“I was more terrified than interested, but I guess the thing that you’re most afraid of is actually the thing you’re most interested in”.
One of the hallmarks of this industry we’ve all come to love is the fire-breathing iron horses that once prowled every stretch of rail in the country. As time went on, and more efficient machines were developed, the steam locomotive soon became obsolete and the skills necessary for taming these beasts went from common knowledge to a trade lost to time. In the modern day, both steam engines and their caretakers have become scarce, and having an in-depth understanding of these machines has become a rarity. This edition of Behind the Throttle is dedicated to a woman who’s knowledge of the machinery of yesterday is unmatched in every regard. Andrea Biesecker, commonly known as “Sparkee”, has earned her place in the world of preservation, and is here to share her story on this edition of Behind the Throttle.
Sparkee was born in 1989 to a family of machine enthusiasts. As a child, she received lots of exposure to heavy machinery and the industrial lifestyle. Her dad, a bulldozer and diesel enthusiast, took her to the Rough and Tumble expos at every possible opportunity. Her family owned several antique diesel powered machines, and her father had hoped to pass this tradition down to her. At the Rough and Tumble expos, Sparkee’s father tried to get her hooked on diesel, but his efforts were to no avail as Sparkee was drawn to something else. She told me that she somehow always ended up with the steam powered traction engines and tractors. “I was more terrified than interested, but I guess the thing that you’re most afraid of is actually the thing you’re most interested in”. Sparkee never manifested an interest in trains, but rather anything that ran on steam. She was drawn to the complex nature of these old machines, and the perfection that went into each and every staybolt. With a chuckle, She told me “My heart is with steam”.
As years went on, Sparkee was further drawn to steam power, but viewed this passion as a mere hobby. After graduating high school, Sparkee was set to go to college and become an accountant, not because it interested her, but because she knew she would make a living with that career. Sensing her hesitation, Sparkee’s father encouraged her to go to school and learn to become a machinist. Sparkee now faced a crossroads, as she explained to me. She was more interested in machinery than numbers and spreadsheets for sure, but the taboo nature of going to trade school threw her off: “No girls like this stuff”. She, however, eventually went with her gut, and set out to become a machinist. At the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, she took classes in becoming a machinist. The lessons and information clicked in her mind, and she was naturally good at machining. With her mind in the right place, Sparkee graduated and sought out a job where she could put her skills to use.
Soon Sparkee found herself in the backshop of the Strasburg Rail Road, using a CNC Lathe to make staybolts for the several steam locomotives both at Strasburg and for contract work in the shop. Eager to work hands on with the actual steam engines, she persistently asked the shop supervisors if she could have just one fireman shift onboard the steam engines. After a year of asking, Sparkee got her wish, and after only six days, she was officially certified as a fireman. Over the next few years, Sparkee kept working in the shops and as a fireman along Strasburg’s four mile stretch of track through Amish paradise. Sparkee reminisced with me about some of her fond memories of her time with America’s oldest shortline. Her best day at the railroad was in December of 2015, when she finally received her engineer’s certification. On this dreadfully cold day, she was at the throttle of Straburg’s former Norfolk and Western locomotive, #475. Despite the freezing conditions, Sparkee ran the whole day, hogging in the engineer’s seat where she belonged, despite being “So nervous I couldn’t see straight”. After the seemingly endless day, Sparkee was awarded her certification, and although she had lost all feeling in her fingers and her face had gone numb, “It was probably my favorite day of my time with Strasburg”.
Nowadays, Sparkee holds the position of Project Manager of Contracts at Strasburg. With her extensive knowledge of steam mechanics, she is able to diagnose issues with steam locomotives over the phone and tell potential customers at Strasburg what repairs and maintenance their steam engine needs to run again. She explained to me ”What a good mechanic can do for your car, I can do for your steam engine”. In addition to this position, Sparkee runs and fires several of the steam powered excursions on the road to paradise. When I asked if Sparkee received any backlash about being a woman in a male-dominated field, she told me that once she proved herself as being just as competent as the men that worked alongside her (and now for her), they all quit with their backhanded comments.
In addition to her job with steam engines, Sparkee gets another dose of steam therapy with her personal steam traction engines. She and her husband each own a steam tractor that they maintain and preserve in their free time. They also tour the tractors around the eastern United States to show what farm power used to look like. To Sparkee, “Steam is a lifestyle, not a hobby”. Working with steam on a daily basis has given her an appreciation for the masterful craftsmanship that went into these machines, and how they have outlived their lifespan brings her a sense of wonder unmatched by any modern gimmick.
Sparkee confided in me that she had no idea that she would be working with steam engines when she was younger. As her life went on, she grew to appreciate the machines of the past and the history behind them. She takes great pride in her work of preservation and education on transportation and machine history, and hopes to pass down this passion to the next generation of steam enthusiasts.
Thank you for reading this edition of Behind the Throttle, and thank you to Logan Dahir and Chris Pollock for contributing photos. Tune in next time for a spotlight of Zac McGinnis, one of the many people behind the Norfolk and Western 611.