Old trains on steep grades, icy rails

In his memoir, William recounts his experiences as a preteen learning to jump freights during the Great Depression. Although much of what he learned about trains in the 1930s is included in the book, some information had to be cut for reasons of length. Here are a few deleted items that I found interesting.

Mostly I rode on the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific Railroads. Santa Fe engines generally were 2-6-2, 4-6-2, or 4-6-4, or maybe the mallet engine (4-6-6-4), the largest in the world, which was phased out around that time. The number sequence referred to the number of wheels on the engine. The front number, for example 4, would mean four truck wheels under the nose of the engine where the cowcatcher was. The middle numbers were the drive wheels. The last numbers were the wheels under the water tender or coal tender at the back of the engine.

The number of engine wheels makes a difference because the Santa Fe trains had a lot of grades to drive. Going west from Arizona into Needles, California, trains had to climb an enormous grade, calling for immense engine power to pull what was typically a line of 120 cars. Going from New Mexico into Colorado through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the engine had to pull its cars over the Raton Pass, an elevation of about 7,800 feet. As an adult, I’ve ridden a passenger train on that pass, and I could see the engine up ahead as it repeatedly snaked around the huge curves. When I traveled as a hobo on the freight trains, engines on that grade had to pull so much weight that you could have walked alongside the train, it was that slow under its load.

During my train travels I learned about the importance of the engine’s round dome. It sat on top of the engine’s boiler alongside the whistle and stack. From this dome, a little pipe ran down alongside the engine to the wheels, and this set-up was crucial in helping the wheels to function in frigid weather. In the larger train stations, the dome was filled from a sand tower located alongside the tracks. Inside each tower was a paddle and below the tower a gas heater. The yardmaster or one of his minions would heat the sand, circulating the heat through the sand with the paddle. Then, when a train pulled up, they’d send the hot sand into the dome above the engine. The sand could be used later, kept warm by the boiler underneath. If the engine was pulling a huge load and was forced to start up on an icy track, traction on the slippery rails could be improved by sending a stream of hot sand down from the dome onto the cold metal bars to melt the ice. In those days, freight trains had to pull over onto side rails to allow passenger trains past; starting again on an icy track could be extremely hard. In winter weather, leaving a station could also be too difficult without the help of hot sand on the tracks.