Golden Spike National Historic Park

Golden Spike National Historic Park

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Last post, I promised a lot more steam locomotives - so, here you go! This was our stop on the way into Utah, and is well worth a stop if you’re in the area!

Golden Spike National Historic Park, Promontory, Utah

Our first stop in Utah was the Golden Spike National Historic Park - which is where the original transcontinental railroad came together (despite both track grading teams having gone past each other in a gamble for more money that didn’t pay off). This is a national park area at the original site of the connection. In addition to the little museum, they have replica locomotives that roll around under their own steam. They also do regular reenactments of the spike ceremony - including some of the epic flubs of the heads of the involved railways, who seemingly never thought to practice hitting a rail spike before coming out to this event (spoiler: They both missed).

It’s not hard to get me to spend a bunch of time and take a bunch of photos of live steam, and there’s no shortage here! This is the No 119, Union Pacific’s locomotive at the ceremony (coming from the east coast). One of the themes of the park is just how different the two companies were in railroading - different primary fuels (wood vs coal), very different approaches to rail ties (machined vs hand-hewn), etc. Railroads are, of course, optimized to their operating environments, and the environments were just very different.

No 119 is a coal burner, with the spark arrestors up in front of the firebox - you can see the longer “nose section” under the smokestack, and the narrow smokestack here. And, yes, they’re running coal in it, so the smells are right too! I do enjoy the (infrequent) smell of coal, be it from a local blacksmith or a locomotive.

Central Pacific, meanwhile, sent Jupiter from out west. This is a wood fired locomotive, with the spark arrestor in the chimney. The driving wheels are also significant larger, at 60” for passenger service, than the 54” wheels on No 119, which was mostly a freight locomotive.

How did these particular locomotives end up out at the joining of the railroads? All evidence seems to indicate that they were just the convenient and available locomotives at the place and time needed - there was nothing special about them and they weren’t specifically chosen for the honor.

One of the draws of this park is that they have reenactments of the locomotives meeting every day - in addition to the more elaborate reenactment of the whole ceremony on the weekends. The locomotives don’t build up much speed, but they certainly roll around under their own power. The “normal” parking position is nose to nose over the replica tie, so at the start, they back away. Cold cylinders, plenty of condensation, so the cylinder cocks are wide open and doing that which they do, making spectacular clouds of steam as the locomotives start moving. And, of course, preventing hydrolocking the cylinders.

Jupiter backed away first down the stretch of track (there’s about 2 miles total of rail laid here, connecting to nothing else anymore), then came back in, nosing up to No 119. It’s not high speed steam, but it’s certainly self propelled steam with all the proper noises!

No 119 then goes backing away, heading to a switch and another spur track that goes behind the main viewing area (between the viewing area and the museum).

It comes back on the other track, chugging past at low speed with the cylinders all warmed up and no longer venting, bell clanging away wonderfully.

Once stopped down there, with proper brake noise, it hangs out for a bit, and then reverses back into the original position.

If you’re planning a trip, make it for the weekend, when they do the full reenactment - we’ll probably go back with the kids at some point for that. It’s a cool place!

The Locomotives

Of course, after everything is done, there are still two locomotives, chocked in place with chain, for you to poke around (“Please don’t touch” - mostly because they’re actually quite hot). You can simply go enjoy the scent of idling steam engines, the click of hot boilers, the smell of warm grease, and everything else that goes with such a machine at rest.

No 119’s cab is a stained wood, with some brass trim. I tend to think these locomotives are likely to be an awful lot nicer looking than the actual ones would have been in service, but they are, as far as the people who built them can tell, faithful to the originals in design (with a few exceptions for safety). They’re built from scratch, reverse engineered from the few pictures available and knowledge of that general type of locomotive. Nobody thought the original locomotives worth saving - pulling the trains for the transcontinental railroad meeting was just another day on the job, and there was work to get done once the track was completed.

At rest, you’ll see locomotives venting steam from their cylinders through the cylinder cocks. They sit with a limited flow of steam that serves to keep the plumbing between the boiler and the cylinders hot and free of condensed water - and the cylinder cocks allow any condensed water that does get into the cylinders an easy escape route. As the locomotive pulls away, these are left open for a while to prevent hydrolocking a cylinder - which will easily remove the end from the cylinder and render the locomotive quite a bit less useful until it gets a new cylinder casting.

A lever in the cab operates all four valves. Why are they on both ends? Unlike a typical internal combustion engine, the cylinders on a steam locomotive are double acting - steam operates on both sides of the piston. That also explains why, if you look above, the initial rod out of the cylinder comes straight out. It can’t wobble back and forth like a typical connecting rod and still seal things up. They’re a common use of crosshead pistons.

No 119’s steam injector is mounted on the side of the engine. This fascinating little sequence of converging cones allows you to use steam (coming from the boiler) to inject water into that same boiler! They’re amazing inventions, converting kinetic energy into potential energy, and were quite an improvement on the mechanical pumps previously used (though they have their own failure modes). Like any sort of complex fluid flow, they’re subject to a failure of the desired flow - similar to, some century or so later, high speed jet engine intake unstarts (the art of your Mach 2+ engine inlet deciding to stop flowing smoothly, with much drag and excitement for all involved).

The bell. Look, can we please go back to casting things that are not only functional, but also works of art themselves? This is a major part of the steampunk aesthetic, and I can’t argue with it at all!

In the cab. Yes, please! I’d love a cab tour at some point, if anyone knows anyone, but I believe most of the shutoff valves are there to isolate a failed gauge or piece of plumbing - a high pressure, high temperature steam leak is quite hazardous, so if your gauges start leaking, you’d better be able to shut it off in a hurry. The three identical levers down the right should be the trycocks - you can see the “capture the water or steam” trough below them. The glass water level gauge on the other side is helpful, but boiler trycocks are “ground truth” about water level - if the valve is below the water level, hot water comes out, and if it’s above the water level, hot steam comes out. You want the water level somewhere between the top and bottom valve or you’re well on your way to having a very bad day.

A fine looking locomotive and tender indeed!

Behind the locomotives, some signs give general specifications, and discuss the difference between these replicas and the originals. Welded boilers are a lot less likely to explode (with lower maintenance requirements in the process), the cylinders are one piece, and the locomotives have a modern Westinghouse brake system on them. All very reasonable improvements.

Moving over to Jupiter, the cylinder cocks are similar, though actuated from the other end. I just love all the brass. This isn’t the actual cylinder - this is the metal layer over the insulation that serves to keep the cylinder as hot as possible. In operation, you want the inside bits as hot as they can remain, because a cold cylinder saps efficiency. Hot steam coming in being cooled towards the exhaust steam temperature is a major loss of efficiency in a locomotive.

The pins on the main drive rods are lubricated by some variety of “oil reservoir” based system - your lubricant goes in the top and is slowly distributed out through the plain bearing and to the insides/outsides to be wiped off. These engine are kept remarkably clean, though as very low mile show engines, I’d expect no less.

We just don’t build drivetrains like this anymore - though there are some very good reasons, related to things like hammer blow and smooth delivery of power. Getting a heavy train started without wheel slip was a challenge - and while impressive in movies to see a heavy locomotive spinning the drive wheels, it wasn’t easy on the driver wheels, the track, or the rest of the engine - so the smoother power delivery of a diesel electric is better suited to starting heavy loads.

Jupiter’s steam injector is inside the cab - just one of many differences between the two engines.

I doubt this was on the original Jupiter, because trains of that era didn’t have airbrakes - but this version has a steam driven air compressor on the side of the locomotive for pressurizing the brake system. You can find these easily enough as they’re the only source of “intermittent noise” on a typical steam locomotive when sitting idle. They’ll schwoomp back and forth slowly to keep up with any air leaks. The air is used for the brakes. Any train from the last century or so will be using Westinghouse air brakes, which have the useful property that any break in the air line will apply the emergency brakes throughout the train. Earlier air brake systems would add pressure to the line to apply the brakes, which means if the air line fails, you’ve lost your entire train worth of brakes. This caused the expected number of wrecks, so the Westinghouse system, with a pressure tank on each car, and triggered by a reduction in brake pressure, helped out a lot.

And up in the cab! The viewing stands for the cab are on the back of the track, not visible from the normal seating area. It’s a locomotive, sitting at pressure. The usual shutoff valves and controls are present. Running a locomotive isn’t done with just the throttle - the main control is actually the steam cutoff control or Johnson Bar. This determines where in the stroke the steam valve to the cylinder closes and the rest of the work is done by the steam expanding. The earlier the cutoff, the less power you get, but the more efficiency. There’s the throttle valve as well, but it’s best left wide open once you get moving.

Actually, if you really want to geek out over the operation of steam locomotives, the Catskill Archive Railroad Extra is the place you want to be. And while the whole place is fascinating, you really should start out with “The LOCOMOTIVE ENGINE: Running and Management, by Angus Sinclair, Seventeenth Edition - 1890” - and I’ll see you next week. Sorry! Fascinating read! There’s an entire chapter on the operation of the injectors!

Locomotive suspension, though, remains quite old. This is the suspension on the tender, and it’s just some aged leaf spring technology stacked to a sufficient depth for support. I’ve no idea how much travel or useful damping this actually gives, but my guess is “Not much.” You can see the wodden brake shoe levers on either end, as well as chains that presumably exist to keep the tender more or less on top of the wheels should something unexpectedly shift in operation. Those look like the sort of thing that were added to designs as a result of experience.

The Rest of the Museum

There’s a small museum with some exhibits as well, though it’s mostly a theater with a history of the transcontinental railroad project and a gift shop. One end has a nice covered shelter with some picnic tables, so feel free to bring a lunch - you’re probably going to be here around lunchtime anyway for the locomotives moving around, so stay for lunch!

The… logo? Marker? Artwork? Whatever it is, it’s designed to look like it’s a set of tracks heading up into the mountains, and you can get a range of interesting shots of it based on where you’d like it to end.

Up close, it’s a wonderful bit of sculpture - poured concrete “sleepers” and welded steel rail, nicely aged with time.

Current discussions about the sourcing of critical materials are nothing new in the country. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 required American-made iron to be used for rail across the country, helping encourage American iron production - and, eventually, steel.

The old iron rail was cast as three separate pieces that were joined together - and, being iron, it was rather less tolerant to the pounding of trans than later steel rail. So replacing rail as it wore was a major part of railroad maintenance. This is some original rail from the transcontinental railroad, well enough preserved. It’s quite a bit smaller than modern rail.

Inside, exhibits cover the process of track laying, building trestles and bridges, and there’s a nice collection of artifacts from the various “tent towns” that followed the rail across the country, providing ready opportunity for rail workers to spend the earnings on all the usual varieties of distraction.

And a touch that I just find wonderful, the gate handle out of the picnic area is made of an old rail spike!

It’s probably a two hour stop, maybe a bit longer if you really like locomotives. But well worth the detour if you’re out near it!


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