Carmen George

At 96, steam locomotives still power retired Fresno engineer

Engineer recalls riding the rails

Jack Elwood of Fresno, a longtime locomotive engineer, remembers when he first started living his dream.
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Jack Elwood of Fresno, a longtime locomotive engineer, remembers when he first started living his dream.

There is such a thing as love at first sight – or sound – and it can carry you through a lifetime. Jack Elwood of Fresno, who will turn 97 next month, knows this well.

Growing up two miles from railroad tracks in Southern California, Elwood heard the train whistle and saw the plume of steam, and that was it. He was smitten. He rode his bicycle to the tracks as often as he could, and made himself toy trains by placing candles inside tin cans. Elwood started working for the railroad washing trains the morning after he graduated from high school, and worked his way up to his dream job: steam locomotive engineer.

The steam locomotive was the only machine ever made by man that was

Jack Elwood

He started driving freight and passenger trains during World War II. Of his 44-year career on the railroad, he says with pride, “I worked every train the Santa Fe had.”

Their names: Chief, Super Chief, California Limited, the San Diegans, Scout. They might sound like male trains, but they were female, Elwood explains.

“All steam locomotives were referred to as she, not in a derogatory way, but with affection by the men who had the steam experience,” wrote Elwood in a tribute to “the glory machine” that hangs on a wall inside his home. “And incidentally, there are not many of us around anymore.”

The number has dwindled further since he wrote his tribute 15 years ago. Elwood was born in 1919. A majority of steam locomotives were decommissioned by the late 1950s, when Elwood reluctantly took his post in new trains powered by diesel.

“The steam locomotive was the only machine ever made by man that was alive under steam,” Elwood continues. “She made breathing sounds, screeching, clanging, banging, hissing and all the sounds of a vigorous life. She would talk to you from her smokestack exhaust and steam whistle, and sometimes make her crew completely frustrated and miserable, and other times give you a thrill and a scare, and most times make you feel on top of the world. And life couldn’t be any better!”

Elwood would pass this love onto his two sons, who also retired as locomotive engineers. Combined, they worked for the railroad for 125 years. Elwood’s sons loved their jobs, but not as much as their dad did.

I’ve never met someone who has railroading in his blood as much as Jack.

Dan Elwood about his father

“I’ve known a lot of people who have worked for the railroad in my life, and I can unequivocally say I have never met anybody who loved the job – and still loves the job – as much as my father,” says Dan Elwood of Fresno. “I would swear to it on a stack of Bibles.”

The trains they drove also led them to human love. Dan and Jack Elwood met their wives through their work.

Jack Elwood in 1943 saw a young woman with red hair working at a rest station for train crews and asked her for Postum, a powder of wheat bran and molasses to make a hot drink, and the rest is history. Dan Elwood had it easier. A fellow engineer liked him so much that he sent his daughter over to Dan Elwood’s house one day for a glass of water. The matchmaking worked out beautifully.

But the life of a train engineer wasn’t all romance. The locomotive’s speed and strength could turn terrible, making its driver a helpless partner to its power. Trains that Jack Elwood drove killed seven people throughout his career. Spotting someone on the tracks, he’d blare the whistle and pull the emergency brake, but trains don’t come to a screeching halt. Elwood can still see the faces of people the train killed.

“I don’t forget any of them.”

The work schedule also wasn’t easy. In the beginning, Elwood worked 16-hour shifts with eight hours off, barely enough time to sleep. This routine continued for more than 10 years – seven days a week. During one shift, his train derailed after slamming into a truck on the tracks, landing him in the hospital a few days before Christmas.

Still, all this never did serious damage to his love.

We all have fuel that keeps us going, and the railroad for Jack is his kryptonite.

Dan Elwood about his father

Elwood’s fondness for trains endures.

“The smell of hot oil and steam will never be forgotten. Steam locomotives always had that smell around them, especially in rainy and snowy weather, not an unpleasant smell. … I wish I could smell it again.”

Elwood’s environment is still dominated by trains – albeit small ones. His home has many model trains on display that he made by soldering intricate pieces of brass together since his retirement in 1981 as a locomotive engineer and road foreman of engines, supervising trains running from Southern California to the Bay Area. He moved to Fresno in 1971 after being stationed in Southern California and New Mexico.

If there’s one thing in that man’s life that lights him up, it’s when he gets to talk about the railroad. He was born to work there.

Dan Elwood about his father

He’s given a number of his model trains away. One went to Rotary Storyland & Playland in Fresno about a month ago. Holding another up last week, Elwood says he’d hop inside it if he could.

And hop he can. In his excitement to share his railroad memorabilia, the 96-year-old hopped with ease over a footrest during the interview for this column. For years, he walked four miles every day, and doesn’t drink or smoke, which has contributed to his continued good health. About a week ago, his driver’s license was renewed after he passed his driving test with flying colors.

He also volunteers weekly at the Poverello House in Fresno, which serves homeless people, and he unlocks the doors of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church every morning except Saturday for the early morning Mass. He’s never late. He was once shoved to the ground and his coin purse ripped from his pockets while walking to church, and he quickly hurried on, not even bothering to search for his glasses and cap, which were knocked off of him. He made it to the church on time, as always.

This punctuality is rooted in his work. In his early days as a steam locomotive engineer, arriving late could have meant death. A switchman periodically changed the direction of the railroad tracks, so being late meant running the risk of crashing into another train. Locomotive engineers religiously checked special watches and were required to take them into a jeweler every 15 days to make sure everyone’s time matched up.

Elwood safely transported some beloved cargo over the years, including oranges, wine, Hollywood stars, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower – twice – on his way to a vacation of golf in Palm Springs.

Elwood says he’d do it all again if he could – he’d just ask to be born 20 years earlier, so he could have more time with his beloved steam locomotives.

“Try to imagine, if you will, the sensation of operating a steam locomotive weighing 874,346 pounds of steel, iron, water, fuel and fire, running 120 mph on two rail tracks with a top surface area of two inches each. The feel of the massive bulk of unlimited power is a thrill that for those of us that had the experience will never die.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge