The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading


FEBRUARY 25, 2007  

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My Full Head of Steam

A Live Steamers Story

My project disappears into the woods. The view looking west from my patio.

Written by Craig Pendergrast

It amazes me that more of my enthusiasm for railroading does not rub off on others like it did on me. I can remember nights as an adult staying up till the crack of dawn working on an HO layout that consumed my entire den. Several guys I knew at that time had layouts on a grand scale and it was a joy to watch their slow and methodical progress. With each move I made with my family, the new layout would change a bit, or I would try a different scale. I guess I always had a rail project going on in my head.

I was named after an agent for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis in Memphis, Tennessee.He would ride the line between Nashville and Memphis looking for new freight sources. It was reported that he chased a would-be train robber away with his pistol sometime in the early 1900's.

My dad made twin beds for my brother and I (me?) as youngsters that had a loop of Lionel O27 track on a board that slid under one of the beds. It was wonderful! For the next fifteen years I made buildings, cut in switches, and eventually had a larger table built, by a local carpenter. Too bad I had not mentioned the project to my mother. She was a bit upset when the carpenter presented her with a bill for a couple of hundred dollars!

Christmas and birthdays consisted of presents in the form of engines and cars for the Lionel. I had one uncle who had a large layout in a room upstairs in his house. I was never allowed to actually enter the room, but was able to stand in a chair at the door and gaze.

All this time I was learning about electrical circuits. Little did I know that the knowledge learned was to be the foundation for a business I started in the 80's. Installation and repair of lawn irrigation systems and later, low voltage outdoor lighting systems.

We lived in Bruceton, Tennessee as a youngster. Bruceton was a division point for the old N,C, & St. L, later the L & N. I spent a few summers staying with one lady whose husband was an engineer on an old steam switcher. She would take me to the yard around lunchtime with his lunch pail and they would swing me up on the engine and I would ride while he ate and worked. That was the last days of steam in that area, sometime in 1953 and 1954. There still exists an old three stall engine house at the yard that the locals are trying to keep up as best they can. I haven't been by in a couple of years. I hope it is still there.

From Bruceton , we moved to Newbern, Tennessee, where my dad was a school principal and later superintendent of school for Dyer County. Little did I know my rail experiences would be heightened with the presence of the Illinois Central mainline and its heavy traffic in the 60's and 70's. The City of New Orleans made its presence known at 70 miles per hour in the area and every night I could hear the sounds and rhythms coming from the track, a mile away. We would ride the local to Dyersburg to visit relatives for a dime and sometimes make trips to Nashville and Memphis. My summer excursions were rated on how far the relative I was visiting lived from a model train shop. In Memphis, the Lionel shop on Highland Ave. was the best! My aunt lived right across the street so I was there a lot.

It was about the age 10 that I was introduced to riding gauge trains. The Memphis Zoo had an oval of track and a big F7. The lions and tigers were good but the train was best. Another train was in Tiptonville, Tennessee at the Civitan Park beside Reelfoot Lake. The area around the 110,000 acre lake was prime cotton country and every time I ever went there would be a small group of farmers working on the track and engine. I guess it was their way of giving back to a poor farming community. It made a huge impression on me in the years to come to see the same guys running the train and how their weekends for all these years consisted of generating ear to ear smiles from the kids and adults alike.

My college and young adult years were spent railfanning (?) and exploring trackside. One fascination I had was for tunnels. West Tennessee is pretty flat so when I moved to Nashville a whole new world was presented. The old L&N descends the Cumberland Plateau north of Nashville with a flurry thru the Twin Tunnels at South Tunnel, Tennessee. My great-great grandfather served two stints with Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Bells Rangers and Forked Deer Rangers during the Civil War. These were the same tunnels Forrest burned out on a regular basis. They would commandeer boxcars north of the tunnels, set them on fire, roll them into the tunnels and run! Their efforts to slow Grant from Nashville were effective but little more than a nuisance to chief engineer Mike Fink of the L&N, who would have the route back open in no time.

Visiting the site would revel a 50 yard hole in the ground 75 feet deep where one tunnel ends and another begins. It was fun, but dangerous to sit above the exit of the north tunnel while a southbound train pushed air out of the tunnel into this area before it entered the other tunnel, all at 60 to 70 miles per hour. On one visit, our curiosity got the best of us and we decided to walk thru the south tunnel. Bad plan! Midway thru you lose sight of light at either end, and are faced with the decision to jump into 3 feet of stagnant water on either side of the tracks at the slightest hint of a vibration singing from the rail. Luckily, we made it out the other end only to be faced with the decision to go back thru the tunnel or climb a formidable mountain to get back to the car. We started climbing!

After college I spent years experimenting with HO and N gauge layouts. On a tour of layouts one year I met a gentleman from Columbia, Tennessee, who invited me to visit his HO layout. While there, he took me to a 7 1/2" gauge track belonging to the Mid-South Live Steamers. I was hooked! It took me twenty five years after that to get started, but I got started. I have 400 feet of track down, one twelve foot bridge finished and am approaching my first switch that I will attempt to build. Man, ain't life grand!

Written by Craig Pendergrast



the end

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