Over the Back Fence

Debbie Croft: Husband and wife team keep steam train going

November 29, 2013 

As the steam engine approaches the depot at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, passengers waiting on deck are surprised to see Stephanie Tadlock sitting in the driver’s seat.

“Look! It’s a lady engineer!” little girls call out.

Stephanie is one of only six or seven women in the country who are steam locomotive engineers. She’s also Railtown’s first and only female engineer.

When she and her husband, Dave, first visited the park several years ago, the history and trains fascinated them. After visiting a few more times, Dave applied to become a volunteer.

Every spare hour he had was spent at the park. That’s when Stephanie decided to volunteer.

“I figured it was the best way to see more of him on the weekends,” she says.

Volunteers are only required to commit 84 hours a year. Stephanie works approximately 400 hours a year. In the last five years, Dave has put in an annual total of between 1,500 and 2,000 hours.

During the week, Stephanie works as an analyst in Fresno. Dave is retired from a career with the city of Merced. Before working at Railtown, neither was mechanically inclined.

Besides running trains, engineers are responsible for all maintenance on the locomotives, including rebuilding and restoring. For every one hour the historic trains run, approximately eight hours of maintenance are required. The Tadlocks learned from the other park engineers and from books.

One thing they never forget is that this is a real railroad with live equipment.

“It’s demanding to keep the train and everyone safe,” Dave says, “but exciting, too. The engine comes alive when riding in the cab.”

Inside the cab are an engineer and a fireman. The engineer maneuvers the train along the rails, through the foothills near Jamestown.

Boiling water at 370 degrees provides steam. The temperature inside the cab reaches well over 100 degrees in the summer.

The fireman’s responsibility is to keep the firebox continually surrounded by water. If the water level decreases below a certain level, the firebox will explode.

“With a locomotive over 100 years old, two million dollars spent in restoration, and 100 to 200 passengers, a lot is literally riding in our hands,” Dave says.

Railtown’s train operators must be licensed with the federal government, and are held to same standards of any commercial railway.

Once, Stephanie and Dave were in the cab when the air brake compressor went out. Looking at the gauges, Stephanie could see the compressor was quickly losing pressure. Traveling uphill meant she had to do something immediately. Otherwise there would be no brakes going downhill.

With a crescent wrench in hand, she climbed out of the cab to get the compressor pumping again. Heading back toward the cab, she noticed passengers’ faces staring at her.

She says she’s made herself valuable by learning everything she can about the job.

“I knew I had to pull my own weight, so none of the guys would think I shouldn’t be there.”

Dave brags on his wife. “You don’t need strength – just mental capability and finesse. She’s the best fireman we have.”

Stephanie says she loves stepping into the roundhouse at the start of the day. The roundhouse is a locomotive maintenance shed built around the turntable. Most of the equipment at the park still looks like it did in the 1800s.

“It’s like stepping back in time ... exactly what engineers did 100 years ago,” they both say. “To go in and be a part of history is so amazing.”

Morning duties begin around 6 o’clock. The engine must heat up slowly, before it’s ready for departure. If the train ran the day before, the engine is still warm and hissing a little.

“Four hours later it has a heartbeat and it’s breathing,” Stephanie says.

She says she’s looking forward to retiring so she can spend more time with the trains.

Railtown operates excursion trains every weekend between the first of April and end of October. Special trains run on some holidays, including Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas. Visit www.railtown1897.org for more information.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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