Back about 1957, when I was three years of age, I was visiting my grandfather and grandmother in Barnum, Iowa next to the tracks for the Rock Island Railroad line. One day I heard an awful noise coming from down the tracks. I was so scared I started to cry. My father, on the other hand, was taking me by my hands and pulling me towards the railroad tracks. He was not trying to kill me, he wanted to teach me a little history.
The noise was so great that I continued crying. He told me to stand next to the tracks and watch what was coming down the tracks. I looked to my left, because that was where the awful noise was emanating from, and I was frozen in sheer terror. To my left coming down the tracks, was the largest black machine I had ever seen. It was, as I said, amazingly loud. It was a steam engine, progressing under its own power towards the spot that I stood next to, and it scared me to death. It passed extremely slowly, and blew its whistle to tell us to stay away. I learned about the fact that train’s whistles meant something, stay away was the sound of this one.
I was frozen in my spot, having no desire to get hit by this massive machine. It spewed black smoke. It was, my father later told me when I had gotten a little older, a working locomotive going to Omaha, Nebraska to be melted down. It was the last steam engine I ever saw on that line. I was still scared but my father gave me some courage by speaking of it in logical terms and telling me it was going to Omaha. It was the last steam engine, he said, that we would see and it indeed was the last one we did see.
I never got the chance to thank my father for letting me stand and watch that engine go on its way. Later, he took me to a steam engine tractor pull, and the weighted steel wheels on those old steam tractors tore up the ground. Those engines were much less loud and driven by their farmers who were vying for a monetary prize. But nothing could match that steam engine. It was monstrous.
Years later I rode in a tractor picking corn. We stood, a couple of my buddies, my brother, and I, in the wagon where the shelled corn was being thrown. It was fun. Much later than that, I climbed to the top of a five story corn container. It was filled with soybeans and we ate soybeans and told stories about school, and hunting, and fishing. That was enjoyable too.
Years later, I ended up in Lowell. No corn cribs, no soybeans, no stories of charcoal burnt pigs. We were in the settled part of Massachusetts. Little did I know, but one of my best friends was a farmer. We raised pigs, grew raspberries, and walked through his barn, which one day collapsed while no one was in it, including no animals either. We butchered the pigs at Blood Farm in Groton one morning. It was hard work, and kind of gruesome but it taught me how hard farmers worked to bring their wares to market. We stopped after a couple of years because you grew too close to the pigs. They were very smart animals, as you learned in “Charlotte’s Web.”
Another steam engine story happened right in downtown Lowell, and I believe that no one remembers this one because I was alone with my small son. Lowell was given the steam engine that occupies the railroad tracks at the National Park Service. The newspaper kept telling everyone how heavy that engine was, and I have a picture of the crane next to the steam engine, which hopefully I printed in this blog.
The engine arrived a little early and I had my entire family lined up to see it. The problem was that the crane had to drop it exactly in place on the rails and it kept missing the rail. By a quarter of an inch, they said in one case. It was heavy and the crane strained to control it. It kept landing, all day until dark, on that rail and it was not going to drop easily into place. The remarkable thing was the brainchild of an elderly worker who had been there all day until dark. I stayed until dark. I could not leave, it was so fascinating. Engineers, the slide ruler kind, could not get that crane to properly place that train.
Finally, the elderly worker was asked for his advice. He told them that he could place the train but he needed some pieces of wood. They looked at him like he was crazy, but they got him the wood. He proceeded to build a tower from the rail to the top of the wheel, and it stood there, doing nothing. Then the elderly worker asked for one last piece of wood, placed it on top of the wooden pile and jacked it into the space between the rail and the rim. He asked for a sledge hammer, complaining that the railroad wheel was off by one quarter of an inch. He proceeded to pound that last piece of wood into the space between the tower of wood and the engine wheel. On his last swing, the piece of wood caused the engine to lift itself and push itself over by one quarter of an inch. The train fell onto the tracks, placed there by a force of wood strategically placed in the wood pile. I cheered, but I was the only person still watching and the story seems incredible. I know it happened. The man responsible is probably with his Maker now. But he leveled that train on the rail.
You can believe that if you want to, you don’t have to if you do not want to, the fact is that it happened and it was only witnessed by myself, my son, and a small cadre of workers. The man did what the crane could not do. He personally saved that project. There is no one left to tell his story except me. So that is the story. I hope you believe it because is happened exactly that way. But I know there are skeptics. And, if I did not see it myself, I would have never believed it. It did not make the newspaper, because it was just an old man with a better idea.
So that is the story of the steam engines. What most people do not realize was that the steam engine put the water power wheels out of business. Next to the Market Mills is what is left of the steam building. You can still see where the poor overworked individuals shoveled coal all day under that vat of water which was steam controlled by a company. The advent of steam was the end of the use of the waterwheel. That happened in the 1880’s and steam was used for years thereafter. I remember it hissing and appearing in the tubes going towards what used to be Sullivan Brothers Printing. But that is another story.
I can sell you pictures of the steam engine and the heavy crane, but they are 8″ by 10″ and that is too big to put in this space.