STEAM: GONE WITH WIND — Do you remember the opening credits for the old TV show “Petticoat Junction”? (“Come ride that little train that is rolling down the tracks to the Junction…”) The montage showed the three pretty daughters of the owner of the hotel, the Shady Rest, skinny dipping in a water tower. This structure was used to replenish the liquid in the Cannonball Express, a fictional train that chugged between the hotel and Hooterville, the locale of “Green Acres.” A steam locomotive needs a continuous diet of water and coal or oil. These supplies are stored in a railroad car, called a tender, that is pulled immediately behind the engine. Nevertheless, a steam locomotive has to stop sometimes for fresh reserves of water and fuel.
Steam locomotives used to roll through Jacksonville, although the later ones were not as old-fashioned looking as the Cannonball Express. A major rail center, the River City saw its share of steam engines until about 1945 to 1955, when they were replaced by engines powered by diesel fuel. Lost to local history were the pungent smells and plumes of coal smoke from locomotives. And, of course, the whistle on a diesel doesn’t sound the same.
Most steam locomotives consume coal for fuel, although some rely on oil. The burning of coal or oil produces heat, which turns water in the locomotive’s boiler into steam. This is fed into cylinders, where steam pressure pushes against disks called pistons. These are connected to rods which move the wheels.
More often than not, the job of a train’s fireman was to keep the fires burning rather than putting them out. A very physically fit individual, he shoveled coal into the locomotive’s firebox, and he also kept watch on the water flowing from the tender’s tank. As time went on, however, larger locomotives became equipped with mechanical stokers that automatically conveyed coal from the tender into the engine.
WHY NOT STEAM? — When compared with diesel engines, steam locomotives suffer several disadvantages. Their problems include the following:
- Steam locomotives require a longer time to start, since a fire has to be lit and the boiler heated.
- They also take longer to stop and speed up.
- They need more servicing and cleaning.
- Steam locomotives are not fuel efficient. They require large amounts of coal to zip along, but most of this heat is wasted.
- They must stop rather frequently for fuel.
- Steam engines may look neat chugging along, but they create more air pollution than diesels.
After World War II ended in 1945, the era of the diesel locomotive dawned. The conflict had worn out many of America’s locomotives, so numerous replacements were needed. Nowadays, over 20,000 diesel locomotives operate in the U.S., yet fewer than 50 steam engines still make runs in the nation, mostly serving as tourist attractions.
What does the future hold for the motive power of America’s locomotives? Most European railroads have been electrified with power from a third rail that runs parallel to the regular tracks. Electric locomotives offer many advantages over diesels. Therefore, electrification may very well be the direction in which U.S. trains travel in the 21st century.
LOCAL RAILROAD RELICS — The Jacksonville area offers at least two examples of old steam locomotives, even though they don’t roll down any rails. Permanently parked in Jacksonville Beach is a train engine that weighs 28 tons and dates from 1911. It is located at the Pablo Historical Park on Beach Boulevard, near the intersection with A1A. Next to the locomotive is a local station master’s house from the 1800s, as well as a train station that used to serve Mayport.
Another steam locomotive, with a tender car, sits in the middle of a parking lot at the Prime Osborn Center, just west of downtown Jacksonville. This large engine was built in Richmond, Virginia, to haul troops during World War I. Although the conflict ended before the vehicle could do its military duty, it ended up as the pride of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Locomotive 1504 pulled premier passenger trains in & out of Florida, exceeding 70 mph on wheels taller than an adult. After its retirement in December 1953, the engine stood in front of the Atlantic Coast Line Building (later CSX) in downtown Jax from 1960 to 1986. The vehicle was finally donated to the City of Jacksonville, which refurbished it and gave it a new home at the Prime Osborn.
~written by Glenn Emery