Misconceptions blow away at Winter Steam Festival at Golden Spike

Dec 30 2012 - 12:12am

Images

Brad Williams walks with his son Crosby, 1, around the No. 119 steam locomotive during the Winter Steam Festival at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory on Saturday, December 29, 2012.  (KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner)
The locomotive engineer waves to spectators at the Winter Steam Festival at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory on Saturday, December 29, 2012.  (KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner)
Volunteer locomotive engineer Steve Sawyer checks the coal level in the 119 during the festival on Saturday, December 29, 2012. (KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner)
Brad Williams walks with his son Crosby, 1, around the No. 119 steam locomotive during the Winter Steam Festival at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory on Saturday, December 29, 2012.  (KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner)
The locomotive engineer waves to spectators at the Winter Steam Festival at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory on Saturday, December 29, 2012.  (KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner)
Volunteer locomotive engineer Steve Sawyer checks the coal level in the 119 during the festival on Saturday, December 29, 2012. (KERA WILLIAMS/Standard-Examiner)

PROMONTORY SUMMIT -- A plume of white steam brought out the bright beauty of the red-and-maroon-trimmed No. 119 locomotive Saturday at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

"Listen to that," said Ron Wilson, train engineer, who spoke as the Union Pacific No. 119 locomotive chuffed down the tracks with its own distinctive motion. "She's talking to me."

The Winter Steam Festival gives visitors a chance to see the steam locomotives in action in the same place where the transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869. It's also a great place for people to take out-of-town relatives, said Tammy Beason, U.S. National Park Service chief ranger for the historic site.

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Park rangers warn visitors to dress for cold weather and high winds. Because GPS and some cellphone services do not work there, Beason also recommends a good map.

People show up the historic site with some misconceptions, Beason said.

For one thing, the historic event happened at Promontory Summit and not Promontory Point, which is 30 miles away. There was no race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific to get to Promontory Summit, she said, and both companies hired Chinese and Irish labor to work on the tracks.

By the end of the project, it was mostly local Mormons finishing up the tracks. Though some modern posters of Golden Spike photographs are doctored so a sledgehammer replaces a liquor bottle in a photograph, the only alcohol Beason says she knows for certain was there were two beer bottles representing pubs in the East and a bottle of wine from a western vineyard exchanged at the ceremony.

Railway enthusiasts today are called "foamers" because, whenever a steam whistle moans, they foam at the mouth, Wilson said. Besides his work as a train engineer, he manages the 60 volunteers who come from all over the world to work on the locomotives.

Wilson was born and raised in nearby Brigham City, where -- if everyone in his family was good -- they went on Sundays to see the last of the big steam engines going up toward Idaho, Wilson said. Those locomotives were the last of an era that began in the 1830s and ended in the mid-1950s.

Foamers treasure the historical accuracy of each bell and whistle. The painstaking love and craftsmanship for the trains produce a unique folklore. The locomotive engines are called "she," just like a ship, Wilson said, and the engines have personalities

"They get jealous of each other," he said. "If you don't pay equal attention to both locomotives, the other will not run. She will have troubles."

Doom looms. No. 119 has been out for the last three winter festivals, Wilson said, which means the Jupiter will soon have trouble. (The engine troubles may also result from deferred maintenance, he said.)

Every detail is crucial. The red-and-maroon No. 119 locomotive was not supposed to be the steam engine at the event in 1869, and neither was the blue, red and gold Jupiter. But because it was the Victorian Age and everything was elaborate, the locomotives' brass was kept shined and the bright paint gleamed, so there didn't have to be any last-minute decorating or cleanup. That was just how locomotives looked then, Wilson said.

Delays confounded the railroad executives on the way to the ceremony. The Central Pacific's Antelope locomotive hit a tree and was replaced by the Jupiter, Wilson said.

More interesting was that Thomas Durant, a Union Pacific Railroad vice president, was stopped near Evanston, Wyo., where the railroad workers -- called the "tie hacks" -- chained Durant's locomotive to the tracks until they received the three month's wages owed.

Durant did not want to pay, Wilson said, and tried to bring out the military to force the release of the train. The story goes that the telegrapher who sent the message was in favor of the tie hacks, he said, and the message never reached its destination, but that has never been proven.

When the money was finally wired to the unpaid tie hacks and the dignitary's train unchained, Devil's Gate Bridge in Morgan County was washed out enough that the locomotive engineer refused to take the train across, and Durant and his entourage were forced to walk across the bridge.

And so the No. 119 freight locomotive was brought from Ogden, Wilson said.

Visitors can see the replicas of the No. 119 and the Jupiter at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, and even pump the small handcart.

"The single most common statement I hear is, 'I have lived here all my life, and I have never been out here,' " Wilson said.

If you go

The Winter Steam Festival continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, 32 miles west of Brigham City via Interstate 15's Exit 365 and state roads 13 and 83.

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