Monday, May 13, 2019

Getting the Freight up Mesa Hill: 08:04 - 11:31: Part 2

Running #420, the Upbound Freight, on the Daylight Pass Railroad

Getting down the hill is a slow process at any time, and even more so when backing, and is always stressful regardless of the direction the train is going.

But now is not the time to sigh in relief because they still have plenty of work to do. Already at 10 pounds, Tom makes another 10 pound reduction to the train-line to firmly anchor them in place, then whistles a long and three shorts. This is the signal for Dean to go down the track and flag the rear of the stopped train. He doesn’t whistle for Ronald to go forward to protect the front because the trainman is already climbing down the ladder with flag and fusees in hand.

Deviating from the plan slightly, Tom leaves Jake to tend the fire and work the injector to fill the boiler back up again while he climbs down with a brake-club in hand, a 3’ length of tough hickory, and walks back along the train. He passes up the first three cars then climbs up on each succeeding car and, using his club through the spokes of the brake-wheels for extra leverage, he ties down the brakes, hard, on each one, then sets the retainers to HP.

By the time he gets to the house-car Otis has drug a heavy chain out of the possum belly, the toolbox slung under the house-car, dumped it in a clanging heap on the ballast, and is busy with his own brake-club punching a hole through the ballast between a couple of ties at about the mid-point of the house-car.

“I thought you were going to send Jake back here,” Otis says between grunts as he stabs the club into the resistant ballast, gripping it hard with his arthritic hands.

“Jake’s not the one that just hand-over-handed this train down the mountain. I figured burning off some of the stress of that would do me more good than it would him.” Then he gets down on all-fours and starts humping the heavy chain under the car.

Otis can’t figure how crawling under a car on a train stopped on a grade can be any less stressful than backing that train down the same grade, but he doesn’t say anything.

While Tom is looping one end of the chain over the thick forward axle of the rear truck Otis is snaking the other end through the hole he has created in the ballast under the rail. The two men then pull the ends together and thread two thick bolts through adjoining links, running the nuts up tight with wrenches produced from the possum-belly. Because his heavy gauntlet gloves are thicker than the normal work-gloves the trainmen wear, Tom has to remove them for this last part of the operation and the flaked metal of the chain bites at his hands. Rather than pull the chain tight, they have left a slight gravity-induced sag in it. That way Otis will be able to tell at a glance if the cars have shifted on the track since the slack will pull out if that happens.

On a lessor grade they wouldn’t have bothered, but here in Wild Woman Canyon chaining down the cars that will be left behind as they double the first part of the train up the hill is a final defense against them getting loose and heading back down towards Big Timber on their own.

While all this is going on Dean has trotted down the track behind them with flag in hand and fusees in his pocket. He stops when he’s somewhere between a third and a half mile away, out of sight around the next curve. From here any trains that inexplicably get past Cloe and are clawing up the hill under the impression that the Freight is still on its time-table schedule and well out of the way will be able to see him from a good quarter-mile away and have plenty of time to stop before running into Otis’s house-car. Ronald has done the same out in front of the train, only he goes out farther since anything that is coming down the hill (Without proper authority since the hill is technically theirs until they reach Rockhouse!) will have to fight gravity while it is dragged to a stop so will need more distance.

Tom and Otis, finished with literally tying the train down, the part that will be left behind anyway, walk forward. Otis stops when they get to the front of the ore jenny, which, along with the empty gon and house-car, and Otis himself, will be staying behind, and before giving the cut-bar on the jenny a couple of quick jerks to coax the pin out of its pocket, closes the angle-cock on the rear of the boxcar loaded with lumber that got them into this mess in the first place.

By leaving the angle-cock on the front of the jenny open, when they break the train the cars to be left behind will be dynamited which will add the volume of the emergency reservoirs on the two AB cars, the jenny and house-car, to the brake’s holding power, which means it will take that much longer before any leak in the system will have an effect.

Tom continues towards the engine, climbing up on each car they will be taking with them to ensure the retainers are knocked off, or set to the EX position. In all the excitement it would be easy to leave a valve in the wrong position and last thing they need going back up the mountain is retained brakes!

Back at the engine Tom taps out 5 shorts which bounce up the canyon walls to call Ronald back,* then he and Jake prepare to get their shortened train started, which isn’t going to be easy since where they are sitting may be flatter, but it certainly isn’t flat. Nothing in this canyon is flat. But with a train weighing only 245 tons now, pulling Wild Woman Loop should be doable, as long as they can get it started. To ensure every bit of power possible Jake has run the boiler pressure up enough to lift the poppets with a hot fire burning under full blower.

*Dean will remain where he is to flag the rear of the train but the first section of the train will act as front-protection for the remainder as they go up the hill.

If the grade ahead wasn’t so challenging, rather than call Ronald back Tom would just roll up to where he is flagging and pick him up on the fly, saving the trainman some legwork, but when he gets rolling he wants to get as much speed on the train as he can to attack the grade, and if he leaves Ronald too far up the track he might have to slow the train to make it safe for Ronald to swing aboard. But he can still save the trainman a few steps so as soon as he sees Ronald coming around Parson’s Nose Tom whistles off and releases the service brakes on the first three cars.

He eases his shortened train backwards by gradually backing off independent until he has run in all the slack by leaning on the cars that will remain behind. Then he drops the Johnson-Bar into the hole, releases the independent, and starts working the steam.

Despite the challenge this is not Tom’s first rodeo and he manages to get the train started smoothly, one car at a time.* Finally the box of lumber pulls away from the ore jenny, dynamiting the three cars that will remain behind with the familiar hissing  roar.

*It’s often said that steamers can’t start what they can pull and the new diesel-electrics can’t pull what they can start. Unlike the diesel-electrics which can lay their full power down on the track, in the form of torque, from a dead stop, but have a fixed amount of horsepower to keep that train moving as it trades torque for speed, steamers develop their horsepower in direct proportion to the number of cylinder strokes per minute and from a dead stop that number is very low, but once the train is moving the faster a steamer goes the more horsepower it produces. (Up until they jump the tracks or bits start flying off that is!)

Ronald swings up easily as they go by him at a fast trot and soon they are once again climbing up through Ellison Tunnel where the acrid smoke from the stack engulfs the cab and makes lungs burn and eyes water. By the time they approach the base of the steepest grade the 46” drivers are pounding out nearly 10 MPH, double what they were doing on the first attempt.  When they get to the spot where they spun out the better part of an hour ago they are still moving at a respectable 7 MPH and as they pull through the curve of Wild Woman Loop they are making 4 MPH.

The tracks up through the canyon are the most spectacular of the line and in between the business of running the train Tom reminds himself to enjoy the ride.

Wild Woman Canyon is narrow. A deep fracture that cuts through the flank of Mesa Hill’s imposing heights from northwest to southeast. It’s lined with forest and dappled with clear, fast-falling streams.

Originally the tracks bypassed the rugged, steep-walled canyon and instead used a series of switchbacks to mount the flank of Mesa Hill. But negotiating the switchbacks was slow and shoving a string of cars, empties or loads, backwards up the grade of every-other leg of the switchbacks was always a dicey prospect and frequently resulted in cars on the ground which resulted in even more delays and generally creating quite a bottleneck.

So it wasn’t long before the surveyors were sent back to the hill, followed by track crews, this time with plenty of dynamite for blasting ledges into the hard, nearly vertical rock they encountered.  Now, instead of bypassing the mouth of the canyon, the tracks curve into the narrow canyon and wind up along the east wall on what is often just a narrow ledge blasted out of the rock.

Once the tracks ease around Parson’s Nose and then cut through a larger, yet unnamed, occlusion into the canyon via Ellison Tunnel, the canyon starts to widen out a little as the walls get lower, which is really just the tracks getting higher.

Here, near the head of Wild Woman Canyon, where the track is at its steepest, is also where it makes its sharpest curve of the entire line as it makes a full loop, coiling around from the east side of the canyon, across a curved wooden trestle, and doubling back along the west side, clawing its way those last few feet up and out of the canyon the whole way, then crossing back over it once again on the DP’s longest and highest bridge, and its only steel trestle. A long, tall, spindly affair not for the faint of heart.  Finally leaving the canyon behind, the tracks double back on themselves one more time on a (thankfully) more relaxed curve before summiting Mesa Hill and rolling into Rockhouse.

If you know where to look, especially in late fall and early spring, there are places from which you can still see the scars of the original switchbacks. The new route isn’t any less steep, and is actually slightly longer, than the original, but at least the trains can traverse it while running forward the whole way.

Normally they would take the main in Rockhouse because that’s where the spur to the quarry where they will set out the empty gon is at, but the Station Agent, another Tom, is there at the west switch, waiving them into the siding instead.

Having been alerted by Cloe to the possibility of them having to double the hill, and when they didn’t show up on time, figuring that’s exactly what happened, station agent Tom puts them into the siding so they can leave the first half of their train there out of the way while they go back for the rest, which includes the gon they will be setting out on the quarry track. This will simplify the switching moves to come.

As they make the final approach to Rockhouse, named for the rock-walled house one of the first settlers in the area built, the remains of which still stand, Jake uses the injector to fill the hard-working boiler up to the 2/3rds mark of the sight-glass. Once stopped, and with the boiler as full as they’re going to want it while backing back down the grade, both Tom and Jake climb up and check the water level in the tender.

“I think we got enough,” Jake says.

Tom looks down the open hatch once more.

“OK,” he says. “Let’s do it.”

The ‘it’ they are going to do is go back and fetch the rest of their train without topping up the water in the tender first. This will make the engine lighter for the trip back down the canyon, good for saving brakes, and also gets them back to the precariously stranded cars that much quicker.  Lighter isn’t normally a good thing when it comes to engines which rely on weight to gain adhesion between wheels and rail, but in this case it will be the tender that is lighter and the drivers, which carry most the weight of the boiler and cab will be just as heavy as always.

Backing down the hill with just the engine is a lot easier than with a train, but now, lighter or not, they only have one set of brakes to rely on. On top of that, with no trailing pony-truck to guide the drivers while moving backwards, and no heavy train behind tugging the engine into line, the Consolidations tend to lurch and hunt their way down the tracks, bouncing the flanges off first one rail then the other, the rotating flanges threatening to climb the inside of the rail each time and put the engine on the ground. So it’s not a quick trip, especially when tip-toeing across the steel bridge way up there in the air.

It takes a lot of skill, and if done wrong can literally tie an engine in knots to the point of destroying the rods and valve-gear, but to keep from overheating the brakes, requiring time-sucking stops to cool them, once they are across the steel bridge and into the steepest part of the Wild Woman Loop, Tom ‘gooses’ the engine, which is forbidden on most railroads. (The DP does not condone it but at the same time there is nothing in the rulebook of this mountain railroad explicitly forbidding the practice either.)

With the engine rolling backwards and the brakes heating up, Tom eases the Johnson Bar a couple notches forward and gingerly feeds a little steam to the cylinders. The effect is similar to downshifting a car, but in this case the backpressure controlling their speed comes directly from the boiler as Tom literally tries to run the engine forward while it is going backwards. (The very earliest engines didn’t have brakes and this was the only way of stopping them, unless you had the time and space to drift to a stop on friction alone.) The trick is to feed the cylinders just enough steam to resist the movement of the pistons, but not so much that one or the other of the pistons actually reverses against the direction of travel.

Finally they ease back around Parson’s Nose. Ronald dropping off before they do to flag the front while Tom and Jake ease the rest of the way back and couple up to the remains of their train. Because the retainers have been set to HP, once the train-line is connected Tom can set the service brakes to run and charge the train-line and all the reservoirs back up to full pressure without actually releasing the brakes.  But because they dynamited the brakes when they left, it takes a while to pump a full head of air back into the reservoirs.

This time, while the train-line charges it's Jake who walks back and ducks under the house-car to release the chain which he and Otis wrestle out from under and heave back into the possum-belly.

With that job finished, the train-line back to full pressure, Otis up on the house-car, and Jake standing safely to the side, Tom sets the brakes again so Jake can turn all the retainers back to EX.

When Jake climbs down off that last car Tom sounds 4 longs to call Dean back to the train.

The whistle signal, which Dean, who has been sitting on a rail all alone here in the canyon for what seems like forever, has been anxiously waiting on, echoes down the canyon. Before he starts back Dean lights a fusee and drops it so the spike on the end sticks into a tie, holding it upright. The fusee will burn bright red for 10 minutes so any train coming up the hill will know that there is a stopped or slow train less than 10 minutes in front of them.

Even though he is more than ready to get out of here it takes a healthy chunk of those 10 minutes for Dean to make the uphill climb back to the train.

With most the crewmembers back on board and finally ready to get underway Tom whistles off and just as the house-car starts to roll Dean expertly drops another lit fusee from the rear platform, using its weight and momentum to stick its nail into a tie and hold the flaming marker upright. This will let any following train that comes across it while it’s still burning know that #420 is still right there ahead of them.

Once they've collect Ronald from his flagging position on the other side of Parson's Nose Tom starts adding speed again.

Compared to the previous run, this time the trip back up the canyon with a train weighing little more than 100 tons is a breeze and the flanges squeal loudly as they take Wild Woman Loop at a full 7 MPH, about as fast as you ever want to go around this turn with empty cars, but even so, by the time they drift to a stop on the main at Rockhouse they are running almost exactly two hours behind schedule. 

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