My favourite trains (so far)

I rarely remember my dreams. I have to wake up in the middle of them to remember what they were about, and quite often I’m so tired that by the time I can get my mental faculties together to try and remember the dream, I already forgot what it was. Which is probably good, since most of the dreams I remember make very little sense.

This morning’s dream was an exception. I was talking with someone I know (admittedly, can’t remember who it was) about trains. (Believe it or not, this is not an unknown conversation.) They asked me what my favourite train trips were, and I had said something like “whoa, that’s a tough one, let me think”. Then I started rhyming them off.

Oddly enough, that was about when I woke up … and I kept rhyming. So I figured, heck, that just sounds like a blog post!

Continue reading “My favourite trains (so far)”

Chasing CN 6060 Stettler to Big Valley

It’s been about nine months since I last saw 6060, when I left Jasper for Calgary. That’s about eight months too long, I figure.

Mind you, many haven’t seen 6060 since early November, since we’ve all been off living our lives while she sat in a shed for the winter. And as we had little money for maintenance work, little was done over the winter. In fact, almost nothing’s been done this spring or summer, either. It’s very handy when you pass all of your inspections.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be problems. Arriving just after 9:00, I found a large portion of the team staring at the air compressor. Apparently, on it’s first run of the year (the day before), the compressor had lost its lubricant. Something wasn’t working.

What exactly was broken, I’m not sure. But it took seven people to get it back together again. (There’s a joke about trainmen and a lightbulb in there somewhere.) The air compressor is a vastly complicated piece of machinery — something I fear I’ll one day have to pull apart to repair. But I got my first taste, so hopefully next time it won’t be so bad.

Just so long as my memory of what we did doesn’t get displaced by some other seemingly random piece of useless trivia.

But just after noon, we declared 6060 fully operational (without the air compressor, we would have gone nowhere), and were ready to do the run to Big Valley. 6060 will do only seven runs this year. It’s a small number, but it’s far better than just sitting around. Luckily, this was one run I got to follow.

The Stettler to Big Valley run is quite short — only about 30 kilometres. Mind you, it takes over an hour to run it, because 6060 can’t run quickly on the line with passengers. That makes it very easy to pass for taking pictures. Which is precisely what Graham and I did that Saturday afternoon.

Interestingly enough, I first met Graham chasing 2816 (see [[The Inaugural Run of the Steam Locomotive CPR Empress, CP 2816]]). It didn’t take long for us to become friends, having a mutual love for trains (although I lean more to steam; Graham’s partial to anything on rails). It also didn’t take long to convince Graham to join the Rocky Mountain Rail Society.

This was Graham’s first meeting with the RMRS, although he nearly missed 6060’s 14:30 departure from Stettler. We hooked up about a half-kilometre down the line from the station. And we started taking pictures.

Graham had never been to Stettler before, and had never been down any of the side roads in the Stettler / Big Valley area. They’re a little hairy. Especially when you’re trying to outrun a train. (Even if it slow-moving.)

Our first pictures were at a station-like landing just down from the station itself. Then we raced to the crossing just as you exited Stettler heading south on Hwy. 56. After that, we headed down to the road crossing at Warden. Followed by Warden South. And then at multiple crossings and hills overlooking the rails all the way down.

The road we were on didn’t follow the tracks perfect, so we’d regularly lose sight of the rails. This was a problem because sometimes, the tracks would suddenly reappear, and you had to quickly judge whether it was worth stopping, or continuing down. And the suddenness was the problem — if you slammed on your brakes on the loose gravel road, you’d fishtail quite easily.

I did a few times. (Although I had a rally car-like turn at one corner, trying to avoid a dog I saw, and turning onto a road about 10 seconds ahead of 6060. After I realized I wasn’t going to die, I was quite pleased with myself.)

Taking pictures where we could, we weaved our way down to Big Valley, arriving in time to catch the train being held up by bandits (part of the show), and meeting the train in Big Valley itself. It was a little harried, but I introduced Graham to Don, Harry, Terry, and anyone else from the RMRS I could find.

But then it was off for us, back to Calgary. (Separate ways, that is.) As much as I wanted to follow 6060 back to Stettler, I knew I wouldn’t last long enough. I was pretty tired and wanted to go home and rest. I’ll do the full run next time.

Though not quite as fast, I think.

The Great Jasper Run, CN 6060 Stettler, Red Deer, Edmonton, Hinton, Jasper

637,540 pounds of hot iron
100,000 gallons of water
17,760 gallons of fuel oil
3,000 kilometres
566 digital photographs
400 pounds of food
250 litres of gasoline
30 mugs of beer
16 hard-working people
8 days
6 hotels
3.25 hours of video
2 plane trips
-12 degree weather

equals

1 Great Vacation

What many people everyday call work, I call relaxation.

While I would love to sit here and type out every single little excrutiating detail, I’m going to spare you the agony and cover only the highlights.

1) Vancouver

I went to Vancouver on 18 October for, of all things, a party. Radical held it’s 10th Anniversary celebrating its success over the years. As a former employee, I was invited along to partake in the festivities.

In addition to seeing friends I hadn’t seen in a few years, and making a few new acquaintances, I tried to remember why I’d left Radical two years ago. I still haven’t been able to give myself a suitable answer.

2) The Great Train Trip

Returning to Calgary on the Friday (19 October) — I flew — I proceeded to pack and prepare for Phase II of my vacation: Helping run 6060 on its biggest excursion in years. We were going to run it all the way to Jasper.

This has been Harry’s dream for many years, taking 6060 back to his home town in celebration — and bring it in under it’s own power. This was something we’d been preparing for most of the summer, and we (there were up to 16 of us helping to run the train) were anxious.

It started with a quick run to Stettler from Warden. There we found our mechanical glitch for the trip, which was quickly fixed. Then on to Red Deer, where we turned around and headed north to Edmonton. A stopover to pick up rail cars, we were off to Edson, Hinton, and ultimately, Jasper.

I drove the entire way, chasing the train, taking pictures and shooting video footage. It was a wild ride, and my poor car had to endure the worst punishment any K-car should ever be subjected to.

I’m going to bronze that car when it finally dies.

The trip ended, for me anyway, in Jasper. Although there’s still the return leg and the winterizing of 6060, I’ll be trapped here in the office. The season is now officially over. Work won’t start again until January, which is fine with me. It’ll take that long to edit the movie.

Why the shortness of detail? Simply put, I’m writing this one out in detail, and it’s going to take a while. When it’s up, you’ll know…

Steam Train with CN 6060, Stettler to Big Valley

I have a new girlfriend.

She’s a little temperamental, though. She gets hot really fast, she’s always blowing steam, and at the moment has a nasty tendency to run around mostly naked.

That, and she weighs 637,540 pounds.

Yes, I too have succumbed to the wiles of the Iron Mistress. I suppose it was only a matter of time. Hanging around the 6060 work crew probably doesn’t help matters, either.

Saturday was yet another trip for me out to the middle of Nowhere, Alberta (also known as Stettler). You’d think that with only a few measly hours of sleep that I’d have an awfully hard time trying to pull my butt out of bed early Saturday morning.

You’d think.

It’s amazing sometimes what willpower can do. That and a good bout of adrenaline. I was in a hurry. I had to be in Stettler by around 9am, and I was already 30 minutes late (I’d slept through my first alarm).

The trip up was nothing out of the ordinary. Drive Highway 2 to south Red Deer, fill tank with gas, take route 595 east to Highway 11, and then to Highway 12, which takes me right into Stettler, and right to the Stettler train station. I’ve done that route a couple times — it’s quite nice — and aside from a bit of traffic (road construction) it went pretty quick.

On 20 July, CN 6060 was supposed to do a run from Stettler to Big Valley (and back). Although it had been ready to do the run, the safety coordinator for the rail line had forbid 6060 from running on the line — the ballast (what holds the tracks in place and defines the rail bed) was too light in some places.

So when I arrived at the station, all I found was #41 — Alberta Prairie’s 1920 Baldwin Consolidation 2-8-0. It’s a small steam engine — a scant 62 feet long (6060 is one and a half times longer) and a piddily 244,000 pounds (6060 is over two and a half times heavier). It’s a nice little engine than can, but it’s not the one I was looking for. I found 6060 still in Warden, having been denied the run.

On Saturday morning, I was not disappointed. As I drove along (having to take a detour due to road construction), I caught a glimpse of a now very-familiar huge black and green locomotive sitting next to the Stettler station. Already, Harry, Ernie, and Don were hard at work.

This was the second day in a row that 6060 would run, having run also on the Friday. Like most days 6060 runs, the train had been packed — over 400 passengers. The anticipation of a large crowd was high. So there was extra pressure to make the train look (and run) as well as possible.

Donning my now very grubby jeans, I leapt at the chance to do whatever I could. So I got handed the jobs of helping Don grease the tender’s bearings (managing to get quite a bit of grease on myself in the process), and wiping down all the trucks (the non-powered wheels) and the drivers (powered wheels) on the engine. My hands were literally soaking in Varsol for about two hours. Ouch.

Barely a half hour after I arrived, it was time to get 6060 fired up. Because the insulation and jacket are still not back on (barely the first quarter of the boiler is covered), it cools off very quickly — there was barely one pound of pressure in the boiler that morning (6060 operates at 250 pounds of pressure).

I’d always wondered how you start a steam engine. It’s not like starting a car — there’s no key, there’s no electricity, and there’s no motor. In fact, starting a steam engine cold is quite a challenge, and not easily done.

The primary problem is draft. Like all fires, you need a draft to keep the fire burning. The problem with steam engines, particularly ones as long as 6060, is getting the draft started. For that, you need an air compressor. A big one.

The air compressor does two things: It charges the blower air tank, and it’s used to create the draft in the stack. The blower atomizes the Bunker C crude oil we use for fuel, spraying it into the firebox. This allows the oil to burn more cleanly, efficiently, and creates far more heat than just pouring it in. At the opposite end of the engine, jets of compressed air shoot up the smoke stack, drawing the burned gases from the firebox, through the heater pipes, and into the stack.

It sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Provided you have a source of compressed air, anyway. If you don’t, well, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t start 6060 without this handy little feature. So of course, the question is how did they start 6060 when she was operating with CN Rail…

A boiler. A big freaking boiler. Every roundhouse had a boiler room, whose sole purpose was generating steam for starting up steam engines. That’s all it did. If your engine ran out of water in the middle of nowhere, you were screwed. Even if you could refill your water, by the time you got it your engine was cold. After that, you had to be towed back to a roundhouse to be restarted. And you got in trouble.

Heating something the size of 6060 would take hours, or so I thought. But you’d be surprised how quickly something the size of 6060 can get hot. I noticed this the hard way, when Mitch (who showed up for a while to help fix a split steam line) called me out to the engineer’s side running board to help splice a line back together. Next to what little insulation we had on, the engine seemed cool. But once I’d passed the jacket, it felt like I was standing next to an industrial-sized waffle iron.

It didn’t help that I was on the sunny side of the engine, either.

Within two hours, steam started to trickle out of some of the various vents, ports, and exhausts. At first, it was just drops of hot water. But soon, little clouds were blowing out. The previously cold, calm engine was beginning to feel a little more dangerous. Of course, this was when I was rubbing very flammable Varsol all over the wheels right next to many of these steaming vents, under a now very hot boiler. I kept expecting one of the vents to suddenly blast open and peel my skin off.

But Harry and Ernie were well aware of where I was at all times. That’s why they’re engineers. They don’t open anything until they’re sure no-one’s around.

By 12:00, 6060 was approaching operating pressure. Passengers for the 14:30 trip were already arriving, mostly just to watch 6060 go through its paces. While Harry, Ernie, Tom (Alberta Prairie Rail Excursion’s engineer, who was on a “training” run — no pun intended) worked in the cab, Don and I finished off work on the outside.

My hands tingling from the Varsol, but otherwise done my tasks, I joined the engineers in the cab to hopefully absorb a few things about running a steam locomotive. I listened to what Harry and Tom discussed, periodically asking Ernie for explanations on things I didn’t understand. Don was learning as well — he’s a few steps ahead of the game compared to me, but he’s also been with the RMRS for 15 years.

One of the most fascinating things was watching the fire in the firebox. Only a month earlier, I had stood inside it, wondering what it would be like when lit up. Now I could barely see the features, they were obscured by the orangey-red flames that swirled around. The heat was intense, but nothing 6060 wasn’t used to.

By 13:00, we were ready to start the engine in motion. Grabbing my camera, I took up position and waited. For a while, nothing happened. But then 6060’s forward bell started to ring, warning all around that a very hot 313 metric-tonne hunk of iron was about to start moving. A sudden (and very loud) blast of steam shot out from the cylinder cocks, and slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the huge engine started to move forward.

I felt a tingle in the back of my next. 21 years rushed by like a summer breeze. For a split moment, I was eight again, hiding behind my father as this giant black beast came tearing down the rails in Oakville. I remembered that it had scared me, but also deeply intrigued me. It was good to feel so young again. Now I know why those who work on 6060 are always smiling, and are so young at heart.

In front of 6060 was the caboose, and most of the day’s train. The rest was waiting down the yard — the train had been “broken” the night before, because a road bisects the rail yard. The train rolled down and softly linked up with the remaining cars. The linesmen hooked up the steam and brake lines, and a few minutes later, the entire train started back to switch onto the main line.

The Stettler station sits on a portion of barely-used track owned by the East Central Heritage Society. It used to be a CN short line, until the Government allowed CN (and CP) to start giving up their unprofitable lines. Now Alberta Prairie Rail Excursions is the primary user of the line. So we didn’t have to worry about tying anyone else up.

Because there aren’t any turntables or switch arounds, 6060 had to run in reverse for the trip down to Big Valley. For a steam train, it’s a little awkward, but almost no different than running forward. Besides, at the speeds we would be running, it was hardly an issue.

Finished my current round of picture taking, I returned to the cab, to see what was going on. Harry spotted me and called me up for an impromptu “meeting”. Being the youngest, I was the designated gopher. My job was to go for ice creams — Harry was buying. Being a hot day, it also meant I had to run.

There are times I don’t like the dryness of Alberta. But when you can run in jeans in 32 degree weather and know that your sweat will just evaporate, you really can’t complain too much.

Soon, it was 10 minutes until departure. Although we weren’t with a real rail line, everyone was running like they were — the conductors, Harry and Ernie, even Don read off in railroad time (military time) and were synchronizing watches. Old habits die hard, I guess. With 10 minutes remaining, it was time to sound the whistle. It should have brought back so many memories of watching 6060 roar past when I was a child.

Unfortunately, I was standing next to the whistle at the time, so it only succeeded in scaring the hell out of me.

It’s a powerful whistle too — none of these pipsqueak little tin whistles. This is fed by 250 pounds of steam. It’s loud. Loud enough to shake you to your bones. (Don wears ear plugs when riding 6060 because the whistle’s so loud.) You can hear it for miles. Out in the open prairie, it’s a beautiful sound. Standing right next to it … well, let’s just say my ears rang for a little while.

At 14:30 on the nose, Harry sounded the high ball (three short blasts of the whistle) to indicate that we were off. Don and I took position in the caboose’s cupola, right behind 6060. We faced the front of the engine the whole trip down. It was wonderful to see it running again.

It was so good, in fact, that I felt an urge to share the experience with the man who got me hooked on all this in the first place — my father. Through the miracles of modern technology, I called up my parents and let him listen to the chugging of the engine and the blast of the whistle.

Just as we started to pull into Big Valley, the train lurched to a stop. We were nowhere near the station, but our forward progress had been retarded … by train robbers.

Yes, train robbers.

This is part of the whole act. The robbers come, stir up trouble, get some money, and are promptly stopped by the local sheriff. It’s a prairie thing. Of course, the sheriff, late to arrive, has no clue who lost money to the thieves, so in a kind-hearted gesture, donates the loot to children’s charities.

Robbery completed, we finished the last 500 metres into Big Valley. While passengers disembarked and headed up to the hall for dinner (part of the price of admission), 6060 switched ends of the train so it could make the run back later. After she was hooked back up, Harry and Ernie did a quick inspection, and shut her down for a couple of hours, so we could go eat.

You never leave a running steam engine unattended.

Dinner is part of the package. It’s quite good, too, prepared by local Big Valley folks in their town hall. It’s typical fare — mashed potatoes, vegetables, roast beef (albeit a little overdone), and even has pork cutlets and shrimp. My sweat equity bought me a free trip on the train and a free dinner. Can’t argue with that.

Harry, Ernie, and the two conductors (Ed and Warren) told war stories of their days on the rails. One day, I’d love to write a book about some of these — most are unbelievable (Harry can actually say he drove a locomotive through a house), the rest stop at merely hilarious. Makes me wish sometimes I was 50 years older, and an ex-railwayman.

Following our dinner, we returned to get 6060 back in gear again. During the hour we were gone, she’d lost almost 60 pounds of pressure (another reason why we need to get the insulation and jacket back on — so that won’t happen), so firing her up was of big importance. A large number of people came out to look at the engine while this was going on. Don ran interference for Harry and Ernie, answering questions about 6060 and her history.

Soon, 19:00 rolled around, and we started back for Stettler. This time, Don and I were at the end of the train. It was much quieter (no hulking locomotive to rattle the windows), and we could clearly hear the clickety-clack of the wheels and the barking of the engine.

Yes, “barking”. This is another term I’ve learned. When a steam locomotive starts up a grade, or is hauling a lot of weight, it will chug loudly and distinctly — this is called “barking”. I’m not sure where that term comes from. I have to remember to ask. (I did ask what “hogheads” were and what that etymology was.)

We arrived back in Stettler around 20:30. I was exhausted, and I hadn’t really done much. There was still work to do — 6060 had to switch cars once they were emptied, the train broken, and then 6060 had to go back to Warden so we can continue working on her.

But I had to get home. I had plans for Sunday, and being in Warden, unfortunately, wasn’t part of them.

So for the first time in 21 years, I saw 6060 in action right in front of me. Not as impressive, unfortunately, as when I had seen her run through the Oakville sub as a child, but no less awe-inspiring.

I left the Spirit of Alberta behind, but only for a few days. I’ll be back on the weekend. There’s still a lot of work to do, and a lot for me to learn. We’ll be running again on 21 September, with the jacket back in place, and hopefully with a fresh coat of paint.

Hope you can all make it.

Reunion with Steam Locomotive CN 6060

Once upon a time, you couldn’t go very far out here without running into a railway. Tracks criss-crossed the land like a bad hair weave. If you had to get somewhere, you went by train. There were no highways, except for two ribbons of steel. Wherever the steel went, towns sprang up. The building of the CPR and CNR gave way to cities like Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. For over half a century, the railroads were king.

Today, the lines are mostly abandoned. The main lines still run, but the short tracks are mostly gone. The plethora of grain elevators throughout the west have given way to grasslands, the old railroad beds weeded over and forgotten. The warm chuffing of Mikado, Hudson, Consolidation, and Mountain steam locomotives has fallen to the droning roar of AC4400s, SD40, and FP7 diesels. The romance is mostly gone.

But not forgotten.

Humanity, in a sense, is a little strange. We choose to hold onto our pasts, no matter how trivial they may seem, for we think they might be of use to the future. It is because of that sentiment that we have traditions, we keep the old buildings standing, and preserve the things we hold dear.

That sentiment brought me on a sunny Monday morning to the eastern side of Warden, a small settlement about 10 kilometres south of Stettler, Alberta. Though barely a blip on the map, it is the temporary home of an aging Canadian National Railway Mountain 4-8-2 steam locomotive, number 6060.

This might not seem like much, but for me it’s a trip back to my childhood. My father turned me into a rail fan when I was very young. He built me a train set one year for Christmas, which I happily played with for many years. I loved taking the GO Train into Toronto whenever possible, and enjoy riding railed vehicles of all kinds. My father was also the one who introduced me to steam locomotives, specifically CN 6060.

Built in October 1944, CN 6060 was the pinnacle of Canadian steam locomotive engineering. Based on the Northern 4-8-4 design, the Mountain 4-8-2 was lighter and more versatile, but still packed all the punch of its predecessor. Still, it meant weighing in at an awesome 687,540 lbs. (today’s modern freight diesels, by comparison, are a paltry 440,000 lbs.), stretching to 93 feet in length, and rising to 15 feet and 1.5 inches in height. Today, she is Canada’s largest operating steam locomotive.

CN 6060 ran from late 1944 until 1959, when diesel finally supplanted steam in Canada. Although diesel electric locomotives had been around since 1918, it wasn’t until the ’50s that diesel had enough power to outweigh steam locomotives, and their high operating costs. Steam locomotives were expensive to operate, and the maintenance on them was intense — each locomotive had to be stripped down and rebuilt every five years. CN 6060’s days had been numbered since the day she rolled out of the Montreal Locomotive Works.

This is when the battle to save CN 6060 from the scrap heap began. Her engineer, Harry, wasn’t about to let her fade away like so many others. With the help of CN, 6060 came out to Alberta, where she went on static display in Jasper National Park. There she remained until 1972, when CN restored 6060 to run steam excursions from Toronto to Fort Erie. This is how I came to know the engine.

I cannot tell you the first time I saw 6060 roar through Oakville. My father would take us up to the CN line, along with many other families, to watch the train whip through on its way west. It was always such a rush to see a huge column of smoke suddenly erupt from under the Royal Windsor overpass — it meant the train was almost here. Dad would always put pennies on the track to flatten them — something 3/5 of a million pounds does quite nicely.

One day, when I was eight years old, my father took us up to the line to watch 6060 go by. He said it was the last time that we’d ever see her — she was going west to Alberta. For an eight-year old, that’s the other side of the planet. Donated to the Province of Alberta at the celebration of its centennial, she was to return to Jasper, where she would sit idle, known as “The Spirit of Alberta”. I never thought I’d see her again.

The memories of that train stuck with me, and with the popularization of the Internet, I gained a way to find out what happened to my favourite engine that could. In the summer of 1997, I tracked CN 6060 down to the Alberta Railway Museum, who in turn pointed me to Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions. Although they used CN 6060 on some of their runs, they said the best people to talk to were at the Rocky Mountain Rail Society, owners and preservers of CN 6060. It took me nearly four years, but I finally got myself in gear, and made the trip out to see an old friend.

Using directions supplied by my RMRS contact Al, I found myself barrelling through parts of Alberta I’d only ever heard of. Soon I was a mere 12 km south of Stettler, running north on Highway 56. Before long, I saw a line of box cars sitting off in the distance — something Al had told me to watch for. A sign soon appeared with the name “Warden”, and an arrow pointing west. Less than a kilometre down the gravel road, I crossed a nearly-abandoned railway line. Adjacent was a dirt road, running parallel to the box cars. Although there was no sign, it seemed the logical place to go.

I drove slowly, not sure if I was in fact in the right place. But as I passed an old passenger car that bore the name “Alberta Prairie Railway”, I knew I was in the right place. Then I saw a tender, the kind used by 6060 — it even bore 6060’s number. And just behind a large red engine barn sat a machine I hadn’t seen in 21 years. Her outer jacket was off, her nose cone removed, but it was hard to miss the large brass numbers on her running boards that read “6060”.

Three older men met me as I walked over, the first being the man who had directed me there, Al. The other two, Mitch and Larry, were looking up under the running boards at something I couldn’t make out. Al began to tell me about the locomotive, much of which I already knew. But I was more than happy to listen — this was a man who had worked with it.

Being roughly noon, it was break time. I was led around to the other side, down to a retired CN caboose, which now doubled as the yard office. It had the one thing these men really wanted: the coffee maker. I sat and quietly listen as these men told me their days on the rails. There were all ex-CN, mostly retired though Larry had a day job with the petroleum industry. They told me about the caboose, the engine, and about Harry, the man who had spent the last 42 years trying to save 6060 from decay.

As I listened, I constantly looked behind me to 6060. I almost couldn’t believe that I had “found” her again. I couldn’t stop smiling — not only out of plain happiness, but also from the stories Larry, Mitch, and Al told. I was informed that these stories were nothing — were I to stick around for dinner, I really get an earful.

Break over, work resumed. But first, I was permitted to wander around. Gathering up my trusty camera, I took pictures of the locomotive from many angles. Al then let me into the cab, to look at the controls and where Harry had driven 6060 for over 30 years. After taking a moment to myself, I finished taking pictures, climbed out of the cab, and returned to my car.

But my day was far from over. Donning an old pair of jeans, a ratty shirt, and my shoes, I returned to CN 6060. To help work on her.

The past few months has seen the outer jackets removed, lines and insulation replaced. Although the engine is scheduled to make a run on 20 July, there is still a lot of work done. And from what Al had told me through email, every hand counted.

It took a very short period of time for me to realise that for all the documentaries I’d watched and the books I read, I knew nothing when it came to steam engines. I felt like a five year-old asking his daddy “why?” — I must have driven Mitch crazy with all my questions. But he, and the others, were always willing to answer the questions without hesitation.

My first job was to help replace one of the lines that runs from the cab up to the front of the boiler. Although I didn’t know exactly what the line did, it wasn’t too hard to do — it was mostly lifting and holding. (Well, it wasn’t hard in the sense that it didn’t take too much brain — but it took a lot of brawn, nothing is light on those locomotives.)

I was soon called around for other little jobs: Grinding away painted “X”s that would make the boiler inspector wonder what was going on, scrubbing away rust at a new weld for the whistle assembly (and painting it), helping Larry and Mitch sort out what the heck they did wrong with a set of pipes and brackets, and all the while learning a little bit more about how it all works together.

Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of problem solving. It’s the ultimate in 3D puzzles — it only goes together one way, and if you’ve got it wrong, you have to figure out why on your own — the manuals no longer exist for these machines. This is how Mitch, Larry, and I ended up spending most of an hour trying to figure out where a set of lines were supposed to run. The logic was easy enough, but there was always something critical we were missing. Ultimately, Larry figured out that we’d mounted the pipes on the wrong site of the bracket. Thirty minutes later, the pipes were connecting properly once again.

Harry arrived an hour or so after we started working. It was an honour to meet him at last. Although in excellent shape, Harry must be well into his 70s. This was a man who knew the 6060. The others often commented that their wives called the 6060 the “Iron Mistress”, with all the time she demanded. It was clear that Harry was quite willing to let the time be taken.

As the afternoon wore on, I found myself almost every where on the locomotive, pulling this, hauling that, pushing something I didn’t know I was supposed to push, lifting insanely heavy dome lids, and running errands into the shed. But by far the weirdest experience was when Harry asked me to give him a hand with the firebox.

There are two essential parts to a steam locomotive: The firebox and the boiler. Like its name suggests, the firebox is where the fire exists. In steam locomotives of this size, it’s big enough for several people — certainly large enough for the two of us.

Donning a painter’s suit, we climbed inside the 6060’s firebox, Harry leading the way to show me how it’s done. I’m pretty much certain I wouldn’t do very well on a submarine. Although I was only in the firebox for about 10-15 minutes, it was enough to give me the creeps. Still, it was fascinating. I could see where the oil sprayed into the brick-lined pit (it used to be coal, before the 6060 was switched over to fuel oil), the blower grate at the bottom for air, and the huge superheater pipes that led out to the stack.

Harry was inspecting the inside so he’d know what to say when the inspector arrived the following day. It’s not easy running a steam locomotive, and you really need to know what you’re doing. Luckily, Harry does.

This mostly concluded the work day. While Larry and I were to head off for home. Harry, Mitch, and Al would return to Stettler to their motel room. It was another long, hard day to come. I only wished I could stay to help. But I had to return from the past and prepare again for the present. My real life called.

But the dream is far from over. Engineers like Harry are a dying breed. New blood is needed to keep these machines running. People need to show others how we grew as a country — on highways made of steel. That is why I’ll be back again, to help work on the 6060, to bring her back to life and do what she does best — run full steam ahead.

So why am I doing all this? Well, if you’ve read enough of my journals, you probably already know. The future is nothing without the past as its foundation. Or, as Harry likes to say: “We serve the future by preserving the past.”

With luck, and a little bit of effort, the Spirit of Alberta will live forever.

For more information on CN 6060, check out: http://www.6060.org.