A Day On Shay 3256
By Rick Henderson
Upon leaving my motel room on Saturday morning it hit me, a strange scent in the air. Not irritating or over powering so much as a memory. Something from my distant past was here, from a time in my youth. Ah yes, soft coal was smoldering; it's scent inviting and refreshing to a Shay fan. It was drifting over from the museum's railroad, a mile to the northwest and was a welcome beginning to my day in Spencer NC, home of the North Carolina Transportation Museum and Lima Shay sn3256.
I had arrived the evening before and found Jim Wrinn firing the Shay #1925 and 2-8-0 #604 for the next days run. I had been invited by the museum to spend a day riding the Shay during their "Rail Days" which was a big event for the museum and the town. The museum was running both steam engines and the town was having its annual parade and celebration across the street.
Jim was also lubricating the driveline of the Shay, getting a start on the morning's normal work needed to get a steam engine running. Jim shows me the multitude of lubrication points and explains why several different lubricants are used for the different points. Somehow Jim manages to stay relative clean since the engine is not moving at all that evening. The small fire in 3256 will smolder all night and be ready for the early morning continuation of preparing the locomotive for it's full day of runs. As true Railroad Men, with the evenings work done we next went to eat and talk trains. Across the street was an Italian restaurant with sidewalk tables where we ate to the aroma of burning coal.
Arriving the next morning after breakfast I found Jim back at work on the Shay, now with a growing fire in the box. He had been there almost 2 hours to make sure everything was going well. Several other were also working, getting ready for the day and stopped to welcome me to ride with them for the day. The Shay crew was Richard Morse and Archie Fisher for the day. Both are qualified engineers and took turns as engineer and fireman. The conductor was Jeanne Morse (Richard's wife) who is also a qualified Shay engineer, an interesting story of its own. Jim Wrinn and engineer John Barden were on #604, their Baldwin 2-8-0. John McRae was the dispatcher for the day. Dispatching for the NCTM is done on foot with a portable radio because the museum grounds are so large and there is no one vantage point where one may see all operational areas.
Unlike the days of the great steam era, where you got train orders as you passed a station or you lived by the signal, these engines are controlled via portable radios. Everyone that might need one had one. The dispatcher controlled all train movements without question and everything ran very smooth. I was impressed that the operations were always "Safety First" and every operational rule was always followed.
"Murphy's Law" was riding with us at the beginning of the day. The first train brake test failed. The car brakes were not releasing. Moisture had developed in the engines train brake handle mechanism and luckily Richard had tools in his car to do repairs. It took twenty-five minutes while the train crews waited with anticipation to see if it could be repaired on time, or at all. Richard got it apart, fixed the problem, put it back together, took it apart, added the left over spring and then put it all back together again. It worked and we were soon off to join the parade.
After spotting the two trains along Main Street, along came the marchers, fire trucks, police cars and town celebrities with the museum trains as a backdrop for the parade. It's a good thing the engine crews had earplugs; we needed them for the deafening parade.
Once passenger service got started we fell into a routine. The Historic Spencer Shops has a track through the center of the facility and one along the western boarder with the town's main street. These tracks meet at opposite ends of the yard where spring turnouts allow run around passenger operations without the need of a brakeman. This is another well thought out safety issue. The end track beyond the turnouts extend further out to the property lines at each end, both of which connect with the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Riding the cab of a Shay is very unlike any other train ride you have ever been on. The cab is built around the boiler backhead of course so coal can be shoveled regularly into the firebox. The engineer and fireman both have gauges and tubes to monitor, valves to lubricate and operate and always track to watch. The view of the track from the cab is very limited actually, especially to the rear. If the track is curving to the left, the engineer has to depend on the fireman's view from the left side of the engine, as they cannot see that side of the train when operating.
I learned that it does not really take a lot of coal to operate this Shay on level ground with a light, 3 caboose consist. Also they can often do a day's run on a single 1750-gallon tank of water. This days running was a little more demanding as trains were departing about 20 minutes after completing a run instead of every 2 hours.
Few people appreciate what goes into operating steam locomotives, especially Shays. Passengers just know you get on the car and the train moves to the sound and smell of live steam power. In reality, between runs the engineer and fireman spend their break checking tightening and lubricating the engine drive train. They also get to field the endless stream of questions from rail fans about the strange engine design. I even fielded a few on Shay design and history but left the operation and local questions to the real crew. One of the crew must stay with the engine at all times when stopped even if time allows for a short break away from the engine. And to get it all ready often takes 3-5 hours before operations to get a Shay fired up lubricated and checked out
With a 6-hour drive awaiting, my day on the Shay ended all too soon. After several trips it was time to follow some of the action with a camera, visit the attractions and then head west over the mountains and towards home.
During the last hour while breezing through the exhibits I found I would have to return another day with several hours to really see it all. It will be in the spring when the weather is pleasant, I have someone to cover for me at home and most import, the Shay is running.
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