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Maurice Lewman

Michigan Division
Hand Firing Steam and the Wabash Helper

July 17, 2001
Today we are going to use a #4 scoop shovel and describe Hand Firing a steam locomotive.

By the time I started firing in August 1950 yard engines and H-5 2-8-2 Mikes were the only locomotives that were still hand fired on the Michigan Branch. There was more than one way to fire a steam engine, but this is how they hand fired at South Anderson, IN.

The 0-8-0 yard engines were fired with a horse shoe type fire. You stared by building a heel across the rear of the firebox up to the bottom of the fire door, then a bank on each side even with the heel at the rear end. A few scoops at the extreme front end and you had your base fire completed. As the fire started burning you sprayed water on the coal to get the coal to coke over. This would keep the smoke down and slow down the burning of the coal. As the day progressed you filled in the burned out holes in the banks. On the west lead you would usually shovel 3 1/2 to 4 tons of coal in 8 hours.

The mikes were being stoker equipped when they were shopped, but we were only getting the stokers part time. The South Anderson-Wabash local was as a rule, heavier tonnage then the South Anderson-Greensburg local. When a stoker engine came it was assigned to the Wabash local.

But to get back to the story, the # 4 scoop with a long handle was just right to fire with. On the H-5 you again built up a heel to the bottom of the fire door, across the entire firebox and out into the firebox about 2 1/2 to 3 ft. All you had to do was to fire over the heel and keep the holes filled.

The Wabash yard engine was used as a helper engine to assist trains over the 2% grade in both directions when tonnage exceeded 1800 tons. In Helper service, the yard engine would shove rather than double head over the hill. By shoving the trains over the hill, when they reached the top, the helper engine would cut off from the road train on the fly. After cutting off, they would return to Wabash per timetable instructions. I have a 1913 timetable and the operation of the helper engine at Wabash was the same until the yard engine was discontinued in the 1970's.

An explanation of how the helper engine could get on the rear end of the trains when they had over 56-58 cars. This is the amount of cars it would hold between the main track switches at each end of the yard. Let's say we had 65 cars after the Wabash set off. The road engine would make the short car pickup. Short cars meaning (cars to be delivered to stations short of the final destination.) After coupling onto the train they would pull ahead to clear the south yard switch and stop. This is on a northbound train.

If the yard engine had Elkhart cars they cut them off clear of the main, reach out and get the cab, come back in the yards against the pickup and double everything to the main. After the air was cut in, the helper engine shoved the slack in on the train gently. Someone on the ground would give the head end a high ball and the train started north.

When shoving northbound and tonnage was around 34-3600 tons they would back up the south hill as far as the road engine could shove the train. Then starting north to make a run for the north hill, the helper engine running backwards at about 35 mph, came out on the Wabash River bridge. The bridge is a curve from one end to other and when hand firing on the helper, you had the fire in and were sitting down before the engine was out on the bridge.

I have seen two 3000-L-3 steam engines with the yard engine helping on the rear end back up the south hill and then come thru Wabash at 40 mph. With the tonnage rating for the hill I would guess they had around 4400 tons.

When southbound the trains were usually in number 12 yard track. The pickup was in number 10 or 11 track and the road crews doubled it to number 12 track. At this time there wasn't a walkway on the bridge and the yard crew would make the double for the road crew. While all this was going on up front, the helper engine was coupling onto the caboose getting ready to shove. Of course by coming through number 12 track the speed was held at 15 mph until the helper engine was on the main and then it really started shoving.

This helper service was at Wabash from the very early days until the yard engine was discontinued.

Hand firing was not that physical unless on an over loaded drag. On a Saturday coming south on the Wabash-South Anderson local we left the Fuzz Mill at Alexandria and ran the seven miles to Dow in seven minutes from a standing start. I probably put in four fires, or 24-25 shovels of coal. Of coarse this was a light train.

This time period was during the end of hand firing and could not compare to using the shovel all day, 16hrs, every day, but you never saw a fat fireman. I always liked the Standard HT stoker when the H-5 was retrofitted with these stokers because you could do everything with this stoker that could be done with a shovel.


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."

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