MNG image

The Maine
Narrow Gauge
Guest Engineer

[Submitted to the Two-Foot Flyer, the newsletter of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum.]

I failed whistle-blowing -- badly. I mean really badly. I thought I would just pull the chord and magnificent sound would emerge, stopping automobiles far from the grade crossings and making joggers stare in admiration. Instead, I kept getting pathetic squeals that inflated awkwardly into blasts so loud that I let go of the rope in surprise. I imagined porch sitters up on the Eastern Prom turning to each other and asking, "What the heck was that?"

Steam engine
No. 3, an 0-4-4 built by Vulcan in 1912
for the six-mile-long Monson Railroad.

Otherwise, my experience as a guest engineer on the Maine Narrow Gauge July 14 was tremendous. I learned far more than I'd ever learned about railroading in a single day, I got respectably filthy, and by the end of the afternoon I comfortable enough with No. 3's throttle to make myself useful switching cars. That little derailment? I had nothing to do with it. And in any event it was minor.

I've been a railfan since I was a kid, and I've spent 25 years' worth of vacations at Rangeley Lake, where I've picked up occasional two-foot-gauge stories. But the only time I had ever been in the cab of a working locomotive was at the MNG two years ago, when Jason Lamontagne invited me and my stepfather into No. 3's cab because we'd been asking so many questions. When my stepfather read about the guest-engineer program in the Portland paper and called me in Washington to tell me about it, I e-mailed Paul Hallett right away.

Which is how I ended up sitting in the museum conference room that morning with one other guest engineer, Gurdon Buck. Paul went over safety rules before leading us out to No. 3, which was waiting with a two-car consist. The regular passenger train, pulled by one of the diesels, was going to follow us out. Paul introduced Dave Campbell, our fireman, and explained the operation of the throttle, the reverse lever, and the steam brake. Gurdon took the first run, and I went back to ride on the last car with Russ Page, the conductor.

But right after Gurdon ran No. 3 around our train on the siding out at the bridge, a coach in the other train's consist picked the switch going onto the runaround track. The last truck of the first car and the first truck of the second car derailed. As he was radioing for jacks and tackle and help, Paul assured us that derailments aren't the norm at the MNG -- the railroad hadn't had one in more than a year. He and Dave headed over to the switch, leaving Russ in charge of No. 3's fire and us. We weren't going anywhere for a while.

Steam engine
Russ shows Gurdon the inside of the smokebox.

Russ explained how to bank the coals and then asked what else we wanted to know -- a question I'm sure he ended up regretting. Over the next two hours we quizzed him about everything from the front coupler back to the water tank, and from the stack down to the ash pan. Russ explained the water glass, the injectors, the blower, the lubricators, and the cylinder cocks. He started up the generator for us, opened the smokebox to clean out the accumulated ash, and climbed up to check the level of the water in the tank. He pointed out the steam-brake cylinder and explained that the locomotive's first home, the six-mile-long Monson Railroad, had never opted for train brakes of any sort, other than hand brakes. Gurdon and I had a two-hour engine seminar, and No. 3's simplicity made her the perfect textbook.

Once the passenger train got underway, Gurdon took us back to the museum and a pizza break. Then it was finally my turn to take the upholstered seat on No. 3's windowsill. I learned that her throttle is dead until a point about halfway back, and that when you're starting out, you have to wait a second or two for the steam to fill the pipes between the dome and the cylinders. I learned that her braking power is a whole lot less impressive than her pulling power -- or pushing power, in this case, because to get the regular passenger train back on schedule we were pushing our consist to the end of the line.

As a first-timer, I found it pretty intimidating to be running a train from the back end. Curves and dense foliage made it impossible to see the front, and the upcoming grade crossing. I knew from radio traffic that Russ was on the lead coach keeping an eye on cars and pedestrians -- he told me to slow down so he could jog ahead and flag the crossing in person. And Paul was sitting in the fold-down seat right beside me. But I came away with a new understanding of how far ahead of his train an engineer has to think, and how well he needs to know his line.

That's my excuse for handling the whistle so poorly -- even on the way back, when No. 3 was at the head of the train and I could see the grade crossing perfectly. It's harder than I thought to keep one hand on throttle, whistle for the crossing with the other, and try to make an educated guess about the intentions of the minivan rolling slowly down the hill, and about your chances of stopping the train with the steam brakes if the minivan did something stupid. It stopped uncomfortably close to the tracks, then a few moments later it bolted across. I was hanging onto the whistle chord to make the final note last until we were in the crossing, and I was also using some words I won't mention here.

Builder's plate
The builder's plate on No. 3.

Gurdon and I both got two runs to the end of the line, and when we finished it was nearly 4, time for the last scheduled train of the day. Paul agreed to couple No. 3 to the regular passenger consist and show us how an experienced engineer would handle a train -- and how the whistle was supposed to sound. The little Vulcan had no problem pulling the train even though the diesel was still attached.

By then it was almost 5. Gurdon had to leave, as did Dave and a couple of guys from the other train crew. When I asked if I could stick around, Paul told me and Russ to take No. 3 down to the India Street siding and pick up the second passenger consist. I guess I must have done okay on my earlier runs, because Russ let me have the throttle again, and I got my first taste of switching. To return the favor, I scraped ashes out of the ash pan when Russ dropped the fire. As far as I was concerned it was a great end to a perfect day, although of course the guys who'd had to rerail that coach might think otherwise.

As for the whistle, well, I just may have to go back and practice some more.

Monson No. 3

See photos from a 1999 visit to the Maine Narrow Gauge.

July, 2001