Classic Trains Community Mileposts Ed King’s book canonizes N&W steam

Ed King’s book canonizes N&W steam

By Kevin P. Keefe | April 4, 2024

Maybe these adventures are fictional, but only barely

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Man looking down boiler of steam locomotive from new book Thirteen Scoops Around the Box
From Ed King’s book, “Thirteen Scoops Around the Box,” an engineer’s view from the cab of N&W 2-6-6-4 No. 1201. N&W photo

Rumors of the death of railroad fiction are greatly exaggerated. The veteran railroad journalist Fred Frailey made that clear a year ago with his “Seldom Willing,” an absorbing tale of an ambitious 1980s Midwestern regional railroad that outmaneuvered a far larger rival.

When Fred told me his novel was coming out soon, I wasn’t sure what to think — I knew Fred as the consummate reporter, not necessarily a fiction writer. What I was forgetting is the grand tradition in American literature of reporters-turned-novelists. His book had me hooked, first page to last, and anyone I knew who read it felt the same way.

Now another of my favorite railroad writers is out with a book of fiction, and it’s terrific. It’s called “Thirteen Scoops Around the Box: Memoirs of an Appalachian Railroad Man,” by the estimable Edward W. King, boomer railroader, longtime Trains and Classic Trains contributor, and author of one of the best books about a steam locomotive ever written: “The A: Mercedes of Steam,” about Norfolk & Western’s 2-6-6-4 engines.

Well, Ed — or, as we call him, The Boomer — has done it again. “Thirteen Scoops” ought to be a must-read for anyone who wants to know what it was like to work on a steam railroad. (The title comes from sage advice from an old head about how to keep the fire hot on the author’s first engine, a 2-8-0.)

Cover of fiction book Thirteen Scoops Around the BoxAs Ed describes it, the book is a “fictional, counterfactual autobiography” of an N&W railroader who hired out in 1903, worked his way up from fireman to engineer, and lasted until the end of steam. That our hero’s name is Edward Millard King shouldn’t be surprising. My guess is that this was an alternative life the real Ed King would have liked to live.

Not that the Boomer hasn’t had a rich railroad life of his own. He grew up in Bristol, Tenn., where he was exposed to the last years of N&W and Southern Railway steam. He worked on diesel locomotives for the N&W and Seaboard Air Line, later joined the staff of the United States Railroad Association to help create Conrail, supervised Rock Island’s Chicago suburban service in that railroad’s final years, then had jobs at North Western and, finally, Soo Line, from which he retired in 1997.

I got to know Ed in the late 1980s when a small group of local Milwaukee railroad folks gathered once a month or so at a suburban Wauwatosa watering hole to tell lies. The group included David P. and Margaret Morgan. I felt very lucky to be occasionally invited, such was the quality of the storytelling. And Ed was one of the best, thus the privilege I had of bringing him to Trains in the 1990s as the columnist known as “The Boomer.”

Now he’s written his classic tale of an N&W hogger, a man who loved steam locomotives and knew how to get the best out of them. It’s a memoir — remember, “fictional” — full of colorful rank-and-file railroaders, cantankerous steam engines, bosses reasonable and otherwise, occasional danger, and one hell of a lot of adventure. Along the way the reader will learn a lot about the old N&W, from mine tipples along the Radford Division to the coal docks at Norfolk, from pudgy W2 2-8-0s to sleek J-class 4-8-4s, from the rituals of “oiling around” and tending to cotton waste to the challenges of double-heading.

Ed couldn’t have pulled off this handsome book without his publisher, the N&W Historical Society, and especially his editor and designer Kenneth L. Miller. Thanks to Miller’s efforts, the book is loaded with black-and-white photographs, maps, and other illustrations covering the entire sweep of N&W in the 20th century. Miller’s goal was to bring vivid, visual context to Ed’s text, and he has succeeded brilliantly. His name definitely belongs on the cover.

Once I’d given all these great photos the once over, I dug into Ed’s prose, and it was like old times. King has a way of weaving technical detail into his colorful storytelling without being obvious about it. He pulls you in. You learn a lot about steam railroading as practiced by N&W when it was known for “Precision Transportation,” back when “precision” wasn’t a loaded word.

Man with glasses at desk
“Thirteen Scoops Around the Box” author Ed King at work in the tower at Rondout, Ill., in 1997. Robert S. McGonigal photo

It can be a fun ride. Consider Ed’s description of running one of his beloved 2-6-6-4s, the class engine, No. 1200, east from Roanoke to Norfolk when the engine was brand new in May 1936.

“MAN! I’d never heard anything like that in my life. She started cracking at the stack and the two engines were out of sync, and then they were back in sync, and then got out again. When she was out of sync, she would hit ‘double clicks’ and she was picking up that 2,000-ton train up like it was nothing; as she accelerated, I was pulling the reverse lever back a notch at a time. We must have been going 50 mph past Bonsack, and I found out later that the operator held his foot on his phone transmit pedal when we went by so the whole division could hear us.”

Maybe these adventures are fictional, but only barely. Ed has spent a considerable part of his life studying steam, writing about it, and sometimes doing time cutting coal and even firing, courtesy of the old Southern steam program and its beloved 2-8-2 No. 4501 and 2-8-0 No. 630. He comes by his descriptions honestly.

Most of all, he wants his readers to know about the people who populated this long, lost world, including his eponymous main character and a host of others who were part of the N&W family.

“They did it for a reason,” Ed writes in his Preface. “The machine — the steam locomotive — was the reason. They played the game for the love of the game, no matter how hard-bitten they might have seemed on the outside. The machine was demanding, and the men who fired them and ran them had reason to be proud of the machines and their ability to make the machines do their bidding.”

Details on Thirteen Scoops Around the Box: hardcover, 208 pages, 225 photographs and map, price $64.95, available from the N&W Historical Society. I highly recommend it.

One thought on “Ed King’s book canonizes N&W steam

  1. Anyone with a love of steam and history should travel to Roanoke Virginia to view O Winston Link exhibit and read Ed’s book in the preview of that special place …You cannot be touched and forever grateful for both !

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