STEAMING With Billy Byrd

| March/April 1983

  • Billy Byrd

  • Billy Byrd

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.