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A Teenager's Live Steam Story
Mr. Sam Bassini and I on Memorial Day 2008. A
beautiful spring day for the debut day of Erie #7401.
Written by Matt Phalon
I’m writing this on
vacation right now coming from Altoona, PA at the world famous Horseshoe
Curve. Okay, let me get this out of the way, join a club first, then build
your own track. I found that out the hard way. I got for my 14th birthday a
Mountain Car Co. 6’ flat car. WOW! I didn’t know what I was in for. I got the
“Easy Kit” of it, and got it two days after my birthday. I found it on my
front porch on my way home from the last day of school. That’s the way to
start off summer! I threw the 65 pound package over my shoulder, literally,
and ran straight to the garage and ripped it open, literally.
After unwrapping 2 inches of packaging low-and-behold, my first
riding car!…in 5 million pieces, but still I was excited because I go to
relive what railroaders did for over 200 years, build a railroad from the
My parents made an agreement with me that they would buy the car
for me for my birthday, then when it was finished I would have to buy the
trucks and couplers. Not a bad deal because I had the money for it, and enough
for spray paint to paint it, and to get graphics from Miracle Railroad
Products. The big part was out of the way, I had the car, and I was so excited
for my very own railroad.
|I thought “this is going to be so cool! I can run
a REAL train on my schedule, and I get to see the freight cars I WANTED to see
and when I WANTED to see it. I got to be a conductor, just how my Grandpa did
for 40 starting on Erie Railroad, working freight trains out of Croxton Yard,
then watched the transition and merger to form the Erie Lackawanna, then he
made a transition to working passenger trains out of Hoboken and ran them out
to Suffern, NY, then saw that taken over by Conrail, then eventually that was
taken over by the NJDOT, and then that formed NJ Transit and finally retired
in 1995 after 40 years of dedicated and hard, and I was just old enough to be
on his last train. His coworkers and the president of the railroad gave him
the name of “Nicest Guy on the Railroad.” I got to relive that with him, and
learn how it did it all, step by step. THAT0S AWESOME!
Santa Clause! One of the first three NJ Transit conductors who
started the annual tradition of the Railmen for Children "Santa Special".
|Back to the flat car. So I ripped the packaging
off, had everything spread out on the garage floor. My uncle who at the time
just bought a former New York Central freight house happened to call me that
day to say congratulations on me graduating 8th grade. And my graduation party
was a week from that day, and I promised that the car was going to be finished
to show off at the party. Might I mention I graduated with my two older
brothers too who have absolutely NO interest in trains, one from high school
and one from college, so it was safe to say there were going to be over 100
people there between family, friends, and friends of friends. A lot of people.
But I realized something big, I had to rivet the sides and ends on.
was a bag of things that looked like rivets (which turned out to be the screws
for the stake pockets), and I didn’t know the difference because I was new at
this. At the time, all knew about rivets was that one end has to be smashed to
hold something in place. So after seeing that what I thought were the rivets
were threaded, we had a problem, the rivet holes are now over sized, and most
important, the car was not going to be done in that week time frame. Actually,
not for the next 28 weeks. So off to the phone I went.
|I had my dad call Jim at MCC and he sent them in
the mail as quick as possible. So mean while I put the entire frame together,
then finding I put it together backwards and upside down…twice, and stripped a
couple bolts along the way, but in time the frame got done. Then the rivets
came. The dummy ones went in with ease, then I got to the real ones and then
discovered I had no clue how to do it. So that went on the back burner for the
rest of the summer until I figured out a way to smash the backs to hold it in
place. So instead of getting frustrated with it, I went to work on my
alternate winter project, an O gauge empire in the loft of the garage.
Coming off the Susquehanna River bridge at the New Jersey Live
Steamers on Memorial Day 2008.
|It hit me on Christmas day when I
found a C clamp in my tool box. “Hey, if I hold one end to the back and twist
it, it will hold the rivets in place!” And finally, one thing worked out the
way I planned! I finished the entire detail part of the sides in 3 nights.
Then I set a date in February to show off my trains to my family. Yeah, you
can say I got a little ahead of myself with only finishing the car. I still
needed trucks, couplers, paint, lettering, and even track!
Sam & I on a Bangor & Aroostook local . My dad taking his hand
to the throttle of the 0-8-0, and did a fine job on August 10 at the NJLS.
|But I ordered the trucks and couplers from MCC
also, and for some reason they didn’t come for 2 months. I ordered 30’ of rail
from Real Trains, and that came right on time in a week, except the wrong
track gauge came So then I thought to order tie plate and gauge bar sets from
RMI Railworks. They also came right on time. Then came the “you can’t fit a
square peg in a round hole” kind of thing, you can’t gauge standard rail on
West Coast rail plates. Woops. So then I just decided to use a tape measure
instead. That one worked. Once that was done, I ordered 30 more feet of West
Coast rail to use on the other tie plates, and to extend the line. That came,
then found out again, the rail was 2 different sizes. Out came the grinder,
and that problem was solved. Once I started getting on a roll, things went
down hill from there.
|I got a bad case of Bronchitus and
had to be out sick for a week staying in bed, and when I got better, my
grandma passed from Alzhiemers. The day of her funeral, the trucks came. Very
weird, but I know my grandpa had something to do with that up there. But with
all my family there, and 20’ of track done, I was able to show off my flat car
to everyone, but still didn’t have paint. So the next day, I rode to the local
hardware store and got a spray can of Rustolium in Goss Black, and it was
perfect. The gloss faded just enough to look perfectly real in about a week.
|Then that’s when I broke my foot in two places
and couldn’t walk. Doctors said it was bad enough to be on crutches for 6-8
weeks, and may even require surgery after that. He said that, and I laughed,
thinking he wasn’t serious. Later that day when I got home, I hobbled out of
the car and went straight to the backyard. “Matt, where are you going?” my mom
asked me. “To work on the Greenwood Lake, Pequannock Sub!” I yelled back. Then
she looked at me like I had two heads. I was happy to find one of those
gardening seats on tires to move around on, and also my brother did some good
work of putting the car on the trucks (we tested a custom car the day before
and it needed some adjustments) and a bucket on it for me to sit on.
Sam Bassini taking my brother Kevin and I on a "Fast-Freight"
local at the NJLS.
Well turned out, I was off in 2 weeks and back working on my
trains after I got back from the doctor. After that was done, I finally got to
join the NJ Live Steamers, some of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in the
world are there. I went to the steam up (but didn’t bring the car because I
didn’t know anyone yet, and the first 2 guys I met there let me operate their
steam locomotives, one of which now has turned in to be my best friend there.
I ordered graphics from Connie Miracle at Miracle Railroad
Products. I ordered ERIE 7401. That also came out perfect, and a nice surprise
was that where it said to return the car to the agent, it had my home town.
Really cool! Thanks Connie! And those came on May 25th, just in time for the
May 26th Memorial Day Run at the NJLS. And sure enough, the car was an
official lettered freight car, ERIE 7401 and then we loaded in, and off my
father and I went to the club, for the cars inaugural public run. People saw
it and said to my father, “Hey, did you build that?” and every time he turned
and looked at me and said “No, he did!”
After figuring out after all I can conquer that, I bought a MCC
Bobber Caboose. There isn’t much to tell that because believe it or not, that
went without any problems whatsoever. Now having 2 riding cars, its time for
an engine. And as I type, an order from Railroad Supply Co. is headed my way
containing all the necessary machined parts to build the main frame of a 2-6-0
Mogul. This project is not going to be all I focus on because of money and
costs, this is going to be an “As-I-Go” project, hopefully to be finished by
the end of next year, and have the frame on-air” done by the spring. Remember,
it is all machined so it shouldn’t take a million years to do. Anything can
happen and anything is possible. Updates on the engine will come!
Doing a little seat and fire box adjustments in the station to prepare for the
Written by Matt Phalon
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