Where is the Water? (Steam Locos)
With the problem the Tourist railroads were having with boiler explosions a few years ago, I thought a discussion was in order on what is involved in operating a steamer. In today's steam world the operation is carried out by non-professionals. This is not to say that they cannot perform the work, but they do not have the older person to lead them. The explosion at Gettysburg brought about many changes. This explosion was caused by plugged water glasses due to the simple thing of not blowing them out. When you climbed onto an engine the first thing before putting your grip away was open the bottom valve and blow the water glass out. The reason for this was that if someone, after the water was in the glass, closed the water and steam valve, you would have a false reading. After determining that the reading in the glass was correct you put your grip in the seat box.
The water glass at the bottom had a pipe coming from the boiler slightly above the crown sheet. At the upper end a pipe came out of the water glass and was connected above the water level having steam flowing into it. Each pipe had a shut off valve to shut off steam or water. Slightly below the water valve was the blow down valve.
The proper way to check the water glass was in this order. You closed the steam valve, opened the blow down valve and let the water blow out cleaning out any scale that might be in the pipe. Closing the blow down valve and the water valve you, opened the steam valve and then the blow down valve, and this cleaned any scale dirt from that line. You then opened the water valve and closed the blow down valve. After leaving the terminal you would open the blow down valve every 5 or 10 miles to check the water activity in the glass. You did not do the terminal test at this time. When you did your check you usually stood up and blowed down the engineer's water glass also.
On the engineer's side is a water column about 2 foot high on a level with the fireman's water glass. This water column is actually a vertical boiler. It is connected to the boiler as the fireman's water glass and then the water glass is connected to the water column. This water glass is checked the same as the other glass was. On the side facing the engineer the water column had 3 valves about 2 in. apart. These were called gauges and it was said you had 1, 2,or 3 gauges of water 1 being the lower. These valves were also blowed out at the terminal and on the road.
Let us say both water glasses became broken during a trip then you would have to use the gauges to tell the location of the water. What you had to remember was that gauges did not give a true reading. When you opened one of the valves this took the steam pressure off of the water in the column and the water raised about 1/2 in. above the true reading
These little things that are a part of your duties also would keep you alive.
What if there was a distraction? With the water glasses and continuously checking the water, it was a 'on the spot and now time' thing. As a rule you carried 1/2 glass of water and if something came up to distract you, the amount of water being used would not instantly mean that the water was gone. Say we hit an auto and stopped and the engineer and brakeman went back, you took care of your fireman's duties and a half to two thirds of a glass of water was one of your duties. Even if you were the engineer's regular fireman, he would still glance at the water glass at times. Your first thought was always the water.
Where you carried the water, or I should say how high in the glass you maintained the water varied with the engineer. Most engineers liked to see 1/2 a glass or a little less, some only wanted 1/4 glass and a few never less than 1/2 and preferred a little more. If you were moving in the yards or waiting on a meet you usually carried 2/3 glass. If you went to eat you filled the glass to the top and banked your fire. The first thing you did when you climbed on the engine was open the blow down on the water glass for 1/2 second and check that water in the glass.
The engineer that was the easiest to fire for was Gabe Ginn. Gabe liked clean boiler water and would blow the engine about every 7 miles. By Gabe doing this you fired against the water pump and wanted a little over 1/2 glass at 7 miles and he would blow down to just under 1/2 glass. When firing against the pump, how hard Gabe worked the engine, unless he had to go almost to the corner with the reverse lever, did not affect your firing. By over pumping you were ahead with your fire on almost any move he might make.
Another engineer who was a gentleman and one who wanted 1/2 glass or more would almost panic if you stopped and had less than 1/2 glass. I fired for Harry 3 or 4 months and got along good with him. When Harry was young some engineer must have worked him hard by working an engine a lot harder than was needed. When you were
on level track Harry would pussyfoot along and would not cut the fire for you thinking he was helping you. I guess this was because of his younger days. One night I asked Harry if he would work the engine harder to make the fire burn better. "Why, yes, I can, but I don't want to mess your fire up and make work for you." With a stoker Harry you are making work by not working the engine. Harry cranked her down in the corner a little more and the fire turned from a dull red to a whitish red I turned the blower way down and from that time on Harry would run the engine just right.
There are a couple more Harry stories but that's for another time.
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."