Iron Man Of The Month

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Billy says the difference between a boy and a man is the size of his toy. We'd say Billy is a ''big boy'', at least. With his ear that close, maybe he can hear life yet in the ''old girl'' or is he hugging the firebox? Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union C
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Billy Byrd firing Ex G-W engine No. 5629 owned by Dick Jensen on railfan trip from Chicago to South Bend and return in September 1967. Who says Billy Byrd doesn't fit into a steam locomotive cab? Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390
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Like many engineers, Billy is a little overweight, but he looks like the real prototype engineer and is healthy as a farm boy. He is at the controls of his Nichols & Shepard engine.
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Billy looks like he knows what he is doing with a pipe wrench. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390
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16-60 HP Nichols & Shepard engine and water wagon owned by Billy Byrd. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390



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

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

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

‘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.

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