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The Rail Archived
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Fall & Winter 1996
Fall & Winter 1996

So You Want To Ride In The Cab?

After talking to Hal Harkness, president and owner of The Highlander steam engine, and with other old-time engine men, about riding in the cab, there are a few thoughts you should know about before accepting such an invitation.

Noise is just the beginning. In old days, a cab visitor occupied the head brakemen's seat, immediately behind the fireman. Two deafening blasts on the whistle is just the start, the engineer eases out the throttle and the green switcher lurches forward or backward for a gliding move down the Southwest Branch.

The cab is hot and the deck plate clangs incessantly against the tender. The engineer and fireman have to shout their signals across the seven feet of backhead which seperates their seats. The noise is ear-piercing, with exhaust blowers, whistle, and running-gear competing for supremacy.. Compound this with a hundred cracking, squealing, crashing metal surfaces.

You cannot help but feel the madness of the boiler hurtling unchecked toward that seemingly inevitable destrcution. Remember, too, that a mere lip of metal flange on each wheel is all that prevents this belching monster from careening down the next embankment. The presence of power is everywhere. And don't try to drink anything, the vibrations would put the liquid on the floor before it reached your lips.

A sudden lurch when your guard is down throws you against a bulkhead. You wonder that men can spend so much of their lives in the heat and violence of a cubicle which offers only an endless array of valves, levers and switches, of flames, pandemonium. But as Harkness says "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else when the steam is up!"

The cab of the steam locomotive underwent as great a change as did the exterior apperance since the Civil War era. The engineer of 1860 had only to cope with a throttle, a Johnson bar (reverse lever), an injector valve, a steam pressure guage and a water guage, plus, of course, the bell and whistle cords. The fireman had to cope with a shovel (or cord wood). Things really changed.

An unusual cab was the "camelback" which was built astride the boiler, leaving the engineer in a cramped, filthy and hot location and the fireman on exposed, lonely and dangerous deck. Last one I saw was at Strasburg which switched around the Strasburg yard. But I couldn't see why anyone would build such a strange animal. In the summer the engineer roasted; in the winter, the fireman froze. That's one cab in which you shouldn't even think about riding.

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