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Steam engines circled Lincoln fairgrounds for many years
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Steam engines circled Lincoln fairgrounds for many years

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For many Lincolnites, moving the Nebraska State Fair from Lincoln to Grand Island was a great loss. An annual trip to the Lincoln fairgrounds was easy and always a good experience. In addition to the many exhibits, there were vendors (“it slices, it dices, it minces”), a first-rate carnival with fun rides, auto racing, stage shows and concerts, and all the good food.

My fondest memories of the State Fair, however, are of 10 days of activity on the Santa Fe & Fairline Railroad, with live steam engines pulling open-air passenger cars on 24-inch gauge track in a circular path around the fairgrounds.

In 1967, I had just returned to Lincoln after finishing my duty with the U.S. Army and was fresh back from a Vietnam tour. I was working for a large Lincoln law firm, but my weekends were free. My good friend Ira Schreiber called me before the fair started and said he would be working as an engineer on the fair’s railroad, and they needed another engineer. Would I be interested? You know it!

The railroad operation was owned by C.B. “Duke” Herter, who lived in Missouri and had leases for railroad operations at both the Nebraska and Iowa state fairs. Track was in place at both locations, and the steam engines and cars were moved from Iowa to Nebraska since the Nebraska fair started right after the Iowa fair closed. The engines and cars riding on flatbed trucks made for a strange sight on I-80 as they moved from fair to fair.

Student engineer days

The Santa Fe & Fairline used real engines that ran with steam. They were totally unlike the Lincoln Children’s Zoo engine, which is a mechanical replica of a steam engine, although the width of the fair and zoo railroad tracks were both 2 feet between rails.

Just like the real railroads, the Fairline Railroad rails were laid on wooden ties and fastened down with real spikes. Some sections of the fair railroad were laid in blacktop streets, and metal crossties were used in those sections.

The three engines all had names: “General Ike,” “General Chuck” and “General Greyling,” named after Herter’s three sons.

You can think of a steam engine as a big teakettle that uses heat to boil water into steam. The steam is then used to run the engine and trailing cars down the track. Each trainset had four cars, which were coupled by drawbars, and an air brake system.

To minimize the risk of fire, the steam engines burned charcoal briquettes instead of coal. The charcoal burns hot and does not put out hot cinders like a coal-burning engine, although the engines would throw sparks through the smokestack.

The trains performed a real transportation function at the fair. We could pick up passengers at parking lots on the outskirts of the fair and take them to the Midway. We could also transport passengers from one side of the Midway to the other, or just give them a ride around the circle.

I arrived at the start of the 1967 fair on the opening Saturday and rode with Ira on General Chuck, learning how to operate the steam engine and becoming familiar with its controls. From then on I was qualified as an engineer and on my own.

The engines were dirty and greasy, and by the end of the day my bib overalls and red bandana were black with soot. Most September fair days were hot, and sitting in the engine about 2 feet from the firebox was a hot job, requiring many lemonades during the course of a day. We worked from about 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.

The cost of a ride was 25 cents, which would get you to any of four stations or all the way around the circle.

Auto race wars

On the north end, the tracks had a road on one side and a wooden fence on the other, which was the racetrack’s border. Auto races were featured at each fair, and it was normal to have families, friends and hangers of the racers lining the fence too close to the track for safety. As the trains came along, we would blow the whistle to clear the race people off the track. With three trains in operation and going by about every 15 minutes, race personnel got tired of having to move and plotted their revenge.

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A short, steep grade was encountered as the railroad turned from north-to-south to go east-to-west along the fence. Normally, even with a full train, I could walk my train up that grade with no problem. One day, however, the driving wheels on the steam engine slipped and spun as soon as I hit the grade. I backed down and made a run for the grade, only to stall again about halfway up. The next try, I used sand on the track, which finally got the job done.

Normally the rails on the track were not slick, and I was puzzled. Only later did I learn that the car racers had coated the rails with STP motor oil and watched with great amusement when I stalled out on the grade. They got their revenge for constantly being whistled off the track.

The railroad and the champion sow

One day after the swine competition, a press session featured the grand champion sow. The railroad ran just east of many 4-H barns on a grassy mall. As I approached that area, I noted the proud owner with the sow on the median near the tracks. As the train chugged past, the sow was spooked by the noise and took off running with a large group of 4-Hers in pursuit. The sow was caught and brought back for the photo session and was nicely posed, when along came the next train, and the sow bolted again.

By the time the third train was due, the 4-Hers were lying in ambush with a bucket of hog slop. As the engine arrived, the hot slop was thrown onto an innocent Ira Schreiber, who had not been running the two previous trains.

Losing the battle with General Ike

For the first year, I had the privilege of running General Chuck, which was the best steam engine of the three. Ira figured that he would have more experienced engineers on the other two engines. The next year, I ran General Greyling, which did not steam quite as well.

On the Santa Fe & Fairline, you were both engineer and fireman. You shoveled charcoal from the tender into the firebox to keep the fire hot and had to operate injectors to put water in the boiler to make steam. Keeping the water level up was critical with a steam engine, as lack of water could cause a boiler explosion. The engines were protected by “soft plugs.” If the water level got too low, a soft plug would blow fire out of the firebox, rapidly cooling the engine and emptying the boiler of steam.

The third year I got General Ike, which was the poorest steamer of the bunch. The injectors didn’t work right, and I saw the water level in the boiler go down and down. Nursing Ike toward the servicing area to have the injectors cleaned, I ran out of time, and with a bang and a “shoosh,” a soft plug blew. The firebox door blew open, covering me with soot since I was only a few feet from that door. General Ike was dead, and a following train had to push my train to the servicing area where Ike and cars could be placed out of the way on a spur track pending repair.

Those who came upon the scene of the soft plug blowout like to remind me that I was covered with black soot from head to toe, and only around my eyes under my eyeglasses was there any hint of my skin!

All good things must end

After having its lease renewed for many years, Duke Herter was notified that, due to a number of complaints about the railroad, the lease would not be renewed for the following year. One of the complaints was that an exhibitor had a big hole burned in his tent by sparks from a steam engine. This was not entirely the railroad’s fault. Ira told the guy when he set up the tent that it was too close to the track, and the guy pitched it anyway. Moving it away would have prevented the problem.

I’m sure the 4-H organization told State Fair Superintendent Henry Brandt about the champion sow episode. Pigeon exhibitors near the railroad complained that the train whistles made the birds nervous, and they would molt feathers, ruining their appearance for competition. The auto racers may have also griped, and there were others.

It didn’t help that Brandt lived in a house on the fairgrounds, and the track went right past it. The area had autos and trucks on the street where the rails were laid, and the whistle often needed to blow to clear the tracks. I’m sure Mrs. Brandt talked to her husband about this.

After the fair ended and we knew we wouldn’t be back, we staged a farewell trip with a train pulled by all three steam engines around the track several times.

I had the sad task of helping remove the track at the fairgrounds, knowing that the trains would never be back. I was told that General Chuck and a number of passenger cars and track were sold to a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. I have no idea what happened to General Greyling and my nemesis, General Ike. Hopefully they found new homes.

While the fair was still in Lincoln, I continued to attend, but things were not the same. The fair without the railroad just wasn’t complete.


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