Mo Fisher's Breakdown

I wrote this story in 2008 as a reference to a line in a song I wrote ten years earlier:
Up ahead is Martin's gate,
where Mo Fisher met his fate
and Robinson's old engine blew a piston.

But I only got as far as laying out the scenario. When it came to telling what actually happened to Mo Fisher, I drew a blank. I decided that it would work as a fragment of an old WPA Oral History tape from the 1930s. I recorded a version of it that way, as an old man talking to a field researcher. He's about to get into the actual story of the breakdown when the tape ends. I may post that sound file somewhere eventually, but for now I hope this written transcript will suffice. Please note that none of the historical railroad information is accurate. I made everything up completely off the top of my head.

Mo Fisher at Martin's Gate

(transcript of an old reel-to-reel tape found in a trunk full of books and newspaper clippings)

Okay. You're asking me about that song "Engine 49" by the Lewiston Cotton Boll Weevil Band? Sure, I know it. It's an old song that originated right here in this part of the country. I'm the man that taught it to Luke, the Boll Weevils' bass player.

Lots of folks who've heard it wondered what that one particular line was in reference of. There's not many alive now that know the story of Mo Fisher, but among railroad men he used to be a legend in these parts. He was the captain of the Caroline, the last Robinson locomotive to run on the Northern line.

Way back in the old days, back before even coal, Nathaniel Robinson invented a narrow-gauge low-clearance short-wheelbase engine for use in mountainous areas where the lie of the land required steep grades and sharp turns. It burned wood, which meant it smelled better and got dirty in a different way from coal, but it was just as heavy and noisy, and a sight less efficient. Coal, you see, has a higher heat-output-to-weight ratio so you can carry less fuel, and that's why it won out in the end.

Problem is, you can't just throw coal into a wood furnace. Its burn properties are different and you'll wind up wrecking the engine by melting the furnace or busting the boiler ... or if you're lucky and the vents stick open, you just won't ever get enough heat to steam and you'll be stuck there shoveling coal onto the track underneath you and wondering why you're not moving. It takes a lot of figuring to refit a wood-burning engine for coal, and the Company decided it was cheaper to just wait til they broke down and then replace them with new engines.

The Robinson machines were beautiful though, all shiny brass and steel, and folks were sorry to see them go. Some of the older railmen swore by them. Said they were safer, more reliable. Wouldn't trust their lives to a coal engine up on the mountain, because coal comes OUT of the mountain. It's unnatural and unlucky. Old Jack, the so-called spirit of the mountain, resents it, you see, and he'll try to knock you off while you're making the high run. Those old fellas were very superstitious.

Mo Fisher had captained the Caroline since before anybody could remember, and he kept her spic-and-span. Word was going around at one point that he had bought her from the Company and was running her on his own, but I don't know about that. It was never Company policy to allow private operators on their lines. All the equipment, from the engine and the cars down to your watch and the wrench in your mechanic's pocket belonged to the Northern Rail Company. It is true though, that they let Mo take over maintenance for the Caroline. Had his own shop gang, and every time a Robinson was decommissioned, they'd be down at the Company yard, stripping it for parts. Nobody else was allowed to do that.

Well then, turns out after a while all of the old Robinsons were replaced, and the Caroline was the only one still running. But now I think I need to tell you about Martin's Gate.

It's not a town or anything, not even a siding - although there was a mail relay there for a while. You won't find it listed on any map now, though it used to be marked on the railroad charts. It's just a spot, a place on the tracks that marks the bottom end of the Wax Knob run. It seems like a gateway because the scenery's completely different on either side of it. Uphill from the Gate the woods are thick and dark, the track is steep, and there's not much clearance on either side of the train. Everything's very close. Then you pass the Gate and suddenly the valley opens up on either side of you, and it's all sunny and level with big fields stretching out. It's almost like going through a doorway from one world to another. All the farmland at that end of the valley used to belong to a fella by the name of Martin, so they started calling it Martin's Gate.

Somebody even put up a bunch of fake switches to mark the spot. They look real; they're connected to the line and all, just like regular switches, but they don't do anything. There's no other track there to switch to, and besides, when do you ever see three switches, bang bang bang, all in a row like that? Well, you don't ever see it, except for right there, a half-mile on either side of Martin's Gate. Whoever put them there did it to let folks know that the Gate was just ahead.

Those three switches were known as the "railman's rosary" because seeing them reminded you it was time to pray. If you were coming down, it was time to pray your thanks for another safe run, and if you were headed up then it was time to ask the Lord's protection for yourself and your crew. Passing through the Gate was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your direction. It was the end - or the beginning - of 53 miles of the most dangerous track in the State.

Nowadays you can take the tunnel and get to Pruett in about fifteen minutes without even breaking a sweat, but back then the only way there was to go up and around and over Wax Knob. It took two or three hours going up and even longer coming down if your nerves weren't good. There was steep grade that went up and up and up and then suddenly down, and then up again. There were rickety trestles that I'd swear hadn't been inspected since the Civil War. And there were sharp switchbacks that seemed to defy all logic. You're climbing the mountain, you're clinging to the rails, stuck on the mountainside with nothing but rock on one side and air on the other. You expect the route to conform to the shape of the mountain, because you're zig-zagging up the side of it. You just turned right, so you expect your next turn will be to the left ... but it's not, and the mountain's on the wrong side of you somehow and you're not sure which direction you're going. I made that run hundreds of times and there were still always a couple of turns that surprised me. It's the weirdest sensation, because you know there's no possible way you could've gotten turned around.

You're probably thinking "So what about the curves? You don't steer a train; it just follows the tracks." but you'd be only half right. Standard-gauge trains don't need as much finesse to handle. They go where the track leads them, usually, but that's because the track is carefully laid to suit the train's abilities. There's all kinds of technical things about pitch and momentum and arc radius that I only partway understand, but what it adds up to is that routes are carefully calculated so all the turns are shallow and easy. All the captain has to do is watch his speed and the train will steer itself. But on a narrow-gauge mountain track there's no room to build long, gentle curves and low grades. You can get away with only as much as the mountain will let you, and sometimes you have to turn tighter than the train wants to on its own. The captain and the brakemen have to be on their toes. You've got to keep an even speed. Brake or accelerate too quickly and the wheels will slip, causing you to lose traction. Lose traction, you lose control and slide downhill. Take a turn too fast and you're liable to derail and go sailing off into a canyon. When you're coming up on a sharp curve, you've got to brake on the inside of the turn and then let up once you're out of it. Each car must do this as it goes through the turn. Everybody has to be alert.

The Wax Knob run was particularly bad because it was steep, it was long, and it was unpredictable. About halfway down, your brakemen would be on the verge of tears because they could smell that hot steel smell and see too many sparks under the cars, and they were sure the brake-bars were going to twist off any second, and they couldn't tell what was coming next, and train was already going too fast ... after another hour of this the train is screaming down the hill, your brakemen are telling you we can't stop because the pads are worn down as thin as dimes and you've just about given up the idea of making it home alive, and then whoop, those three switches blink past looking more like just half of one because of your speed ... then everybody lets up a shout because Martin's Gate is just ahead, and you come shooting out into the valley and just let the train coast all the way to Rockford. You promise yourself you'll never run up Wax Knob again, but then three days later you forgot how scary it was and you're chugging through the Gate again on your way up to Pruett.

(tape ends)

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Contents copyright 1994-2009 by JW Kennedy.