This tale is about steam. Specifically the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway's number 700. It is one of the largest 4-8-4 Northern type ever built. The tale may seem long winded and rambling but I urge you to hang in here. You could jump immediately to the "good stuff". But life does not happen in discrete "sound bites". Life is a continuum. To understand the how and why, and to understand what a great day this was for me, you need to read the events that led to... a most awesome day.
Seeing SteamOn October 14, 2002 we were called for 1202 to deadhead to Laurel. We were the second of two crews deadheading. According to the line up it looked as if both of us should flip back continuous time on a pair of V trains. We were eager to get going. I also wanted to get there as soon as possible because I knew the SP&S 700 was going to be running through Laurel to Billings that afternoon and I was hoping to see it. For those of you who don't know, the SP&S 700 is a steam locomotive. A 4-8-4 Northern type to be exact.
A few minutes after we were on duty, a Milepost van stopped in front of the depot and the driver came inside. I remarked to her that this was a miracle, the Milepost van was on time for once. "You are taking us to Laurel aren't you?"
She said she was but first she had to drive to Decker, MT to pick up a crew and bring them back to Sheridan. This is at least an hour operation. Late vans mean we arrive late at our destination and are on duty longer. Thus we have less time to work back and are more likely to be tied up at the away terminal rather than turn back on continuous time. It is common for Milepost vans to be late. I blew my stack and phoned the trainmaster in his office. I yelled at him for 5 minutes about the Milepost Van Service's lack of service. I suggested several times that he and the superintendent fire the outfit and get Powder River Van to run to AND FROM Sheridan instead of just TO Sheridan. He agreed with me but said his complaints fall on deaf ears. The Milepost van left for Decker.
Forty minutes later a Powder River van shows up with a crew deadheading home from Forsyth. She would be driving back to Forsyth empty. The conductor on the other crew that was deadheading with us stopped her as she was walking out the depot door and asked her to wait a minute. He then walked back to the trainmaster's office and asked if we could use the Powder River van to take us to Laurel? The trainmaster, undoubtedly tired of hearing about vans, said yes. Laurel is about 105 miles out of her way. So we asked the driver if she would take us to Laurel instead of driving directly back to Forsyth. She said yes and we were on the road by 12:45 and the Milepost Van Service lost a trip. As we left town our Powder River driver called her dispatcher to let him know what she was doing. He said "Great. Let me know when you leave Laurel."
The point of all this is to show how crews and Powder River van drivers take the initiative to get things moving. If you were to try this with Milepost Van even if they had a van & driver the drivers could not make a decision and would have to contact their dispatcher before doing anything.
We arrived at Laurel at 1510. There was a crowd of people standing on the depot platform behind the crew complex. Obviously the SP&S 700 had not yet gone by. I asked a couple of people what time it was expected. They said between 3pm and 3:30pm. That would be any minute now.
I got my camera out and went to tie up while keeping an ear peeled for a steam whistle. We learned that both of us deadhead crews were indeed turning back on continuous time on V trains. I then learned the steam engine was late and would not be there until after 4pm.
That figures. My luck at seeing steam locomotives is not good. In fact I have not seen an operating steam loco since my days on the Penn Central in the late 1960s.
Twice I tried to chase down the Union Pacific's engines and twice I was disappointed. Either they had been scratched due mechanical problems or they were way too late and going to arrive hours from then and after dark. We once traveled a few hundred miles out of our way on vacation to watch and ride a tourist steam locomotive. Upon arrival we found it replaced with a diesel account of mechanical problems. The first year the BNSF ran an employee's special it was to run through Sheridan. It was suppose to be powered by the SLSF (Frisco) 1522 steam engine. I was making arrangements to be the pilot on my 160 miles of railroad. But the 1522 developed a hot driver bearing just out of the gate at St Louis and an SD70MAC was substituted for the entire trip. To say that my luck at seeing steam is poor is an understatement.
True to form the chance of seeing the SP&S 700 go by was getting poorer. The 700 was going to be late and we were turning back continuous time. If it did not get here before we got our orders and wheel report then once again I would miss steam. So close and yet another failure.
Then I learned that neither of our V trains was in Laurel yard yet and they were behind the 700. Maybe I would get to see the steam engine! I stood on the depot platform with the crowd for about an hour. No steam engine. Then I learned that the 700 had stopped at Columbus, MT about 25 miles west of Laurel. Ostensibly to take water or make a run-by. I also learned that while this was going on the MRL dispatcher had ran our two V trains around the steam train at Columbus. Well at least my bad luck is steady. Still, if the steam train were right on the tail of our V trains I may be able to stall long enough at the crew complex to watch it go by.
Eventually a headlight appeared 4 miles down the track. The crowd was jubilant. I squelched that nonsense by pointing out that the approaching train had ditch lights and the 700 did not. The coming train was the first of our two V trains. By the time the V got by another headlight was showing. Again the crowd cheered. Again I played the mean old man and crushed that happy nonsense. It too was showing ditch lights. I told them this too was a regular diesel freight, the second V train. My train.
As my train was passing by a city police officer drove by and told the crowd that the steam engine was in Columbus because a passenger had taken ill and had to be taken off by an ambulance. I went back into the crew complex and started on our paperwork. I was very hungry so I walked across the tracks and over to Hardee's to get a hamburger and fries to go. What ever happened to "fast food"? I was in the restaurant about 10 minutes waiting for my meal when I heard a whistle. A steam whistle! I ran out the front door pulling my camera out of my pocket. The view of the tracks is blocked by an old elevator and several commercial buildings. I can only see past it all in small slits. The 700 and its train passed by and I snapped this picture of it on the overpass.
Whoopee. What a moron I am. I let my stomach get the better of me and once again I missed a steam train. I could hear it in the distance. Hear it over the street traffic as it whistled to the crowd on the depot platform. I could see black smoke rising over the buildings as it put on a show for the crowd. I tried to kick myself in the butt as I walked back into Hardee's to collect my lunch sack. The 700 was gone.
I still held a slim hope that perhaps I could see it from our loco as we ran our V train past the Billings depot that evening. It would be static but better than nothing. I walked back to the crew complex. It turned out that my conductor had also gotten hungry and had walked over to the Dairy Queen, missing the train just like I had. We got into the van and rode to the roundhouse.
The MRL, true to form, took until 1955 to get us out of the yard. We had only four hours left to work on our hours of service. There was no way we were going to make it to Sheridan. We would have to be dogcaught some place along the line. And in case you hadn't picked up on it, it is dark at 1955 in October. We would be going past the SP&S 700 at Billings in the dark. My bad luck is consistent.
When we went through Billings the steam locomotive and train had already been turned to face west. A pair of MRL SD35s had towed the train back west twelve miles to Mossmain and turned it on the wye then towed it back to Billings. The 700 was switching its tool car from behind the F45 to position it next to the 700. The steam loco was on the west end of the train and on the westward main right next to us. Its headlight was on dim. I left my headlight and ditchlights on bright. Ostensibly for the street crossing there but really to illuminate the 700. I was down to about 8 mph to afford a better view of the beast. In the darkness it was a strangely surrealistic scene. The nose of a big steam loco lit by our headlights. White class lights, numberboards lit up, steam drifting up from around the locomotive. Almost dream-like as we drifted past.
One hundred miles later we were dogcaught. I told the relief crew on the radio to drive the old highway along the tracks until they saw my headlights then call me. They did and I stopped at a farmer's field crossing near MP 755 west of Lodge Grass. It was 11:20pm when we climbed down off the C44 to get in the van. We had 40 minutes left to work and were 55 miles from home. We tied up at Sheridan at 12:30am, twelve hours and thirty minutes on duty.
A Better View of the SP&S 700
On October 16, 2002 I was once again called to deadhead to Laurel. This time on duty at 1301. For once the Milepost van was on time. We tied up in Laurel at 1525. We were not due out of Laurel until around midnight.
My conductor and I had both procured safety boot requests from our trainmaster before leaving Sheridan. So we were going to drive over to Billings and pick out our new boots for which the BNSF pays 80% of the cost. The boot shop is only about two blocks from the Billings passenger depot. We knew the SP&S 700 was still parked there awaiting its October 18th departure back west. So we planned to stop by and finally take a look at the old girl before going to get our boots. It was a sunny day with the temperature around 50 degrees so I took my camera along. Maybe I could get a picture of the SP&S 700 after all. It would be stationary but it would be better than nothing.
When we arrived at Billings we found the 700 and its train parked on the old passenger siding in front of the depot. The loco was facing west but it was parked at the east end of the train. Not very photogenic but it was accessible to the public that way.
From the platform we walked around it looking it over good. We were trying to identify all the various parts. The air pumps and after cooler piping was obvious but we could not find the main reservoir. We looked on both sides of the loco and on the pilot. No reservoir? I later learned that this class of locomotive had the air reservoir built into the frame.
We studied the valve gear for several minutes. Though we have the CB&Q 5631 4-8-4 on stationary display in Sheridan and you can see its valve gear it never the less amazes me whenever I see one and see how it works.
My conductor took this picture of me standing next to the 700.
While we were looking at the other side of the loco it became apparent that they were permitting the public to climb aboard and view the cab. I waited my turn then climbed up into the gangway.
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