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The Squeaky Wheel: 1924

Washington, D.C., June 1924. "Congressman John C. Schafer of Wisconsin." Who seems to have been something of a railfan. National Photo Co. View full size.

Washington, D.C., June 1924. "Congressman John C. Schafer of Wisconsin." Who seems to have been something of a railfan. National Photo Co. View full size.


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K4 Pacifics were marvelous passenger engines, but hardly anywhere the top end of steam size-wise. Drop by our museum in Sacramento and see the SP Cab Forward #4294 - that weighs at least three times what a K4 does.

Big Wheels keep on turnin'

The wheels were large for a couple of reasons.....large drivers translated the smaller-diameter stroke of the connecting rods from the pistons into a lot of forward motion and ground covered for a given amount of energy. Plus, the larger driving wheels gave a smoother ride to passenger trains. Locomotives intended to pull freight had markedly smaller drivers.

The K-4

The K-4 Pacific in the photo isn't a particularly large locomotive for the time--it's slightly larger than average for a passenger locomotive, but the freight haulers of the day, as well as the modern steam locomotives to be built in the next few years, would dwarf her in size. Nevertheless, she is one of the greatest feats of railway mechanical engineering ever. Designed and first built in 1914, the class would eventually number 425 locomotives. The last one was retired in 1957. Drivers are eighty inches in diameter, a standard size for passenger service.

Big Wheels

I can't believe how big this locomotive's wheels are (or, how small the legislative representative from Wis. is). It would be interesting to see a contrasting image of a man standing next to the wheels of a modern train engine. Thanks for posting this great image.

Thanks guys

Thanks for the info about the cylinder, everybody. In Finnish engines direction changer is indeed "non-assisted", as they are/were smaller and lighter than these US-behemoths.

I do have a pics of a live Finnish HR1 taken in last summer. It made a stop here in Salo due to normal train traffic and really attracted a big crowd. Maybe I should post the best ones somewhere.

Cheer: Jari

Steam Is Not Dead

Two engines of this class still exist. Number 1361 was removed from display near Altoona, Pa., in 1985 and restored to operating condition. You could have ridden behind her in the late 1980s. She is at Steamtown USA in need of another major overhaul. The only thing keeping her from the rails again is money, LOTS of money.

A sister engine is on static display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, where on any sunny summer afternoon you can ride behind one of four operating steam locomotives.

Two great books of railroad photos

Miguel - I would recommend "Steam, Steel and Stars" and "The Last Steam Railroad in America" by O. Winston Link.

B&W photos of outstanding quality, documenting the Norfolk and Western in its last few years before converting from steam to diesel.

Both available at the major online bookstores at a reasonable price.

Thanks a lot for the tip!

Thanks a lot for the tip and information! I had heard of such live steam trains in Britain - the National Railway Museum ( several steam-powered trains on tracks around York, and I thought it would be one of the places I wanted to visit at least once in my lifetime. Now knowing that there are also places in the States where it is still possible to experience the wonders of riding a steam-powered train, I will certainly make sure to include them in my long list of beautiful and interesting places I want to visit sometime.

Dave, you know what would be great, on this same subject? To see a good picture of a famous station like Grand Central in the days of steam locomotives; either a view from the street, or a picture of the hectic movement of people in the grand hall inside, or a view of the tracks, perhaps showing one of the famous express trains of the '20s or '30s... Man, I can almost hear those famous words, "All aboard! All aboard!!"

[There's also the Steamtown National Historic Site in Pennsylvania. As for photos, we already have lots of pictures of steam-era train stations, including Grand Central. Click the "Railroads" link above any of the train photos. - Dave]

Reverse Psychology

Power reverse gear was never widely used outside of North America, which is why it appears unusual to non-US viewers.

My Question

Why is a U.S. congressman occupying himself with locomotive maintenance?

[Mussolini wannabe? - Dave]

Cylinder on the K4

See that rod toward the right end of the picture, maybe 2 meters long, inclined upward left to right? To throw the engine into reverse the engineer needs to lift the back end of that rod until it's about horizontal; the cylinder you asked about is an air-powered piston to help him do that.

Power Reverse

The small piston above Congressman Schafer's head is the "power reverse." On early steam locomotives, the valve gear was directly controlled by a "johnson bar" in the cab. This lever set the valve gear to forward/reverse and on some more modern engines controlled the cutoff or the length of the piston stroke that received steam. As engines and valve gear grew in size, so did the job of adjusting the johnson bar.

Various screw drives and other controls were tried, and in the early 1900's steam power was harnessed through a piston to do the job. The Pennsy, being very conservative, was among the last to adopt the power reverse and many of its largest engines still used the arm-busting johnson bar at the time of the photo.

Small piston may be

I don't doubt that someone will know exactly what it is but going by its position it looks as if it might be a servo to ease the driver's movement of the regulator or the reversing gear. He would be a long long way from the sharp end and I'd imagine there would be lots of lost motion even through rigid rods and links.

Woohoo! Got one right!

Finnish Trains


You should go find a Finnish train and take a photo for comparison. It shouldn't be difficult to find a well-preserved example, since Finnish trains last nice.

(Dave - sorry about this "frowned-upon second post of the day" but I couldn't resist the pun)

Goober Pea

A big sigh

Oh, how I remember these monsters. As I approach 70 at a more rapid pace than I like, the times shown here and into the '50s still hold a treasured place.

If I were blindfolded with earplugs right now, I could immediately tell you if a steam locomotive went past. That smell of hot oil, cinders and soot are unforgettable.

One of my fondest memories is from a night my uncle, a B&O dispatcher, allowed me to hold up train orders a mere couple of feet away as one of these monsters roared past.

Small piston, top right

What does that small piston above right of the greaser do? I don't recall seeing anything like that in Finnish locomotives. Or maybe there are, but located differently.

-- Cheers, Jari from Finland


Oddly contemplative stance and expression: is the engine speaking to the congressman? Could he be an iron horse whisperer?

Congressional Zealot

On top of his other charming qualities, Schafer promoted an anti-semitic, fascist agenda. This phrase in the following account is particularly amusing: "He was easily emotionalized by the power of his own oratory."

Schafer had fought every measure which tried to bolster the American defense and had proved himself an obstinate obstructionist to national defense. ... Washington newspapermen often refer to Schafer as "bullneck." When angered, which was often, his neck became red and "glowed like a stop-light."
I met Schafer at his home and my impressions of him are indelible. He had once weighed 300 pounds, but was now a mere skeleton of 250 pounds - a huge, ferocious-looking fellow, with layers of fat bulging around his chin and neck, a shock of blond hair falling over his face. He had the appearance of a zealot about him. He was easily emotionalized by the power of his own oratory and as we talked, he got into the habit of swinging an enormous, club-like fist only a few inches from my face.

I found Schafer no different from the "patriots" back home in his prophecy of Hitler victory and its natural consequences of a revolution here against Democracy.

"What kind of revolution?" I asked.

"The BLOODY kind," he roared. "There will be purges and Roosevelt will be cleaned right off the earth along with the Jews. We'll have a military dictatorship to save the country." He leaned toward me and his fist swung like a pendulum grazing my face.

"How about the Constitution?" I asked.

"Oh that? That'll be set aside temporarily until they get some law and order in this country. A revolution is no picnic."

Under Cover - My Four Years In The Nazi Underworld Of America
John Roy Carlson, 1943


Cigars are superior nicotine conduits -- smoke 'em OR chew 'em. The nicotine buzz from a dead cigar resting on one's lips as saliva darkens and attends the tissues in one's mouth is intense.

Pennsy Power

Congressman Schafer is oiling the side rod on one of the finest steam passenger locomotives of all time, the Pennsylvania Railroad K4s. From the teens to the 1950s these engines pulled the finest "varnish" on the fastest schedules. Daily they raced the New York Central class J Hudsons between New York City and Chicago. Before electrification they handled the heavy traffic between NYC and DC. In the early 1950s it took three diesel units to replace one K4s. But replace them they did, because of the diesel's much lower maintenance costs.

Wish we could see the number on the headlight, but whichever engine she was, she wears her Juniata builders plate proudly.

Reminds me

When I was a kid we went in a school trip to the National Railroad Museum here in Buenos Aires, where they have these steam locomotives (some of them from the XIXth century) and I can still remember how they were neatly exposed side by side. The thing that I clearly remember after almost 30 years is when we were walking in between them and how I was amazed at the enormous size of the wheels, and how I then had nightmares where I fell behind them and under the heavy machine. Looking forward to visit that museum again, after seeing this photo.

Operational Steam Locomotives

My goodness, Miguel, how I wish I could transport you to experience one of these living, breathing behemoths – you’re right, there’s nothing like them! It does seem Mexico has few operational steam locomotives, as seen in this list of survivors. However, if you ever chance a visit to the US, there are a great many more operational steamers of all shapes and sizes.

I agree with your observation that static locomotive displays, no matter how well-cared for, cannot match those actually under steam. In my mind, steam locomotives are multisensory experiences unmatched by just about anything else. Imagine yourself on a damp, cool fall morning. In the distance a whistle faintly wails, calling out to anyone within earshot. Above the trees a plume of smoke and steam begins to appear and the chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff of steam exhausting from engines slowly becomes recognizable. Soon the glow of a single large, yellow headlight appears from around the bend. Louder and louder and louder the sound climaxes as the ground shakes from the locomotive's tremendous weight rolling over the rails. Instinctively, you take a few steps back as rapidly turning wheels and gleaming side rods suddenly flash by and you catch a brief glimpse of the firebox conflagration that makes this all possible. The thunderous noise of the locomotive rapidly gives way to the gentle click-clack click-clack of passenger car wheels traveling over rail joints and the lingering scent of coal smoke and steam oil hangs in the air as the train fades into the distance…

Sigh ... pretty amazing stuff for a big chunk of iron that boils water, I think.

Some folks are pretty captivated by this stuff and have dedicated their lives to steam preservation and operation. Knowledge shared by steam-era railroaders like Congressman Schafer is utilized by a relatively small but dedicated force of young people diligently working to keep steam alive for this and future generations. So please, by all means, seek out these places toiling to keep steam alive and support them by buying tickets and riding behind a working piece of history!

I'll step off my soapbox now. Thanks for listening.

Chaw vs. Cigar

Schafer may cling to the ancient idea that tobacco was made to chaw, but that appears to be a cigar in the hand that holds the oil can. Having restored a small (0-4-0 saddle tank with slope back tender) steam locomotive, I can testify that a steam engine is the closest thing to a living machine there is. A diesel doesn't even come close.

Diesel engines

Diesel engines do not drive trains nowdays -- electricity does. The modern locomotives we all see pulling trains today utilize electric motive power. The diesel engines merely turn the generators which provide the electricity to drive the engines. A direct link from a diesel engine to the drive wheels would require a transmission and differential. Electric motive power requires none. This is why you will never hear a locomotive shift gears like a semi.

And Miguel: Someday, if you visit the United States, you will find several places with live steam engines still working. One of my favorites is near Baraboo Wisconsin, where each year their coal-fired Baldwin locomotive hauls a train load of circus wagons to Milwaukee for an annual parade.

Motive Power Writ Large

Actually, my comments about weight-to-power ratios were focused on all forms of motive power that we use in everyday life. That includes things like sport utility vehicles (SUVs). The "utility" is puzzling: the larger the vehicle, the more power is required to move it (and the fuel that it carries). The horsepower required to move the vehicle itself increasingly dwarfs the power needed to move its passengers. A point is reached when people start serving their machines, instead of the other way around.

Locomotive Breadth

What amazes me most about old steam locomotives like this is their size and their massive construction: you know, really thick plates, exposed rivets, lots of pipes and tubes running all the length of the locomotive, gargantuan pistons and rods, wheels bigger than a man.

I wasn't lucky enough to ever have a ride on a train pulled by one of those; that would be like making a childhood dream come true. Of course, it would be better if I could step in the cab and pull the whistle cord; who didn't want to do that as a kid?

Too bad the only examples of steam locomotives I can see where I live are stored away in museums, and then in a very improper (and I would say disgraced) state of preservation: the two or three locos stand idle on some length of dead track, outdoors, exposed to rain, sun, and the corrosive atmosphere of Mexico City. Last time I checked those, I could even spot some small plants growing among the boiler plates, in places where corrosion had made the rivets disappear. It was a pity - those locos are not only beautiful, they are also historical, since they used to pull the Presidential train in days gone by.

Sometimes I wish there was a better culture of preservation down here. Anywho, Shorpy provides us again with a very interesting picture, something really worth a thousand words.

Railroad man

John Charles Schafer, Republican, WW I veteran, was a former locomotive engineer for the Chicago, Northwestern Railroad and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen. Elected to congress at the age of 29, he would have been 31 at the time of this photo. While in Washington he lived at 800 North Carolina Avenue SE.

Schafer weighs 200 pounds and clings to the ancient idea that tobacco was made to "chaw." He practices at it on or off the floor of the House. He has a magnificent pair of lungs and, after he delivers a speech in the House, acoustics experts have to be called in to make repairs.

They call Schafer the "Firpo of the House." He is at his best when he is thundering against prohibition.

Washington Post, Nov 8, 1931

Lightweight Locos?

The implication by Chollisr that it would be desirable to reduce locomotive weight is incorrect. The function of a locomotive is to haul passengers/freight. The pulling ability of a locomotive is proportional to locomotive weight, wheel - track friction, and locomotive torque. Everything else being equal, reducing weight reduces pulling ability.

Speaking of size...

He must have a massive bundle of rasta dreds under that hat!

Size DID Matter!

This photo shows how massive steam locomotives got before they were eclipsed by internal combustion (notably diesel-fired) technology. Locomotives couldn't get much bigger than what's shown here because of tunnel clearances and the like. Diesels presented greater thermal efficiency, allowing smaller engines to perform a prescribed level of work. There's a lesson here. While conventional wisdom demands that we drill our way out of today's fuel supply shortages, the scientific community pursues a paradigm shift in motive technology not unlike the steam to diesel conversion. This includes not only alternative fuels, but alternative materials that reduce vehicle weight without compromising strength.

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