STEAMING With 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.

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