Hostling on the Road to Paradise

Waking a steel horse from her slumber

The morning of July 16, I got up with the sunrise to the sounds of a local radio station’s morning show. The sun had not even risen above the horizon, but there were already some wispy clouds illuminated in a magenta color.  I had no time to waste; I had an 8:00 a.m. rendezvous with my friend Ross Gochenaur at the Strasburg Railroad enginehouse. Ross has worked for the Strasburg Railroad for twenty years as an engineer, fireman, and shop worker. Today, however, I would get to observe and photograph the hostling of the engine pulling the railroad’s hourly train for the day.

Hostling of the engine is done by a hostler (today would be Ross’s day as hostler) who prepares an engine for the day’s duties before her crew arrives. Back in the era of steam, hostlers were a full time position which covered the overnight span when engines were not in use. At Strasburg, hostlers do not spend the night; instead, they spend the early morning hours with the engine. Some duties of hostlers include breaking the bank, dumping the ash, lubrication, the blowdown, and many others. Surprisingly, this long winded process takes only two hours on the long end to prepare a historic engine on “The Road to Paradise”.

When you walk through the door, it is as if you are transported back to the 1930’s when this was an everyday sight.

Before leaving, I packed a light lunch into my cooler not knowing how long my adventure may last, locked the door, and off I went. Heading through the northern Maryland farmlands and Pennsylvania Amish country, sunrise was absolutely stunning (and another adventure for me in the near future). As I crossed over the Susquehanna River on the Conowingo Dam, the famed eagles flew overhead through the mist of the open gates in search of a meal. As the blue sky began to show atop the haze filled Lancaster County farmlands I pulled into the lot at Strasburg.

After walking into the enginehouse at 7:58 a.m., I was greeted by Ross, Dave Lotfi, and Gabe Bocchino exchanging talk of their week ahead at the railroad. After reacquainting myself with the trio, Ross got to work with me following right behind. I was amazed at the atmosphere inside the enginehouse with mechanics working on the other two engines as Ross went about his work on our engine for the day. When you walk through the door, it is as if you are transported back to the 1930’s when this was an everyday sight. I thought, this is the epitome of steam railroading in the modern era. That is why I enjoy taking portraits of these men and women who are truly a part of history, and who live in a bygone era as their day job.

The locomotive Ross and I spent the morning on was the Norfolk and Western 475, a Mastodon class 4-8-0 (the same style as photographed by O. Winston Link on the famed Abingdon Branch) which ran on the Blacksburg Branch in Virginia. Ross familiarized me with some of the details, like the valve gear and how it varied from the other two engines that regularly run on the railroad. Strasburg acquired 475  in 1991, making it the “newest” steam locomotive on the railroad.

Ross began his day as hostler by topping off lubrication points on the engine with PB&J oil (Pin, Bearing, and Journal oil). The locomotive has points on the rods identical on both fireman and engineer side that number nearly ten per side on the rods alone, and with nearly 50 points in total from what I could tell on the locomotive as a whole. Once done with the PB&J, he used a forced grease pump to hit other points in the wheels and areas on the frame of the locomotive.

“How many ounces are there in a gallon, John?” Ross asked me. This information is needed to determine the amount of chemical agent to add to the tender to prevent a number of issues such as scale from occurring in the boiler.

I promptly replied, “I don’t know. I’m on summer vacation and you expect me to know that?”

We shared a good laugh and found another employee to steer us in the right direction (the answer is 128 ounces in a gallon). Afterwards, Ross climbed the tender ladder to dump the mix into the tender as the sun shone on his back and into the enginehouse.

Once he had gotten down from the tender, Ross climbed into the cab to see how much pressure the engine had from the day before and prepared to turn on the air compressor. I was forewarned about how the condensation from the compressor would shoot out. In an effort to keep my gear as dry as possible, I heeded the warning and moved next to the pilot truck of the engine so I could intentionally shoot towards the sun and let the condensation released catch the light. Ross got only a couple drops of water on him while he let the compressor fire the up rest of the way. After five minutes the compressor was running (no longer spewing condensation) and Ross was in the cab ready to back the engine to the coal loading bay.

Once we were stopped on his spot, Ross climbed down to fetch the front end loader and fill the tender. It took only four trips and some impressive aim to fill the tender for the eight round-trips to Paradise and back. If you ever photograph this event, I recommend bringing a cloth to wipe your lens, because it will get dusty. Next we backed up over the ash pit to dump all the previous day’s ash once the bank was broken up. Ross fetched the rake from the tender to smooth out the bank of coals that kept the engine warm overnight. Even this simple sounding task is very technical, needing to keep everything even and wake the fire up so it can be ready for new coals. He then shook the front grates and dumped the ash, and then the rear with a constant flow of water to make a slurry of the contents (this is also another very dusty event to photograph).

We made the run up the hill with the cylinder cocks open to run the engine rather hard to detect any issues.

As the pressure began to rise above the 120psi mark and the ash pans were closed, we backed to our last stop on the enginehouse lead right next to the newly expanded back shop. This is where all engines perform their constitutional daily blowdowns. A blowdown is initiated when the hostler pulls a lever leading to the bottom of the boiler which drains it and leads to the elimination of toxins from the boiler. Three ten second blowdowns are performed each morning before the engine gets run up the hill towards Fairview crossing, and back down the main towards the station. I joined Ross in the cab as he went out on the fireman’s side running board to pull the lever, while turning on other appliances on the engine like the dynamo. Through the fog I heard Ross call out to me jokingly, “Whew! That’ll clean out your pores.” I concurred as my arms became coated in sweat from the warm condensate cloud inside of the cab.

Finally, once all three blowdowns were complete and the pressure neared the operating pressure, we made the run up the hill with the cylinder cocks open to run the engine rather hard to detect any issues. No issues during today’s trip, so we drifted down the hill past the freight yard towards he station lead, where we brought the engine to a safe stop. Ross topped off the firebox with a couple scoops of coal and used some more PB&J oil on the running gear before handing the engine over to the crew for the day.

I thanked Ross for a great morning and the opportunity to photograph him and we parted ways. I stayed around and chatted with a few other railfans who had congregated around the engine. After chatting, I went back to the car and headed to a favorite spot of mine at the Red Caboose Motel to watch the train pass and have my lunch before heading home.

Johnathan RileyText and photographs Copyright 2018

Their Work Remains

On a hot summer evening last month, I stood beside the turntable at the East Broad Top Railroad and tried to imagine what it was like to work there.

It was hard work. It was dirty, heavy, often dangerous work. It was work done to feed a family and put kids through school. It was long hours six days a week. It was coming home at the end of the day blackened with grime and coal dust. Even for the workers who loved the railroad, there was nothing romantic about it. It was hard work. Read more

Until It Does

Everyone knows the train
does not run anymore. Until it does.

Mike Futschik climbing back on after flagging the crossing.

Railroad Museum of New England

The first passenger train to Torrington ran last night. Three more Wednesday evenings it will happen unless it rains. We have been there before on event trains, and it’s always the same look at the people’s faces. They want their picture taken in front of the train. Many see the RR track crossings every day, but everyone knows the train does not run anymore. Until it does. You see one of our volunteers at the crossing, and you should see the people in that brown house each time we go by waving and yelling to us. I see young and old people just stop and everyone takes out their cell phone to take a picture of the old train that’s in a place where everyone knows there are no trains anymore—not since the 1960’s.

Read more

Last Train to Pikes Peak

Sitting on a siding, we see a train descending the line not far from the peak. We got to wave at the other passengers, as they passed by us on our siding.

Last summer, during our Colorado summer vacation, we made a stop in Manitou Springs to ride the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad.  This is an amazing trip to the top of Pikes Peak, at an elevation of 14,110 ft.

As our train ascended the mountain, we saw a beautiful high mountain lake that is used as a reservoir for the city of Colorado Springs.

Along the way, the train passes through four different terrains ranging from high plains to alpine tundra. The route is 8.9 miles long, with very steep grades, and takes a little over three hours to reach the top. In addition to the usual two rails, the cog railroad has a rack mounted in the center of the rails. The locomotives use a cog, or gear to power the train along the track. This allows the cog train to traverse grades far steeper than traditional railroads. Read more

Saving the Fredericton Train Station

This is the story of the slow, lingering death of a train station in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada… and its miraculous rebirth.


The York Street station was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1923 in Fredericton, in the West Platt area outside of the downtown core. The station is made of brick, with sandstone trim. It has a hip roof and is one of the few remaining brick stations in New Brunswick. The York Street side has a covered portico and the rear of the station was attached to a freight shed, added well after the station was built.

The station served Canadian Pacific (CP) trains only at the start. Canadian National (CN) had a station close to the train bridge across the Saint John River for many years, but in the latter years of passenger service, CN also used this station.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a CP passenger train ran between Fredericton and Fredericton Junction, where a passenger could take one of the trains between McAdam and Saint John. On the CN side, a Railiner (Rail Diesel Car, or RDC) ran between Newcastle and the York Street (“Union”) station via McGivney.

The station had two waiting rooms, one for men on the north (York Street) end, and the other for women, closer to the baggage room, with an agent/operator office in between. The washrooms were along the back wall. At the far (south) end of the station was the CP Express office. Read more

Trackside Interview #4 
Steve Crise

Steve Crise is a professional still photographer and lighting designer based in Los Angeles, California. His love of trains led him into photography, and his work has been featured in Railfan & Railroad, Trains, CTC Board, Railroads Illustrated, Model Railroader’s four articles on Rod Stewart’s HO scale layout, and annual report work for the BNSF and Union Pacific. He teaches each February at the Nevada Northern Railway on the basics of night photography using his electronic strobe equipment. Steve is active in several organizations devoted to the preservation of railroad history and has traveled widely to document the remaining traces of our railroad heritage.

Edd Fuller, Editor, The Trackside Photographer – Steve, shortly after I started The Trackside Photographer, I wrote to you asking if you would be willing to write for us, and we subsequently published a great article by you called “Macro vs. Micro.” I want to thank you for that, and for taking the time to talk with us about your work. Although you are a professional photographer with clients in many different fields, the railroad seems to be at the heart of your work. How did your love of railroads come about?

Steve Crise – I’m not entirely sure how my interest in railroads came about but legend has it that I used to cry in my car seat at the Southern Pacific’s Fletcher Drive crossing when my mother would often get stuck at that crossing. Her accounting of the situation would have you believing that I hated those noisy trains, but I think it was more about not being able to see them well enough from three car lengths behind the gates. Whatever it was that lit the flame it has stuck with me all these years. And to add fuel to that fire, it seems as though just about every Christmas I received some sort of toy or model train as a gift. Wooden trains, plastic trains, Marx, American Flyer, Tyco—it goes on and on. Aside from the modeling, I used to draw and paint a lot when I was a kid. I always had some sort of project going on. The American Flyer was always set up around the Christmas tree and once we moved into a larger home, I was allowed to build a small HO layout. The layout added to my interest in real trains because naturally I wanted my layout to look as real as possible. Read more