Q&A: Career Advice From A Steam-Engine Mechanic

Or, how to keep a fleet of steam trains moving along
Andy Reynolds

Popular Science: You were trained in industrial archaeology. How did that lead to this job?

Stathi Pappas: Just like archaeologists who study the Mayan world or the classical world, an industrial archaeologist studies the industrial world. I was writing my dissertation on society and steam locomotives when I had one of those aha moments. I thought, Wouldn’t it be interesting if I could actually live in the past? So I got a job at another tourist railroad; then I helped build the boiler for the Sierra No. 3, which is the engine that’s in Back to the Future, Part III; then I got hired here.

PS: What’s a typical day for you?

SP: I might be machining large parts of a steam locomotive, like a drive wheel on our 1892 lathe, or welding in a firebox sheet, or doing hot riveting like Rosie the Riveter from back in the 1940s. We do a lot of that, because steam locomotives don’t last if you don’t do that kind of work on them. Every couple of days, our crew has to do something so they don’t totally fall apart.

PS: American steam locomotives were hand-built without manuals. How do you know how to fix them?

SP: It’s a little bit of voodoo, a little bit of reverse engineering. Back in the day, mechanical engineers relied on empirical research: This blew up, that didn’t. We take the same basic approach.

PS: What’s been your most difficult repair to date?

SP: I replaced 80 percent of the pressure vessel on my personal locomotive. Everybody told me, “That engine’s yard art. Turn it into a mailbox. Make a latte stand out of it. It’s never going to run again.” It’s running.

PS: What would you say to someone who wants to get into an unusual line of work?

SP: The stuff that everybody says is too hard to do? Do that. Really learn it. And then you’ll be worth your weight in gold.

_This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of _Popular Science.