One below-zero January morning when I was 7, my father took me to the roundhouse at Utica, New York, a key station on the New York Central line.
What a place. It was round, all right — a vast shed mostly made of windows, nearly as cold as the outdoors — and it was full of steam locomotives, tall as houses and frighteningly noisy. Some were hissing gigantically while men in striped caps bustled about them with long-spouted oilcans. Clouds of hot steam blew up on my face.
Our engineer friend led us to a locomotive and lifted me up the iron ladder to the cab, on rungs that seemed to be two feet apart. The iron railing was cold even through my leather mittens. I had never seen such a huge machine, let alone climbed up into one.
We never did get the thing going. Some lever or other was frozen, and the man needed an exotic wrench that he couldn't find, and my father said to forget it. But I will always remember the sheer mass and contained power of that enormous engine, with its steel wheels taller than I was and its tangle of pipes and tubes and cylinders, and when I saw one chugging past or huffing in the station, it seemed like a living thing. And I knew from the movies that in an emergency, if you threw on enough coal, you could get a little extra speed out of it beyond the designer's specifications, as though that engine had a competitive spirit, as though it had a heart.
All of which is to say, I like steam trains. There's something about 'em.
In fact, there is a whole subculture of people who fill their basements with elaborate model train systems, who travel the world just to ride on some remote line three miles long, who actually buy a short-line railroad for a hobby or a small business ( Smithsonian, July 1998). And then there is Bill Withuhn.
On paper, William L. Withuhn is curator of transportation for the National Museum of American History. He is also a founding member of the Transportation History Task Force of the National Research Council, and has served as a consultant to the National Park Service, which runs Steamtown in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and to Expo 2000, the World's Fair to be held in Hannover, Germany. The author of two books on trains, he is often quoted in the Wall Street Journal. He is a licensed locomotive engineer, too, checked out in both steam and diesel.
"This is my third career," he tells me. "I was in the Air Force nine years, including one in Vietnam," he adds. He was in the air commandos, flying low-altitude night support for the troops.
"We'd circle a spot, and I was amazed at my own reaction," Withuhn reflected. "You heard this American voice with an edge of panic on the radio — he's whispering, 'They're a hundred feet away' — and what can you do? How do you mark their position? Your whole being is focused on helping that person ..."
Life is an adventure for Bill Withuhn. After Vietnam he earned an MBA at Cornell. Then he worked for a New York congressman at a time when Conrail was being created to help save Penn Central, and that was when the romance of the railroads got into his blood.
He wound up with a Smithsonian fellowship in 1980 and took a job three years later in what is now the National Museum of American History. But it is industrial history, trains especially, that fascinates him.
"Who can say why people get into this. Steam is the land version of the clipper ship," says Withuhn. "It's such a pleasure to work with your hands. And you work with blue-collar people, which is so different from the rest of my world. When you're sailing, or flying planes, you're mostly with people of means. These are working stiffs."
It's been said that railroads are the veins and arteries of America, and Withuhn knows it's true. "As a green navigator in the Air Force I was flying over the Appalachians one day, and the pilot, this old-timer, says, 'Navigator, you know where you are? I do. That's the Big Bend Tunnel down there." Near Denver it was the Moffat Tunnel. Old pilots used rail lines like maps. The Iron Compass.
"Trains are more demanding than a plane or a big yacht," he contends. "A steam locomotive is like a rolling lit bomb. You have 200 pounds per square inch of pressure in the boiler, and if it goes up, the explosion can send the locomotive 300 yards down the track. You have this huge momentum, 1,000 tons behind you. You have to be ahead of it at all times. You need to know all the changes in grade and the curves and rail crossings."
Air brakes are a great invention, he says, but there is one problem: there is no way to let them up gradually. If you don't work it just right you will either stop before the station or go roaring past it.
"Also, you want to keep the train stretched, so the cars don't bump together. So you have to release the cars' brakes just so. In the old days they had guys on top of the cars turning their individual brake wheels."
The John Bull of 1831, the Smithsonian's oldest locomotive, had no brakes at all; they were only on the tender that carried the engine's fuel and water. A locomotive, the crewmen insisted, is for going, not stopping. It didn't have a cab to keep the rain off, either. Cabs were for sissies.
"Plus, it's a team thing. You're always working with your fireman," explains Withuhn. "If you're speeding up, you have to give the fireman time to stoke the fire, or let it die down if you're slowing. When the track curves to the left, the engineer can't see ahead, so the fireman does the looking.
"Oddly enough, it's the conductor, not the engineer, who commands the train," Withuhn continues. "It started with the early railroad men in the 1830s, maritime men. They saw a train as being like a steamboat, and they wanted a deck officer. To this day, it's the conductor who sets the train in motion with his signal.
"What makes industrial history important today," he says, "is that we need to be reminded that the people who built this country physically were blue-collar workers. Running a crack train at 90 miles an hour meant you had to think three miles ahead. These were people who never finished grade school, some of them, and they had many of the same skills and responsibilities as the captain of a 747 jet. An engineer with an oilcan was big stuff once — kids looked up to him. Like airline pilots, who had a certain cachet in the '50s, but whose status has eroded now. People worked without computers then. There was civilization before the computer: we need to appreciate that."
Withuhn, 57, mourns the passing of the hands-on days of machinery. There is nothing delicate about those steel monsters, but the men who ran them developed a kind of artistry in handling them. He loves puttering about in the back shops at Steamtown, where mechanics are doing the same jobs railroad men did a century ago.
In 1981 the Smithsonian trotted out the John Bull and ran it down some tracks in northwest Washington. "It was the most fun I ever had," says Withuhn. "There we were, all set to go, with all the Smithsonian brass watching, and the bunting draped over things, and the Marine Corps Band playing. Big drumroll. Everyone sat up on their folding chairs.
"And it didn't go. The throttle stuck.
"But Roger Kennedy, the head of the museum at the time, was smooth. 'Now we'll get to see the staff fix it!' he announced over the loudspeaker. So we had to take the throttle apart — it was jammed with grit — but we got the old Bull moving.
"Oh, it took a couple of hours. But we made it go."
By Michael Kernan