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Cromwell man shares the magic of 'steam'

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What could be better than finding a kindred spirit? Regardless of the 72-year difference between them, that's exactly what Arnold Collman found when he read the Feb. 22 Pine Journal story about 9-year-old Caden Gariepy's fascination with the old steam engine at Cloquet's Fauley Park.

"I was so taken with that story that I wanted to meet Caden and share my own story with him," said Collman.

The story he mentioned is his own tale, "The Steelton Run," a descriptive essay Collman wrote in 1987 about his own experience working on a steam engine right out of high school.

"You couldn't buy a job then," Collman said, explaining that he wrote the essay decades later, when he was taking an evening class for creative writing through Community Education in Cromwell.

"I was in the class with half a dozen middle-aged women and I thought, 'How can I write this so they will understand what it was like?'" said the spry 81-year-old during a recent conversation with the Pine Journal.

What resulted was seven pages of railroad lore that focuses both on the mechanics and the sensual magic of the old steam engines. Collman said he only worked for the railroad for a matter of months, but the impact has lasted a lifetime.

"This era dies with guys like me," said Collman, who hopes to meet with Caden and his mother in the upcoming weeks and talk trains.

For those who share their love of trains or who simply want to know what a night on steam engine was like, following is Collman's story, "The Steelton Run."

THE STEELTON RUN

By Arnold Collman/Special to the Pine Journal

It's been said many times by the oldtimers that steam gets in your blood. I have to believe it. Years later, as I think back on those days, I can feel it. Steam's in my blood, sure as we're sitting here.

A small boy perceives much on those special nights when the conversation of my Dad or Grandpa — maybe a double treat — the rare times the three of us were together and their soft talk turned slowly to steam.

You could feel the air change; a kind of excitement would drift into the room. Perhaps I would notice a quickening of Dad and Grandpa's breathing. They might sit up straighter in their chairs. A twinkle would form in their eyes, or other times, a soft mist would form over those eyes — filled with a longing for days that had years ago slipped away from both of them.

Other times, I would find my small hand clasped in that great hand of Grandpa's. We were standing on a depot platform as a great steam locomotive roared by, whistle screaming, haunting, cutting and scaring me into numbness. As the train passed, I would look up at that man who held my hand so tight in all his 6-foot-2 height and 240 pounds, up into his face.

There were tears in his eyes! Steam was in his blood! Oh, I listened well those days to those men — men who were engineers on steam traction engines threshing grain in southwest Iowa, or firing and operating the 125-horsepower Corliss stationary steam engine in the flour mill. As I grew older, I dared ask why Grandpa never went to work on the railroad. Of course, there were sighs. He did — started out as a fireman on the big locomotives, but he had a very good friend. Grandpa, like I said, went firing and his friend went braking. Those were great times.

After three weeks or so, Grandpa's friend missed the handhold and was killed under the train wheels. Well, you know how life is sometimes. I never knew why, and maybe Grandpa didn't know, either. With a heavy heart, he turned his back on the railroad. But, by that time, steam was in his blood.

The years have a way of passing us by, and in 1952, Grandpa died. That should have been the end of it. Grandpa gone, Dad's life with steam gone, doing other work, trying to make a living up here in northern Minnesota. It should have ended then and there, but it didn't.

I still remember that fall day. I guess I was 18 or so, no work in sight. Dad was reading the paper after dinner and kind of casual-like said: "You know, Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway is hiring brakemen and firemen."

After some moments of silence, I asked as I walked over to share the ad with him.

"Where do I apply?"

That afternoon I was interviewed, passed my physical exam and was hired as a fireman. Of course, I remembered Grandpa's friend, but when you're 18, you don't have doubts. I knew I could handle that job. I had listened well, knew how to fire, knew about injectors, boilers and all the 101 things Grandpa and Dad had shared with me about steam.

Five days as a student fireman — they coach you. That is, send an experienced fireman to give you a little help — if you need it. It must have been the fourth run. It was a night run. I walked into the office. There are our names on the board: Steelton Run. Now, the Steelton Run goes down to Gary—New Duluth steel mill and back up to Proctor. The board said we had Engine 706. She was an Alco 2-10-4 700 — the biggest two-cylinder steam locomotive ever built, weighed 520,000 pounds, tractive effort 96,700 pounds.

The night was black as the coal we burned. Just a few lights scattered around the Proctor railyard. The rails — ribbons of steel glistening in the lights, spreading out like a wet, broken spider web.

There she rested, near the center of this maze. It kind of made a catch in my throat. She was big, black and beautiful. Her dress had white trim. She wore just the right amount of brass jewelry, softly reflecting the dim light. I was dwarfed by her size. She was breathing softly — maybe kind of purring.

She seemed friendly as I grabbed her handholds and climbed up into the cab. I caught a hint of sinister beauty portraying only a whisper of her power and strength.

I gently pulled the injector. She needed a little water — it was low in the water glass. Stirred her fire, opened the stoker valve, adjusted the coal jets. She took notice — and the engineer checked his watch again. The fireman watched my every move as he sat concealed in the shadows. The engineer gently cracked the throttle. She began to talk softly now as we backed our way to the ribbons of steel that would lead us down that steep hill called the Steelton Run. I guess she just played with us as we coasted down that hill. In fact, we rolled along with just a whisper from her, the long line of ore cars coaxing us along, brakes squealing, sharp cries of steel cutting the night air.

Slowly now, brakeman's lantern flicking out car signs, a couple of switches thrown. Loaded ore cars tucked away, another siding, steel coupling — slam and lock. Steam exhaust sighing as we move that long string of cars to the main line, gently stopping at the Steelton Depot. I stayed alone with her. The pumps hammered softly.

We were poised — suspended in time, facing that long hill called the Steelton Run, waiting for orders. When they came, I would have to bring her to life. That long string of cars behind it — it would require all she had, all the skill and sweat I could give, before this night was over. Little did I know how much at the moment. My eyes flicked from the water glass to the steam gauge and back. Hit the stoker valve, coal surged into her firebox ... opened draft. Gently now with the injector ... the pumps hammered — fire began to roar. She was coming to life.

The fireman bounced up into the cab, hit the foot lever — the butterfly fire doors flew open. He cried, "Get her hot, boy!" I asked "How hot?" He screamed, "White hot!" We shoveled coal as fire doors open and closed in an instant.

Steam gauge read 180 pounds per square inch. Her sides were shimmering with heat — brass gauges and levers danced. She murmured. The engineer bound up and hit his seat box. Not a word. He slammed that long throttle rod full open. She shuddered; she gasped; her steam exhaust began to bark as those giant cylinders slammed us into the night! Her gentleness was gone — only power undreamed of. There was nothing else ... only heat that seared my face as my shovel drove coal into that yawning white-hot firebox. Thundering! Hammering! Alive! Could I match wits with this fire-breathing monster? My mind raced — could my hands hold? She reeked of hell itself.

Heat! Hammering! Hammering! She stank of searing hot metal — sulfur mixed with the sweet smell of valve oil. Overpowering! Hammering! Hammering! She lost traction; she danced — fire flying as drivers spun wildly on the rails. Sanders opened. Steel ground against Steel.

The engineer slammed the throttle shut! Steel drive wheels held. He slammed the throttle open; we road like in a thundercloud. No mercy! He screamed out cuss words almost in rhythm to the engine. Fire box reflected our sweat-covered faces. A red sheen — were we demons bound for hell? Was she Satan's own chariot?

Water's low in the glass — must take water, have to feel through the steel lever to get the injector to take. Easy, easy, ah, it's taking ... good. Steam dropping; no time! Back to the white hot mouth with my shovel. More coal, engineer screaming, cursing. Heat! Hammering! Spinning! Running wild — fire, sand, sweat, sulfur-cut nostrils, hammering of steam exhaust like a runaway heart pounding into oblivion.

I am lost now. I no longer exist. She has totally consumed my every being. I live only for her many demands. I am fully alive — every cell joined to her awesome power. There is no other world. She has consumed me ... like the coal and water she consumes changes to steam: alive, powerful. She has changed me. I will never be the same again.

She's long gone now, but still alive in my mind. If the mood is right — the night black enough — we still make the Steelton Run, just her and I. I am sad now ... I would like my boys to become men on the Steelton Run, but it's gone like the morning mist.

You know Grandpa would have been proud, but just maybe, just maybe, Grandpa was there that black night. Maybe we made the Steelton Run together. So now my eyes mist over, 'cause there's steam in my blood.

Who knows what dreams were passed on the black night we made the Steelton Run.

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