It’s 8:15 in the morning and Darin Esterley’s shirt already is peppered with perspiration as he prepares his horse for the work ahead.
His horse this day is a 10-wheel, 212,000-pound Iron Horse: Strasburg Rail Road’s No. 90 to be precise.
Esterly is a hostler — one of several workers who prepare the railroad’s steam locomotives for service.
On Fridays from May through September, Strasburg offers Hostling Tours — a behind-the-scenes look at how these steam-driven behemoths are prepped to pull the day’s passenger trains.
The term “hostler” — once used to describe groomsmen who tend horses — has since evolved to include those who prepare railroad locomotives for service.
Esterly is a retired air traffic controller who once guided high-tech airliners into tight spaces in places like Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Today, even as the sweat drips from his brow, he says it is “a privilege” to work on this old-fashioned technology.
A Reading native who now calls Conestoga home, Esterly has wanted to work at Strasburg since visiting the railroad as a child.
“It’s a special place,” he says.
On this hot August morning, he checks the small fire in the engine’s firebox before blowing steam and water from the system to adjust the water level and steam pressure in the boiler.
It takes about six hours to get a completely “cold” steam locomotive fully operational. Therefore, hostlers keep a small fire simmering overnight to maintain pressure in the boiler of the locomotive that will be used the next day.
Tour guide Anthony DeBellis, a Long Island native and veteran of the Northern Nevada Railway, says it’s important to keep the engine “warm” not only to get it ready to run in two hours, but because constantly raising and lowering the temperature in the firebox can damage the boiler.
Stoking the fire
After stoking the fire, Esterly begins lubricating the locomotive. He applies a thin oil to the air pumps, progresses to a heavy 460-weight oil for the pins, bearings and journal boxes (where the axle is anchored) and to a very thick 600-plus-weight oil for the steam pumps.
As Esterly works on No. 90, David Lotfi prepares No. 475 — a 12-wheel locomotive that was built in 1906 — for the upcoming weekend. Lofti crawls into the smoke box at the front of the locomotive to make sure it is clear of debris. He then uses wood and kerosene-soaked rags to ignite the fire in the locomotive before adding coal.
Strasburg typically operates two steam locomotives on summer weekends to handle the crowds. Both Nos. 90 and 475 were built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia and were used to haul freight.
DeBellis says the easiest way to tell if a steam locomotive was made for speed or for hauling heavy loads is to look at the size of the driver wheels.
“Smaller wheels are used for pulling heavy loads,” he explains. “Larger ones are for speed.”
Before Esterly backs No. 90 out of the engine house, the tourists climb into the cab.
For Jeff Faiella of Jackson, New Jersey, and his sons, Matt, 13, and Josh, 11, it’s a unique experience. They have been coming to Strasburg for more than a decade. This, however, is the first time they’ve been on the inside looking out.
“We’ve seen the trains run,” he says. “Now we know how they run.”
Fill the tender
Outside the engine house, Esterly uses a front-end loader to fill the tender with coal. He then backs the locomotive to the ash pit, where he and engineer Earl Knoob dump ashes and hose down the ash pan that sits beneath the firebox before performing a final “blowdown” in which the remaining ash and minerals are steam-blown from the pan.
Knoob has a long history of steam railroading. He has worked with the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad in Chama, New Mexico, the Fort Worth and Western Railroad in Texas and the Iowa Pacific Corp., which runs a steam railroad in Alamosa, Colorado. He also served a stint as manager of the Texas State Railroad in Palestine, Texas.
He came to Strasburg this past spring for three reasons.
“They needed help, I needed a job and they pay Railroad Retirement (benefits) here,” he says.
Even though the Strasburg Rail Road is a short line, it must comply with all Federal Railroad Administration safety and work regulations. That applies to all personnel, including the hostlers.
For Rhode Islanders Sean Bradley, Mike Leckie and Chase Boni, the Hostling Tour was the final stop on their tour of Pennsylvania railroads. The trio, who volunteer on the Old Colony and Newport Railway — a tourist railroad currently on hiatus — visited Harrisburg and Altoona before Strasburg.
Bradley, who is engineer on the Old Colony line, was intrigued by all of the prep work necessary to get No. 90 ready to run.
When told that Strasburg offers railroad retirement benefits, he turned to DeBellis and asked, “How do I apply for a job?”