The lure of the steam locomotive has aroused
endless speculation, especially among those who have never experienced it. Why
has this mechanical giant of a bygone day so long outlived its economic destiny
in the minds and hearts of rail enthusiasts across the country and throughout
Some would advance the theory that nostalgia
plays an important part. Our fancy for flashing pistons and side rods, they
say, is little more than a reaching out for our own youth, a hunger for the far
and lost. Perhaps so.
Yet how, then, do you explain the young railroad
fans who grew up to the sound and sight of diesels and have come late, but just
as eagerly to the pursuit of steam?
My own belief is that the wedding of steam and
steel was one of those rare combinations of beauty and utility that have a
timeless appeal to the imagination. Steam locomotives were more than machines –
they were destiny on wheels. Their power was awesome and their prize a national
linked together with steel rails. White plumes of engine smoke streamed above
the land like the banners of conquering host.
Now history has passed them by and, in an
economic sense, so have we. But all that an explosion of a new technology helps
us to create for the present and the future takes nothing away from – indeed, it
is based on – the accomplishments of men in the age of steam. We are not weaker
but stronger for acknowledging our debt.
To me there is nothing incompatible with our
reach for the future in pausing for an affectionate look at the Pacifics, the
Mikados, the Consolidations and all the steam giants with their singing names.
After all, steam locomotives were in their time as bold an experiment of any of
W. Graham Claytor, Jr.
President, Southern Railway System
Speaking at the 1966 National Railway Historical
Society in Richmond, Virginia