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Engineer Thomas Bauer prepared the train to leave Oberwiesenthal.

T.R. Goldman • Washington Post,

The Hotel-Gasthof Rotgiesserhaus, in Oberwiesenthal, Germany, shown on Dec. 28, 2013, was built as a foundry in 1747 and is believed to be the oldest brick home in Oberwiesenthal.

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The romance of little steam engines in Eastern Germany

  • Article by: T.R. Goldman
  • Washington Post
  • February 28, 2014 - 11:50 AM

I stood outdoors on a cold, gray, moist December day in the rail yard of the German village of Oberwiesenthal, watching a black engine built in 1933 alternately belch jets of steam that raced along the tracks and gusts that enveloped its green passenger cars whole. And I wasn’t alone. The Fichtelbergbahn, one of three narrow-gauge steam railroads in this relatively obscure corner of eastern Germany, a couple of miles from the Czech border at the top of the Ore Mountains, attracts visitors from around Germany and the world.

Steam locomotives are impossibly romantic, and narrow-gauge engines, about half the size of an ordinary locomotive, are impossibly cute as well, in the manner of a pint-size version of anything, from a miniature horse to a pygmy hippo. But like many trains that run in mountainous terrain, the Fichtelbergbahn is smaller for a reason: Because it must make sharper than usual turns, its narrow-gauge track is about half the width of conventional rail lines, the two rails exactly 750 millimeters (about 2½ feet) apart.

Put another way, explained Hans-Thomas Reichelt, the chief engineer with the Saxon Steam Railway Co. (SDG), which runs the Fichtelbergbahn, a narrow-gauge train can turn in a circle with a radius of just 50 meters (164 feet) — nearly two-thirds less than a normal-size locomotive.

That’s not to say that these 50-ton engines are anything less than cast-iron behemoths, with 1,300-gallon water tanks and a firebox that devours 180 pounds of coal on the uphill run and 130 pounds on the downhill.

But their pared-down size somehow makes them more accessible, and during the three days I spent in Oberwiesenthal, there were many hours where I — along with dozens of others — stood milling about the rail yard, photographing the engines as if they were some exotic zoo animal and the yard worker, who shoveled out coal dust through a hinged circular door on the front of the engine, its keeper.

Oberwiesenthal is an understated ski village of 3,000 and the highest town in Germany. A quarter-century ago, before the Berlin Wall collapsed, it was part of the German Democratic Republic.

Until 1960, said Reichelt, the Fichtelbergbahn hauled uranium from the local mines for use in Soviet atomic bombs. Today, it hauls more than 200,000 sightseeing passengers a year between Oberwiesenthal and the town of Cranzahl about 11 miles away.

I climbed into one of the passenger cars, which hold three to four dozen people. They’re clean, serviceable and warm, but not particularly distinctive. What I wanted to see was the engine, and ride at least some of the hourlong trip with the engineer.

When I climbed into the cab, I faced a blizzard of polished metal wheels that popped out from the gray wooden wall. At least nine round gauges, their needles etched in the understated style of the 1930s, rose out of this skein of wheels and knobs, measuring steam and brake pressures and the temperature of the water in the boiler, which has to be refilled each trip. A glass tube — the kind used in a beginning chemistry class — monitored the boiler’s water level.

Amid this clutter, engineer Thomas Bauer and fireman Stephan Ebert were checking gauges and adjusting wheels, and trying to explain to me, via interpreter, just exactly what they were doing.

Ebert’s duties include shoveling coal from the tender to the firebox. There, a fierce yellow blaze turns water into steam, which shoots into a cylinder, driving a piston back and forth (the “choo” is the sound of the steam exhaust leaving the train after each piston push). The pistons move the bright-red coupling rods, and the coupling rods turn the wheels.

As the engine shoots thick white bursts of steam into the air, Bauer pulls a lever that sends a blast of steam hurtling into the bell of the train whistle, producing a high-pitched, breathy, slightly vibrato sound that resonates through the Sehma Valley.

Then the “chug chug chug chug” starts, or rather a cross between a chug and a choo, at first slowly and methodically, then rapidly crescendoing in speed, until the choog-choog-choog-choogs are coming so fast that they’re barely perceptible, yet still keeping perfect four/four time, the second and fourth notes beating with slightly more emphasis, like a jazz drummer driving his brushes as fast as humanly possible.

Steam locomotive travel started in 1804 — the first intercity train line in Germany began in 1839 between Dresden and Leipzig, less than 100 miles away — and lasted into the 1950s — and well beyond in some countries. “You see the power a steam engine like this has,” said Reichelt. “You can feel it. … Fire and water come together and make something work. It’s elemental.”

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