This appreciation by Charles Harrison originally appeared in the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association’s winter 2020 newsletter and is reprinted with permission from PRPA.
Walt Eisenman is not your ordinary volunteer. He has been involved with the engines in the ORHF Enginehouse for many years and was one of the first two people I met who were involved with the 700. The other was Don Wheeler, who was president of the PRPA at the time, and I came to learn Walt and Don were the reason the PRPA still existed. At one point back in the ‘90s, the PRPA working membership dropped to just two, Walt and Don, but they held on and rebuilt the group. Such was their dedication to the 700. Don provided great leadership, and Walt provided the wide mechanical skills necessary to rehabilitate the 700. Walt has always taught (and continues to teach) the ins and out of maintaining and repairing a steam locomotive to anyone willing to learn. There are thousands of parts to a steam locomotive, and Walt knows every one of them and where they go.
Over the years, Walt has shown the 700 volunteers how to rebuild the spring rigging under the engine—from how to replace bushings in spring hangers to how to wrestle an 800+ pound spring into place to how to hook all the pieces back together. We were the first large engine to rebuild the boiler under the new FRA 15-year rules. This was quite the undertaking, especially for a novice crew. But Walt lead us through the process flawlessly. He taught us how to remove super heaters and tubes and then swedge the ends of the new tubes. I remember the “hammer mill” we used to swedge tube ends. It was an ancient monster with a habit of throwing parts. No problem, Walt knew how to put it back together. He drew up charts and tables to guide us in cutting and installing the new tubes, showed us how to test super heaters and how to reinstall them. While this was going on, he also educated us about the myriad plumbing systems on the engine and how to refurbish them.
Walt has also shepherded us through some adventures when the engine developed problems on the road. On one particular occasion, the engineer’s side valve seized and turned the radius rod into a horseshoe. Walt took things apart so the engine could be towed to a siding, triaged the problem and started the repair process. Three days later, with the cylinder honed and valve rings repaired, we installed a new radius rod and were back in business. More recently, we needed to replace the tire on one of our driving wheels. This required heating and removing the old tire and heating and installing the new one. Walt showed us how to set up the “ring of fire” to do the heating and then showed us how to maneuver heavy, hot pieces of steel without anything dangerous happening. His most recent project for us was to “muck out” the oil bunker of our tender and triage a leaking shut-off valve. This was a miserable, messy job conducted in a tight space, but Walt, who for years worked in the oil storage industry, knew how to get the job done and also how to remove the leaking valve for repair. He also has suggested how to repair the valve. Without Walt’s help with this project, we would have been at a loss. We approached professionals in the field, and they were unwilling to take on the task.
Beyond his contributions to the 700 and the PRPA, Walt over the years has provided support to every group in the Enginehouse. One example is his loving care of the “Little Boy,” the steam generator car needed to start any of the engines. The name “Little Boy” fits for the car, because it is probably less than half the typical rail car length. It houses a steam generator and all the motors and electrics needed to operate it. Walt and his son, Bob, rebuilt the innards of this car several years ago and it has been Walt’s “pet” ever since. Any time an engine needs to be steamed up, there’s Walt. No matter what time of day or for how long, Walt is there starting the “Little Boy,” dragging out and hooking up hoses to fill the boiler with hot water and then hooking up steam to the “house” valve to provide steam to various appliances until the engine has generated enough steam to operate on its own. When the job is done, he puts everything away and still hangs out in case a hand is needed. Hanging around in case a hand is needed is kind of Walt’s stock in trade. It seems like he is about always present, and he is always ready to help out be it with heavy lifting or solving a problem.
Walt is also a family man. I don’t know how long he and his wife, Jerry, have been married, but they have three grown children and at least one granddaughter I know of. Family is very important to him, and he is an attentive father/grandfather. It is not uncommon to see his family members around when any steam events are occurring.
I feel there is more to Walt then I have conveyed here. That’s because Walt the person contributes to the atmosphere of the engine house in many ways. He always has a smile and a good word, he’s very friendly and everyone knows him. He is interesting to talk to. He has a variety of interests, including fishing and, I believe, golf. He keeps himself active. As he has gained in years, his health has been challenging at times, but Walt “powers through.” He reminds me of an old Timex watch ad—“Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
When you add it all up, Walt is more than a volunteer: he is a fixture. Thank you, Walt, for all you do and for being who you are.