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Friday, April 8, 2016

The "From Fireman to Hossler: The Tale Of A Strasburg Railroad Worker" Story

Early steam locomotive on the Strasburg Railroad.
It was an ordinary day.  Riding shotgun in Jerry's Toyoto Rav4 heading south toward the city of Lancaster.  My lifetime friend Jerry and wife Sue are making a visit with Carol and me this weekend so I can visit with a few of his model railroad friends at the home of Linn Modinger in Lampeter-Strasburg township.  After passing through Lancaster we continue south on SR272/222 until we reach a small black dot on the map known as Willow Street.  Arrived at 11:30 AM for a brief lunch of chicken salad sandwich and vanilla ice-cream; Jerry having the sandwich and me having the ice cream.  "It's a little too early to head to Linn's house," Jerry said after we exited the Willow Street Diner.  "How about we head to the Strasburg Railroad and look around a little bit."  So, off we went toward one of Lancaster County's biggest tourist's attractions.  
Rail cars at the Strasburg Railroad.
The Strasburg Rail Road began operations in 1837 as a horse-drawn railroad.  In 1851 a steam locomotive named the William Penn was purchased and the rest is history as they say.  In 1863 the railroad terminal was moved from the center of Strasburg to its current location near the borough line.  The railroad went through a series of different owners over the years until on November 1, 1958 it was purchased by a non-profit group and began to carry tourists on January 4, 1959.  Today the railroad makes round-trips from Strasburg to the Leaman Place Junction on a daily basis in about 45 minutes.  It is a great way for tourists to the Amish rich county to experience Lancaster County.  The authentic passenger cars, pulled by a massive coal-burning locomotive, is a really neat sight to see as it travels through the farmland of south-eastern Lancaster County.  
Off in the distance Engine #90 displays a puff of smoke.
Shortly, Jerry pulls into the parking lot of the railroad and travels to the east end of the lot where he pulled into a parking space near the train shed which is directly across from us on the other side of the train tracks.  He looked at me and said, "Now we can wait until the train arrives in a few minutes."  I wasn't one to question his knowledge of the train schedule, since he worked five years for the Strasburg Railroad.  While we waited Jerry told me about his years while working at the Strasburg Railroad.  
Engine #90, with the Engineer leaning
out the window, pass us.
He began as a Fireman in the late 1970s.  His job was to ride on the engine with the engineer and maintain the fire which created the steam to run the giant locomotive.  The tender car, which followed the engine, held a couple tons of bituminous, or soft coal, as well as the water supply that Jerry used to create steam to power the engine.  It was his responsibility to keep the water level up as well as shovel the coal into the firebox to keep the fire going.  The trip from Stasburg to Leaman Place and back was nine miles long and required 1/2 ton of coal to make the trip.  With eight continuous trips during a day it would require shoveling 4 ton of coal into the firebox to give the engine enough power for the trips.  The trips would take about 45 to 50 minutes which gave Jerry a few minutes between runs to relax.  Can you imagine shoveling 4 ton of coal every day of the week throughout the scorching summer months?  Jerry told me he was in the best physical shape of his live during the five years he worked at the railroad.  He eventually added the job of Hossler to his Fireman's duties which did help slightly with the physical part of the job.  As a Hossler he would arrive at 5:00 AM to prepare the steam locomotive for the day's travels.  
The train has arrived back at the Strasburg Station.
He would have to rake the fire bank, or pile of remaining coal, that was still warm from the previous day's runs and add more coal to the firebox.  After building up enough steam, he then was responsible for backing the locomotive to the ash pit to empty the ashes from the previous day.  He also had to clean the running gears and white walls with a power washer, wipe the engine down to make it shine and run the engine onto the "Ready Track" in time for the 10:00 AM first run.  I'm sure than most people have no idea how much work, and how physical that work can be, to prep a steam engine for running.  Jerry told me that some weeks he was "penciled in" on the work schedule to act as the Fireman while other weeks he was the Hossler.  When running the train, the Conductor is the boss while the Brakeman is responsible for checking the working condition of the brakes.  The Engineer is responsible for operating the train while the Fireman has to maintain the coal and water to run the engine.  If he had stayed longer he more than likely would have become an Engineer, since he was given a chance to take the controls during some of his trips in his last few years of working at the Strasburg Railroad.  OK, here comes Engine #90 into the station.  The exact same engine that Jerry fired and prepared for running for years.  I could hear the excitement in his voice and see the elation in his face as the monstrous engine chugged slowly past us with the Engineer waving as it went past.  I would love to ride the engine someday and experience the same thrill that Jerry did each and every run he made as it arrived at the station after a successful run.  Well, the train has stopped and it's time to visit with his model railroad friends.  Follow along tomorrow as we "play trains."  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy. 

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