museum decided it needed to be portable. We drilled holes in the frame to allow the museum to add wood decking. We used a metal pipe for the upright because we could weld it to the base and it would support itself. For the horizontal arm, we chose PVC pipe because it would be lighter and be easier on a fireman’s head if they banged into it. A short piece of firehose directed the water into the tank while keeping everything dry.

We built the crane in June of 2007, and later that summer one of the steam team members collected the crane from Pierre’s shop and hauled it to Portland. In September 2007, my wife and I drove down to Portland to enjoy a long weekend in the city, which for me included a day spent firing the locomotive.

I acquired the proper outfit for my third trip to Maine. Museum railways are part theatre, and it pays to look the part. Here, I’m enjoying the air between runs in the driver’s seat of Number 4.
Replenishing Monson RR #4 with the museum’s new water crane.

I made one more trip to Portland – a solo drive to help with a Polar Express event in December, 2008. Then life got in the way, and I haven’t made the trip since.

I learned a lot about steam locomotives during these four trips – and those lessons dramatically changed my railway modelling hobby. I realized that by adopting prototype practices, I could get more out of a layout while needing less.

The lead photo for my article on what’s now called “Finescale Ops”. The layout is my freelanced O scale rendition of a Maine two-footer.

I was already embracing a new philosophy after that first “Engineer for a Day” trip. In fact, I used that experience as the basis for an article in the December, 2006 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

As the article explains, I applied the lessons from firing a steam locomotive, plus other ideas, to enhance the operations on my modest Maine two-foot gauge layout. I then further refined these ideas for my S scale Port Rowan layout.

One other thing came out of those trips. My last visit to Portland coincided with a major ice storm. Sliding back to my hotel after dinner at J’s, I happened to pass a gallery called Utopia Designs, featuring custom furniture built from reclaimed steel and wood. An amazing desk in the window caught my eye – so I made a point of writing down the details. It was called the Heavy Desk, and featured steel reclaimed from a bridge.

A one-of-a-kind souvenir from my trips to Maine. Frankly, a tea towel would’ve been easier to carry – but not as impressive.

The Heavy Desk comes by its name honestly, as it crushes the scales at more than 350 pounds. I know this because I ended up buying it. It’s the centrepiece of my home office, and where I’m sitting as I write this post.

Published by Trevor

Lifelong model railway enthusiast and retired amateur shepherd who trained a border collie to work sheep. Professional writer and editor, with some podcasting and Internet TV presenting work thrown in for good measure.

4 thoughts on “Trial by firing

  1. Trevor,

    A great story I can relate to.

    I worked on the New Hope and Ivyland in the late ’70’s. I made a couple of trips as a student fireman on the ex CN H6 # 1533. It will be hard to believe but at the time I weighed about 120 and had trouble getting a scoop of coal from the bunker to the firebox without losing half the coal on the deck.

    I was cleaning the smokebox one day when another guy decided to hammer weld boiler tubes in the firebox not knowing I was in the smokebox. Everything turned black and the sound was deafening! I was covered from head to foot in soot. When I arrived home my wife wouldn’t let me in the house until I undressed.

    The experiences there are why I wanted to build the S scale H6 kits with Simon Parent after we did the Mogul.

    It was quite an experience and one I cherish.

    Fred Rouse Dormant S Scale Locomotive & Supply

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Fred:
      That’s a great story – and I’m glad it prompted you to work with Simon to bring those 10-wheelers to market. I have two of them, built by Simon, and they’re excellent.


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