Not bad, for an old lady
Fifty tons of historical locomotion
It’s 7:30 on a Sunday morning, and Granite Rock No. 10 is just waking up. She’s 65 years old and needs plenty of time to get ready for her adoring public. A crew of men—some gray-haired, some balding—are preparing her for work. Getting her ready, an hour-long process, begins with lighting a fire.
Granite Rock No. 10 is not an unfortunately named, aging Hollywood starlet, but the working steam-powered locomotive that is a prominent part of Sacramento’s world-renowned California State Railroad Museum collection—one of fewer than 100 steam locomotives still operating in the United States. While many people may grasp the concept of steam engines, only a few hundred souls can actually climb aboard and operate one. And these men and women who maintain and run Granite Rock No. 10 work as hard to preserve and pass on their rare skills to the next generation as they do to preserve the train itself.
A modern diesel locomotive pushes her out of the Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station and onto the turntable, a now-obsolete device once used to move train cars from one track to another in a rail yard.
An occasional bang echoes like rifle fire. Red Hadler, the road foreman of engines, uses a large air-powered gun to cram foot-long sticks of hard grease into the locomotive’s bearings.
Working with a smaller grease gun, Chuck Maley, an engine helper and student fireman (the crewman who runs the oil burner and boiler), moves around the vehicle, lubricating dozens of other moving parts.
Most of the volunteers at the railroad museum are not former train people. They never worked for Southern Pacific or Union Pacific. Some are retired state workers, some are retired military and some are retired corporate types, like Maley.
“I worked for AT&T and Pacific Bell for 30 years and ran their pension plans and benefit plans in California,” he says, “so [my career] had nothing to do with trains.”
Most people on the train crews start at the museum as docents. Directing tours of the museum, docents are much more than just tour guides. They go through an intensive training process—learning about transcontinental history, the building of the railroad and railroad technology—so they’ll indeed become experts. Maley is one of the docent trainers.
“Mostly what you are learning about is the impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on California history,” Maley says.
National Park Service historian Richard O’Connor has even compared the significance of the Central Pacific Rail Yard and its role in Transcontinental-Railroad history to that of Gettysburg’s battlefields.
“For someone like myself, when you’re in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, you’re just constantly surrounded by remnants of history—the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, and you’re just soaked in all that stuff. You come out to California, and a lot of that is missing because it is such a newer part of the country. And what we’ve got here are the engineering feats, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the conquering of the mountains, the wagon trains and all of that, but there’s a lot less of that left, and you really got to preserve what you’ve got.”
Ready to begin the day, Granite Rock No. 10 is connected to eight passenger cars and is waiting for the first departure. The train crew of about 20 people, each with critical roles to play, gathers into a circle on the creaking wooden platform of the Central Pacific Freight Depot for the “job meeting.” An industry standard, this is an opportunity for everyone to learn about any special rules and problems that may arise.
In sharp contrast to the engine crew dressed for dirty work, Tom Peterman is neatly groomed in a spotless uniform. Peterman, a student conductor on his final “check ride,” recites from the 4-inch-thick General Code of Regulations, the railroading industry’s bible on how to handle virtually every conceivable situation.
“OK,” he says. “The rule of the day, 245.15. Improperly displayed signals. If a signal is improperly displayed, or a signal, flag or other sign is absent from the place it is usually shown, regard the signal as displayed as the most restrictive signal you can give.”
Sacramento Southern’s strict adherence to these rules has paid off. There hasn’t been a major safety incident in all of the 25 years the railroad has been operating.
“It appears today that the signals at Capitol Mall are operating exactly as they have in the past, even though the bridge is up,” Peterman tells the group. “So the crossing gates should come down, and the pot signals should change from red to green. That will govern unless something changes from yesterday.”
Then, one of the crewmen passes a card around for the others to sign for an absent crewman who’s had a death in the family. While this meeting is a necessary and serious part of the job, these are volunteers, many of whom have worked together for as many as 20 years.
Peterman, like Maley, came to the railroad museum after retiring from a corporate career. Peterman was a product developer for a company that made processing equipment for computer-chip makers. Now he’s plunged from the outer fringes of the high-tech world into low-tech.
“I’d never worked in the railroad, but I’d always been a railroad fan,” Peterman says. “I had the Lionel trains with my dad from when I was four or five years old. I used to play with little trains, but now I get to play with the big trains, too.”
In the stifling heat of Granite Rock No. 10’s cab, Tom Freeburger, one of the firemen, has his hands full. His hands and eyes dart about, scanning a dizzying array of knobs, levers and gauges with casual ease. In addition, he rings the bell. Modern locomotives have air-driven bells, but Granite Rock No. 10 has a long rope that the fireman must pull and release continually when the train is moving in a speed-restricted area.
“Being a fireman is the most complicated [type of] multitasking,” Maley says. “You absolutely don’t have enough hands. You’re ringing the bell and constantly putting water into the boiler. You’re always looking at the water glasses, the most critical thing. And you can only do that at certain times, because when you put water into the boiler, you tend to lose steam pressure. So you can’t do that if you’re going uphill or if the engine is working very, very hard. You kind of have to know the track and what would be the best times to do that. And you’re constantly looking at the color of the smoke to adjust the mixture. A lot of these experienced firemen can do all of that and carry on an intelligent conversation with you at the same time.”
As Granite Rock No. 10 leaves the station, its bell clangs for nearly 10 minutes. About a hundred people, many with cameras clicking away, others waving and smiling, see the train off.
“This is perhaps the only time in your life when you are expected to wave at strangers,” Maley says.
One of the hundreds of safety rules and routines for when the train is in motion is that the crewmen verify each other’s observations and orders.
“Gates coming down,” the engineer hollers.
“No! Gates are up!” Maley, who has a clearer view, yells back.
Approaching Capitol Mall, the gates have not come down, and Rule 245.15 takes over. The light is red, and the train stops. A confused motorist with out-of-state plates gingerly turns her car around near the tracks because the bridge is closed and up.
“Signal activated,” the engineer says.
“Coming down,” the fireman says.
“Gates are down,” Maley says.
“Green,” the engineer says.
“Green light,” Maley responds.
Granite Rock No. 10 creeps across Capitol Mall.
“Woooooo woooooo, woo, woooooo,” the whistle blows, sounding like a cartoon train. But it’s meant to get attention, not laughs.
There is a pattern to the whistle blowing, Maley says.
“Any time you cross another right-of-way, you have to blow two long, one short and a long, and you have to blow it so that the last long sounds as you pass [the right-of-way].”
For 3 miles, at 20 miles per hour, Granite Rock No. 10 rumbles along the Sacramento River levee toward Miller Park.
Later in the day, as the crew gets ready to bring the train back to the depot, they stop under a freeway overpass. The engineer releases a violent blast of steam and water from the boiler to force sediment out of the tank.
“Fire in the hole,” the engineer yells.
“Fire in the hole,” the fireman and engine helper respond.
Granite Rock No. 10 may not be a Hollywood starlet, but she sure gets greeted like one. She returns to the station, and her fans—fascinated adults and giggling children, agape at the spectacle, waving and snapping pictures—are still there to flatter her.