Step aside, steampunks. 'Steam nerds' run real locomotives

Train fanatics can get a taste of 19th century steam locomotive magic at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in California's Gold Country. CNET Road Trip 2012 stopped in for a ride.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
At Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in California's Gold Country, train fans can visit the country's longest continuously-operating steam locomotive repair and maintenance facility. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

JAMESTOWN, Calif.--Stephanie Tadlock is a steam nerd.

For years, Tadlock has been a volunteer at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park here in California's Gold Country, the country's longest continuously-operating steam locomotive repair and maintenance facility.

'Steam nerds' keep 19th century train magic alive (pictures)

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Now, as a hostler at Railtown -- someone responsible for keeping the locomotives ready, as well as bringing them up to steam and moving them around a rail yard -- she has an engine to get started.

I've come to Railtown as part of CNET Road Trip 2012, eager to see how these classic machines have been operated since well before the start of the 20th century. And what better place to do so? After all, Railtown is a favorite not only of the many visitors who trek here each year, but also of countless Hollywood location scouts. Indeed, it's because the facility has been the standard Tinseltown stand-in for rail yards for decades -- more than 200 movies and TV shows have been filmed here -- that it has kept its doors open all these years.

First opened in 1897, Railtown was a short line operation run by the Sierra Railway -- essentially a regional railroad that fed into the big lines. These days, it's a museum of sorts, but three fully functional steam locomotives call its gorgeous red wood roundhouse home -- No. 3, which has been here since the Sierra Railway got started in 1897, and Nos. 28 and 34, which were purchased in the 1920s -- and each still regularly comes out to play, attaching to classic passenger cars most weekends, and pulling them along for short rides.

It doesn't get much more steampunk than this device, the hydrostatic lubricator. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Here in the roundhouse, in the cab of old No. 3, Tadlock pulls out a box of matches and quickly sets alight an old rag that has been doused in oil. After a moment, she grabs the burning rag in her thick glove and tosses it deep inside a chamber called the firebox that is suspended in the middle of a giant boiler and surrounded by water. It goes right where she wants. "That's a pretty darned good spot," Tadlock said.

The goal here is to get a blaze going inside the firebox, but not just any blaze. Fueled by oil, it has to burn with just the right mixture of oil and air, in order to heat the water in the boiler, slowly and steadily building up pressure inside. Go too fast and it could crack the boiler's bolts. Go too slow, and the train's not going anywhere.

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Tadlock's husband, Dave Tadlock retired a number of years back and started volunteering at Railtown. After he'd been there for awhile, working on the locomotives most weekends, Stephanie Tadlock began feeling like she wanted to spend that time with him, so she signed up as well. Now, years later, she's worked her way up to qualified fireman -- a hostler who is charged with getting the steam operation up and running -- and is well on her way to being a qualified engineer, meaning she could someday drive the engines.

Operating steam locomotives is not something you can just go out and learn, she told me. Rather, this is a vanishing art that is taught, hostler to hostler. The locomotives and the fires that power their boilers are "living things," and a big part of the job is being able to tell, by the sounds that come from inside the boiler, and the color of the smoke that emerges from the stack, whether it's time to get going. And if not, knowing just how to adjust the mixture of oil and air, or how long to wait until the pressure's right.

In general, Tadlock explained, it takes an hour or perhaps a little more to bring the pressure gauge up to 100 pounds -- meaning we're ready to roll. But it's a hot day, and No. 3 had run just a couple days earlier, so she estimates that it's only going to take about 45 minutes this time. All it takes her to get there is listening to the boiler, and understanding the "boom, boom, boom" or different kind of hissing noises, and adjusting the fuel and air mix as needed.

The inside of No. 3's cab is a steampunk's dream. It's a motley collection of old gauges, valves, knobs, and beautiful contraptions with names like "hydrostatic lubricator," or "fireman's manifold." To a newbie, trying to figure it all out might well result in a pressure-packed explosion (PDF), but to the experienced hostler who knows how to read the various dials and hold her light up in the right places to ensure there's enough water where there's supposed to be, or recognizing the right color fire or smoke "stack," it's all part of the passion that comes with getting "bit by the steam bug."

Being that she's not yet a qualified engineer, Tadlock isn't ready to drive No. 3. Today, that's the job of George Sapp, Railtown's restoration lead. It's been about 45 minutes now, and looking at the appropriate gauge, Tadlock brightens up. "Oh, we got pressure," she yelled.

Soon, No. 3 is ready to go. And that means, Tadlock explained, it's about time to hand over the reins to Sapp. And how do you do that? "We say, 'Okay, your locomotive's ready.'"