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”.

Steam locomotive ex-CN 6060 at Warden, Alberta, 2 July 2001

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.

Old railway shed, Warden, Alberta, 2 July 2001

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: