October 19, 2002
In today's world of sending student engineers to school for training, followed by O.J.T. (on the job training), it should be interesting to hear about student firemen until the middle 50's. You started on steam engines which included, cinders, valve oil, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and what was involved to learn the trade. Different railroads may have used more trips or other methods but the actual act of learning to fire a steam engine had to be hands on.
Billy Smith, the new fireman applicant, had an okay on his physical and was taking the results to the Trainmaster's clerk. Bob Bolen, the clerk (one of those old timers who ran the Trainmaster's office as if it was his own) grumbled and did a little paper work. Turning to Billy he asked if he could start tomorrow on his student trips. Billy said yes, and the clerk called the crew caller at the engine house and told the caller Billy's name and telephone number and to call him for the south local.
Hanging up the phone, he told Billy he would be called for the south local on duty at 8am. He would receive five dollars per trip and would work five different jobs before being assigned to the extra board.
At 6:30am Billy's phone rang and the crew dispatcher said to show up for the south local at 8am. After a quick breakfast Billy tossed his shaving kit into the grip and drove to the roundhouse. Arriving at the roundhouse Billy told the crew dispatcher who he was. John the Dispatcher said the local engineer should be walking through the door anytime and his name is Sam Kirkman and the fireman was Al Vetter. The door opened and the engineer and fireman came in. Sam was about 60 years old, an inch short of 6 feet, about 175 lbs. with a ready smile.
Al was around Billy's age, about 5 ft. 10 inches, 145 lbs. and this was his second pay trip. After the engine crew did their paperwork and explained it to Billy, everyone picked up their grips and walked to the engine.
The power, a 2-8-2 Mike built around 1912, was not equipped with a stoker. This round trip was going to be on the fine art of firing a locomotive with a number 4 scoop shovel. While Sam oiled around, Al showed Billy around the cab. The first thing was blow down the water column, drinking water, ice, clean the cab, check for flags, red lantern, etc. When hand firing a locomotive, a heel, a large pile of coal along the rear of the firebox, is shoveled in and watered down to help the coal to coke on top. The reason for the heel is that the draft is strongest at the rear and after you are running on the road you fire over the heel to the rest of the firebox, filling in the heel as it burns out.
This engine has non-lifting injectors for boiler water, one on the engineer's side and one on the fireman's side. Both must be working when leaving the roundhouse. After checking that the water supply valve is on, the overflow valve is turned on. When the water is running the steam valve is turned on and picks up the water to the boiler.
Sam climbed into the cab after oiling around, behind him came Bob Strickman, the head brakeman. After introductions all around Bob asked the engineer if he cared if he rode the caboose because of the lack of room in the cab. With permission to leave the house, Sam turned on the bell, opened the throttle and slowly moved, with the cylinder cocks open steam and water blowing out. Al opened the boiler blow down to clean the sludge from the boiler.
After coupling the engine to the train the head brakeman waited for the conductor, Steve (grandpa) Bock, to arrive with the orders and work. Grandpa gave Bob the running orders, with the first work at Shirley. They had 27 cars and Sam was to pull down and back up for the train crew. Extra 1450 south departed at 8:45am.
Al was instructing Billy on firing and operating the injector. When hand firing a locomotive, you shovel left-handed. A great many right-handed people shovel left handed. Billy was left-handed and shoveled right-handed. With all the other problems this was one more. Billy put three shovels of coal down each side and two down the middle of the firebox. The trick here is to coordinate the movement of the shovel from the tender to the firebox, by opening the fire door by foot pedal. Billy did well on the first three shovels but on the next shovel the engine hit a low place causing Billy to lose his balance just as he was swinging the shovel and his foot did not come down on the pedal. The shovel of coal hit the closed fire doors and most of the coal goes on the engineer's side of the cab. Billy looks at Sam whose disgusted look said it all, but then a quick smile indicated to Billy that he understood. By the end of the day Billy had the timing and balance on a rolling deck mastered.
While Billy is trying to master the shovel, Al reminds him that he must also watch the water glass and maintain one half a glass either by adjusting the water control valve or even shutting off the injector. Another duty is blowing down the engine. Some engineers like to have the engine blowed every five or six miles, some every ten miles. The engine is blowed down to rid it of mud and dirt in the water. Clean water is essential for an easy firing engine and with a heavy freight you use less water with clean water than dirty water. (In the middle 50's there was a water shortage in southern Indiana. I was firing for Gabe Ginn and Gabe believed in clean water. I hand fired the engine where I could and Gabe blowed the engine down just as if you had all the water in the world. When we arrived at Jeffersonville on the pit and opened the gauge cock on the tank, which was about 10 inches above the bottom of the tank, all that came out was moisture. With dirty water you could never run that far.)
As they approached Markle Al said, "Billy, another job coming up. Can you see that block signal? This signal is on the left side. When you can see the indication which today is clear, make a fist of your right hand and put the thumb up vertical, look toward the engineer and say clear block. Sam will be waiting for the indication from you and will return the signal. The reason for the hand signal is the noise. On engines with stokers, the jet noise and the rattle of the deck plates when running 40 and 50 mph makes it impossible to hear."
After doing the work at Shirley and an hour and one half switching the warehouse at Knightstown, they take water. After another three hours switching at Carthage it is time to leave, meeting the northbound (76) at Boyd. While switching at Carthage, the student was learning hand signals because on the northbound trip the brakemen do most of the work on the fireman's side. Also, the student learns about placing the screen over the stack while switching the papermill, the screen breaking up any hot coals that might come out of the stack. When leaving the main you drop down a sharp grade and you learn how the water acts in the water glass on grades.
It's more work and more water at Rushville. A stop at Sandusky to pick up a load and leave an empty and on to Greensburg, the terminal. When the train had been put away and the engine in the house the crew registered off at 10pm, on duty 14 hours. Al and Billy walked the four blocks to the hotel, cleaned up, walked across the street to the restaurant and after eating, back to the hotel for some well earned sleep.
Billy was preparing for bed thinking over the 14 hour trip and he could not help wondering if he was successful with the student trips, could he pass all the tests, three years of mechanical exams plus the book of rules. Billy stretched out on the bed knowing in 6 hours the knock would be at the door and a repeat of today would follow.
Forty some years later as Billy neared retirement he would recall this trip and many others. During those years Billy would see the change from steam to 4000 hp diesel, computerized gauges, air brake equipment that released in 10 seconds on a mile long train, radios that keep train crews and dispatchers in constant communication, and freight trains with two man crews. But then, Billy's interest was learning to stand on a swaying deck and place the coal in the proper place and amount in the firebox.
Maurice worked the Michigan Division from 1947-1981. He then worked on the Bee Line from 1981-1992. From 1947 until august 1950, he worked on the section at Shirley and Markleville. In 1950 he started firing on steam and then on through the diesels. Maurice said, "I had the pleasure of working with C. C. Staley and Ron Buser many times."