STEAMING With Billy Byrd

Billy Byrd

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Recently, Madisonville's Billy Byrd was pleasantly surprised to find himself on the receiving end of a long-distance telephone call from new York. Somewhere within the cavernous halls of Columbia Broad casting System, the decision had been made to do a radio story on a steam-powered railroad. Norman Morris, Senior Producer for CBS News, wasn't sure if such a thing existed or where it might be found. He placed a call to the AAR (Association of American Railroads), who in turn referred the request for information to steam authority Billy Byrd.

When the question was put to Billy, he immediately thought of the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad (Marion, Illinois), the nation's only steam-powered, freight-hauling, common carrier railroad. More calls were exchanged and a date (October 12) was set for Billy and Norman Morris to meet in Marion. This meeting took place on schedule at the Marion airport. En route to the railroad, Morris quickly fell under the spell of Byrd's tales of the railroads.

The two went to the east end of the CO & E, a place called Mande, where some switching work was about to begin at a cluster of grain bins. The CBS producer, laden with recording equipment, walked around CO & E's workhorse steam locomotive, No. 17, as Billy pointed out and explained the workings of the big steamer. With tape running, Morris climbed to No. 17's cab and interviewed the crew members on board. Presently, Billy joined him and the action was under way.

Morris readied his equipment to record the sounds of steam at work as the engineer eased No. 17 back and coupled onto a long string of loaded grain hoppers. With a gentle touch on the throttle, engineer Chuck Roehm, Jr. started the train in motion. The widely-spaced explosions of No. 17's exhausts told the story of tonnage being moved from a dead stop. Billy Byrd smiled with deep appreciation for those sounds, Norman Morris was all concentration as he worked to get the best from his sound equipment.

Some time later, Byrd switched from observer to engineer as he took a turn at No. 17's throttle.

Billy Byrd poses with Crab Orchard and Egyptian's 2-8-0 #17 that he ran for the CBS radio news special, which aired November 20 and 21, 1982. The story will be made into a TV documentary this Spring.

'It was something, Morris recalled. 'You could tell from the way Billy moved into the seat and took the throttle that he was a real pro.'

When the switching was done, No. 17 brought her train back into Marion with plenty of whistling and stack-talk for the tape recorder. The New Yorker dismounted with a grin on his face, and it was very clear that he was delighted. Then followed more conversation with Billy, all taped for posterity.

Earlier, at the airport, Byrd had presented Morris with a railroad cap which proudly displayed L & N's corporate logo at the front. Morris happily took the cap back to New York with him along with yards of tape. Much of this filled with the voice of Billy Byrd, telling the true stories of the past and present of rail roading, extolling the virtues of steam power on a railroad, and making good sense about why coal should be used to move trains instead of oil.

In return, Norman Morris left a promise: he would be back in the not too distant future, this time with television cameras and Charles Kuralt. It's a safe bet to say that Billy Byrd will be there, too!

We thank The Messenger, newspaper in Madisonuille, Kentucky for permission to reprint the above article. The article was sent to us by a regular contributor, Billy Byrd of 369 S. Harrig Street, Madisonville, Kentucky 42431. The Sounds of Steam aired on CBS in November as part of a program called Exploring America with Charles Kuralt.