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Winter on the glory road

BY F. H. Howard

Copyright Kalmbach Publishing reprinted with permission.

It's not too bad when it's just snowing. It's rough on the dispatcher, of course, trying with flanger, plow and Jordan spreader to throw snow horizontally at least as fast as nature hurls it vertically. He's pivot man in the endless double play between sky and ditch. And in the yard there's no place to throw it except onto the next track, and then onto the next, each vacated by box cars running up senseless mileage getting out of the way. It's not too bad at the shop with the sectionmen periodically and silently filing in to clear the turntable pit and shovel room for a double arc at every roundhouse door. Switches everywhere are broomed and hoed in the search for black under the white.

But when the snow stops, the double-edged winter shows the railroad its backhand stroke - when the thermometer's thin red line collapses in melancholy withdrawal, that's when things get tough at the ashpit.

A freight hog shambles up and is abandoned by her crew, thankfully bunkroom-bound, to the ashpit men, who'll give out with some service. Foresight in the fall has redirected her injector overflows so they spill straight down; in warmer weather this intermittent sluice was conducted into the pan to wash vagrant cinders to the bottom. But this is no clime for mixing water with ashes and freezing shut the ashpan door (to say nothing of filtering fluid over the frogs).

It's frozen shut anyway, unaided from within but plastered on the outside with snow and ice. With some clumsy bashing with a heavy bar and urged open; and the only visible source of heat is shaken through it into the pit, drowned in hot water. If the bashing has been reasonably restrained, the whole affair won't have been distorted too much and the door can be closed later on - at least sufficiently tight to satisfy those whose preoccupation is fire prevention.

One dying freight hog is now ready for an ear-lugged hostler to get her onto the turntable. He knows the turntable will work, for he's just poured a half pint of alcohol into its guts so it won't rest in frozen and frustrating isolation across every track, serving none. White-coated motion propels clanking crank pins hostler's last duty on this, as on all entrants, is to open the reservoir drain cocks; and to nobody's surprise, nothing happens. A supplementary function of air reservoirs is to trap condensate out of the compressed air so it won't wander into George Westinghouses's delicate mechanisms, and his particular batch has frozen in and around the draining equipment. A swatch of burning wasted will unfreeze everything in a couple of minutes with a sudden spit of dirty water.

The ashpit crew must now face a choice: by thumbing the button on the electric hoist, they can transport the dump of steamy sodden cinders up and over and into a cinder car, its underframe valanced with murky icicles. A lot of the water won't seep through, however; it will pool in the ashes and create a frozen testimony to steam locomotive waste. Or if stricken with compassion for the extra gang who will have to unload the car, they can wait for this offal to drain a little. Then the whole cinder hoist will freeze up.

Having inevitably chosen the former course, they may retire to the warmth of the sandhouse to watch a while through frosted panes their companion on the coal chute. If he has no tender awaiting, he can try to unload coal from the hopper spotted atop the ramp. Its rusty sides, like may others, bear scars of a weary lifetime subject to such effort: paint burned off from fires lighted under frozen doors, and pockmarks from desperate clobberings with awkward crowbars - all so its balky contents can rumble on down and forget its frozen state.

But when there's a tender there, hungry for perhaps 12 tons of fuel destined to be wormed out all too quickly this frigid evening, the attendant has a prior duty. If he can get the chute door to go up, the first of his requirements will pour. If he's lucky, he'll drop it closed after 12 tons. If he's not, and ice jams it open he'll get 30 tons, in a cascade leaping over the sides of the tender piling around the wheels in a disgusting superabundance. He might even get 130, except that the remaining 100 is likely frozen up in this horn of plenty. Before the next engine that means a spell down in the silo, roped around the waist, and a perilous hacking at the inside of the treacherous cone.

The ashpit men shovel sand onto the stove, well aware that if it isn't bone dry it can freeze in sandboxes. And since they're bone cold, they don't mind the stinging aroma of roasting silica, sparking as it slides back to the ground.

Outside, on the outgoing track, there's the occasional basso of a beneficial slug of steam pulling back into tender though rubber hose-bags to keep the men warm. Other heat is bled into injector delivery pipes too- even though carried along the boiler they're hard to thaw; sometimes you need a fusee. And concern for the trainline is shown by a white feather at the rear, and there's another one up behind the stack, telling that all will be well in the lubricator. Otherwise it could freeze, everything can freeze, and anything might. Touch a mainrod with you bare hand and see.

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