UNION CITY, INDIANA.
To Billy Byrd of Madisonville, Ky., there is only one kind of 'Soul Music' - the pulsating bark of a steam engine stack, whether it's an L&N 2-8-2 'Makado' lugging tonnage over the Tennessee hill country or a Nichols & Shepard pulling the belt to a grain separator or sawmill, down on the farm.
'I feel sorry for the young people of today who have never heard the plaintive whistle of a steam locomotive rolling through the countryside at midnight, or watched the flashing rods and valve motion of a passenger train coming into the village depot,' says Billy. 'The people of my generation are lucky in having seen both the old and the new.'
'I never would have started to work for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad if they hadn't had steam,' is the way Billy Byrd sums it up. 'I just didn't think they would ever dieselize here in the coal field division,' pines he, 'And had I known that my last steam trip was coming up that day on engine 1859 - a heavy U.S.R.A. 2-8-3 Mikado on freight I would have had a tape recorder and made photos too.' (We believe you, Billy boy!)
But, although Billy Byrd made the transition from steam railroad engineer to diesel driver, like all the other engineers, the small compensations of easier riding in a diesel cab, without cinders in the eye, are little comfort to the throttle heroes of yesteryear who gloried in the rhythmic power, the glare of the open firebox door racing through the countryside at night, smell of hot cylinder oil and coal smoke yea the steam whistle that let everyone along the line know that Billy was 'makin' 'er talk' as she dashed by.
'In my affection, nothing will ever take the place of the steam locomotive,' says he. 'It was the most human machine man ever devised and the prettiest music in the world is the exhaust of a steam locomotive with a good square valve motion. And the younger generation will never know the thrill of sitting on the seat box of a 1500 or 1800 class 2-8-2 engine as she fought her way up to 1% grade telling the world who she was and what she was doing - one hand resting on the throttle, the other arm on the armrest, listening to the old girl talk to you in a language you and she could understand, watching the smoke trail back over the train and then reach up and blow her mellow whistle in a style that everyone knew it was you. You watched the motion of the rods and valve gear and the thrill stayed with you long after you had finished your run.'
More than just a mere steam locomotive engineer, Billy Byrd waxes poetic when it comes to reminiscing about the good old days of steam railroading. Like a bard of old, his descriptions of the 'great days' roll out almost like lyrics, sung to a steady rhythm of imagined stack music in the offing.
'Diesels may ride a little better, but the romance and art of running an engine is gone. So is the pride of wanting to do a good job also disappearing,' sums up Billy. 'Steam can do the work in fact our schedules were a lot faster with steam than with diesel, but it won't do it as economically.'
Billy Byrd, who came up from the bottom in the railroad profession rung by rung started working with the railroad bridge gang back in 1941. Then he transferred to the roundhouse at Nashville, Tenn., where he worked as a laborer, then a Machinist's Helper, Boiler Maker Helper and Pipe-Fitter, after which he graduated to the cab as fireman on a switch engine.
'Later I transferred to the road where I am now operating mostly the big six-axle General Motors S-D 45's and U - 30C General Electric locomotives handling 9900-ton TVA coal trains from Madisonville, Ky., to Nashville, Tenn.,' explains Billy.
He's come all the way from plowing by mule team and smelling the good, clean aroma of fresh-turned earth, through steam threshing and steam sawmilling to that of steam engineer and now the modern diesels on the railroad.
'I was raised in the little town of Adams, Tenn., during the depression and our main recreation was meeting No. 51, the local passenger train on Sunday evenings, when everyone got dressed up and went down to the depot. It was not only a past time, but a way of life,' chuckles Billy of his humble beginnings back yonder in the foothills of Tennessee.
Although in this modern day, steam may be 'for the birds' on the railroad, steam is still for one Billy Byrd in the form of a Nichols & Shepard Traction Engine which Billy purchased in recent years.
'My old Nichols & Shepard was okayed again the other day for another year,' chuckles Billy a bit triumphantly as he looks forward to another year of fun at hanking a steam throttle and whistle cord. 'So she will be performing at the Tennessee-Kentucky Threshermen's Show at Adams, Tenn. on July 20th, 21st and 22nd.'
'I bought my Nichols & Shepard from a Mr. Carl Donahor of Calhoun, Ky. At first he didn't want to sell it to me, as it was his living for thirty-five years, threshing wheat, pulling a sawmill and steaming tobacco-plant beds and he raised four boys on it,' explains Byrd. 'But he saw I wanted it so bad, I guess he felt sorry for me and let me have it. I bought it so, when I retire, I'll have something to play with, as it has been said, 'You can tell a man from a boy by the size of his toy'.' (According to that, Billy, I have never grown up!)
Besides the fine old Nichols & Shepard, which Billy Byrd will be running, the Tenn.-Ky. Threshermen's Association will feature many other fine attractions this summer at Adams, Tenn.
'Our organization has also acquired a 150 H.P. Corliss Stationary Engine that we hope to have in operation,' quoth Billy. 'When first bought, it pulled a generator that made all the electric power for the City of Placksville, Tenn. We acquired it from the Farris Lumber Co. in Nashville, where it pulled a line shaft. Although our show is small, we do have quite a lot of old machinery and antique displays and last summer over ten thousand attended.'
'You-all come,' says he.
Although Billy Byrd never did get a photograph of himself at the throttle of his beloved old L.&N. 'Mike' locomotive, he does have a fine portrait of himself firing in the cab of ex-GTW Engine No. 5625, owned by Dick Jensen, when it ran on a fan trip from Chicago to South Bend and return, Sept. of 1967.
'Dick Jensen, who owns several locomotives in Chicago, spent last weekend with me,' says Byrd. 'He owns ex-Burlington 4-8-4 5632, ex-Burlington 2-8-2 4963, ex-Grand Trunk 4-6-2 5629, a Nickle Plate 2-8-2 and twenty-one 4-6-0's, one of them close to Madinsonville, also an ex-Georgia Northern, ex-Crabtree Coal Co. 102. We're going to try and run the 5629 on a fan trip on the L.&N. If so, I'll get to run it.'
It will be Billy Byrd's first time at the throttle of a real-for-sure steam locomotive since World War II, when he ran an Army 0-6-0 switcher for Uncle Sam.
Billy Byrd, like all astute locomotive engineers, believes in taking regular physical exams, just to be sure the old ticker and the rest of the human organism is as sound as the engines he runs on the rails, and at the reunions. And, true to type, although in good health, he is a little overweight from long hours at the right side of the locomotive cab.
'If you remember, I wrote you about the Lecithin in the capsule form. I've been taking it, and took your advice about the Wheat Germ and also the Sea Salt. In February I took a good physical. No cholesteral in my blood and the Doctor said my heart was the best he'd ever seen for a man my age, that I was perfect except for being overweight. Thanks to you. (Happy to hear it, Billy.)
'When you see Mr. McCorkle (Dan McCorkle, our Iron Man PRR engineer on the big J-1's), tell him I bought the book, 'APEX OF THE ATLANTICS' - A Penn R.R. 4-4-2 engine and enjoyed it very much. They certainly were a nice little engine,' continues Byrd. (How well we know, Billy - for the great PRR E-6s Atlantic locomotives were the fastest things on rails, having set a world speed record of 127.6 miles per hour on a three-mile stretch from Ay Tower to Elida, Ohio, back in 1907. I rescued the Elida names off the old depot some years ago, when I stopped at this one-time railroad shrine and discovered it had just been bull-dozed down and everything was going to be burned. There were the two Elida depot name boards lying in the rubble!)
Summing up his very challenging life, Billy Byrd writes thusly: 'I feel sorry for the young people today. They have missed so much that we enjoyed. Today they amuse themselves with hot-rods, drugs, etc. When I was growing up we didn't have anything, but others didn't either, and if someone did no one tried to take it away from him. We just worked a little harder and prayed a little harder that things would get better.'
And, thanks to you, Billy Byrd, things have gotten better for everyone, including the modern generation who can still learn from you and hear the bark of the Nichols & Shepard steam exhaust as well as your railroad engineer's art on the far end of that whistle cord. Maybe, if they hang around long enough to STOP, LOOK and LISTEN, they will yet get 'bit by the bug' of our colorful and romantic past.
'When I get through with my old Nichols & Shepard Engine, I'm going to heave it to the Tennessee-Kentucky Threshermen's Association, so some of our younger boy-engineers, coming along, can run it,' is Billy Byrd's answer to the generation gap he's helping to bridge.
'Life, to be fully enjoyed, must be shared,' is our reply. And now, everyone move over that one Billy Byrd may take his seat in our Hall of Iron-Man Fame. And, Billy, keep the old throttle fingers flexed and give a couple o' toots on the old whistle cord.