I Love Steam Engines

Though small, the wood burning locomotives of early railroad days had a tremendous appetite, their tenders had a limited capacity thus ‘wooding up’ stations were required at regular intervals along the right-of-way to replenish fuel, it would take a cord of wood every 35 miles.  Many a settler earned his first cash income by supplying the railway with cordwood which was re-cut into eighteen inch lengths at the station, usually with a circular saw powered by a horse on a treadmill.  The station master tallied the consumption wood for each locomotive as engineers were awarded bonuses for efficiency in operating their engines.  This caused considerable rivalry between different crews.  Farmers frequently discovered their woodpiles, stacked and ready for sale near the tracks had been raided by an engine crew, trying to save on fuel.  If locomotives ran out of wood, it was customary for the Conductor to hand out axes to male passengers and ask them for their help to cut down a few trees.

The large Cowcatcher of the early engines was designed to remove obstacles from the track, but an encounter with a fair sized animal would not only kill the unfortunate beast, but occasionally derail the engine.  Frequent water stops were a must for the early Iron Horse, if need be, water was scooped from the natural drainage ditch along the right-of-ways.  Wooden water storage tanks in railway yards became landmarks of the steam era and steam pumps or wind mills were used to pump water.  Pioneer loco’s puffed and snorted belching black clouds of smoke and hot cinders.  The air was filled with the scent of burning maple, elm, tamarack or beech. The huge smoke stacks were fitted with screens and hoppers for cinder removal, the fireman would have to make his way down the ‘cat-walk’ along the side of the engine were he would strike the stack with a pole at regular intervals to loosen the cinders that had accumulated in the wire screens.  In dry weather wayside fires kindled by the sparks of passing locomotives were a constant menace and the station Section men often had to walk for miles along the tracks beating out smouldering flames with a shovel.

Engine, train and line crews worked hard and long hours sometimes around the clock and under primitive conditions.  The Engineer and Fireman, in the beginning occupied an open deck exposed to the elements and vision blurred with smoke and hot ash.  In the early days trains were braked by hand, when the engineer whistled “on brakes” the train crew hurried over the tops of the moving cars to twist and turn the awkward “Armstrong” brakes on the platforms.  Winter ice made car tops very slippery, the job at the best of times would now be outright dangerous.  One of the Brakeman’s jobs was coupling and uncoupling of cars.  Many a man was crushed between the wooden buffers or lost his fingers in the process of coupling cars together with the old fashioned chains and steel hooks.  Sometimes the engine would jerk the hooks, splitting the train apart and leaving part of it standing on the line.  The invention of the George Westinghouse air brakes in 1869 and automatic couplers a year later made operations safer and more efficient. The rotary snow plows allowed trains to run on schedule in the winter season.  Patented in the 1860’s by a Toronto dentist, it took nearly two decades before an interest developed and others perfected his idea.

An interesting (and true) story before air brakes were invented, a train on the Midland Road south-bound from Millbrook for the downhill run to Port Hope had a coupling break leaving the rear cars and brakemen stopped on the track. Unaware of the problem the engineer carried on. At the usual point he whistled for “brakes on” with no response. The train was now on a down-grade at considerable speed. With the train racing towards the Port Hope station, a yard engineer realized the gravity of the situation, the train would either crash into parked cars on the track or down a siding onto the harbor Centre Pier plunging into Lake Ontario. The yardman quickly turned a track switch turning the run-away train up the grade to the Grand Trunk station where it was safely brought under control.

The locomotive whistle signals and their meaning:  1 long – train stopped, brakes on; 2 long – release brakes and proceed; 3 short – when stopped, backing up; 2 long, 1 short, 1 long; approaching public crossing; 1 long, 1 short; approaching men or equipment on track;   1 long, 3 short orders flagman to protect the rear of the train; 4 long – flagman from the west or south may return to train; 5 long – flagman from the east or north may return; several short blasts warn animals or humans on the track of approaching train.

Some common terms and their meaning:  A “Hogger” or “Eagle Eye” was the train engineer.  A “Kettle” was an old leaky engine.  A “Fussee” was a paper tube filled with combustible chemicals, when ignited burns brightly under any condition for ten minutes, a red fusee must never be passed and a Yellow fusee meant Proceed with caution.  The “Gun” or “Track Torpedo” was a pocket sized explosive charge clipped to the rail head, it exploded under the weight of the wheel of an onrushing locomotive and warns the “Hogger” of danger ahead.  The “Tell-tales” consisted of cords hanging from a frame across the track at the approach to a tunnel or other obstruction to warn the brakemen on top of the train to duck. The “Crummy” was the little red caboose, named for obvious reasons. The “Shiner” or the “Glim” were hand held lanterns for night time communications. A term we have all heard about is the “Highball” which meant to proceed at the station, pick up speed or make a fast run, dates back to the old ball signal hung on a post. Across the timber bridges, the Guide Rail, looking like a second set of rails parallel to the rails of the train track would prevent the side to side movement of the rolling stock in case of a derailment and prevent damage to the bridge timbers and structure.

There was one kind of a train that was never stopped for any reason, the famous “Silk Trains” as they carried raw silk cocoons, imported from the Orient.  This cargo was worth millions of dollars and were insured on an hourly basis because they deteriorated rapidly, Hi-jacking was a constant danger.  These trains were stopped in the 1930’s as silk was no longer in demand. The early steam engines consisted of about two-thousand parts, newer engines had an average of twenty-five thousand. The Ticket Punch was invented to avoid erasing of pencil marks on the earlier tickets. Each conductor had his own individual punch mark registered in his name, could be any design, must never be duplicated.

Need (or want?) some more interesting facts on early railroads.  To build the railroad the rights-of-way had to be cleared of trees, brush and stumps, the grade was prepared by excavating or by filling and drainage provided by ditching.  All work was done with the motive power of hand, horses or mule, axe, saw, scraper and plow.  All lines must be high enough for good drainage and ease of snow removal.  Next came setting the sub-ballast in place using gravel or course sand and sometimes cinders or crushed stone was used.  The final ballast had to be well packed with final compaction from use, a well laid line would have about two feet of material between the bottom of the ties and the sub-grade.  On such a line there would be about 8,000 cubic yards of ballast per mile.  After ballast comes the ties, rails, spikes, joint bars and nuts and bolts brought to the site by a supply train.  A railway used as many as 3,000 ties per mile each from eight to nine feet long and eight or nine inches across. Early ties weighed from 100 to 300 pounds and lasted for twenty five to thirty years before replacement was needed, early rails were 78 feet long. The Date Nail (slightly larger than a roofing nail) with the last two numbers of the year stamped on them was used for record keeping for replacement of the ties. The Great Depression and WW2 metal shortages adversely affected their use and they were phased out in the 1960’s.

To fly an airplane requires about 100 hp/ton of weight, to move a car requires about 60 hp/ton of weight.  To move a truck requires about 15 hp/ton of weight and to move a freight train requires less than 2 hp/ton of weight.  A grade of 1% means 1 foot of rise per 100 feet of horizontal distance, and each foot of rise greatly reduces the freight weight it would haul on a level run. Curves greatly slow trains, an increase in friction between wheels and rails greatly reduces the locomotives pulling power and wears out the rails quickly. Steam engines actually had ‘Tires’ which were the outer flange of the wheel to hold the train on the track, when worn down from friction would be super-heated by a gas flame to expand the metal allowing it to be slipped over the wheel. The wheel arrangement identified the engine type. The international Whyte System numbers are assigned to the Leading, Drive and Trailing ‘trucks’ of the engine. For example a 2-6-4 engine means there is 1 leading axle (2 wheels) at the front of the engine which are on a Swiveling Truck to aid steering and to keep the engine on the track. In this case the larger drive wheels have three driving axles (6 wheels) and 2 trailing axles (4 wheels) usually under the firebox. Put another way: oOOOoo. The driving wheels can vary in size, the larger ones for heavy freight trains with smaller ones for speed on passenger trains.

By 1960 the diesel engine was king and sadly steam engines were mostly relegated to the scrap yards and can only be found today in museums and on some special excursion trips across Canada. My first experience with the steam era was in 1947 when my grandfather was killed in a car-train accident the night I was born. He was on his way home from dropping my mother off at the hospital to deliver me, I guess you could say that steam is (or was almost) in my blood.

Regards, Ranger


  1. Frank Gallimore · · Reply

    I think the large driving wheels were for fast passenger trains, whereas the smaller driving wheels were for freight trains for lower speed and greater torque, ( tractive effort ).
    Of course I love the little Grand Trunk railway station, which I visit every time I visit Port Hope.
    Thanks for the interesting dialog and complementing photos. Keep up the good work.


    1. Frank, thanks for the great information. I stand corrected. A quote I recently found, “Steam engine wheels were directly driven with no gearing, too small, train goes faster and exceeds how fast the engine can do its thing and you lose high-end speed. Wheels too large require too much torque when hauling a heavy load.” Most engine wheels were a good balance between low-end torque and high speed.


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