• Who was the last qualified steam engineer?

  • Discussion of steam locomotives from all manufacturers and railroads
Discussion of steam locomotives from all manufacturers and railroads

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  by johnthefireman
I know this topic is mainly about US steam engineers, but as someone else has mentioned, there are still old steam drivers in other countries. I was privileged to learn the fireman's trade in South Africa firing to a driver who had been on the footplate for 50 years, who continued driving steam locos for a commercial luxury tourist train company as well as heritage steam clubs after he left the national railway company, and who finally retired only a couple of years ago. Since main line steam only finished in the early 1990s in South Africa, and large-scale industrial steam continued for several years after that (and there is still one paper mill which uses steam locos to shunt its yards), there are also a lot of younger chaps who began as firemen and drivers working for the national railway company or a big mining corporation and who then continued driving heritage steam. And, again as someone else said, new main line steam drivers are being trained all the time; I know of at least four who have qualified in South Africa in the last couple of years.
  by railfan365
I've been wondering: Most, if not all of us, know that American railroads were required to have a fireman on board EVERY train - including diesels and electrics, until 1972. then they got the unions to concede letting the ranks of firemen thin out by attrition. My actual question is this: Does anyone know if there are any firemen who signed on in the early '70's who are still drawing a salary for going on train rides without actually doing any work? (I have no illusions that there would be many at this point, I'm just wondering if there are any). This excludes firemen who do significant work on the few steamers that are still or again around in excursion service.
  by Thunder
Gadfly great stories!!! I wish I could have met this George. I am trying to get qualified on steam at a museum.It is my one bucket list item I need to take care of. Maybe one day 765 will need my services ;)

As for the qualifications of engineers. I am a certified engineer and am currently qualified on my line and one other. I can not by FRA rule be forced to go run on a line that I am not qualified on. So I would have to have a pilot till I was qualified, or take the amount of runs needed to be considered qualified.Each line is different as is each level of service. On my lines if you have not been on a line in 90 days, you lose qualifications.

As for fireman hired in the 70's. I have worked with a bunch of them. On the BN firemen that didnt want to promote to engineer gave up their promotion rights and became hostlers.Still a few left but I am sure those ranks are thinning out now.
  by Thunder
I forgot to mention Bob Barcus who started firing steam in the 40's on the Rock and Retired from Metra in the 90's.
  by Ambrose
Very nice to read about George Ambrose, he was my uncle and all his brothers but one ( my dad ) worked for Southern Railway and their Dad Ike Ambrose also worked the Piedmont division, I hired out on the southern on the Georgia Division from Atlanta to Chattanooga and worked as an engineer also, we many many years as family members as engineers for Southern Railway and I worked on when we became Norfolk southern, I am now retired as a trainmaster, but really enjoyed my days better as a locomotive engineer. many times I got up on the engines with George we traveled from Greenville to Salisbury when I was taking my new family to washington to view the sights, they were back in sleeper cars and I was up front shooting the bull with Uncle George, and yes he used to cut out the overspeed to be able to make up the schedule and he was known to take a drink or two, but he was as good an engineer you could find, that is , until I came along!!
  by Ambrose
Gadfly wrote:
rwisham wrote:I realize this is a old topic. But how delighted I was to read about George Ambrose. It gave me many fond memories. George was my step grandfather. But always treated me like a grand daughter. George died some time ago. I too rode in the engine with him traveling from Salisbury, NC to Greenville, SC. Against regulations if course and he would gave me duck down if meeting another train. He was a character and was always wonderful to me. His father and his brother were also engineers. Thank you for the memories.
I am proud to have known George personally, and to have worked with him "on the ground" as a clerk, operator, and friend. George was also a "runner" and not afraid to "let 'er rip"! Hee Hee! He got a few speeding tickets from the Trainmasters, too, and scared hell out of me one night when I deadheaded back south one night on the Crescent. I mean he was letting those "oversized Chevrolets" (GM E8's) :-D ROLL. I think I counted 90-something between mileposts as my coach rocked and rolled. ("DAMN! He must be in a hurry to get home!!!"!!! ) Mr. Derreberry was the conductor that night, and he just shook his head.

As I mentioned earlier, Mr Ambrose used to "claim out" on the steam trains as they came thru the Piedmont Division, North End since he was, I believe, the senior engineer on his Roster at the time and had first choice of assignments. He was also qualified on steam, and I watched him work his engines expertly as they departed south out of Charlotte (NC) Yard. There was a difficult hill past the Purina plant that really challenged the engineers AND their steam engines, and George seemed to know that his engine was about to slip down.(After all, He'd done it many times back in the late 40's and early 50's! He'd "catch" it just before the slip by backing off the throttle right before it happened so that as the wheels began to lose traction, he was already on top of it, reducing power and adding sand at just the right time. I suppose the fans weren't as fond of George as they were of some of the others who wouldn't sense the impending slip. Some of the other guys let the engine almost get away from them before catching it giving the fans a thrill that George didn't like to give. It was always quite a show with 45 naught one down in the corner, exhaust rapping and echoing against the tall buildings nearby. A thunderous racket, it was!

I rode with George one night and he had me doing the whistle work (E8's). Standing behind George, I held on with one hand and kept the other on the lanyard.

When we approached Gastonia, and we eased thru town (prior to them digging that horrible train ditch), I let loose with a "TANT-TANT-A TANT-TANT........TANT TANT!"

George grinned back at me and in that "drawl" of his, "Ya tryin' to copy me, eh"! :-D

Proud to know him, and proud of my service (and memories) of the Southern Railway!!!! :-D
bearestir wrote:
Trying to determine who might have been the "last" steam engineer isn't so easy. Many of these fellows hired on in the mid to late 40's and remained in service into the 90's. One of these was George Ambrose, PIedmont Division, North End engineer on Southern Railway. He was also the engineer that claimed the job when the SR ran steam excursions on that Division up until he moved over to run the Amtrak Crescent. He ran the steam trains, I rode with him on the head end of some of the FP-7's and E-8's. I can't say if he was the "last", but he was ONE of the last, and quite a character!
I have been wondering for years what became of George Ambrose. When I was 12, we had moved from Hawaii, where I lived all my life. On our move from Hawaii to Newport, R.I. (my dad was a pilot in the Marines), we stopped overnight in Spartanburg, S.C. I cajoled my dad into driving me up to the Southern station there. It was already dark, and a Southern mail train (I think piggyback mail, but I'm not sure) was stopped near the station. The engineer was George Ambrose.

He invited me up into the cab, which was quite a treat for a kid who had never even seen a train in real life until the few weeks before this cab visit. Then, he told my dad that I could ride in the cab to Greenville, SC if my dad would meet me there to pick me up. I rode in the cab. It was a sensory overload for a new 12 year old train fan and I will never forget his kindness.

About ten years ago, I tried to track him down through the unions. I could never find him. I owe a great debt to him, as that was one of the best times I had related to railroading.

My Uncle George Ambrose Passed away and I too thought he was a heck of an engineer and it seems like all of us Ambrose's seemed to be engineers, Georges Father Ike H Ambrose had over 57 years as engineer with southern and 7 years with B& O, I was an engineer on the Georgia Division before becoming a RoadForemand and then a Trainmaster, I rode many a times with George when I would take my family on the crescent to visit washington D,C, when we would get to salisbury and swap Crews and George would come on, I would go up and ride with him on he engines , and of course if we were running late, he would cut out the overspeed whistle and we would make up the lost time and come in to the next station on time, of course this was all before all the speed tapes and junk, this was back when railroading was fun. I am retired now, but it is nice to see stories about my uncle, by the way, his dad (my grandfather) ran the first diesel engine on the piedmont and engine 1401 that is in the Smithsonian in washington, I still have granddaddys oil can, lantern and tools and wanted to donate them to the smithsonian since Ike was also the first piedmont engineer to run 1401 and these were his tools, all I asked was a plaque to show whose they were, I was turned down, so sometime I will find a Railway historical society that would like to have them. thanks for writing about my uncle, Gadfly you and I should talk!!
  by Gadfly
That is AWESOME! Since, I too, have so many memories of the Southern, and despite the militaristic atmosphere that sometimes prevailed (Charlotte Yard was one of those places!), I still had fun, met soooo many interesting people with stories of their own! Example: Mike Misenheimer, blacksmith at Spencer Shops who transferred to Charlotte Roadway. He WORKED on and maintained #1401 at Spencer since that engine was assigned to the Charlotte District/Piedmont Division. MIke told me about putting a thermite weld on the frame of 1401 between the drivers. "Ham" Grimes, Groundman/ crane loader who regaled me with stories of the old 4800's straining on that same hill out of Charlotte, southbound, with more 4800 helpers on the rear shoving with all their steam might! And, of course, George Ambrose, whom I was privileged to know AND ride with, both steam and diesel. He was on one trip where Trainmaster Grabarek took me forward and we crossed thru the E8s from nose to nose and up into the cab. THAT is an experience! Another night I was on the head end of the Crescent and up just north of Harrisburg, a girl in a Pinto station wagon was trying to beat us to the unprotected crossing! The fireman was fiddling with the steam jenny that was malfunctioning. I was sitting in the right seat. I watched as the girl came, faster and faster, trying to beat us to the X-ing. This feeling of dread came over me as George first blew the crossing signal, then TANT-TANT-TANT-TANT-TANT-TANT- the dreaded "collision signal"! I gripped the seat as I thought a strike was imminent. She came UP, UP and ONTO the crossing.............and disappeared under the nose of our engine as George reduced the throttle, but no brakes (yet). George whipped right to look in the rear view, then with that drawl we knew so well, "Waaaal, if she'd had another coat of paint, we'd a-got her!" He held his hands apart to indicate the distance!
WHEW! CLOSE! And the sad thing was, she had a baby in the back car seat!

So if you message me here, yeah.....we'll talk. Do you remember Richard Carpenter, engineer on Piedmont Division? Used to run the Kings Mountain/Blacksburg Turn. He and I work part-time delivering cars for a dealer. George, seems the last time I talked to him, Amtrak had taken over and he was on NS freight for a short time. He was in Charlotte one day. I had bid back to Roadway Shops as an Inventory Clerk/Storehouse. George was on a freight, and he climbed down, and we stood out on the ballast at Liddell Street and talked for a spell...................

Yep, I got a lot of memories of my life on the railroad. Got some "trinkets", too. A pristine Southern Railway hat that says "Piedmont Division" on it. My "Greenlighter" jackets (2) (You must remember, too "Safe Worker, Safety First") I'd take nothing for that!!!!! My operating 1910 Hamilton 992 Railway Special watch w/ watch card (remember those? :-D ), my lantern(s) with which I booked a many of a car out in those yards. A set of those SR whiskey tumblers with the gold rims and SR logo, packed away for my daughter who will get most of the stuff I collected from Southern and NS.

One last memory I think is neat. When Wick Moorman was track supervisor at Greensboro, I used to ship him lots and lots of track material AND machines. I used to sign the pick lists "JWO". I saw Wick a few years back when he had just become CEO of Norfolk Southern, and I asked him if he remembered getting all those "picks' signed by me. He brightened and, stuck out his hand, "HEY J****, Of course I remember, how'ya doin'! It was just it was like back when! LOL! KInda miss those days.