The Fireman from the Northern Pacific Railway

Marty Jesser was a Fireman. He started his career in the mid-1950s; about the time my Granpa was hanging up his lantern for the last time. I met him when I answered an ad in the newspaper that said he had railroad lamps for sale, among other stuff going out the door in a general garage sale. Of course I got to talking to him, and he shared a couple of stories. I want to get those written down here so that they not be lost forever.

Marty was about 5′ 8″, and you could see that at one time he had been incredibly, powerfully strong. He had a grip like an iron vise. Even though his age was advanced, the tendons still stood out in his powerful hands and arms. You had to be strong, and you had to have nearly superhuman endurance, when you’re a fireman on a steam engine. Especially on Northern Pacific’s hand-fired steamers: the Company burned this coal which came from a mine named “Rosebud”; hence the name “Rosebud Coal”. It was a mine that they acquired for a rock-bottom price, it was easy to get trains in and out of it, it had rich veins of coal, and there was a LOT of it. But the quality of the coal was so low that it was nicknamed “burnable dirt”.

But it was CHEAP! Dirt Cheap!! Exactly what you need to run a railroad. So the Company compensated for it. If you look at two photos of similar steam locomotive types side-by-side, one an NP engine and one of any other road’s engine, you would immediately notice the giant-by-comparison firebox on the NP engine, along with the much bigger tender for the size of locomotive. This was necessary to burn that low-grade Rosebud coal; and you have to burn a LOT of it to make the same amount of steam as anthracite.

I asked what day stood out for him as the hardest he ever worked in a single day, and he told me about the time (in his words) he “stupidly volunteered to fire  on one of the engines that would be for the Fruit Rush”. He’d worked pusher duty plenty of times before, but hadn’t gone for the bonus pay that comes from working a Redball.

Let’s do a bit of background, so that you have the proper framing for this, then we’ll roll into the story:

Think back to the mid-to-late 50s: refrigerator cars and other means of fruit preservation were primitive. Still. And there were many “hot crops”, strawberries being the Number One in that category, followed by peaches, pears, apples, and then others. These hot crops were moved to market on fast freights nicknamed “Redball”. If you say “Redball Freight” to any old-time railroader, you’ll see them wince. The Redball rolled what was normally very slow-moving business on crack passenger schedules.

Think 90+ MPH.

With big, husky, freight engines and freight cars; everything that was originally designed around a rolling speed of about 50 MPH.

“Shake, Rattle, and Roll” are perfectly descriptive. Generally, the shops would be very busy for the weeks leading up to the harvest with tuning, checking, fixing, oiling, testing, adding in all the tricks they could do to make this equipment as fast and reliable as possible, and on top of that, doing any necessary preventative maintenance. Crews would board a locomotive which perhaps might not have been gleaming on the outside, it had beauty where it mattered. It was ready to WORK. And work hard! 

Redball freights would switch engines and crews at Division points. The inbound crew would uncouple from their train, and “get the hell out of the way”, and the outbound crew would be rolling backward even as the switch points were closing. There would be extra carmen on duty to run up and down the train to check for the routine application and release of the brakes from the engine, and as soon as the engine coupled up, shop air would be connected to the line up at the engine to recharge the lines as fast as possible. All this ballet was designed to get the engines and crews changed as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, everything outbound – everything – waited for the Redball’s departure. Even “the varnish”, or passenger trains. Once, The North Coast Limited was held up, and wow, was there EVER an unhappy dispatcher! Marty was glad he wasn’t on THAT crew, that day!

A big pusher engine would be brought up to the rear of the train, and in a move that is completely contrary to standard safe practices, its front coupler would be tied open, and the trainline (brakes controlled from the lead locomotive) left disconnected. This meant that as soon as the pusher engineer slowed even a little bit, the pusher engine would part from the train.

Now the drama of departure begins: As soon as all the checks had been made and the train was ready to go, the lead engineer would whistle off, and begin to open his throttle. As soon as the pusher’s engineer heard the signal, he would hit open the sanders and pull hard on the throttle. The spectacle was something to behold. From a relatively quiet yard, there’s the two short whistles signalling departure, then suddenly black volcanoes erupt from the front and rear of the train. A good engineer will never spin his drivers – crap like that is only for TV and movies. These two big muscular engines awaken to become monsters of movement, traction, and leverage; each putting maximum effort into getting this train moving. The rear brakeman steps into the cupola, away from the rear deck of the caboose, because just a few uncomfortable feet away is a thundering brute that is trying to make him the filling in a steel sandwich.

Fifteen miles an hour, now leaving the yard limit. They can ‘open up’ and get it rolling.

Both engines are now working at maximum effort, and the train begins to accelerate. Steam locomotives can put maximum tractive power to the rails even from a standing start, so there is no letup or change in the acceleration; hence the term, “pulls like a steam locomotive”. The locomotive crews are starting the hard part of their work. The engineer is putting maximum effort into getting the train moving, and he will roll everything at maximum speed, or at least as fast as he dares go with his locomotive and this heavy, important train. The noise and heat in the cab of the locomotive is disorienting – the engine is making so much noise, the fireman can’t even hear the scrape of his shovel on the tender deck. The fireman opens ‘the butterfly’ – the firebox doors – to look into the fire inside, and rake it around a bit. The engine is moving so much air through the firebox that the lighter pieces of coal are dancing above the grates. He’ll fill in a few low spots and close the doors. The real work for the fireman will begin in a few minutes, when this heavy train is at speed, and the engineer is working the locomotive for all it’s worth to keep it at speed. Meanwhile the fireman checks the water levels in the sight glasses, and the boiler pressure on the gauges on his side.

Back in the pusher locomotive, things are getting even louder. The banging, barking exhaust from the locomotive stack has changed from staccato drumbeats into a steady, deafening roar. The engine is shaking from the effort, the coal dancing in the firebox. The pusher is made to do just this – put maximum tractive effort into grunting a train up to speed. The fireman has opened his injector, admitting water to the boiler. He’s already figured out about how much water to add at what rate; this would have been the second or third train today, and they’re all about the same weight, and they all start about the same. The train will be rolling through about 40 MPH by now. Things are steady, because the engine was made to work at this speed. But yet they continue accelerating, throttles open. He continues making trips to the tender for shovel-loads of coal at a regular rate – but he isn’t working nearly as hard as the fireman on the head end will be in a few minutes. It’s hot, sweaty work, and he’ll get a break in a few minutes when they drop off. About the time that the real work at the head end will begin.

In the lead locomotive, things are now starting to really come on for work. The fireman is starting to walk a figure-eight between the tender and the firebox; he’s opened his injector and is tuning its rate to match the throttle being applied by the engineer. The train is passing 65 MPH, and the pusher’s siding is coming up in a mile or so. That means in a few moments, they’ll be completely on their own, to roll this Redball at their best speed. The fireman is now walking a faster step between tender and butterfly, scooping shovelfuls of coal, and with a practiced eye and hand, throwing it expertly into the holes in the fire.

The pusher’s siding flashes by, and with a whistle in the distance, the pusher makes ready to drop off. The train’s speed is 75 MPH, and climbing more slowly now. They’re going to try to hold 80 if possible.

The train reaches an indicated 80 MPH in the cab of the pusher, and it’s about two miles past the pusher’s siding. Good thing: if the engine didn’t feel like it was going to come apart before, all this speed in a freight engine sure makes it seem like an immediate possibility. The pusher’s engineer pulls his whistle to signal the end-of-effort, closes his throttle, and the fireman heaves a quiet sigh of relief. He grabs a rake and levels his fire, then looks up and opens his injector a bit more to cool the boiler so they don’t lift the safeties. Meanwhile, the engineer shuts his throttle, and the Redball appears to accelerate away into the distance. They roll to a stop, and as the engineer throws the reversing gear over to the reverse position, the brakeman who has been sitting well out of the way this whole time, climbs back over the tender to watch for the siding. Spying the switchstand in the distance, he makes his way down to the stirrup of the tender and hangs out, waiting for the pusher’s engineer to stop so that he can drop off and open the switch.

The pace of things is now moving a lot faster on the Redball. The fireman is nearly running back and forth with shovelfuls of coal. Each trip, he takes a quick glance at his sight glass and adjusts his injector as necessary. His tender holds 14 tons of coal, and he’ll nearly empty it in this division. There is a rhythm beginning to show: on uphill pulls, he has to work harder to get more coal and water into the boiler, on downhill rolls, he can slow everything down, giving him a brief pause to wipe his forehead, grab a quick drink of water from one of his five canteens, “rake and shake” the fire (level it out and shake the grates to drop out the clinkers), and then it’s back to the tender for another shovelful of coal. A good fireman can move between 25 and 35 pounds of coal in a single scoop; so if you think about how many trips it’s going to take, it works out to about 900 trips to the tender and back.


The fireman is so busy now that he doesn’t really have much of a chance to glance at the scenery. He’s just worrying about keeping his feet on the bucking deck, and keeping the engine hot and fired properly. Mess up, and he not only gets yelled at by his engineer, but because of the importance of the freight, he also will get demerits (known infamously as “brownies”) from the Company. His only mark of time is the stops they make for water. Standing at each water stop is a pusher locomotive, to keep the train line pumped up while the crew quickly uncouples and fills the tender. The tender’s tank almost looks tempting on this extreme day – almost. The fireman remembers what kind of goop is in that tender tank and shakes his head, opting instead for a quick rinse-off at a local hose on the way back to the locomotive cab. Once the tender is filled, they re-couple to the train, the crews run down and back for brake checks, and they’re on their way again. There will be two or three more water stops, each with this same dance of a waiting pusher and a full-out shove back up to speed; but the fireman won’t be able to remember how many because of the tremendous effort he’s been putting forth. He’s concentrating solely on doing a good job.

Finally reaching their division point, they roll into the yard at the posted maximum yard speed. Here is where they’ll drop off; the same ballet will be taking place in the yard, only this time with them as the fatigued crew, and the train that much closer to market. This will continue until the produce is unloaded at the destination.

Meanwhile, the fireman will be half-dead from exhaustion. 13 tons of coal shoveled from a 14-ton tender. He’s lost ten pounds on the trip. It’ll take him two days to recover, even though he looks like Charles Atlas.


Marty also told me about when the NP completed the switch from steam to diesel. He enjoyed firing on a switch engine, not only because of the challenge in switching, but also because of the regular hours. He and his engineer had the last steam switcher in service on the NP; it was over in Pasco (if I remember the story correctly – this is why I wanted to get this written down). One day, they dropped the switcher in the siding to go to lunch, and when they got back, their “old friend” was gone forever and there was a brand new GM switcher idling in its place. “But, like good employees, we didn’t bitch, but instead climbed aboard this … thing … and got back to work.”


*A word about demerits: They used to be called ‘brownies’ because of the color of paper they were written on. Having them a different color like this gave the Personnel department a quick idea of how good an employee was as they checked files. Typically the head office would send a letter instructing each division to trim headcount, and Personnel could take a quick assessment of how good/bad an employee was by the number of demerit sheets, or ‘brownies’.

This practice was pretty much universal, coming from the nineteenth century, and is the origin of the term ‘brownie points’.


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