Jean Kloha: From Switchman to Fireman

“I enjoy the excursion part because you can see the awe on people’s faces for the first time”

Steam locomotives are much more than machines. Ask anyone that works with these iron horses and they all say that it’s like they have a mind of their own. The lifelike characteristics of a steam engine have the power to captivate anyone, making it no wonder that these historic engines have such an appeal and such a following in this day and age. This post is dedicated to another keeper of steam, however one with an unconventional upbringing. Today on Behind the Throttle, Jean Kloha, firewoman with the Steam Railroading Institute, shares her story. 

Jean pauses while keeping the 1225’s fire hot. Photo by Matt Churcott.

Most of us train phanatics will find our way into the hobby at a young age. However, Jean Khola is truly the opposite of this archetype. She was born and raised without a train in sight, with her first experience of railroading being from her occupation, moving railcars at a chemical plant. Jean’s title is a switchman, and her job is to move cars around the plant using a trackmobile. Jean began working with the tank cars at the chemical plant in 2007, and in 2014, after several years moving tank cars back and forth, she decided that she wanted more. That year, Jean took it upon herself to find another railroading outlet near her, to which she discovered the Steam Railroading Institute was only a stone’s throw from her hometown. That following weekend, she purchased a ticket onboard the historical society’s “Great Train Robbery” themed ride. Jean was smitten with the group as soon as her train left the station. Soon she was back for a “Hands on the Throttle” experience with one of the several Flagg Coal travelling tank engines. No sooner did she disembark from the cab of Flagg Coal #75 had Jean decided that she would be back at SRI as soon as she could be, which was the next Saturday for a volunteer work session.

Jean, with her husband Steve and Barney Gramling after her “Hands on the Throttle” experience.

Following her first experience of volunteering with the SRI, Jean soon began making weekly trips to Owosso, Michigan, to help however she could. After expressing interest in working in the cab of the organization’s claim to fame, the Pere Marquette 1225, Jean got her first in cab experience in July of 2015. “I loved every minute of it, it was a little loud, but seeing it fired up for the first time is what got me hooked”, Jean told me, speaking with a clear smile on her face. “Its like it talks to you”. She explained to me that she’s always had a fascination with large machines, and 1225 certainly met the mark for her interest. The size, the complexity, and the sounds the 1225 made had Jean in awe. From there on out, Jean began training to become a firewoman on the locomotive crew. Being an outsider to the world of railroading, Jean had no pre-existing notions about what running a steam locomotive was all about. “I was just there to learn it”, Jean told me as she described her various experiences working with the locomotive over her now six years of working with SRI. Jean took to the cab on several night watch shifts, where a crew will keep the engine hot overnight in preparation for the next day’s runs. She additionally told me about her first time student-firing the locomotive on the mainline, which was in November of 2016. At the time, she described herself as a nervous wreck, but after a few more trips, she got the hang of it and now carries a certification to fire the locomotive on her own. She even fired 4 trips on her own last year in 2019 during the North Pole Express excursions, an accomplishment Jean holds close to her heart. After only a few years working with the organization, Jean grew from a total novice to an expert in steam railroading. She’s even travelling with the Grambling Company, the organization that leases the Flagg Coal locomotives like the one she had her “Hands on the Throttle” experience with, to help fire the locomotives while other guests get their opportunity to pull the throttle and blow the whistle! 

Jean poses next to her humble steed before the return trip back to Owosso.

From her time at SRI, Jean has countless memories from working with the 1225 that she reminisce about with me. One of her favorites of these was during the North Pole Express trips in 2018, when 1225 was experiencing some mechanical issues. As Jean and her crewmates took the engine back to the yard for servicing, the diesel assistants moved the passenger consist to the platform to board the eager passengers. While performing the servicing, Jean spotted a young boy in the vestibule of one of the passenger cars, waving to the engine. She paused from the servicing work for a brief moment to wave back. She then handed one of the conductors near the engine a small crochet train that she made, with the hopes of making the boy’s trip all the more memorable. Her hopes were fulfilled, as when the conductor handed the boy the small trinket, he lit up and smiled ear to ear. Another memory that Jean shared with me was during a layover on a different excursion. As she watched over the engine, preparing for the return trip, she looked out the window and saw a young girl waving to the cab. As Jean saw her smiling face, she ascended the steps up to the cab and went to say hello to the curious onlooker. Jean told me with a laugh that her face dropped when she climbed down, “Like she’s never seen a girl up there before”. Jean then invited her into the cab, gave her a tour of the workings behind this steam relic, and certainly gave this young girl a memory to last a lifetime. Jean went further and told me about the unknown elements of railroading she’s had the opportunity to explore, as several other volunteers at SRI come from railroading backgrounds. Jean told me she gained an understanding of most railroad jargon, which at first seemed like another language to her. Additionally, Jean likes being able to see the joy in her passengers, and likes knowing that everyone goes home with smiles and memories after riding. “I enjoy the excursion part because you can see the awe on people’s faces for the first time”, she told me, as she thought back to her first time at the railroad institute when she was introduced to steam railroading. Her time at SRI has shown her that there is much more to railroading than just the trains. Memories come out of these trips, hobbies and passions are inspired, and lifelong friendships are forged in the coal-burning fires. Jean showed me that no matter what brings us into the hobby, we all love the same thing: the memories, the people, and of course, the trains. 

Jean and Kevin Mayer pose on the pilot of 1225 following Jean’s first time firing on her own

Thank you for reading this edition of Behind the Throttle. We’d also like to give thanks to Scott Shields and Matt Churcott for contributing photos. Tune in next time to hear the story of Vincent LiBrizzi, a lifelong preservationist and current board member at the Rockton, Rion, and Western Railroad. 

One comment

  1. Brian Johns · April 21

    Great story — great article! Question: It looks like there’s a sheep or a ram in the headlight right above the 1225 number in the last picture at the bottom. Is that really there — or just a trick of the light?