Set Up Running

And now for something completely different… I’ve never written a book review before, but that didn’t stop me from doing it anyway. The review below was for the Cornell Railroad Historical Society, a club I belong to. I thought my fellow members would enjoy said book, hence the review for our monthly newsletter. As mentioned below, I doubt non railfans will find the book as compelling, but I quite enjoyed it.

Set Up Running, The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman 1904 – 1949, by John W. Orr      Penn State Press, 2001

set up running

Ah, the Golden Age of Steam. Luxurious named trains like the 20th Century Limited conveying the rich and famous between cathedral-like stations with speed and comfort.  Oscar Orr was a steam engineer during that time. However, the closest he came to the above picture was when a passenger train thundered by as he sat idling on a siding with a load of coal cars behind him. But it is precisely his seemingly more mundane experience that makes “Set Up Running” such an interesting book to me.

The book details the life of “O.P.”,  as he was known, as told by his son John.  O. P. worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1904 until 1949. He primarily drove slow freight trains on the Williamsport division. Most of the book consists of John retelling tales of the road that he heard from his father.  Since John wasn’t actually there, he either has a terrific memory of what O.P. told him or is just good at seamlessly filling in all the small details. Be that as it may, he paints a credible portrait of life on the Pennsy. Maybe it all didn’t happen exactly that way, but it sure seems like it could have.

I enjoyed this insider’s look at an oft-neglected aspect of a bygone era. You get a real feel for the daily life a freight train steam engineer. It’s probably too detailed for the non-railfan reader, but then again, such a reader probably wouldn’t pick up the book in the first place. And even casual railfans, like me, will be puzzled at times. (What, again, does a Johnson Rod do?)

It’s easy to romanticize the age of steam, but it was a tough, hard job running a train, especially when you’re pulling heavy loads up tough grades with less than cutting-edge equipment.  The hours were long, the conditions harsh, but O.P. took pride in his skill as an engineer.  We often hear about how he successfully dealt with various weather or scheduling or equipment problems.

This is the real nitty-gritty world of steam power. Since O.P. mostly worked either freight trains or in the yards, the engines he drove were a bit past prime.  The newest and best were reserved for passenger and fast freight trains. Occasionally, though, he was called upon to test drive a new or improved engine, a job he much enjoyed.

Even for aficionados the book can drag in places – do we really need a mile by mile report again and again about the struggle up hills between Williamsport and Elmira? Or details about the schedule of trains he took to get back home?

Probably not, but then again, it does paint a very detailed and vivid picture of the life he led. After reading this book I feel I have a much better understanding and appreciation for what it was like to be a freight train steam engineer in the first half of the 20th Century.

In summary, if your idea of a great vacation destination is Scranton P.A (Steamtown!) you will probably enjoy this book.

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