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Impearls: Roaring Camp

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Earthdate 2002-11-25

Roaring Camp

Roaring Camp steam train winding through giant redwoods (Tamara Lynn Scott filming on left; photographer: Michael McNeil) I tagged along as still cameraman on Tamara's latest filming expedition, this time to a local Felton attraction, Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge Railroad, an old-time narrow gauge steam train that winds its way through the Santa Cruz Mountains nearby.  Our train was drawn by Engine No. 7, built in 1902 (just 100 years old this year, made the same year my grandparents got married!).

The massive mechanism lumbers along, snorting out giant chuffs of steam along with multitudinous chugging, clanking and groaning noises, its drive train (which on first sight resembles a worm gear, but isn't) spinning along above track level, carrying power to the wheels via an intricate seemingly spiraling maneuver, while the train labors its way up a 10% grade through misty cathedral groves of monumental 300 ft. tall redwood trees!  It's a magical experience, a whiff of another age.

(I must admit, one of the things I love about Felton, Calif., is the wail of the steam locomotive, and other accoutrement sounds of the Age of Steam, exceedingly rare elsewhere these days in America, is still to be heard in its environs.)

So thoroughly has the world entered the machine age, it's necessary sometimes to remind ourselves that the first contrivance in history Oiling of the engine (photographer: Michael McNeil) (beyond speculations in antiquity) capable of converting a generalized source of (perhaps fuel generated) heat into useful motion was invented less than three hundred years ago.  Before that time, the only power sources available to humanity were (1) human and animal muscle-power, (2) the happenstance of moving wind and water, and (3) — for the previous few hundred years — gunpowder (which could impart motion only to things like bullets, cannonballs, and things blown up).

The new thing under the sun was Thomas Newcomen's “steam” (actually atmosphere powered) engine, first built in 1712.  The progression from Newcomen's eerily-quiet behemoths, through James Watt's major improvements a half century on (the first true “steam engine”), to the groaning, clanking, self-propelled automatons of steam-engines-on-the-hoof took about a century.  On Christmas Eve, 1801 (just short of 201 years ago), Richard Trevithick rolled out the world's first “steam carriage” and drove it up an adjacent slope.  As the 19th century wore on, the at-first gradual progress of these puffing, snorting Pied-Pipers across the land became inexorable.

It's easy to forget how impressive to denizens of that earlier era (people as various as North American Plains Indians and European Romantics), and how symbolic for the dawning of a new age, these roaring, steaming mechanical monsters must have been.  The feeling of antiquity and modernity standing vis-a-vis is well captured in a quote from William Makepeace Thackeray (of Vanity Fair fame), born 1811 in Calcutta, India:

We, who lived before the railways and survived out of the ancient world, are like Noah and his family out of the Ark.

Roaring Camp steam locomotives before engine house (photographer: Michael McNeil)

UPDATE:  2005-07-20 05:15 UT:  Updated photographs to use less compressed images.



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