Firing on the D&RGW Narrow Gauge
The Road Foreman of Engines in Alamosa, Mr. J. R. Pierce, figured he could use another fireman when I walked into his office one day in May 1963. I was hired, and sent to the doc, and marked up on the Extra board as a student within the next few days. I had studied steam locomotives all my life and knew quite a bit about them, or so I thought at the time.
I remember when I broke in, my student trips were all on the big engines, the 490's. These were former standard gauge 2-8-2's rebuilt into narrow gauge engines in 1925. They had a big wide firebox half the size of your living room, and they would burn all the coal you cared to shovel in, albeit inefficiently. It was pretty hard to get into real trouble on one of those. As I was to find out, this wasn't so on the smaller 480's and 470's series engines used in passenger service.
None of the engines on the Narrow Gauge were stoker-fired. All had air-operated firebox doors that opened when you stepped on a peddle on the deck with your left foot. You opened and closed the door with each scoop of coal you shoveled in. Each of us firemen had our own No.4 scoop shovel we kept with us. If there was one already on the engine, we stuck it up on top of the boilerhead as a spare. It was possible to "lose" a scoop into the firebox, if you didnt keep a good tight hold on it. The draft through the firedoor when the engine is working is terrific. If you lost your only scoop, you were really screwed.
I made a student trip or two over Cumbres Pass to Chama, New Mexico, which was the crew-change point on operations to Durango, Colorado. After showing me some things, and finding out I knew pretty much how to do things already, the regular fireman spent the balance of the trip in the Caboose playing cards with the Conductor and rear brakeman. So much for training! But I got over the road OK.
Then came my first pay trip. I drew a late afternoon departure on a trip West from Alamosa to Chama. I cant remember the Hogger's name just now, but he was a nice old guy, and told me when I reported for work "We aint got no track under us, but just take it easy and we'll get there sometime." We drew the 488 as the helper engine, with the 484 as road engine. We ran coupled, doubleheaded all the way from Alamosa to Cumbres, then cut the helper off, which ran light behind the train downgrade to Chama.
The 487 and 488 simmer in the Chama yard, in early May 1993.
The 480's, 2-8-2's built in 1923, were smaller than the 490's and had a smaller firebox. My hogger showed me a firing technique that was to do me a lot of good later on on the 470's engines which had an even smaller firebox, and were easy to overfire and get into trouble on if you did it wrong.
Basically, the trick was to put one scoop along each side sheet with a twist to scatter it evenly with the help of the draft, then hook a good scoop back into each corner beside the firedoor ring. Then hit it again with one along each side. "Let the draft level the fire towards the center", he said. If you did this right, the stack would "black up" good to show you had covered the fire evenly, and would shortly clear up quite a bit. You had to fire on the right hand curves so you could sit on the seat and look ahead on the left hand curves, to watch for rocks and cattle on the tracks, because the hoghead's view was restricted on left curves. This was easy to do once you knew the road a bit. If you did things right, the steam pressure stayed right up against the pops and you could soon get the water feed set right so you didnt have to fiddle with it until the hogger shut her off.
The 480's had nonlifting "inspirators" rather than the older type lifting live steam injectors that the 490's had. Basically, you opened the overflow valve, then opened the steam feed a bit to get it to "prime", then opened the steam feed fully, and then screwed the overflow valve down to divert the water past the boiler check. If you did this right, the thing worked as intended, and you had feedwater going into the boiler. If you screwed the overflow valve down too quickly, the thing "broke" and steam roared out of the overflow, and you had to start all over again. Once you got the thing "on" and feeding, you could screw down the water supply valve and get it "cut up" so that the water amount being supplied to the boiler just equaled that which was consumed by the working of the engine, and didnt kill your steam pressure. If you fed too much cold water you couldnt keep her hot, and if you didnt feed enough, the water would get dangerously low in the gauge glass in damn short order. After starting up a heavy grade, you had about one chance to get all this squared away before you lost your steam, water, or both. If you didnt get the water set quickly, the water would get too low in the boiler for safety, and your fire would be burned through, causing the steam pressure to drop...if too much cold water went in, this, along with the lack of firing, would kill the steam pressure even quicker. If you lost too much steam pressure, you could stall on the grade, and then it was hell to get going again. Hoggers did not like this situation, so you did your best to prevent it in the first place.
We'd start out with the boiler filled to within about an inch of the top of the gauge glass, and the inspirator "off". Then, when the hogger started her working good and you got underway, you got down and "put in a fire". Then you rassled with the injector or inspirator, and got the water feed set. You could determine this by turning on the "squirt hose"(used for washing down the deck, and wetting the coal pile to reduce dust and make the coal "coke" or burn better) and watching the water spray out the hose. When set about right, the water stream turned from a solid stream to a fine spray sort of like a fine garden hose nozzle does. From then on, the water feed could be regulated with the water valve so it stayed at the level you wanted in the gauge glasses. As long as the Hogger didn't beat her too hard, you could keep up with it. Here, again you had to know the road a bit, because when you topped a hill and started down the other side, the water dropped way down in the glass, and you'd better have enough in there to keep the Crown sheet covered or you'd make like a big bomb... "Boom!". Boiler explosions get messy, so we were all real careful with the water level. It was a constant juggle.
Usual practice was to lay back on the firing near the hilltop, leave the inspirator on, and then when he shut her off over the top, you didn't raise the pops, and you had enough water. Once started out, you could fall into a pretty regular firing routine...put in a fire and then ride until the stack cleared for a bit (and you started around the next right hand curve) then get down and hit her again.
Anyway, we started out of Alamosa that day, and it got dark about the time we went past Sublette. I hadn't fired much at night before and hadn't learned to look at the fire properly. When the engine is working heavy throttle, it is white hot in the firebox, and you cant see the surface of the fire unless you take your scoop and turn it upside down in the door to direct cool air against the grate area. You wanted to keep a fairly light fire, and a level fire, for best steaming. Too light a fire, and if she slipped, the fire would be sucked right off the grates and out the stack. Not good!
I was doing OK and managed to keep her hot. The hogger had a reputation for being one of the best firemen and enginemen on the road, and he sure knew what he was talking about. He had me handling it like a pro in short order. The grade eased off, and I had more time between "fires" so I stepped to the right hand gangway for some cool night air. My night vision was shot from looking into the firebox, and when I reached for the grab iron, my left hand missed it! I had a good hold with my right hand, and barely avoided falling off the engine right there! My vision soon returned and I discovered we were right over the center of the Cascade Creek trestle! The big high steel one! Its probably over 100 feet to the bottom of the gorge at that point. Would have been a hell of a step! The Ol' D&RGW was nearly short one green fireman that night.! Whew!
We made it to Chama sometime after midnight without further incident and were called for an Eastbound drag next day. Was quite a trip, and we had to "double the hill" to get to Cumbres. Thats another story I"ll tell you some time.