GRAPEVINE -- On May 5, 1995, Michael Percifield was supposed to take steam Engine 2248 and its cars from the Fort Worth & Western's Eighth Avenue yard to the Stockyards to pick up passengers.
His job was to ensure that everything went smoothly with 2248 on the chartered train trip. But he hadn't counted on the severe weather approaching Fort Worth that Mayfest weekend.
"As we pulled out of the yard, we could see the clouds getting darker and darker," he said. He and his crew received word that those clouds held more than just rain. Hail and a tornado were also possible. Percifield knew he had to get the train safely to the Stockyards and shelter before the storm hit.
"Don't spare the horses! Get to the Stockyards!" the trainmaster told Percifield.
He didn't hold back, taking the 115-year-old engine, which was pulling its tender and water box as well as the passenger cars, quickly to the Stockyards. "We arrived and had just enough time to run the train around and get it into the Stockyards depot," he said.
With the threat of tornadoes adding to the worst hailstorms the area had seen, the excursion was canceled. But Percifield said 2248 performed flawlessly in that trip to safety. "It just shows the difference a good mechanic can make," he said of the crew that kept the steam engine running then.
Work to do
Now Percifield is back full time with 2248, which was built in 1896. He is no longer an engineer but is now Grapevine's new trainmaster, in charge of all rail operations for the city's Grapevine Vintage Railroad. Unfortunately, he has taken on the job with his beloved 2248 sitting partially disassembled in the station barn. The engine hasn't run since February, when one of its two piston rods flew apart.
But Percifield and his crew of mechanics are determined that 2248 will be fixed and back on the rails pulling tourists down to the Stockyards and back.
"We are putting a plan of action together for her to attack the issue," he said. In the meantime, a 1953 diesel engine is doing the heavy work of pulling the cars. "It's a good locomotive," Percifield said.
He should know. Percifield, 42, has been working around engines a good part of the time since he graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in architecture. Instead of going into that field, Percifield said, he went to work for the Fort Worth & Western Railroad two weeks out of school. At that time, in 1993, the short-haul rail company planned to provide public excursions from the Eighth Avenue yard to the Stockyards.
The engine doing the work was 2248, running as the Tarantula.
When Fort Worth & Western moved on to more lucrative freight hauling, so did Percifield. He went to work for BNSF Railway and then did other jobs, including owning a construction company. All the time, though, he would make part-time runs on 2248, even after Grapevine acquired the engine.
"I've always had a passion for this train," Percifield said. "It's been run correctly, and I want to make sure it's properly handled."
He said engines, especially steam engines, have a bit of an attitude.
"It's almost like working on something alive," Percifield said. "It sounds like it's breathing, because of the mechanical aspects. If you are trained properly, you can get a sense of what the locomotive is doing, not only by hearing it and seeing it but how it feels. You can sense when things are not working so you can head something off before it becomes serious."
Although 2248 isn't huffing and steaming right now, it will be as soon as new pistons can be created, Percifield said.
"I'd like to see it running as soon as possible," he said, "but there are a lot of factors involved. Once the piston situation is taken care of, I don't see why we won't use her on a regular basis."