He did get to drive the steam engines now in then in training to become an engineer. But he did not get his wish to be the real engineer of a locomotive such as the SP&S 700 until 1990, when the PRPA restored the 700. Kenny then got to drive the engine many hundreds of miles up and down the Columbia Gorge.
Kenny has been an invaluable help to the PRPA, providing information about standard practice in locomotive maintenance and repair. He also has a huge number of stories to tell, many of which he has written on his computer. We hope you enjoy these three stories, a sample from his collection.
Ken Prager (left) and Robert Myles compare watches in front of their locomotive on the occasion of Myles' last run before he retired in 1958.
Later in the late 1950s I got on as a regular fireman with him on S P & S passenger trains 2 & 1, the North Coast Limited, Empire Builder, and we became good friends.
As I was with him on his last trip when he retired, he told me an interesting story about how he had gone to work for the S P & S Ry. It seems that he was a fireman up in Canada for the Canadian National or Canadian Pacific and was cut off for awhile. He had a friend working for the Northern Pacific and a brother on the S P & S out of Vancouver, Wash., so he came down to visit them. His friend had a room at the old St. Elmo hotel in Vancouver and he was staying with him.
One evening they were visiting and probably having a sociable iced tea, when the Call Boy came to call his friend for a train to go north. After introductions all around, the friend told the Call Boy that Bob was a fireman out of Canada and was just down looking around. The Call Boy said to Bob, would you like to do me a favor and work as a fireman tonight on a train to Wishram as I can't find any one to go. Bob said he really didn't want to work as he was on a little vacation, but his friend said that he wouldn't be back until the next night so he might as well use the time and make a couple of dollars. So Bob said OK, I'll do it, but just this once.
Well, he stayed on, and retired from the S P & S about 50 years later. He had never been hired, taken a physical or the rule book examination for employment.
On his last run, he asked me "I wonder if I can legally retire from a job that I've never been hired for?"
Probably the first and one of the most important is that before you go to work on any shift you must "Suck a lemon." Who ever heard of a hoghead that wasn't grouchy to all those around him at work? After all, an engineer is a "Success in life."
One of the first things, after getting to work and seeing the particular engine that has been assigned to you, is to immediately summon the roundhouse foreman and complain about having to take this particular "Teakettle" out. After all you deserve the best! While looking the engine over, you naturally find that the sanders don't put out enough sand, there is some dirt on the windows, the bell cord is too high or too low, and it doesn't look like the left rear side rod pin has enough grease.
Then there is the fireman, who hasn't washed the cab out to suit you. There isn't enough ice in the drinking water cooler, the boiler level water glasses haven't been cleaned, the tallow pot hasn't been filled and put up on the boiler head to warm. You've used all the oil in the long spouted oil can and you want it filled immediately. Has he checked the fuel oil and water tank to see if they are full and is he sure? How about the supplies, the extra oil, grease, flagging equipment, cotton waste; has he filled the lubricator for you, wiped any water off of your seatbox after washing the cab out? After all you must impress all those mechanics about the importance of being the "Mr Engineer."
After all this showing of how important you are, it's about time to leave the roundhouse, late of course. But first, when the brakeman shows up you must chew him out for being late. Of course you don't listen when he tells you that he has been waiting down at the switch for over twenty minutes wondering what was wrong that you didn't come out. After all, if the engine had been ready you would have left the roundhouse on time.
Leaving the roundhouse track you are so busy telling about the terrible incompetence of the fireman and the roundhouse people that you fail to see that the switch that the brakeman had thrown for you to leave had been taken away from you by a switch crew. And of course when the fireman hollers "Switch wrong" you are going too fast to get stopped before you run through it and naturally that's the fireman's fault for not hollering sooner. After all, you can't be expected to see every thing on both sides of the engine.
As the switchman who had thrown the switch shows up, you instantly blame him for taking it away from you. The fact that the switch is supposed to be lined for the yard lead and not the roundhouse track when not being used has nothing to do with it. Even when the switchman says that this particular switch is easy to fix and that he will fix it with a couple of shims that he can put in with no trouble, doesn't help as he should fix it anyway since he is the one responsible.
In your righteous indignation you open the throttle too far and the engine slips picking up water into the dry steam and washing the lubrication from the cylinders, but that is the fireman's fault for having too much water in the boiler. After all when you told him to fill up the boiler and tank, he should know that you didn't mean that full. Remember: no matter what happens, blame it on the fireman.
Its raining out and the brakeman is riding on the pilot step, in the rain, to lead you to the track where your train is at. Good enough for him: That's where he belongs. After all there is no one out in the rain but the brakeman and the dogs, and the dogs are in under the porch.
As you get down into the yard where you train is made up. you stop by the track you think the train is at. But the brakeman doesn't get off the pilot. Instead he keeps giving you come-ahead signs. What a dummy! The train you are called for is always made up in this track.
Finally after a lot of yelling, he walks back and tells you that the train is on number one track today. Not number five track. What business has the yardmaster in making up your train on a different track? So you open the throttle wide and slip the drivers again. By the time you get to number one track you are going too fast for the brakeman to get off safely. That will teach him.
In stopping with a full application of the engine brakes, the wheels slide. Of course if the roundhouse had set the brakeshoes up on the tender you wouldn't have had to set so much brake application. And the section man had probably slopped oil on the rail when he oiled some switch points.
As the brakeman walks back to the switch behind the engine you tell the fireman how useless brakeman are. As you are in a slight curve you can't see the cars you are going to couple into, but you know that when the dumb brakeman gives you a two-car sign that they are farther away than that. You don't slow down and next comes a one-car sign, then an easy sign followed by a violent stop sign as the brakeman jumps off of the tender. BAM BANG, as you couple into the cars. The bell goes around and around, ringing, and some oil cans fall over from the impact. That incompetent brakeman obviously didn't give you enough room.
But of course the carman doesn't put the blue flag, protecting the workman on the cars, where you think it should be. After some argument, he moves it to the front side of the cab under your window. That's better. Now you don't have to turn around to look when he takes it down after the air test.
While you're waiting for the air test, the car foreman comes up and asks you what time you got on, for his report. Naturally you tell him a time about fifteen minutes earlier since you don't want a record of how late you were. He gives you some argument about it but you yell him down. After all you are the engineer.
Waiting for the air test, you reach into your pocket for that big cigar to smoke while telling the fireman to cut down on the blower, get the oil in the tank hotter and you don't want any more than two inches of water in the water glass after you start running.
Don't forget to mention that you want no smoke from the stack and you expect the steam pressure on the peg at all times. But of course never let the "pops," (safety valves) blow at anytime. Now you have gotten every one straightened up except the conductor, but you'll get to him later, so you can relax.
You are off to a good start in being a "Success in life" as a Hoghead. But don't forget the lemon!
"Hoghead" is railroad slang for locomotive engineer. Return to story.
"Get over here and see what you can do." were the words of Ted Officer, my regular engineer on train 275-276, a regular freight run from Vancouver to Wishram and return. This was west bound out of Stevenson on our return trip from Wishram with the 700. He didn't have to ask twice, as I was over there in a second ready to take over as "Hoghead."
Ted was always playing a little game with me as he usually would have the engine hooked up a little high or too much throttle so that she wasn't really doing her best. I know now that he enjoyed seeing "The kid" sit down over on the right side and re-adjust everything so that she was sounding and running better. Of course I immediately started changing things to make her run better. When I felt that everything was like I thought it should be, I probably sat back with a self satisfied look on my face and thought, I can do this better than the old head, not realizing that he was making fun of me and getting a big kick out of it.
Running the 700, or one of the sister engines, the 701 or 702, on freight was always fun. They were so easy to handle and responded so well if the train was not too heavy. They could handle 2500 to 3500 tons very nicely and speedily. This particular trip we had 60 some freight cars, probably around 3000 tons and as we went down the slight grade between North Bonneville, the speed probably was around 50 MPH. I had her hooked up and of course didn't want to stop at the bottom of the slight grade at Skamania for water.
Ted said that we had lots of water, so keep going. We can make the next water tank at Washougal easily, but if you ease up a little and don't work her so hard, we may be able to go to Vancouver for water. I of course like many young "engineers" liked to hear her bark, but going all the way without taking water was the sensible thing to do. Going by the telegraph office at Skamania on a clear board, I hooked her up and eased the throttle down to save water. The speed decreased slightly but it was for a good cause. Water was the big worry in the days of steam. You may think you had enough to go by a water tank, but then something happened and you were delayed badly, you might run out. Always a worry in the back of your head.
Riding along, through the curves and trees west of Skamania this early fall evening, running the 700 with everything going smoothly was sheer pleasure for all of us in the cab. Ted had just a slight grey haze coming out of the stack, water level about three inches in the glass and 260 lbs steam pressure. Thanks to the "Lady," this was the way you thought all trips should be. A great engine on freight with the right sized train. She could handle bigger trains but you had to work her a lot harder and she would get a little slippery with her 77 inch drivers.
Through the Cape Horn tunnel and by Mt.Pleasant siding, Ted said, "We better check the water level in the tender." The gauge in the cab registering the tender water level was unreliable. That meant that one of us would have to climb up on the tender while we were running and measure the water with a stick. I started to get up to climb up and measure it, when Ted said, "I'm the fireman, I'll do it." Coming back in the cab, with a wave of his hand, he said "Go to Vancouver, we've got lots of water left. A third of a tank. Even if the dispatcher sticks us in the siding between Camas and Vancouver we still should make Vancouver. There's a tank at 8th st. in Vancouver if we get short. Good news. Now what will the order board at Camas give us?
Through Washougal, whistling for all the crossings, and then it was time to set the brakes for the 35 MPH by the paper mill at Camas. Making a split application of the air brakes and as we slowed, easing the throttle down with a "Ease her down" to Ted so he could adjust the fire, we slowed to our 35 MPH. Enough throttle to keep the slack out of the train on the train brake release. "Clear Board Camas," and we knew that Vancouver was our next stop. As I got the train through the 35MPH area, with a "Lets go to Vancouver," I really widened on her with the cut off down a little and let her get the train back up to speed as fast as possible. This is what I wanted to hear, the sound of her exhaust, with the sharp loud bark echoing against the hills. The "Kid Hoghead" was having his fun again. Lots of whistle and noise as we went over the many public and private crossings toward Vancouver.
Diesels are easier, even if the trains are longer, faster and much heavier, and the worry about water is gone. However, much of the "Romance of the Rails" is gone with the departure of the steam engine.