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Steam locomotives: An era long since past

By Michael J. Wilson | July 4, 2023

The steam locomotive is America, a direct extension of its industrial might

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Steam locomotives

sunrise with steam locomotive in front
A Fall sunrise greets the Road to Paradise, as Strasburg Rail Road decapod No. 90 hustles west on the morning of Oct. 18, 2020. This photo was taken as part of the SRC’s 60th anniversary celebration in which SRC No. 90 was backdated to its 1960s retro livery featuring gold striping and the “Egg” logo on the tender.

What is it about a steam locomotives that attract generations? Like the Saturn V rockets of their time, steam locomotives represent the pinnacle of engineering in an era long since passed. Their ability to use simple components, coal or oil with water, to produce power sometimes only inhibited by the hand of the engineer is nothing short of profound. For some, it is their design that attracts, sleek and low versus strong and stout. For others, it is the coordination of well-timed, machined moving parts akin to a symphony. Regardless, the steam locomotive is America, a direct extension of its industrial might.

steam train going by station in downtown area
Baldwin Locomotive Works 0-6-0 No. 26 stomps past the former Lackawanna Railroad station and under the former Lackawanna signal bridge, as she makes her way to Nay Aug Tunnel in downtown Scranton, Pa., on June 11, 2019.

Like most railfans and railroad photographers, I was introduced to trains at an early age. As part of a family with strong railroad heritage, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and Pennsylvania Railroad to be specific, my love for capturing the steam locomotive is certainly genetic. My passion for steam locomotives entered a new artistic dimension with my introduction to railroad photography and the work of giants such as O. Winston Link. There is something truly magical about capturing a steam locomotive — which some would consider grotesque — and turning it into a work of art. Whether against vast mountain ranges or within deep gorges and canyons, the steam locomotive belongs as the workhorse it is. Each photo works to capture something that may seem commonplace and turn it into a happening.

steam train in distance with sunset and cattails
Sunrise with the J: Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611 breaks the early morning silence outside of the Verdant View Farm near Ronks, Pa., as the sun just barely breaks over the hills to the east on Oct. 5, 2019.

 

steam locomotive in distance with dogs and kids in foreground
Norfolk & Western 4-8-0 M Class No. 475 rounds Long Curve on the Strasburg Rail Road on Oct. 5, 2019 hauling a photo freight for the neighboring Amish and animal onlookers.

 

black and white photo at night with two women hostlers
It’s a late night inside Shaffers Crossing of the Norfolk & Western Railway, as two female hostlers work to replenish Class J No. 611’s 20,000-gallon tender after a long day of running through southern Appalachia. In all actuality, this photo was taken as part of a night photo event put on at the North Carolina Transportation Museum on May 1st, 2021.

One thought on “Steam locomotives: An era long since past

  1. Thanks Michael for great article. I find steam engines fascinating. As you stand near one idling, it sound like it is breathing. And no doubt they sing “I think I can, I think I can” as they pull up a hill. Best wishes to you. Fee Busby

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