Copyright© 2010 by Wes Boyd
1223 1/9 - 1747 1/9: Plow Extra Two
Lordston Northern Extra 9608
The handful of men with the stranded little group of engines set to work with the three coal scoops at digging out the nearly buried old Baldwin steam engine. It might be possible to get it to move without too much difficulty -- and if they could get it out, it could go back to the rescue consist and bring more people and snow shovels to attempt the main chore of digging out the C&SL 303 and the D&O 1478.
While the younger men shoveled, Ralph McPhee sat glumly out of the wind in the 9608's cab. He was mostly mad at himself. Like everyone else, he had gotten carried away by the unexpected speed, and he thought that he ought to be too old for that. If he'd kept it down, at least a little, then at least the steamer might be free.
A thin roaring sound drifted down the wind. One of the shovelers looked up and shouted, "Now who in the hell would be crazy enough to be out on a snowmobile in shit like this?"
McPhee stood up and looked down the track. Sure enough, there was the flash of a single headlight wallowing through the snow in the drifted-up cut. In a moment, he could make out a blue snowmobile roaring up over the top of the drift, past the two engines, and skidding to a halt next to the Baldwin's cab. "What in HELL have you done with my engine?" the snowmobile driver shouted.
BILL LEE! The owner of the 9608, and the last man in the world that McPhee wanted to meet at this instant! There were plenty of other places for him to be. Why did he have to be HERE?
As Ralph McPhee would eventually find out, there was a pretty good reason, the reason that Diane Lee had given to Steve Cziller several hours before and fifty miles away: Bill just couldn't let this trip get past him.
After all, Bill Lee and the 9608 had a relationship rather closer than the normal owner and machine. Ten years before, Bill, a recent widower, had been a rather bored factory worker, not at all interested in railroads. One summer afternoon, those ten years before, a highway detour took him and the then pre-teen Diane through a small town in Tennessee, and car trouble had stranded them there for a few hours. While they waited for a mechanic to fix the car, he and his daughter took a walk through the town. In a park on the edge of town they found the rustiest, most decrepit and forlorn old steam engine that he could imagine. "What a ball it must have been to run that thing, once upon a time," he mused.
A local oldtimer filled him in on the engine a little. The rusty old Baldwin had run a daily mixed freight through town for years and years. Shortly after World War II, the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio decided to take the old rattler off and scrap its engine. There were a few people in town who were sentimental about the old steamer, and perhaps they had a reason, for that daily mixed train had once been much of the town's connection with the outside world, and there were a lot of memories surrounding the old engine. Twenty years and more earlier, some local people had chipped in and donated it to the town as a park monument.
The years hadn't been good to her. The paint was all worn and streaked with rush, and there were who knows how many parts rusted beyond repair or missing. The engine had become something of an eyesore, and the town council had been kicking around the idea of scrapping it for real.
Bill and the young Diane climbed all over the old wreck and stood back to look at it. In truth, it was in sad shape. If it had been preserved, it might have been pretty, but in its tattered condition, it was perhaps best if it finally made it to the scrap heap.
It took them some time to discover what the old engine's number had once been: 9608.
With their water pump fixed, Bill and Diane drove on. For the rest of that trip, Bill couldn't get the old engine off of his mind. He was never sure what it was about the old scrap heap that changed his life, but when he got home to Camden, he wrote a letter to the town council of the little town, telling them that if they wanted to sell the old engine, then he'd like to bid on it.
A letter returned in a few days: name a price.
A couple of calls to the D&O engine shop revealed an oldtimer that was able to give a good guess of the 9608's weight. Lee took that weight, multiplied it by the going price of scrap iron in Camden, then deducted twenty percent as his last gasp of common sense. He sent the figure off, stating that his objective was preservation, not scrap.
The next thing he knew, he owned a steam railroad engine that he had no idea what he was going to do with.
It took him six months to get the engine to Camden, not to mention a second mortgage on his house. It developed that the Illinois Central Gulf, which had succeeded the old GM&O, had a lowboy flatcar that was just long enough and strong enough to load the old engine onto it, with the aid of a temporary track and two wrecking cranes.
Once he'd gotten the engine to Camden, he leased space in the nearly abandoned old D&O roundhouse at Putnam Yard. The 9608 sat in that roundhouse for five years. On evenings and weekends, Bill and a succession of railfans and D&O volunteers -- including Ralph McPhee and Harold Stevens -- infused hope into the hopeless cause. Five years of puttering; five years of building parts, of scrounging in the forgotten junkpiles of half a dozen railroads for the odd part that might yet give life to the old wreck.
Then one spring day, a D&O switcher appeared at the old roundhouse and towed the old Baldwin out into a sun that it hadn't seen in years. The old engine felt coal on her grates again, and smoke from her flue, and to the amazement of almost everyone but Bill Lee, she felt steam on her pistons.
The old park monument still lived.
With the 9608 still runnable, Bill was going to run her, and in the five years that had passed, he'd worked out how. He had good working relations with the D&O, and he'd spent some time looking for a scenic bit of little-used track. The old section north from Lordston to Whiteport seemed to fill the bill. There'd been a stretch north of Haleyville that had been washed out, but the part that was left was more than enough. The D&O had been planning to tear it up, and they gave him a lot of support with a long-term land contract on the line, and threw in a couple of obsolete old open-ended commuter cars from Decatur. Suddenly, Bill Lee wasn't a factory worker any longer. He was the president and owner (with the bank and some stockholders that had more sentiment than sense) of the Lordston Northern Scenic Railway.
Amazingly enough, the Lordston Northern actually made a profit, but it took the old steam engine to make it for them. For several years, Bill spent more time working on the engine than he did running it. To meet tourist schedules and handle the miniscule bit of freight that developed for Haleyville, Bill looked for another engine of historical interest that could double as a working diesel. He couldn't find a Baldwin diesel switcher that seemed worth the effort, so he settled for an old Alco S1, numbered 451, that had once toiled for the Detroit and Mackinac, but had passed through several other hands before reaching Lordston.
Given such a love affair with a piece of machinery, is it any wonder that Bill Lee couldn't stand to sit by and not be a part of the old engine doing some good for the rest of the world for the first time in thirty years? The thought almost killed him from helplessness. Not that Ralph McPhee and Harold Stevens weren't fine people that knew more about running the engine than he did himself; at that moment, Ralph McPhee wasn't Bill Lee.
About four in the morning, after a sleepless night, he could stand it no longer.
With his daughter watching apprehensively, he got into his snowmobile suit, fired up his snowmobile, and launched himself on a mad mission downwind in the storm.
He got off to a slow start, and meeting SX-3217 slowed him some more. After briefly meeting Steve Cziller, Lee broke away from the D&O plow train and rode the snowmobile to a convenience store along the state road, where he knew there was a phone outside. After a couple of quick phone calls, to alert Diane and Ken Sawyer, he returned to the railroad track and headed back downwind.
The going to Coldwater hadn't been too bad. He stopped there for gas and pressed on to the little town of Frontier, where he found a place open and had a quick breakfast, and gassed up once again for the long haul around the north end of Thunder Lake. The town had become a frontier again, at least in railroad terms, for here the North Central tracks ended. They'd been abandoned a few years before, but the right of way to Meeker was still in place, and there was something of a jeep trail down it in better weather. It had been slow going to Meeker, with Lee worried every inch of the way that the old engine had gotten past Meeker, and that he'd have to chase it north.
He was somewhat relieved to reach the Camden and Spearfish Lake tracks at Meeker and see that it didn't look as if the tracks had been plowed. He stopped to borrow some more gas from the driver of a front-loader that was trying to remove some of the snow that had built up on the streets, and found out for sure that no trains had passed that way. Then, he headed south toward Thunder Lake, relieved that the old 2-6-0 hadn't gotten by him, but a little worried about what might have happened to it.
He didn't have much time to work up a good worry, for not more than a mile south of town over nearly-bare tracks, there was a huge snowdrift. He rode up over the top of the drift, and there, nearly buried in its southern side, sat three railroad engines.
The last one was his beloved old park monument.
Lee didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or swear when Ralph McPhee responded to his shouted challenge with a drawled, "Well, we got a little stuck, Bill."
Lee shut the snowmobile off and replied, "You sure as hell did. That's about the stuckest I've ever seen a railroad engine."
"Well, all right," McPhee responded. "More than a little stuck."
"What happened to that consist of rescue people and equipment, anyway?"
"They're about two or three miles back," McPhee reported. "We been tripleheading almost all night, then going back for it. We got a little too far ahead of it this time. We're trying to dig your old girl out so we can go back for it. Now that you're here with your snowmobile, maybe you can go back for it and bring a couple more people and a half dozen more snow shovels."
"You're still going to have a hell of a time getting through this cut. This stuff is even deeper up ahead."
McPhee shrugged. "Once we get the engines loose, we can maybe have the people from the consist dig it down a bit."
"That's going to take all damn day," Lee replied, yanking on the snowmobile's starter cord. "I've got a better idea." With the snowmobile running, he turned around and headed back for Meeker.
Fifteen minutes and fifty dollars later, the Meeker village frontloader was pecking away at the piled-up snow in the cut.
The machine had to start digging from the north end and dig toward the plow, so it took a while to clear a path through the deeply drifted snow. Once it got to the plow, it had to go to one side of the nearly buried train. It was slow going in the narrow space available to work in.
McPhee was starting to worry about the low water in the 9608's tender. In spite of replenishment from fire department tanks along the shore of Thunder Lake earlier, the level was dropping steadily. It would need to be filled before very much longer, or else he would have to pull the fire out of the engine.
But the frontloader kept him from having to do it. It was slow digging, but eventually it had cut a trench along one side of the plow train. McPhee took a critical look at the area that had been cleared, then told Ballard, "Looks like that might be enough."
Within minutes, the two diesels were roaring, and the old Baldwin was squandering her limited supply of water. Slowly, using lots of sand, the engines of Plow Extra Two backed out of the snowdrift. McPhee left Lee with the frontloader driver to complete the cleanout of the cut, while the three units backed up to the rescue consist.
The now-familiar roar of the 9608's whistle alleviated a growing concern for the long-missing engines. Johnson had considered hiking north with some shovelers, but without orders to the contrary, had decided to wait a while before attempting the walkout. Now, the worry had proven unnecessary, and the little train followed the wallowing, victorious frontloader into Meeker.
There was hardly any activity in downtown Meeker, such as it was, on this snowfilled day; the snow removal crew was about the only activity in town. Ballard braked the 1478 to a stop just shy of the Main Street crossing and radioed, "Let's take a break."
"Sounds good to me," McPhee replied. "We've got to service both coal and water."