The Future is Still Silver and Black: 1972

February 1972

Dear 9952-A,

May I call you Silver Pilot? I think numbers are a little impersonal when you have a name.

The docents here at the Museum of Science and Industry suggested that I might like to write to you. They think I get bored out here on the lawn. Conversation with the U-boat still leaves something to be desired and it can be too loud to talk to the steam engines during the day since they’re set so far away.

Congratulations on your acceptance to the Illinois Railway Museum. And to pull the Nebraska Zephyr no less! That’s a magnificent train. (Don’t tell my cars I said that though, haha!) I was very happy to hear that another of us has been returned to service.

And it is service, have no doubt. I think when we were thundering down the tracks at a hundred miles an hour, it was hard to see it that way. They used to make fun of the engines who ended up in museums. New engines probably still do, I bet.

Preservation is a responsibility is what I’m getting at. It’s not just standing around and being looked at. We were both part of something important, something that mattered. It’s our job to see that it’s remembered.

I have no doubt that you will perform that duty admirably.

Your friend in service,

Pioneer

March 1972

Dear Pioneer,

Your letter caused quite a stir. I heard the volunteers hollering about it even from my spot on the far end of the wye. And then to hear that it was addressed to me! I nearly turned over from the shock.

Of course you can call me Silver Pilot! Being on a named basis with the original Burlington Zephyr would be a great honor. Even among us E5s, your Denver-to-Chicago sprint was legend. Silver Mate and I used to joke about how much quicker our route in and out of Dallas would be if we could do the whole thing over seventy miles per hour!

I do take your meaning about service. Hard not to, when it’s pretty much all I have to think about anymore. If we’re being honest, you‘re the first one who’s called me Silver Pilot since I arrived. All us Silver stock had names, but they made sure we weren’t too proud about them. They’d tell us, “Even the baggage car has a name,” if one of us started getting too cocky. So the mechanics here just call me 9952. I always liked being called by my name though because all us booster and cab sets were named to match.

The visitors all call me “Nebraska Zephyr” or sometimes just “The Zephyr” which the Goddesses are not very happy about. They don’t think I’m worthy of the name. They say the Texas Zephyr wasn’t Burlington so it doesn’t count. Most of them only ever call me “that engine” (though your letter seems to have softened their opinion of me somewhat, so thank you for that!) I can’t blame them for being unsure, though. They know what it takes to pull a train like theirs.

One of the volunteers suggested that we be “pen pals” and write back and forth regularly. I’d like that and, if you’d be willing, I’d love to hear more about the Museum of Science and Industry and your time at the CB&Q. If I’m to be the last Zephyr engine in service, I think I ought to take some pointers from the best!

Your friend,

Silver Pilot

April 1972

Dear Silver Pilot,

I was astonished to get your reply so quickly! The docents had warned me not to expect it immediately. It’s not exactly your volunteers’ job to keep their engines up on their correspondence. I’m relieved that they were willing to indulge us. I quite like the idea of being pen pals! I enjoy writing letters, but I don’t get the chance that often.

Names, I think, give you a huge leg-up when it comes to this type of work (999 and 2903 certainly think so!) Not only does your train have a name, but you’ve also got your own name and so do each of your cars. They hadn’t thought of that when my train went into service, but that’s the thing about being the first: They have to work out the kinks on you. In fact, they had to change my name to Pioneer because they didn’t know they were going to end up making so many Burlington Zephyrs. They had to differentiate me – again! It’s a good thing though. A name is the start of a story and a story is what keeps us interesting.

I’d be happy to tell you any of my stories, but being a Zephyr yourself (and C&S was a subsidiary of Burlington so the Texas Zephyr does count), you probably know all my usual yarns. I wouldn’t want to bore you with the stuff I tell the guests! I could tell you about the museum though.

I live on the lawn in front of the east wing. They have me and my cars arranged next to U-505, a German U-Boat. He was captured during the war so he’s technically a POW, but he says he is treated well considering. The idea is that we are both examples of diesel technology so they have us contrasting each other, but I think it’s just that I make him look bigger.

At an angle behind us, they set up the steam engines, 999 and 2903. 999 used to pull the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad’s Empire State Express. She’s also famous for being the first locomotive to go a hundred miles an hour (the claim is disputed, but she says that just adds to her mystique). 2903 worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway pulling their express. He’s the biggest engine I’ve ever seen! He’s both strong and fast. He could go ninety miles an hour pulling passengers or he could pull a hundred freight cars at once.

There’s a Stephenson’s Rocket around here too, but I’ve never met him. He has a shed somewhere away from the rest of us. I’ve never heard a bad thing about him though. Apparently he’s quite charming. From what I gather, he’s a replica built specially for the museum as a display so he never saw rail work. The steam engines are a little dismissive of him for it, but I can’t say a word against that. Half my service life was standing there and letting people look at me too. He comes from the same Works as the original Rocket so he has that distinction going for him at least.

I’d love to hear about your Texas Zephyr and about your museum. I’m sure you’re sharing that yard with some personalities, even beyond your coaches.

Speaking of them, you may have to give them time to get used to the idea of you (but you will have time in abundance!) They were built for 9904 – her name was Pegasus – so they’ll feel obligated to stay loyal to her, even if she’s no longer with us. Have I heard it right that they’re missing some of their consist too? They used to be seven cars, I remember that much. If they’re stand-offish at first, that’s to be expected.

They’re still new to preservation too. The docents said they were only bought by your museum near the end of last year so they won’t know how lucky they are yet. I’m told you’re still in working order. They’ll get to go out on a run every so often then.

This job demands a change in perspective. It’s difficult at first because one compares how things are to how they were. It can feel like a demotion in the beginning. It took me a few years before I realized the difference is between how things are and how they could have been. Once you understand that, then you can see what you’ve got to be grateful for.

It might take them a while and they might not all come around at once. I have no doubt though that they will eventually consider themselves fortunate to have you as their engine.

The job is to mind the past, but there’s still a present and a future, you know.

Your friend,

Pioneer

May 1972

Dear Pioneer,

I hope my quick response didn’t seem overeager! It wasn’t just me who was excited to hear from you. More than one volunteer offered to do the writing for me. (I think they settled on trading off for now.) You’re as much a celebrity to the folks here as you were to those of us on the CB&Q!

Names are a tricky thing. It didn’t used to mean much in day-to-day service, but here it makes you sort of special. I hadn’t thought about how helpful it is to have your name spelled right on your side until I came here. It meant I got to be Silver Pilot on the CB&Q and FW&D, since they were Burlington-owned. Not all us E5’s were so lucky. When we came to the C&S, Silver Bullet and Silver Wings had their name boards taken entirely. All the others just had their nameplates turned over. Me, Mate, Silver Racer, and Silver Steed all got to keep ours very near to the end though. Between you and me, I think C&S just realized it would be faster not to bother. They eventually did flip my name board during my last months, but the nice folks at the IRM were quick to put it right-side out again.

Meanwhile, KL&L 5 tells me her name changed every time she changed companies! Even now though, sometimes they just call her “the Shay”. She’s the only Shay here, so it’s not as though they’re talking about anyone else, I guess. You don’t think about this stuff when you’re hauling rake, but sitting around all day has a way of changing how you look at things.

I had no idea there were so many other engines at the MSI! 999 and 2903 sound like they both had quite the service life. I don’t doubt 999 went one-hundred miles an hour and 2903 sounds incredible! I pulled freight once. It took six of us just to pull one train and it was slow, grueling work. I can’t imagine pulling that many cars just on my own. Isn’t steam grand? Those engines have been doing incredible things since before you and I were even thought of.

We have a few steam engines here at the IRM. I mentioned KL&L 5 already. She might be able to give 2903 a run for his money. She’s a three-truck Shay and used to haul timber trains out west. Now she’s mostly in charge of the visitor train, but sometimes she helps with moving static engines to different parts of the track. There’s also our newest steam engine, Tuskegee 101. She arrived around the same time as me, but since her repairs she’s been a big hit with guests. KL&L 5 is popular too, but she’s not a type of engine the folks who live here are used to seeing. Tuskegee 101 is more familiar and faster to boot. Between the two of them, I think the visitors are spoiled for choice as far as steam goes!

And of course I mentioned my train already, the Goddesses. They’re only five now: Venus, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, and Juno. Diana and Psyche didn’t come to the IRM, but that’s about as much as I know and it’s only because Venus told me. If the rest of them do know, they’re not saying and I haven’t asked. Losing part of your train isn’t easy. I can’t tell how much they can hear when the volunteers read your letters or how much they bother to listen when I talk to them myself, but I shared your advice with them (not the part about them being fortunate to have me; I don’t want to come off as conceited). Even if they’re not sure about me at the moment, I’m lucky to have them. I don’t know how I’d manage if it were just me. I guess they wouldn’t need an engine if they didn’t have the train though. I suppose I’m twice as lucky for that!

I keep telling myself that it will start to feel normal soon. That I’ll wake up one day and be the Nebraska Zephyr and it won’t feel strange at all. It happened when I was in service, it happened at the scrapyard, and it will happen here too. I only hope it’s soon. Maybe after my first run with the Goddesses in August? I’ve shuffled around quite a bit, but I haven’t pulled anything in ages. When I worked last, I was running smoother and it wasn’t just me.

I must thank you again for writing. I’ve asked the volunteers to read me your last reply more than a few times. It’s been nice to hear it again while they’re doing maintenance and safety checks. So many safety checks. But it will be worth it in the end– I hope! Your letters have been getting me through these past few weeks and I appreciate them more than I can say.

Please thank your docents for sending along that postcard too. You and U-505 both look dashing! I hope that the warmer weather has been treating your exterior well and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Your friend,

Silver Pilot

June 1972

Dear Silver Pilot,

A postcard? How odd. I seem to recall being asked if I wanted to include a photo and saying no, as I am writing to a friend, not an enthusiast asking for an autograph. The docents insist they only did it because they doubted you’d ever seen a submarine before. U-505 was quite flustered at being told he looked “dashing” once we explained to him what it meant. One can imagine he doesn’t get that sort of compliment very often.

I haven’t asked – for the same reason you haven’t asked your Goddesses, I imagine – about Silver Mate. I wonder if you might want to tell me about him? I hadn’t realized how everything would have happened for you as it has.

It was all arranged so the transition went easily when I was given to the MSI. As easily as being retired can go anyway. I finished my last run and then a month or so later, I was set up here in the yard. I knew exactly what was going to happen the whole way through. I hadn’t been told about how you’d been to a scrapyard. My docents seemed a bit iffy on the details, but it sounds as though it’s been much more difficult for you in just about every way it can be from there on.

When they suggested writing to you, I had to think about it first. I wasn’t sure if engines really ought to be writing letters. The only other time I’ve written one, I didn’t receive a reply. I had hoped, though, that reaching out might be useful to you. When I was a new engine, I had other engines to show me how to do the job, but there wasn’t anyone to show me how to do this one.

If my letters have done more than that for you, beyond just telling you what to expect… Maybe I’ve been at my standstill for too long and am overestimating things, but it seems a more important service than any I’ve yet done.

I think you are probably through the hardest of it now. Your mechanics know precisely what your limitations are. In a museum, they will not ask you to do anything beyond your ability. They wouldn’t want to risk damaging you. And once your coaches remember what it’s like to travel again and they see how magnificent their train is – the whole train with you at the head – everything else will work itself out.

You are going to be the shining star of that museum. Us Zephyrs always are.

As to whether we can weather the weather, my exterior’s starting to loosen up again now that it’s getting warmer. The steam engines are happier since they’re meant to run hot, but U-505… he doesn’t complain, but he’s supposed to be underwater so he prefers cold to heat. He worries that he might spring a leak if his exterior expands too much. I think it’s kinder not to point out that he’s not in any danger of sinking if he did.

Your friend,

Pioneer

July 1972

Dear Pioneer,

I should apologize. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t know all that had happened since I retired, but how could you? If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have shared quite so much as I did. After all, it’s not your load to haul and I never meant to put you in that position. You’ve gone above and beyond just by writing to me in the first place.

I’ll tell you a bit about Mate as you were kind enough to ask though, to help you understand my last letter. Mate was my B-unit. We were manufactured at the same time and meant to work together. Many of us cab units had boosters to match and I’m sure if you asked any cab they’d all say their booster was the best, but Mate really was! He was as hard-working as any cab engine I’ve ever met, but always cheerful and ready with an encouraging word. We’d joke and laugh – even sing sometimes on our longer jaunts – but he was just as capable of being serious when we needed to be.

Boosters had it pretty rough though. They’re not cars, but they’re not quite locomotives either. Mate could move without me, but he couldn’t pull anything by himself. In a way, I felt responsible for him, the way I’d feel for any of my cars. When they sent us both back to La Grange though, he was the one comforting me, saying that they might need us to pull grain cars again. They held off on putting me to the torch because I was the A-unit, because I could head a train and he couldn’t.

We were made as a matched pair, but only I’m left. It seems silly now to have implied that I can’t pull this train without him (if they didn’t know I could do it, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion). But I worked together with him for so long, the idea that I’ll be doing it alone – that I have to do it alone. Sometimes, it feels like more than I can bear.

I think a lot about if our positions had been reversed, if it should be him sitting here instead of me. It’s only dumb luck that I got back out of Pielet Bros. at all and it never would have happened if I was a booster unit. Still, I wish there’d been some way for me to give Mate this chance instead. I know I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for myself though. Mate would have joked that that’s the trouble of being the A-unit.

I can’t really say whether or not engines ought to be writing letters, but yours have been useful to me. In the past, when I would struggle with a job or feel unsure of myself, it was Mate who’d always be there to remind me to put things into perspective. I think your letters have done the same thing.

By the time this reaches you, I think I’ll have probably been out for my test run. The volunteers said I might wait to write until after that, but I wanted you to know I never meant to make you feel responsible for my troubles. I only have them because I’ve been given a second chance at service life and I’m grateful for it. I have a job to do, coaches to pull, people who care about me, and a pen pal who writes me once a month! I’m sure that I’m the luckiest engine running.

I’ll probably have more interesting things to say in my next letter. I hope this one and my last don’t weigh too heavily on you in any case. As always, looking forward to hearing from you soon!

Your friend,

Silver Pilot

August 1972

Dear Silver Pilot,

Please do not apologize. I wrote you in the first place because I know firsthand that the transition to retirement is difficult to come to terms with. I just hadn’t realized you had circumstances that would put you further along. I imagine it’s a lot harder to feel slighted by preservation when you’ve literally looked the smelter in the face first.

I suspect it is still quite easy to feel undeserving of it though. My docents say it’s called survivor’s guilt. You know that there’s nothing you could have done to save Mate so I don’t need to tell you, but I know I still get the feeling that other engines deserve to be here more than me sometimes.

I once knew an engine called The City of Salina. When we were new, he was called M-10000, but Union Pacific gave him a proper name like all their other streamliners once they had them. He was the first of their fleet, the way I was for ours. He was very modern looking, all rounded around the edges with a bright yellow and brown livery. We were both built the same year, but he came out first. He broke the land speed record at a hundred and ten miles an hour, which I then beat by two a few months later.

Aside from that first stunt, Union Pacific didn’t go to the same sort of lengths that Burlington did for me though. We sometimes appeared together, as a show of both competition and cooperation, but outside of that, Salina never had the sorts of events built around him that I did. If there’s one thing to be said for Ralph Budd, the man knew how to get people excited about a train. I probably wouldn’t still be here if he didn’t.

I sometimes wonder if Salina might have been preserved too (or instead) if I hadn’t beaten his record so quickly. I don’t think my record alone is why I’ve been preserved, but 999 says that’s why she was and I’m told that’s true of a few other engines out there too.

You know as well as I do that even if I hadn’t beaten his record, it wouldn’t have saved him from scrap. Most engines get scrapped, even the best. They say they used Salina’s aluminum to make airplanes for the war. It’s perhaps nice to imagine his getting a second life as an airplane, although I’ve never known a scrapyard to say what a specific engine’s parts are used to make otherwise. At least he was deemed worthy of a story.

I’m getting away from my point.

There’s no use in worrying about whether we deserve to be preserved when Mate and Salina were not, because what people think is important and worth saving changes on a whim. It’s never been about who actually deserves it. The only thing for it is to make sure what’s important to us is not forgotten either.

Mate and Salina would both be lost to time like so many other engines are, except for that you and I are not. We are still here and they are part of our stories. There is no Pioneer Zephyr without The City of Salina and there’s no Silver Pilot without Silver Mate.

It is part of our service then, to see that they are remembered for theirs.

Your friend,

Pioneer

September 1972

Dear Pioneer,

What a month it’s been! Your letter arrived just before I took my first trip down the tracks with the Goddesses. I wanted to start on my reply right away, but they did our test run at night so we didn’t disappoint any crowds if things didn’t work out and it was late by the time we finished. I’ve had a few days’ rest and some more time to think on your letter since then.

Your story about City of Salina was sad, but was something of a comfort after my last letter too. Is that strange to say? It was nice to know that my feelings about Mate and about being the one left behind were not unusual. Preservation has been one realization after another and this one might be the most important one of all. I didn’t get a lot of time to really get to know the other types of engines I worked alongside, but it seems like we all have more in common than I realized, regardless of build.

I asked some of the volunteers if they had any pictures of City of Salina and one of them brought in a book to show me. Imagine my shock when I saw a photo of the both of you together! All the pictures were in black-and-white, so I couldn’t see Salina’s yellow, but one of the volunteers thinks he has a color postcard at home he can show me. You and I are lucky; we mostly look the same in black-and-white as we do in color.

Salina seems like he was a great engine and I’m happy that you shared his story with me. I hope there will be a time when I can tell others about Mate in the same way. What you said about Salina and Mate being part of our stories, it got me thinking. I said in my first letter that I liked my name because Mate and I were a matched set, but now that there’s just me left, I’ve never been more proud to wear the A in 9952A. Not that I wasn’t before, but it’s almost like proof. I can’t be 9952A without there having been a 9952B too. I think (I hope?) that this means I’m getting better at doing this half of the job. As for the other half…

My test run went great! At first, I was more nervous than I even have words for. The mechanics and engineer had worked very hard to get me here, I didn’t want to let them down. But everyone was so kind and encouraging and I remembered all the nice things you wrote. That helped. Venus even wished me luck (quiet-like so the others didn’t hear). Then we were off!

It was magnificent. The whole train, gleaming in the moonlight, feeling the rails rumble under the weight of a full five cars, and me! I wish you could have seen it. I don’t think any engine has ever been as happy as I was to travel the short distance up and down the line. We didn’t get up to speed, as there’s not much room and it was dark, but even just ambling along was enough to put everyone in high spirits. The Goddesses were delighted and I got to hear Ceres speak for the first time! She sits so far back and only whispers to Juno so I don’t ever hear her, but her voice was clear as a bell that night.

The staff say they hope to get us fully operational for Members’ Day next month. They’re going to serve lunch in Ceres while we take all the Museum members along the main line. We’ll have one more test run between then and now, but I’m optimistic with how well this one went. If I make a good enough impression, we’ll get more donations and maybe they can fix the Goddesses’ air-conditioning! Everyone’s excited and it feels like everything is on the right track after so long.

Have I said “thank you” enough yet? I don’t know that I have. I spent so many months sitting in a siding by myself, only to come here and feel like an outsider and a burden. But here I am now, and everyone is rooting for me! It’s hard not to feel like your letters played a role in helping me get to this point. Your words of advice, your willingness to listen, and even the simple offer of friendship; they were all just as important as the mechanical repairs in getting me ready for operational service again. So once again, from the very core of both my engines: Thank you. You’re an inspiration to me and I couldn’t ask for a better friend.

My volunteer letter writer says his hand is starting to cramp so I’d better wrap this up. If I don’t hear from you before Members’ Day, I’ll be sure to update you on how it went. Please give everyone at MSI my best!

Your friend,

Silver Pilot

November 1972

Dear Pioneer,

I missed your October letter. It may be that one of our replies got lost in the mail. The volunteers told me these things happen. If so, I’m sorry and I hope you don’t mind me reaching out again. I figured it was worth sending an update, since a lot has happened since my last letter anyway.

I mentioned that my test run in September went well and that I’d be out for one more before Members’ Day. To make a long story very short, one of my valve springs broke. I wasn’t able to pull the train for the event. They still served lunch in Ceres, which I think softened the blow at least, but it wasn’t the same. Looking at it another way, it’s good that it happened a week before and not the day of. That’s why we do safety checks, I suppose.

It’s no one’s fault, of course. I’ve been outside since the scrapyard and have suffered some minor damage, but nothing so bad that it stopped me from being able to do my job. Left alone, a broken valve spring could lead to more serious problems, so until it’s fixed the Goddesses and I are functionally static displays.

And I’ve been reassured that it will be fixed, among other things. So that’s good. I realize a lot has to come before that, including other engines who are in more dire straits than myself. Though we’re static for now, a full trainset makes for nice pictures on the wye still.

Hoping to hear from you soon.

Your friend,

Silver Pilot

To be continued…

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