Up until 1950, the engines on the P.E.I. Railway functioned by steam. Each engine contained a coal-burning furnace, which heated the water contained in a large boiler to produce the steam. The accumulated pressure from the expanding vapor was what drove the pistons of the engine, enabling the train to move forward.
In the steam engine, it was the duty of the fireman to keep a bright and even fire roaring, and to ensure that the water level in the boiler was at the exact level needed to maintain speed across different types of terrain, such as flat beds, hills, and curves. A bad fire could result in either low water or low steam levels, and eventually, ended in unscheduled stops and slow running times.
Learning how to properly 'fire' a steam engine was a real art. It was hard enough even standing on the sliding cab of the train; maintaining an even fire and taking accurate readings of the water glass under these conditions took an immense amount of skill. Also, a fireman would have to travel a stretch of track until he knew its ups and downs, levels and curves, like the back of his hand. Looking out the left side of the train, he would develop a set of landmarks that told him his exact location and allowed him to adjust steam pressure accordingly.
Expert firemen frequently advanced up the ladder and became drivers, where they would have to relearn their territory from a new vantage point. A first-run driver could not use the signposts familiar to him as a fireman, since he could now only see out of the right side of the train. Fortunately, most new drivers were placed with a seasoned fireman, who could provide guidance along the route and ease any problems encountered. However, there were occasions when a new driver was teamed with a new fireman, and this invariably made for an interesting run. One such situation arose on the Island in the 1940's when Eddy Doyle and Bill Brennan were scheduled to make their first run together out of Emerald Junction, with Doyle as driver and Brennan as fireman. Their train went missing for hours, prompting the dispatcher to call from Borden to ask if some kind of accident had occurred. The train eventually straggled into Borden so late that it had to be laid up there overnight. Doyle and Brennan, of course, were the recipients of a considerable amount of ribbing from their co-workers, one of whom suggested that-- instead of wearing a watch to time their trips-- the two men could keep track on a calendar. However, this school of hard knocks definitely did not injure the careers of Doyle and Brennan, who became over the years one of the most respected railway teams on the Island.
The unique characteristics of the P.E.I. Railway added substantially to the challenge of operating a steam engine. The Island railway boasts some of the most crooked road beds in the world, with up to a third of its total line comprised of curves. Although this long and winding track eliminated the problem of getting up hills, the constant bends created a different set of difficulties, as engineers waged a constant battle to keep up the train's speed by keeping up the level of steam in the boiler. If the steam dropped coming around a turn, it could mean delays, sometimes backing up train schedules as far away as Montreal. Over the years, there even emerged a catchphrase to convey the challenge of running the P.E.I. rails: "You can't fire '39' out of Charlottetown without getting a wet jacket." In other words, the fireman had to work so hard to keep the train fired up through Charlottetown that his jacket would be soaked with sweat.
Much of the lore surrounding the Island railway has to do with the legendary slowness of its steam engines. Between the serpentine twists of its railbeds, and the heaves and dips that developed every spring thaw, the train would sometimes rattle along at speeds averaging no more than 13 miles per hour. One popular railway yarn relates the story of an Island conductor who received complaints from farmers along his route. The people passing by on the trains, it seems, were leaning out the windows and milking the cows. In truth, there were many unpredictable occurrences which could slow a train down-- from livestock on the track to engine failure-- and the schedule often became more of a formality than anything else. There is another story told about two seventy-year-old Island men who met for the first time, and the one happened to ask the other where he had spent his life. "I spent my first twenty years in Kensington," the reply came, "the next twenty years in Borden, and the last twenty years in Summerside." Doing some quick math, the first man asked what had happened to the other ten years. "Oh," said the man born in Kensington, "that's the ten years I spent waiting for the train at Emerald Junction."