by David Parmer
Why is it that your switch engine has to ding and dong and fizz and spit and bang and hiss and pant and grate and grind and blow and bump and hoot and toot and whistle and whistle and wheeze and jar and jump and howl and snarl and puff and growl and thump and boom and clash and jolt and screech and snort and snarl and slam and throb and roar and rattle and yell and smoke and smell and sputter all night long?”
“He sure had a right to kick.”
Uncle Zeke reported this complaint about the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in his May 22, 1924, Buzzardtown News column. Uncle Zeke didn’t say whether the person making the complaint left anything out.
Left above: A steam train making its way along Oil Creek, in the daylight hours.
Right: The locations of the three sidings
Right, below: Examples of steam-powered switch engines are few. This is a photo titled "last steam switcher at Champaign, IL" from the collection of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen Division 602 - Champaign, Illinois
During the heyday of the steam engines and railroading in the Orlando area, there were sidings at Posey Run, Orlando and Kemper. Sidings were used to switch rail cars in order to make up a train. A smaller steam engine was used at these sidings in order to switch the cars than are the engines used to pull a train. Some people called these smaller steam engines, “yard mules.” Oftentimes, rail crews worked all night at the sidings, moving around the separate cars to make up a train which would be leaving early the next morning. Needless to say, there was substantial noise in connection with the formation of the train, from squealing wheels to clanging of metal, and nearby neighbors might spend a restless night trying to sleep through all the noise.
Some of the noise created at the sidings was the result of the steam engine itself. In order for a steam engine to do its job, it was necessary to keep fire in the firebox, which in turn produced steam. The steam engine had pop-off valves to relieve steam pressure build-up which might become too great for the engine. The sudden release of steam pressure from a steam engine during a quiet night could easily have brought an end to what had otherwise been a good start to a good night’s sleep.
Another source of noise in train marshalling yards is the air brake system found on engines which constantly had to be pumped up. This was not a silent operation and of course, this added to the nighttime cacophony. It is no wonder that Uncle Zeke or Uncle Zeke’s neighbor may not have had a good night sleep when the rail siding was being used the night before.
The writer recalls that in Burnsville during the steam engine days, a pusher engine usually occupied a spot on the Burnsville siding near the mouth of Oil Creek. This engine was used to push heavy trains up Clover Fork. This steam engine never seemed to be shut down and was always letting off steam. Fortunately, there were few near neighbors to the siding, and complaints about the noise were rare.
From Tom Jeffries: [Diesel and electric engines began replacing steam engines in America in the 1920s and 1930s. ] The last steam engine was retired from the B & O Railroad in Orlando, around 1959-1960. By this time they were rarely used and then only as back-up to the diesels. I believe they were used until the end as pushers at Burnsville.
Uncle Zeke described railroad noises well. A steam engine has often been compared with a living being because of the noise that is given off by the nature of metal expanding and contracting due to the heating and cooling processes. The clanging of the air pumps, the intermittent blowing off of the boiler pressure relief valves, the whine of the steam powered electric generators and the noise of various valves and other accessories are always present. Those who worked around these engines were able to identify problems and assess the mechanical condition of the engine by the sounds, much as a doctor can diagnose the health of a person by using a stethoscope.