Southern California Live Steamers - Miniature Railroad Photography By: Photography By: Photography By: Photography By:
Copyright 2009, Absolute Internet, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Share |
How To Boot A Steam Locomotive

By Phil Jern -

How to hostle without really tiring

It's 3:30 in the morning, as my alarm goes off. Ouch. Today, it's my turn to get old 153 up to speed for Sunday operations. I drag myself out of bed, bleary-eyed, and shower quickly. An hour later, the gravel in the parking lot crunches beneath my tires as I drive up to the gate of the museum.

I take my coffee and rolls with me as I open the trainshed, and flick on the lights. There, three feet away, are the cylinders of the 153, a 1922 product of the American Locomotive Company. The sight never fails to astonish me. One hundred and eighty-four tons of people-magnet, as my friend Al is fond of describing her. I walk down the left side of the locomotive, admiring her Brobdingnagian proportions inside the building, and climb up the gangway into the cab. Time to get to work.

I check the water glass and check the bottom try-cock. Nothing. Guess the last fireman didn't fill the boiler with the injector before shutting down, as he was supposed to. Maybe there's a leak. I open the front blowdown valve for a second, and am rewarded with a gush of water from the front of the locomotive. OK, it's just a little low. Climbing down the engineer's side, I grab a firehose, and connect it to the rear blowdown. Back in the cab, I open the rear blowdown, and climb down again to turn on the water.

Back up the ladder to the top of the tender. I check the dipstick, and note the number of gallons of Bunker C fuel oil remaining, and check it against the log from shutdown last week. No leaks there. Further back, I open the tank lid, and peer down into the murk. The water level is only about 5 feet down, so there aren't any serious leaks in the tank. When you work with steam locomotives, especially old ones, you tend to worry a lot about leaks. I grab another firehose that hangs from the ceiling back here, and drape it down into the tank. Down the aft ladder, and over to the valve to start filling up the tender. Forward, I grab our Rube Goldberg stack fan, and climb up over the pilot, up the steps, and up on the smokebox. After removing the stack cover, and stowing it in the notch provided in the running board, I set the fan in the stack to provide a small amount of draft for the boiler. Toss the electrical cord over the side, and climb back down to the ground to plug it in.

Phil in the cab of #153
Back to the cab. Looped under the fireman's seat is an electrical cord. I uncoil it and drape it over to the wall, and plug it in. I climb up into the cab, open the engineer's seatbox, and remove a trouble light. Plugging it into an electrical outlet in the cab, I open the firebox door and peer inside. There is a huge "bone" of unburned carbon in the front of the firebox, right in front of the burner. Damn. I go out to the tool car (an old Southern boxcar) and grab a pickaxe and a bucket. Back up in the cab, I hang the trouble light right outside the firebox door, toss the pickaxe into the firebox, and set the bucket on the floor in front of the door. Feet first, I squeeze into the firebox, feeling for the floor, being careful not to dislodge any of the firebrick if I can help it. Inside, I reach outside for the trouble light, locate the pickaxe, and break up the carboniferous mass. I toss the loose pieces out the door and into the bucket, and use the light to inspect the firebox, looking for loose or leaky staybolts, making sure the firebrick lining the sides of the firebox is in reasonably good condition, and checking the burner for obstructions. All I find is a couple of loose bricks, so I replace them, push my tools back out the door, and climb back out. I look back inside to make sure I didn't leave anything inside. Once, I left the pickaxe inside, and all that was left at the end of the day was the head.

I check my pocket watch (have to look the part, you know). 5 AM. Time to light a fire.

Starting up an oil-fired steam locomotive is a tricky process. First, everything is steam-operated, including the tank heater that warms the fuel so it will flow, so it's not just a matter of lighting it up and waiting. I check the water glass, and see that there is now half an inch showing. Enough. I shut the rear blowdown valve, climb down, shut off the water, and disconnect the hose.

On the back of the tender is a 55 gallon drum of kerosene. I climb up and open the valve at the drum, and climb back down into the cab. I unchain the kerosene burner from the brakestand, and set it up, pointed into the firebox. I connect a hose to the kerosene line coming down off the tender, and another hose to an air compressor outside the building. I take a softball-sized piece of waste, and soak in in kerosene for a minute. Placing it on a shelf of firebrick just inside the firedoor, I whip out a book of matches and light them (yes, the whole book). I then light the waste, and let it get started burning, plug in the burner, and start it up. After a little finagling with the fuel/air mixture, I get a fine mist of kerosene and air that ignites with a WHOOMP! sound. It's 5:30 AM. The burner is now beginning to warm up the engine, and I can take a break. Time for my coffee and rolls.

It takes a long time to heat 5000 gallons of water to boiling, so I finish my roll, and get out the oil can. There are a few hundred lubrication points on a steam locomotive, and as engineers and firemen have, from time immemorial, I begin the ritual of 'oiling around'. Starting under the fireman's side of the cab, I oil the trailing truck journals, springs and support bearings. Moving forward, there are the spring lube pads on the drivers, the air compressor piston rods, the crosshead guides, valve gear and piston rod packing. At the front, the leading truck bearings, support bearings and slides all get the 80 weight treatment.

I work my way up on top of the pilot and the steps, along the left side of the boiler to the bell mounting, and the air compressor top ends, where I unscrew the caps and pour about a pint of oil into each reservoir. At the very rear of the boiler, I step up on the handrail, and lube the electrical generator. I duck in the front door of the cab on the fireman's side, to oil the firing valve shaft and gears. Refilling the oil can, I open up the hydrostatic lubricator on the backhead above the brake gauges on the engineer's side. There are five feeds on this instrument, but only one fill point. I pour about a quart of oil in, until it starts to overflow. Taking a rag and wiping up, I replace the filler cap and exit out the front door onto the right side running board.

A few drops of oil for the automatic bell ringer and I head down the stairs at the front, and repeat the process for the running gear in the right side of the engine, heading back towards the cab. The power reverse gear is the only additional mechanism on this side. I pick up a larger oil can and work my way around the tender, filling all the journals and checking the condition of the axle packing and bearing brasses. Back in the cab, I complete the oiling job by lifting the apron between the locomotive and tender, and oiling the bearing surfaces for the drawbar. I jump back down and refill the oil cans from a 55-gallon drum equipped with a hand pump.

By now, the kerosene burner has warmed the boiler to the point where the first bubbles of steam are forming above the crownsheet. In order for the Bunker C fuel oil to flow through the two inch pipes to the main burner in the front of the firebox, it needs to be heated to a little over 110 degrees. (Cold, it has the consistency of jello). To that end, I reach up and open the tank heater valve on the front of the tender, to ensure that as soon as the boiler is producing steam, some of it will start to warm its main fuel supply.

Up to now, the only noise has been the dull roar of the kerosene burner and whatever banging around I caused as I went around oiling things. Now, if you are standing in the right place, you can hear the water in the boiler starting to boil, and the occasional creak as the metal expands. The beast is beginning, ever so faintly, to live. Just a stirring, but it is portentious.

There is as yet no perceptible movement on the big brass steam gauge in the center of the backhead. I need about 10 pounds of steam pressure in order to light the main burner, and no less than 50 to 70 pounds of pressure to get an injector to pick up and deliver feedwater to the boiler. This is why I was so concerned about having enough water in the boiler in the first place: it's a balancing act. Too much water, and it takes too long to heat up. Too little, and you risk not raising enough steam to inject more water into the boiler before the water level drops so low that you uncover the crownsheet and blow yourself to kingdom come.

7 AM. I hear another car in the lot as I fill the sand dome on top of the boiler. It's Frank, bringing the ice and Gatorade for the crew cooler on the tender. It's about time. It's getting distinctly warm inside the trainshed at this point, since I have already burned about fifteen gallons of kerosene and intend to burn about thirty more. I adjust the flow on the burner up a notch as the steam gauge just begins, barely! to move off the zero peg.

I take another break at this point and chew the fat with Frank, talking about the weather, his grandchildren, and whatever else strikes us. Frank is a retired DC-8 pilot, and has taken to volunteering at the Museum to keep himself busy. Of course, we both keep an ear cocked for the burner and frequently check the water glass. Eventually, Frank leaves for breakfast, and I climb back up into the cab. Five pounds on the steam gauge. Good enough to start the blower, I figure, and get some real draft through the boiler. I walk out the left running board, reach down and yank the plug for the stack fan out of the wall, and reach up to pull the fan out of the stack. Sure is hot here!

Lowering the fan to the ground, I go back to the cab and crack the blower valve open. I am balancing a need to draft the engine with the need to not use steam profligately. I am watching the flames from the kerosene burner as I turn the valve, trying to get the draft up enough so that the flames are sucked into the flues a little bit in order to greatly increase the heating area (and thus make steam quicker), but not so much that I am pulling an excessive amount of cold air into the firebox through its vents or the door. This maneuver is complicated by the fact that the blower valve is right at hand in the cab, where it should be, and the blower itself is forty feet away under the stack, which leads to a 3 to 5 second delay between moving the valve and seeing a response of any kind.

I finally get things balanced enough to start making preparations to light the main burner. Fuel oil passes from the tender, through a 2 inch pipe with flexible joints to run alongside the firebox on the left hand side inside a 4 inch sleeve that functions as an inline fuel line heater. I start the process by opening the fuel valve on the tender, and the steam valve to the inline heater on the locomotive. Fuel will flow down the pipes to the back of the main burner, where only the burner valve will hold it back.

Eight pounds on the steam gauge. Things are happening faster now, with the increased draft and intensity of the fire. Wisps of steam curl around most of the valves that are open to the outside, as it leaks in small quantities past 60 year old valve seats. A steady drip of condensation is running from the exhaust line from the fuel tank heater at the rear of the tender. The smell of hot oil is becoming richer. Water drips from the drain cocks of the air compressors on the left side of the engine. The hollow whooshing sound of the blower adds to the noise level.

By now, it's 8:30 AM and I have been up for about 5 hours. My legs are starting to feel rubbery from all the climbing up and down over the engine. The steam gauge inches towards 10, and I get out some waste and soak it in kerosene. From on top of the tender, I draw a ten foot long metal shovel with a small blade, and set my piece of waste on the end. Closing the blower valve to prevent shocking the boiler with cold air, I shut off the kerosene supply to the small burner. The silence is striking. Since I lit the burner, its muted roar has become the constant audible background to my work. Now, as I pull it away from the firedoor, all that can be heard is the hissing of steam in the heaters and the occasional expansion creaks of the boiler. I set my long shovel on the bottom edge of the firedoor, and light this second "wick". Sliding it carefully into the firebox, I take close aim, and toss it towards the front end of the firebox, shooting for a spot right in front of the main burner. It lands about ten inches away, directly in line with the burner. Good enough.

This is the trickiest part of the whole affair. If I haven't gotten the Bunker C fuel oil hot enough, I am going to have a very difficult time indeed trying to light this burner. Simultaneously, I open the blower valve about half a turn, and open the steam valve to the main burner about a full turn. I look in the peephole in the firedoor to make sure I haven't blown out my burning piece of waste, and then step away fron the door. I grasp the firing valve lever and open it by pulling it about four inches towards me, allowing the fuel to run down into the burner, where it will be scattered into a fine mist by the steam jets that surround the orifice.

A jet of dark red, sooty flame blows out the peephole of the firedoor as the explosion rattles every loose item in the cab. I push the firing valve back about two inches, and begin opening the blower valve to create enough draft to supply oxygen for the fire, watching the color brighten towards orange. I look out at the stack, and see that there is still a column of opaque, black smoke issuing forth. The further I open the valve, the more oxygen I am supplying via draft, and presently the exhaust begins to clear. The fire is now a bright yellowish white, and I examine it through the peephole, adjusting the steam valve for the burner to try and fan the spray of fuel to provide an optimum bloom of flame that just about fills the firebox, but is not so energetic that the flame front gets ripped away from the burner, so that it keeps reigniting from sheer heat, a condition leads to a series of hollow sounding explosions and a great loss in efficiency. Several rounds of adjustments later, everything is stable, there is a light haze in the exhaust and we are on the way. The steam gauge will begin to rise more rapidly, with the much greater thermal energy available from this fire.

I examine the water glass. Up to this point, the level of water had been rising due to expansion, but we will now begin to evaporate water at a much greater rate, and the level will begin to fall. So far, the water is about halfway up the glass, which is good for this point in the process. I doublecheck by opening the middle try-cock and indeed, get a mixture of steam and hot water, indicating that there is not a bubble or blockage giving me a false reading in the water glass. I proceed to secure the kerosene blower and its assorted paraphernilia, and grab my bucket of bones as I climb down from the cab.

It's eighty degrees outside, and it strikes me in the face as a cool breeze after the cab of the locomotive. I go into the restroom, grab a towel and soak it in cold water, to wrap around my head and face for a few minutes. I take the bucket of carbon rocks to the trash dumpster, heave them in, and take the bucket and pickaxe back to the tool car.

As I look around the museum grounds, I see that some of the other volunteers have begun to arrive. Shirly, who runs the ticket office, is here with her husband, who is currently the President of the museum's Board of Directors, and John, who takes care of the _Silver_Crescent_, both say hello. I return the greetings and head back to the engine.

Already, the boiler pressure has reached 25 pounds. As I watch, I can see the needle rising. I grab a bucket of feedwater treatment (chemicals that reduce scaling and rust inside the boiler) and climb up over the tender and head to the hatch. The water level is now less than a foot from the top, and I dip the bucket and mix the chemicals with a loose piece of pipe. Pouring the mixture into the tank, I head back to the cab and check the water column. Forty pounds of steam, and the glass is now showing about a half an inch of water.

I open the main feed valves from the tender, and pull back the lever on the fireman's injector. Using a feedwater injector is a tricky business; you must pull the handle back and watch the overflow pipe beneath you for water, so you will know when the injector is primed, then pull all the way back on the handle to start injecting water through the feedwater pipes into the boiler through the check valves, which are mounted on the front of the boiler, where the water is cooler, and where the feedwater won't cold-shock the hottest parts of the boiler, near the rear.

Right now, I get only steam from the overflow pipe, which is what I expect. The residual water in the pickup lines is far too hot to inject, (since the injector works on a temperature differential, the cold feedwater causes the steam to condense, producing a vacuum, which is then used to force water into the boiler under pressure), so I close the overflow valve on the front of the injector and open the handle, which causes the steam in the injectors to be forced back through the four inch water supply line to the tender, pushing the residual water in the feed lines back into the tender, and producing a massive amount of bubbling in the tender. I can feel the tender dancing under the force of the backflow. I shut off the injector, and cool water from the tender rushes back into the feedlines.

Fifty-five pounds on the steam gauge, and I reopen the overflow shutoff valves, prime the injector, and open it all the way. Cool water rushes into the boiler along its three inch diameter feedlines, in the process sounding like an enormous toilet flush. The steam gauge stops its steady advance, as I am putting too much cold water into the boiler for it to recover at such a low pressure, but the water level is rising. When it reaches 2/3 of the glass, I shut the injector. I can now busy myself with other details while steam continues to build.

I grab a stick of grease, and walk around the engine greasing the main rod bearings. As the chore is completed, I look at my watch, and realize it is nearing 10 AM. Back in the cab, the steam gauge is approaching 100 pounds, nearly enough to move the engine if need be, but there's nearly an hour left. I adjust the burner, blower, and firing valve, and climb up to the engineer's seatbox. I open the steam feed to the hydrostatic lubricator, and adjust the flow to the air compressors' feed line. I reach up to the steam turret, and open the feed valve for the air compressors. This action is rewarded by an immediate chorus of thumping and hissing as the air compressors start their pistons and begin driving air into the main reservoir for the brakes and power reverse. I check the water glass, note that it is back down to a half glass, and start the injector on the engineer's side.

I climb down out of the cab and shut the drain valves for the air compressors, and watch them run for a few seconds. There is about 200 pounds of reciprocating mass in each compressor, so it's important to keep an eye on them so that if there is a problem, they can be shut down before they do some serious damage. I go around and shut off the various air drain valves as well.

Back in the cab, I open the valve for the electrical generator, causing a jet-like whine as the turbine that drives it spools up. The lights in the cab come on, as well as the headlight, and I can at last cast free from ground-based power. The water glass is full, and I shut off the engineer's injector, and watch as the air pressure comes up in the brake system and main reservoir. Steam pressure is approaching 130 pounds, and I open the cylinder cocks and set the brakes. To warm the cylinders, I open the throttle just a hair, allowing steam to travel from the throttle valve in the steam dome, through the dry pipe inside the boiler, and through the valves to the cylinders. I exercise the power reverse to admit steam to both sides of the cylinders, and then set it back to neutral and close the throttle.

I hear a splashing sound at the rear of the tender, indicating that it is now full. I step down, and shut off the valve, the climb up the rear ladder to stow the hose and close the cistern hatch.

The locomotive is now ready to move. I climb back into the cab and blow a short blast on the whistle, a prearranged signal that lets the crew for the first run know that she is ready. Steve and Mark show up, and I make a big deal out of turning the locomotive over to them. My job is finished, for now.

I am dead tired, unwilling to even expend the effort to climb down out of the cab. Steve and his crew begin to move the engine out into the sunlight, as I wonder why I put myself through this every third Sunday. I am standing in the gangway as we roll out of the building with the bell ringing, and I see a little girl with her hands over her ears, mouth in a little O, halfway hiding behind her father, and I am reminded.

Phil Jern

8821 Views as of 6/21/2009 1:21:50 PM

About the Author:

How to Boot a Steam Locomotive is presented here with the kind permission of Phil Jern. It is Copyright 1990 by Phil Jern. Phil may be reached at

Read more about #153 here.

Select another Article
Click HERE
Do you have some knowledge to share?
Add your own Stories, Articles or References.
Click HERE