ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A mechanical and electrical engineer by trade. Started work with British Railways in 1959 on steam locomotives and then, when these were phased out onto electric and diesel locomotives. Traction and Rolling Stock Engineer and Accident Investigator for the Doncaster Freight Division 1979 to 1984. After a spell in charge of train crews tookover the installation of computers in maintenance depots first for the Region and then for all British Rail. Introduced 3500 terminals in 250 locations in 3 years. Research and Development Manager into new computer applications including Computer Safety 1993 to 1998. Introduced "Near-Miss" management on computer systems. Retired from full time employment and now runs own consultancy business specilising on Safety Cases and specialised vehicle tracking solutions. Started to keep records of train wrecks in 1961 and this has developed into a world wide database with some 4500 records. Writes for a British Web Site specialising in Train Wrecks.


AN ACCOUNT OF THE LAST HOURS OF OREGON
AND CALIFORNIA LOCOMOTIVE NO 2538


Rice Hill, Oregon near Drain 4th April 1912. The boiler of Baldwin built O&C C9 No 2538 lies where it was blown by the force of a crown sheet failure.

Such was the force of the explosion that the 10 ton boiler was projected 218ft from the point of explosion in the distance. Both the engineer and fireman died in the accident, their bodies being found close to the line. The "shoefly" (kink) in the line was made by the track gang to permit the wrecking train to pass the boiler in order to recover it onto a flat car.

The engine watchman stood outside his shack at Drain, Oregon and, coffee in hand, contemplated the early spring morning. The day was fine and already warm - it would be a nice day. He drained his mug and turned, looking towards the train yard and sighed. Back to work! The yard was full of cars and he had on hand 3 locomotives all in light steam awaiting their next turn of duty.

Drain Station (elevation 292ft) in the 1890's


The engine watchman's job was to look after locomotives stabled in the yard until the their crews booked on at Drain train station and had taken charge. Usually it was not a difficult job but today one locomotive, No 2538, an old Oregon and California Railroad oil-fired C9 consolidation built by Baldwin, now in Southern Pacific livery, was proving to be a problem. Three times he'd had to go and wake up the injector to fill the boiler when the water level fell and each time he'd pumped up the burner to maintain steam pressure. He estimated that over 100 gallons of fuel oil had been used instead of less than the usual 30 and now he was going to have to do it all again.

He stomped over to the locomotive, climbed into the cab and gazed at the gauge glass on the boiler. Yes, the water level was down again. He reached over to the injector valves and with a hiss and a gurgle the injector beside the cab steps broke into life pumping cold water from the tender into the boiler. Immediately the steam pressure dipped and he turned to the burner controls and increased the oil flow. The burner roared and the engine watchman peered through the burner sight glass. Another, 30 gallons gone to waste! Good job they didn't take it out of his salary! This engine was sick alright. He would mention it to the chief when he saw him later. With that he climbed down and turned his attention to the other locomotives.

A little later, he spied the crew walking across the yard from the station and recognised engineer Mark Bartlett and fireman Bert Aderton. He walked over and met them at 2538's steps. "This old biddy has steam but she's using water like no tomorrow" . "Ok" said Bartlett "I'll keep a on the gauge and report it when we leave her" and with that the engine watchman stomped off to his shack for another well earned break. Bartlett and Aderton climbed on board.

Bartlett stowed his lunch box and after looking round the gauges, climbed down to look round the locomotive while the fireman tinkered with the burner and injectors and started the air pump. There was nothing obvious amiss and the old girl had plenty of steam for at that point the safety valves lifted with an ear-splitting roar. He shrugged and returned to the cab. "The sooner we start then the sooner we'll be back".

Putting the locomotive in reverse and with the cylinder drains open, he backed slowly down to the yard, in a cloud of steam, to where he could see the conductor standing with the yard hostler. As the hostler coupled up, the conductor told him he had 40 boxcars on - 200 tons and that the train would have the road after the arrival of the northbound. With that the conductor departed for his caboose at the end of the train. The hostler asked Bartlett to test the brakes which he did and chatted with Aderton. Their conversation was interrupted by the whistle of the northbound and with a wave the hostler departed to attend to the arriving train.

The locomotive appeared with its short freight and clattered across the switches into the yard the two engineers exchanging waves and greetings as they passed. As the caboose of the northbound cleared the points the dispatcher walked over from the station to No 2538 with the track warrant in his hand. Bartlett studied it briefly. "Good, he was cleared through to Sutherlin" He waved at the dispatcher who turned to cross back to the station and Bartlett gave a long blast on the whistle. Aderton confirmed that the conductor was on board and gave the ok.

Releasing the air brakes, and now in forward gear, Bartlett opened the regulator and No 2538 surged forward slipping slightly on the rails. The train eased out of the yard and Aderton watched until the last car was clear of the yard switch and gave the nod to Bartlett who threw the regulator wide open. No 2538 responded with a thunderous roar as it started on the climb out of Drain and Bartlett gave a long outward bound pull on the whistle tailing off to a wail. Aderton having opened the burner to maximum was eyeing the gauge glass and fiddling with the injector valves but the water level was holding. He peered over the side of the cab at the injector overflow. A dribble of water confirmed that all was well. The water rose in the gauge glass and to conserve steam for the climb Aderton shut the injector down.

The train pounded up the 6 mile grade at 30mph, sending a plume of smoke high into the air without any sign of a problem. Bartlett whistled for Yoncalla and pushed back on the regulator as the grade eased through the station. Beyond, the grade steepened to 1.4% for the last two miles to the summit and once clear of Yoncalla station Bartlett again threw the regular wide open. No 2538 tore at the hill and Bartlett could see the summit at Rice Hill ahead.

As the locomotive breasted the climb Bartlett again eased the regulator for the level section to Isadora and after a few minutes, when the speed had risen, snapped the regulator shut, ready to begin coasting. This was his last action; at that precise moment the crown sheet in the boiler failed filling the cab with superheated steam and flame from the firebox.

Such was the force that the entire boiler weighing some 10 tons was lifted from the frames and thrown 218ft, the frames, tender and first cars passing beneath boiler whilst it was in the air. The boiler fell to earth on the right-hand side of the line against the leading freight cars which by this time had been stopped by the brakes. Bartlett and Aderton were killed outright their bodies being found beside the line.

The above dramatisation draws heavily from the facts and is close to events as they would have occurred on that day in 1912 but what had caused the boiler to explode so catastrophically?

A steam locomotive boiler has been likened to a huge kettle but there is nothing further from the truth. A locomotive boiler can generate steam to a pressure of hundreds of pounds per square inch making an explosion lethal. Boilers explode in a number of ways but the most frequent, particularly in North America, was through failure of the crown sheet. The crown sheet, by its name, is the sheet of metal forming the top of the firebox. Designed to be constantly covered in water which it heats, creating steam, it is prevented from collapsing inwards under steam pressure by stays between the crown and the boiler top. It was the locomotive crew's duty to ensure the crown remained covered by water at all times additionally assisted by the mandatory location of a gauge glass for the purpose of indicating the height of the water in the boiler, mounted on the backplate.

The effects of crown sheet failures were, in theory, mitigated by the American practice of "waisting" the stays so that, in theory, an uncovered crown would fail slowly allowing the steam to enter the firebox and so extinguish the fire. However, in practice, the crown sheet often failed catastrophically and without warning.

In view of the fact that No 2538 was known to be sick and that the crew was looking for problems and were taking care, why had the boiler exploded?.

The Investigating Officer John F Ensign, Chief Inspecting Officer of Boilers for the Southern Pacific Railroad carried out a detailed examination and found some damning evidence.

Published in the Interstate Commerce Commission report published in May 1912, his findings put the maintenance of the old O&C locomotives into a very bad light. He found that the cause of the water loss at Drain was that the boiler flues which carry the hot gasses from the firebox to the smokebox (under the smoke stack) had become perforated, leaking water into the firebox. In fact, seven tubes had been leaking so badly that they had been illegally plugged at both ends in violation of SP rule 44. This would not on its own cause a crown sheet failure but what he also found was that the gauge glass had been positioned wrongly such that it gave a false indication of the water level in the boiler. In fact, when going up a grade, the crown could be uncovered to a depth of 3" whilst the gauge glass still showed water. This was against SP rule 37. Going down hill this uncovering would increase as the locomotive tilted forward with the change in grade.

Ensign concluded that the locomotive had been in this condition for some time and examination of other locomotives from the same Division showed similar faults with gauge glasses between one half and one inch out of their position.

With the heavily graded routes which the locomotives operated over, the firebox crown would be repeatedly overheated putting stresses on the stays. On the 4th April during the climb from Drain, the fierce draft of the exhaust of the heavily-worked locomotive almost certainly increased the water loss though the leaky tubes. The crew were misled by the water level in the gauge glass and for the last few miles to the summit the crown sheet was overheating to an extent that the stays were elongating under the steam pressure. The sudden closure of the regulator caused a pressure surge which was enough to break one stay and the rest followed in rapid succession as the load increased resulting in the final failure of the firebox crown sheet allowing discharge of the entire contents of the boiler.

The force created by this release would be sufficient to lift the boiler from the frames like a rocket whilst the frames, tender and the rest of the train continued forward on the rails until brought to a stand by the brakes.

The importance of constructing and repairing locomotive boilers in accordance with drawings and , in practice, the careful application of thorough inspection and maintenance practices are features which strike one immediately on reading the sequence of events on this fateful day.

Their neglect meant the loss of two lives unnecessarily.

Amazingly, 2538 was so little damaged that it was repaired and finished its days on the Tillamook Branch of the SP on what is now the Port Of Tillamook Bay Railroad where it was photographed. The photograph can be seen in the book "SP in Oregon" by Dill.

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