Night Before Christmas at the Railroad Museum
A tale of whimsy, perhaps?
Christmas Eve… The great Rolling Stock Hall of the Railroad Museum was cold, dark, and silent as Joe completed the first of his nightly rounds.
Nothing colder than the cold steel of silent locomotives resting on untraveled track, he thought sadly as he sat down at his makeshift desk and rummaged in his lunch box for a snack. Outside, in the train yard where many more locomotives and cars stood silent, it would be even colder when the wind began to blow.
Earlier, in the afternoon, when all the kids were there for a special celebration, the museum had been a warm and happy place. As he had predicted, most of the youngsters seemed particularly thrilled by the steam engines, but his gloom deepened when he reminded himself that none of the kids had ever actually seen a locomotive running out on the main line. A short ride on the Strasburg Rail Road was about as close as most of them had ever come to the real thing.
Too bad, he thought, they hadn’t been allowed to go out to the train yard where the good engines were. Not that there was anything wrong with the indoor engines. They had all seen their day in the sun, like the mighty GG1. Even though it wasn’t a steam engine, it was still a real beauty. But who could compare any of the inside locomotives with the Pennsy K4 out there in the yard. Now there was an engine! One of only two remaining out of more than 400.
Yes sir, that old K4 sure set the standard for the “Standard Railroad of the World.” In fact, he could have sworn that he actually heard that big brass bell on top of old 3750 trying to summon the kids to the yard at dusk when they were getting ready to go home. But he figured that was just one more trick of advancing years. Imaginary engine bells. Too bad those kids didn’t know what they were missing.
Work as the Museum’s night watchman was kind of dull when you got right down to it, but at least it gave him lots of time to reflect on the days when he’d had a real job on the Pennsy. Lowering the light a bit and turning up the little heater at his feet, Joe settled back in his chair. Yeah, he mused, kids probably could care less that 3750 had been passed off as 1737 — the first K4 built back in 1914 – when she arrived at the Museum bearing the old number plate, the only thing left of 1737. To kids, they probably all look alike. Too bad, too bad.
Despite the little heater, he shivered in the cold and pulled his old coat a little tighter around his shoulders. He remembered the roundhouse where he had spent so many happy hours. A welcoming warm place it was on those long winter evenings, the engines, fires banked for the night, quietly throbbing like giant cats purring by a cheery fire.
Joe recalled the many times he’d had to work the Christmas Eve shift. Tilting back in his chair, he remembered one Christmas Eve when he climbed up in the cab of a K4 and pretended he was the engineer out on the main line, driving a Christmas Special full of toys for all the kids in town.
How he loved kids, all kids, his own now long grown and gone from home. He missed them now. In the quiet of the looming hall, his mind was at peace with thoughts of Christmas, children, and the trains. It seemed then that it should have gone on forever, the majesty of those great iron creations that had served so well. . .
Oh, he dreamed, what a wonderful world it had been then…
Old 3750 was an engine of joy, rolling down one of the four parallel tracks that formed the Great Broad Way, hauling a single P70 coach crammed full of Christmas goodies for children, bell and whistle calling to kids along the way. Elflike figures in the coach were busy wrapping gifts as the special roared through the night, steaming, vibrating, thundering along, spilling not coal from its rocking tender but candy! Candy canes, chocolate drops, sugarplums, and all kinds of other sweet morsels.
The engine’s pounding pistons drove it faster and faster, until it seemed to leap from the tracks and soar into the sky, far above the neat farms and cozy homes of the Pennsylvania countryside, like a giant sleigh! Children remembered seeing a Santa that night who was covered with coal soot and muttered something about keeping on schedule.
Somewhere west of Harrisburg, a sleepy tower man thought his signals were acting up. He could have sworn he saw an E7, Pennsy’s first passenger diesel, now long gone except for one on display back in Strasburg.
Or was it? Could that have been it, racing toward Detroit, back on its old run again, looking for its missing number plate, 5901?
He’d heard that it had been recently repainted Tuscan red and striped and lettered in gold. Folks said it looked great — like it had just entered service. The district super, had he not known the tower man well, might have thought perhaps his old friend had enjoyed a bit too much Christmas “cheer” before going off duty. E7 indeed!
Back on the Northeast Corridor, as they called it now, another tower man reported an even stranger “vision” — an old E6 Atlantic numbered 460 roaring up the tracks toward Gotham at a speed rivaling that of a little biplane pacing the train a hundred feet above.
Somebody had called a little earlier telling him to clear the tracks for a special, adding something about Lindbergh and a race with an airplane. No way, he had said; that train is locked in a museum yard in Strasburg. He knew, because he’d seen it there himself — old 460, a B60 baggage car and a P70 coach — only two days earlier. Unless. . . he shook his head, disbelieving.
Joe woke up with a start. What a dream! Yet he felt that something had intruded on his nap. Could it have been the rumbling of the turntable out in the yard? Somebody must have scaled the fence and was fooling around out there. No, he must have dreamed that, too. Glancing at his watch, he realized that he’d slept right through the night, missing his regular rounds. Gathering his things, Joe walked to the back door to check out the yard on his way home.
The yard was absolutely still, deserted. The stars were beginning to fade in the brightening eastern sky, except for one that was peculiarly brilliant.
“Must be Venus,” he muttered half aloud. Christmas day would be clear and cold. Stars, he mused, were like dreams, fading with the coming of daylight, but still there in the far recesses of his mind.
As he walked past the dawn-tinted hulk of the K4, he seemed to feel a kind of warmth, as if the engine had been recently busy. He paused, wondering. “Nah,” he snorted and continued on. That old engine always warmed his soul — or maybe it was just the memory of the roundhouse of his younger days on the Pennsy.
No. 460, the “Lindbergh Engine,” and its cars were a dark silhouette up by the fence, and near the far end of the yard, the E7 was faintly visible, looking like the red and gold Lionel diesel he’d placed under the Christmas tree for his son many years earlier.
He came to the yard’s track gate and saw with a jolt that it was unlocked. Must have forgot, he thought to himself, with a reminder to be more careful in the future. He looked around the yard, checking one more time before he passed through the gate and locked it behind him as the sun peeped over the roof of the Strasburg Rail Road station across the road from the Museum.
Walking along the tracks toward his home in town, he thought the rails looked unusually bright in the morning light, rust replaced by a burnished ribbon of shining steel. Yet he was sure no traffic had passed over that line in weeks. His eyes then spotted something lying on the ballast beside the track. He bent over to pick it up.
“What the heck!” It was a candy cane! “Now how did that get there?” he mused. But in his heart, he knew. Christmas, after all, is a wondrous time when wondrous things happen to everyone — including tired old railroaders.
* * * * * * * * *
Yes, No. 460 did race a plane — in 1927, when it carried newsreel films of Charles Lindbergh’s triumphal reception in Washington, DC to the theaters of Broadway. Its cargo arrived before the film carried by the plane! It set speed records of well over 100 miles an hour on that Washington-New York run, presaging Amtrak’s race with the airline shuttles. After that, it was called the Lindbergh Engine, and was thus saved when other old steam engines were being scrapped. Today it’s a museum favorite! Read its exciting and historical story.
This story was originally written as a Milepost offering for the newsletter of the Museum’s active volunteers — Crew Caller. Jim Alexander served in the leadership of the Friends of the Railroad Museum, and is also its webmaster. Special thanks to former Milepost editor Bill Rowland for his assistance at the time.