John Graddon, fireman on the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, readies the 1929 steam engine for a Santa Express run from the station in Elbe.
Three hundred people are on board the Santa Express, a misnomer, as it takes a leisurely pace from the station in Elbe, Pierce County, to Mineral in Lewis County, about seven miles away.
The uneven tracks make for a gentle rock ‘n’ roll at 10 mph.
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At the station, engineer Zeb Darrah and fireman John Graddon prepare the 1929 Alco 2-8-2 Mikado oil-fueled engine for the run. Engine 17 once made short runs in Northern California for the Hammond Lumber Co. With no seals on the moving parts, there’s oiling to be done at each stop.
Graddon explains how the engine works. “Boil water in a pressure vessel, control the steam into a valve into pistons, which drives the rods. The wheels turn.”
No wood or coal is burned as they produce sparks that could start a fire in the woods along the tracks.
In the car where Santa is seated, he waits to hear wants and needs of more than 100 children and a few adults. There’s no Prancer or Dancer, no Donder or Blitzen. He explains they’re in a pasture.
One child wants a forklift, another wants “purple dogs.” A grandmother says she “needs a boyfriend. It’s getting lonely.” Each who visits him receives a small, stuffed toy.
Back in the passenger cars people sip hot chocolate and eat cookies.
In the cab of the steam engine, Graddon tends the boiler.
Just like the children in line for Santa, he says what working on the railroad feels like: “I’m 12. I haven’t grown up yet.”