‘I got steam!’Published 9:44pm Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Twenty years. Twenty-five years. Thirty years. Exactly when a steam train last passed through Suffolk was up for debate.
But steam enthusiasts who gathered beside the railroad off East Washington Street agreed on one thing: Tuesday’s rare spectacle of a coal-fired locomotive puffing through the city was something for the history books.
Southern Railway locomotive 630, en route to Norfolk for a steam excursion to Petersburg this weekend, was built in 1904 and restored by its owner, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.
Co-hosted by the museum and Norfolk Southern, the excursion uses climate-controlled coaches bearing classic names such as The Powhatan Arrow.
Tommy Arthur, one of about a dozen folks who waited for the train off East Washington Street Tuesday, said anyone who wants to do so could catch it returning through Suffolk at about 10:15 a.m., or a little later, on Saturday.
Arthur, 67, described the 630 as “a little branch-line freight engine; it’s not a passenger engine, really.”
But, he added, “We’re lucky to have any steam we can get — we’ll take any of it!”
The semi-retired Arthur, who runs a small trucking company, said he met his first wife on a train. “She was going to Radford (University), and I was going to (Virginia) Tech,” he said.
Good-naturedly, he feigned offense when asked if that one was a steam train. “I don’t look that old.”
Outfitted with cameras and radio scanners and looking up train websites on their cellphones, the steam enthusiasts reacted with boyish — and in a couple of cases, girlish — excitement when Courtland’s Tony Dawson spotted 630’s column of steam.
“Hey! I got steam!” the 35-year-old Commonwealth Railway locomotive engineer sang out.
Dawson said his mom got him “hooked” on trains when she bought him a toy set when he was 2.
Next to cry out was Nicholas Hoyt, 22, who works for a door company: “We got steam! Oh yeah! There’s nothing better than the smell of coal smoke.”
Dawson rejoined, “I don’t care about the EPA; I want smoke!”
The group grew so excited that a couple of railroad police had to hustle them back from the tracks.
Bennett’s Creek’s Skip Sledge, 72, said it’s been “a minimum of 20 years” since Suffolk last saw a steam train. But Chesapeake’s Mark Oglesby, 57, argued different.
“It’s the first time they’ve run steam through here in, like, 30 years,” the tool room mechanic at Norfolk Naval Shipyard said. “They used to run through here all the time — until 30 years ago.”
Steam trains have personality to spare, according to Sledge, who, like any true enthusiast, much prefers the lonesome whistle to the blaring horn “on those damn diesels.”
“As a kid living in Norfolk, I’d go to sleep to the steam trains,” he said. “Steam trains are music.”