I’ve always been enthralled by steam locomotives. The very thought that someone could shovel coal into a boiler and make this gigantic thing move down the tracks just boggles the mind. As a kid I remember when the train would come through our little town, blasting out her whistle at the railroad crossings, huffing and puffing clouds of steam and spewing smoke from her stack, and the entire time ringing a bell as if to tell us “Hey, look at me! I’m the biggest, strongest, roughest, toughest, thing around and I know it!”

When I used to drive down Jesse Jewell in Gainesville I passed by the restored locomotive on display in the center of town. It was recently moved to a new location at the corner of Davis and Grove Streets, so I no longer pass by on a regular basis, but I still think of it every time I drive through Gainesville.

It’s a relic of long ago, before people depended on interstates and automobiles to travel, or trucks to ship freight. Railroads were the only way to connect any of the small towns in rural Georgia. Back then many small independent lines fed into the major routes. This was the most efficient way to get agricultural or manufactured goods to market or to get people where they wanted to go.

The Gainesville locomotive is known as a “Russian Ten” because several hundred of them were ordered by the Tsar of Russia and the “Ten” refers to the number of large drive wheels that actually power the engine. But this was in 1915 and before these engines could be delivered, the Bolshevik Revolution got in the way and about 200 of them were stranded at the builder, Baldwin Locomotive Works. Now the gauge of the Russian railways – that is the spacing between tracks – is different from anywhere else in the world. In fact, this slowed up the Germans for a few days when they invaded Russia in 1940 until they could rip up one side of the track and move it over three and a half inches!

Back to 1915: The width of the wheelbase of all these engines had to be narrowed in order to fit on our standard tracks. It’s sort of like changing tires on a pickup truck to go from wider to narrower. Except instead of swapping rubber, they were changing the wheels by cutting off the outer steel rims and replacing them with narrower ones. This entailed heating the new outside rims up red hot so they would expand and then pounding them onto the inner wheels where they would cool and shrink in place. When these engines were finally finished several of them wound up in rural Georgia and continued working right into the 1950s.

Stand next to the Gainesville engine and you feel what a big and powerful piece of machinery it really is. This was state of the art over a hundred years ago and the technology is still valid today. Over 3,000 of these engines were built and some were in service right up into the late 1960s. Unfortunately, they were replaced by diesel power which requires less maintenance and therefore is more efficient.

I recently saw an old episode of the British TV show “Top Gear.” This show features three guys messing about with fast cars, motorcycles, or boats. It usually involves some kind of race or competition at the end and is interesting because they get into a lot of technical details. They also do not take themselves too seriously.

In this episode, a fan wrote in asking how the show would look if it was filmed 50 years ago. They decided to have a race from London to Edinburgh Scotland in the three fastest vehicles of the time. These were a Jaguar XJ-120 sports car, a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle, and a Haricot Pacific steam locomotive.

Since there were no “motorways” at the time, they couldn’t take the M-4 but had to go up the ”Great North Road,” an old highway that wound through all the small towns and villages, going around “roundabouts” and through cross walks, stop signs and traffic lights.

The three of them drew lots to see who got which vehicle and took off. The fellow with the Jaguar left first. He couldn’t believe his luck until he tried to get the BBC classical music station on the radio. It was an AM, as FM radio was not used in cars at the time so all he heard was a bunch of static!

The motorcycle had a different problem. The Vincent Black Shadow was the most powerful motorcycle of its time and the prototype of all modern “Super Bikes” or “Crotch Rockets.” Imagine a bike the size of a modern 500cc machine with an engine the size of a big 1500cc Harley. But instead of 8:1 compression like the Harley, it had a 12:1 compression ratio giving it 30 percent more horsepower! In addition, there were no electric starters at the time, so you had to jump on a “kick starter” and this guy just didn’t have enough weight to get the motorcycle started! Finally, he found a big gorilla to jump on the kick starter and he was on his way.

The lucky fellow who got the train climbs up into the cab of this enormous engine, hissing and puffing steam, and asks where he is to sit to drive. He’s told “No, mate, you’re tending the fire,” and he’s handed a shovel! The engine burns 33 pounds of coal a mile at 75 mph and they will go through eight tons of it by the time they reach Edinburgh!

So the race is on …

The motorcyclist is happy because he knows he is more maneuverable and faster than the Jaguar on these roads, and pretty soon he actually passes it, but then it starts to rain! He is further hampered by having to stop for gas and not being able to turn off the engine because he knows he won’t be able to start it again. While he’s fueling up, the Jaguar passes him with a beep of its horn.

The fellow in the train is still pretty happy because he knows that it is capable of speeds over 100 miles per hour. Then he finds that British Railway regulations won’t allow it to exceed 75. He’s further upset when he finds that they have to stop twice for coal and water. Since there are no longer any coaling or watering stations, they have to meet trucks waiting for them at pre-appointed places alongside the track to resupply.

The three of them arrive within minutes of each other at the finish line which is the bar at the Edinburgh railroad station. One is dripping wet and looks like a drowned rat. Another is totally beat and covered with soot and coal dust. The third looks like he had just stepped out of the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I don’t remember which one finished first and don’t care. It was just an entertaining hour seeing how things used to be.