“It’s more than a locomotive, it’s a second family”
Trains are a lot more than just iron machines that bring goods and people back and forth. Those of us who are involved in the industry know that a culture around railroading has been formed over the years. With trains comes a group of people who share a love and respect for the history behind each and every aspect of railroading; it’s truly a lifestyle more than a hobby. This week on Behind the Throttle, we’ll talk to a man who turned a casual interest into a lifelong passion, all the while becoming a part of a second family.
Zac McGinnis was born in West Virginia in the early 1980’s, just around the height of the then steam-powered New River Train. Zac’s grandfather, an engineer for the Chesapeake and Ohio, would take Zac to chase trains around the area and even ride the famed passenger train through the New River Gorge. His interest in trains was further incited after he scored a ride in the cab of the Nickel Plate Road 765 steam locomotive when he was seven years old. “I was hooked for sure after that, going 60 mph behind the fireman is just something you don’t forget”, Zac told me. However, his casual interest would stay casual through his years in high school. Speaking from personal experience, I can understand how liking trains can be shunned by peers. We both shared the experience of our friends jokingly asking us if we still watched Thomas the Tank Engine.
Around 2008, Zac’s interest gained more traction in his life when he discovered the Ohio Central. Seeing a steam locomotive for the first time in so many years reignited the passion that was long repressed in his mind. Soon after, Zac took it upon himself to get involved with the Fort Wayne Rail Historical Society where he would work on the very engine that inspired his passion in the first place. For several years Zac worked closely with the magnificent berkshire, and was able to get a basic understanding of the principles of steam. In the coming years, Zac was introduced to the art of firing a steam locomotive, and even got to ride in 765’s cab during some mainline excursions. However, instead of being the wide-eyed child staring in awe at the crew members, he now was that crew member, keeping the locomotive’s pressure in water in check as she battled the rails ahead.
In 2013, Zac met a gentleman named Bob Saxtan. Bob introduced Zac to a locomotive that was a bit closer to home for him. Soon the Norfolk and Western 611 became the machine that Zac would dedicate his time to. During 611’s rebuild in North Carolina, Zac learned everything he could about running and maintaining a steam locomotive. He was able to see first hand the power that was possessed by a locomotive like 611, both in horsepower and with the community surrounding such an influential machine. Zac made trips to the Spencer shops at least twice a month to work hands on with the 611 as she was prepared to steam once more. He was able to learn what every part of the locomotive was responsible for. As Zac told me, “You really learn the workings of steam during an overhaul, like what does what and why they do those things.” Following the rebuild, Zac was lucky enough to be onboard many of 611’s mainline excursions during the 21st Century Steam program sponsored by Norfolk Southern. Zac reminisced with me about some of his favorite memories from the excursion program, and went in depth on his first time firing the queen of steam. As the locomotive awaited a clear signal in the heart of the countryside she used to roam, Zac got the engine hot as Sandy Alexander prepared to open the throttle wide. As soon as the signal showed clear, Zac told me with a laugh “The engine literally threw me backwards in the seat!” He then told me that Box Saxtan looked over at Zac, seeing how he was pushed back, and told him ‘You’re on a real locomotive now!”. Nowadays, Zac holds the position of Volunteer Crew Coordinator, along with being a certified fireman. Zac is proud to be such an outstanding member of an organization dedicated to the preservation of the true queen of steam. Zac expressed nothing but gratitude for the people that introduced him to 611 and wanted to call out Bob Saxtan, Scott Lindsey, Tom Mayer, Bob Yuill, Sandy Alexander, and Will Sadler for all they’ve done to teach him.
Zac’s favorite element of his career with 611 is not running the locomotive however, but rather spending time with his fellow crewmen and women. “It’s more than a locomotive, it’s a second family”, Zac explained to me. The tightly knit group often does cookouts and trips together, train related or not. The family aspect surrounding the 611 is something Zac holds close to his heart and is what makes preserving the locomotive so special. Zac hopes to bring this sense of family forward in the world of preservation. He hopes to inspire the next generation to help keep steam around by showing the good things that come with it. Zac feels that railroading gave a lot to this country, and there is only more to give on the horizon.
Thank you for reading this edition of Behind the Throttle! Thank you to Michael Wilson, Amy Gibson, Tom Mayer, and Paul Estes for contributing photos for this edition. Tune in next time for a chat with Drayton Blackgrove, an acclaimed railroad videographer.