March 27th, 2017

At timemark 0:57 a father an son stand at a crossing while a giant chugs past. The narrator says, Lucky the boy who could one day say he had seen them in action. My father not only was lucky enough to see the giants in action, but in Fairmont, West Virginia, where he lived for the first 14 years of his life, his father arranged for him to actually to take the throttle and move a B&O Big Boy 4-8-8-4 from one end of the rail yard to the other and back again.

(Almost like father like son, I got to see a Big Boy, traveling under its own steam heading east through Athens, Ohio, when I was a student at Ohio University. The B&O tracks ran along the south border of the campus and I was visiting a friend in an apartment one spring afternoon when I heard the distinctive sound—I know the sound because a regular feature of our family vacations was to visit and ride attractions featuring live steam—of a steam engine coming down the track. I stepped onto the balcony just in time to see the Big Boy round the curve and roll through the campus at about 10 mph. She wasn’t pulling any cars so I figured she was headed to the B&O Museum.)

The Steampunk genre of Science Fiction has been very popular for a couple of decades now, but those tales cannot capture the majesty of the real steam marvels. They weren’t environmentally friendly (they carried 25 tons of coal as fuel) and they would be replaced by the diesel-electric after WW II, but the Big Boys (like the HMS Victory from the 19th century) represented the pinnacle of a technology that transformed the United States.

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