Bob LeMassena: Letting Off Steam at the Railroad Museum

By Josh Bishop

Bob LeMassena told me his age with a smile and a gleam in his eye, as if letting me in on a long-kept secret. “I’m still young,” he said. Bob is 93. And then he quoted the first line of a Samuel Ullman poem: “Youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind,” adding, “I live by that one.”

Bob is a volunteer at the Colorado Railroad Museum near Golden, where he works in the library cataloging thousands of photographs of steam locomotives with an energy that proves his point. To other people his age — particularly the women in his “active adult” apartment complex — BINGO is a big deal, but not for Bob. “I’m too busy writing books and articles. Here’s book number 18 right here,” he said, tapping the side of a cardboard box on his desk. It was filled with well-organized photographs and pages of a hand-written manuscript.

I talked with Bob in his corner of the library, a sort of wall-less office sandwiched between the photocopier and the microfiche. His blue eyes were lively and young; they lit with excitement as he talked about his steam engines, and his entire aged face was animated by his memories. He drew diagrams on his knee with his fingers while we chatted. I heard the intermittent ring of the bell on an engine outside and thought, this place is perfect for Bob.

The Colorado Railroad Museum has more than 100 items on display in its 15-acre outdoor museum, from passenger cars, cabooses and freight cars to Bob’s beloved steam locomotives.

Donald Tallman, the museum’s executive director, walked me through the yard, pointing out some of his favorite exhibits.

One of the cars, which ran between Billings, Mont., and Fort Worth, Texas, from 1922 to 1967, was a Railway Post Office. A sign posted inside the car said these operating post offices delivered and collected the mail for more than 100 years, handling shipments of gold bars, live bees and baby chicks, in addition to more traditional mail.

The interior of the car has been reconstructed to resemble the post office as it might have appeared during its operation, complete with bags of mail and two postal worker mannequins sorting envelopes, a life-sized diorama. It was as if a three-dimensional snapshot had been taken decades ago and preserved, only to be interrupted by my now out-of-place tennis shoes and digital camera.

“We try to provide an authentic railroad experience for both the non-rail enthusiast as well as the rail enthusiast,” Tallman said. I fall into the former category. Sure, I had an electric train set when I was young, but it only made the complete circuit a dozen or so times before collecting dust. Still, as little as I cared when I was a boy, today was different; I was fascinated by the large-as-life machinery of Colorado’s railway history.

Tallman brought me to the museum’s biggest steam locomotive, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy #5629, built in 1940. It’s an impressive locomotive. Weighing in at more than 476,000 pounds (800,000 pounds if you count the tender, the car immediately following the locomotive that hauls coal and water), the steam engine dwarfed me.

I had seen the engine from the road when I drove up but I didn’t realize that it was easily twice my height. I felt small again, like a kid, and as I looked up I felt a little bit of the awe that Bob had talked about, the amazement that drew him to steam engines when he was barely old enough to ride a bike.

Every Sunday in Orange, N.J. — Bob’s childhood hometown — a steam engine would pass through, blowing its whistle for the crossing at every street. “I’d get on my bicycle and ride down the hill,” Bob said. “I followed it on a track next to the rails.”

One Sunday the engineer asked young Bob if he’d like to ride along. Bob may have been young, but he was no fool. “I thought it was pretty big sport for a Sunday afternoon. My mother deplored it because I got dirty,” he said.

A little dirt never hurt a life-long passion, and for Bob it’s exactly what he needed. He’s been in love with locomotives ever since.

Bob’s train-mania stayed with him through a long, full life. If you ask, he’d be more than happy to tell you in detail exactly how he got from little Orange, about 10 miles west of New York, all the way to big-city Denver. His story is a winding narrative, filled with digressions and encyclopedic knowledge (Bob can remember the cost of a round-trip ticket in the mid-1930s) and flawless memories — “This is a lot of detail, I realize,” Bob apologized at one point — and it helps explain how a boyhood obsession grew until Bob became one of the world’s foremost experts on steam locomotives.

In fact, when workers in Songyuan, China, unearthed an old locomotive Bob came to the rescue, helping the Chinese identify the steam engine. Bob tells the story like this:
“About a year and a half ago, in Manchuria, south of Harbin, on the old China Eastern, they were excavating for a new bridge across a river and they discovered a locomotive. They figure it had been washed off the bridge in a flood of some kind. Nobody new anything about it. They had no records, and when they excavated it, it was about 20 feet down in the gravel.”

They sent out word to various railroad organizations that might be able to help, and, according to Bob, the staff at the Colorado Railroad Museum were the only ones who responded. “My knowledge of foreign stuff isn’t too good,” he said, “but we’ll give it a whirl.”

Bob was able to identify the locomotive in no time, thanks to a serial number visible in a photo of the excavation. “We were there like that, so to speak,” he said, snapping his fingers.

The volunteers in the library are especially suited to tasks like this. The research library is staffed by people who are, in Bob’s words, “all experts in their fields. This isn’t a case of punching buttons on a computer, we know our business.” Of the 10,000 research books in the library, 17 — with titles like Articulated Steam Locomotives, volumes I & II — have Bob’s name on the spine.

The museum, like the library, is serious about trains. Inside the museum are smaller exhibits displaying artifacts from Colorado’s railroad history; one exhibit reproduces a Western Union telegraph office; another walks visitors through a timeline from 1867 to 1970. Train rides are offered several times each year.

© 2007 Josh Bishop

This article was first published at goColorado.com on April 11, 2007. To see the full archived piece, click here.

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