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The Steam Locomotive

Even in the computer age, a thousand-ton train driven by fire and water inspires awe

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.

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