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Steam Stories - Fire Cleaning - 15F - Nathan Berelowitz

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Now that reminds me of a time I worked a 15F from Pietersburg to Louis Trichardt. (Has some new name now, but we are speaking historically!). My driver was this big fat bloke who liked to wear a white boiler suit to work. He had a flabby jowl, and thus earned the nickname of 'Pap bek'. We had worked a load as far as Trichardt, as we called it, and then turned the loco and did some shunting. Before we started to shunt, I cleaned the fire.  I was not to eager to work that night, as the driver was irritating me, with his white, tight, button bursting belly boiler suit. I did the shake and rake in the firebox, but not well enough. There was a clinker that I had missed, or more likely thought I could leave in there. Fire cleaned, turned the stoker on, and rolled in a fresh load of fuel for the fire. We started to shunt. While shunting, I was battling with keeping steam. 


First the water was low in the glass, and the fire bright. I put on the injectors, and the steam would fall. Fill the boiler full, then try get the steam up, but it was a battle. The fire just did not seem to want to burn correctly. Time to go, and 'Pap bek', tugged the regulator open. There is a long downgrade out of Trichardt, and then it was climbing almost all the way to Groot Spelonke. I was trying to get this bladdy F warmed up and the boiler full, before the upgrade. On the rolling downgrade, I saw the culvert approaching in the glow of the headlight.  The culverts on the downgrades were usually our best form of marker for the upgrades that lay ahead, so we knew when to put fire on etc.
'Pap bek' opened her up, and we chugged along at a fair pace. Soon the pressure was falling, and I looked into the firebox, and saw the lovely blue flames burning inside. This wonderful colour was showing me that I had a serious clinker in the box.  The blue patch was actually quiet large. 'Pap bek' comes over to look inside the box, as we are now going much slower. The blower is on full to try create some draft on the fire, but the needle is looking at me, and the water in the boiler is looking for the rails.
Not a good situation, so we stop. Brew up, blower blasting, coals burning limply in the blue box. Driver now tries to get the coal to run in the firebox more on the one side. With the mechanical stoker, you have what they call 'oore' (ears), on the sides of the stoker distribution table. By these 'oore', you can get the coals to roll in more to the left, right or centre, and can be helped even further, by placing a peg in one of three holes, provided in the top of the stoker shaft. Sounds complicated, but not really.
However, the driver has now got the drop grate handle to push the 'oore' inwards, and when he removed it to replace the drop grate handle, he grabbed it by the hot end, and was hopping about. Off we went. Steam was on the mark, and water full. We went well for a while, and I was nursing this blue fire. The steam soon started to fall again, and while we were still struggling onwards, 'Pap bek', now took the ashpan pricker and placed the one end in the right hole of the stoker shaft, to guide the coal, as I mentioned earlier. His one hand , I noticed, was a bit red on the palm from the drop grate handle.
He now decided that enough coal was being sent to the right place, and as we were almost on hands and knees here, with the loco going slower and slower, he took out the ashpan pricker and again grabbed the hot end!!! He was livid.  He had now burnt both hands. The fire was nearly and truly F####D, and we had come to a stand.  Blower on, Coals rolled in onto a bigger blue area, and try to get some steam up. Eventually we made Groot Spelonke, and could roll down the 6 or so Kilometeres to Soekmekaar, where we could clean fire.
This took an hour to do. We both worked together. I shook the grates, he raked and hooked.  We changed, and I used the pricker fire iron to hook a bastard clinker, the size of a man.  This was the bugger that started my problems. The one that got away in my earlier fire clean.  The fire irons were red hot, by this time.  I had to take them out the firebox every so often, and pull them straight on the edge of the footplate in the cab.  I was exhausted. Besides this monstrous clinker, amongst its other big brothers, I had 'Pap bek' yelling at me and telling me I will never make a Fireman, and I was too 'K$K SLEG' (excrementally useless!).  My arms were falling out of their sockets, but I hooked and raked and finally got the big firebox clean.
The rest of the trip was in silence, except for the beat of the F. 'Pap bek' had his hands lightly holding the regulator, and I noticed both hands had bright red palms!  The driver never spoke to me again, neither did I ever work with him again.

Footnote on Cleaning Fireboxes:


When we had to clean fire, it was usually because we were at that point of the journey, where the engine required water and a service. So, to keep the grates clean, was a great opportunity, and we cleaned the fire. Sometimes, if the fire and coal was just right, a bloke could miss a fire cleaning spot, and carry on. Other times, if the coal was poor or the fireman was a loser, one had to stop in section, sometimes, and clean the fire.

The firebox has grates onto which the fire bed lies. There are the movable grates called rocking grates, and they are usually shaken by a steam shaker, operating pull rods connected to these grates, or by hand. This was the case on many of the 15F locomotives. Here a section of the grates could be shaken independantlly of the others. This was  done by means of the drop grate handle placed over the respective pegs set in the floor.
The grates that rocked, would shake the fire loose and dislodge the clinkers, which would be removed from the firebox via the drop grates. These were usually two grates that were opened via the drop grate handle, and the ash and fire, could then be dumped into the ashpan below. The firebox also had a number of fixed grates often called dummy bars, that were not movable at all.
So we have the grates in the firebox, the ashpan underneath the grates, and to let the ash out of the ashpan, there is the slide below it and opened by a lever set into the floor on the firemans side, called the ashpan lever.  To douse the hot ashes and fire in the ashpan, and before they fall out to the ashpit below, we have the ashpan coolers.  These are two perforated pipes, almost like a sprinkler system, that are on either side of the ashpan, and are operated when the injector is on. They will spray jets of water to douse the ashes.
So, now we come to the fire irons. Firstly, they are bloody long and heavy, but when a bloke is fit and trim, and using leverage more than muscle power, they can be easily manoeuvred. The first one has a bent shaped end, almost hook like, and this is the pricker. It is used firstly to hook and turn the clinkers over, before breaking them up into smaller pieces and shoving them out through the drop grates. The second fire iron, is the rake. This is longer than the pricker, but has a flattened end running cross wise, almost like a garden rake, but not so wide and not notched. The rake is used to clear the fire and clinker out from the front end of the fire box near the tube plate area, and to rake the fire level and clean.
The last fire iron, is the ashpan pricker. This is a short thin fire iron, and is shaped much like the rake, only smaller and with the front end bent sideways like an 'L'. This is used to push the ashes in the ashpan out into the ashpit, and so help keep the ashpan clean, and to hook out any clinker jamming the dropgrates. This fire iron is used outside the locomotive by either the driver, learner fireman or the fireman himself. Time to clean fire. The best is to have a reasonably full boiler and a good head of steam. Make sure too, that you have fire burning!!
Start the injectors and put on the ashpan cooler. Open the steam for the steam shaker and open the firebox doors slightly, so you can see inside. Start to shake the fire. The grates slowley flip up at 45 degrees and downlevel, the up and so on. The ashes are now being dropped into the ashpan, the coolers are drenching them, and the aspan is being filled with water and dead ash.
After a good few shakes, pull open the ashpan and let the drenched ashes now fall into the pit. Hopefully there is someone out there helping you to rake the ashpan with the ashpan pricker. Check the fire as you shake it, or you could throw it out. That happened to me once at Witbank shed, on an S class shunt loco.  Now that the fire is nicely shaked, and the clinkers, if any, are loose, open the drop grates with the drop grate lever. There are two pegs in the floor in front of the firebox doors, and they operate them. The 15F and some other locos only have one large dropgrate.
Take the pricker from its rack, and start to turn over the clinkers before breaking them up and pushing them out the dropgrates. The reason for this is that there is plenty good fire on top of the clinker and by flipping it over, you have this reserve of fire. I normally cleaned the back of the firebox first near the firehole door. Getting the clinkers out the back corners on a F or Garratt, was a hard job, but you get it done. With the back cleaned, you can now put on some fresh coals to start building up the fire in the rear. Try use the pricker as far as possible to get what clinkers you can, then withdraw it out the firebox. Here you must be careful, and work with cotton waste in the hand. Many a railway tattoo has come from a fire iron!!
Now, after replacing the pricker and possibly having straightened it out on the edge of the footplate floor, if it got too hot and bent, pull the rake out and place in the firebox. Start to clean out the area under the brick arch near the tubeplate and rake it all out. Try keep some good fire if you can, but if it is very thick, then thin it out. This done, close the drop grates, put off the ashpan cooler and leave the injector running, if the water is still low or the pressure is still high. Put on some fresh coal onto what is still burning, and withdraw the rake.
Using the pricker, you can push the good fire you had built up at the back of the box, towards the front and the areas needing fire. Remove the pricker and put on fresh coals. While this is beginning to burn nicely, you take the spray pipe. This is a rubber hosepipe that is on the firemans side and is used to wash down the footplate or ashpan, amongst other things. With the spray pipe, you now get out the engine and proceed to wash out the ashpan, one side at a time, taking care not to spray upwards at the grates or you will douse the fire!! Wash down the boiler sides from the white ash that has collected, then back up into the cab and wash the footplate clean.  Roll up and put the spray pipe on its hook. Make sure all fire irons are secure and that the person who cleaned the ashpan, has returned the ashpan pricker.
Injector off, check the fire, and build it up if necessary. Wash yourself in the bucket of water, and then make tea for the driver. Carefull with the fresh fire, so put some match sticks in the water of the 'Kook Kan', to stop that smokey taste from the fresh fire. As you start to move off the pit, close the ashpan slide. Off you go. I do hope that will help you get a better understanding of what it was all about. A nice ash fire was a pleasure to clean, but still tricky, as it could die on you very fast. A blue flamed clinker fire was the worst. If the buggers would not dislodge, and the steam shaker was one step from retirement, or the hand shaker was very hard to operate, then fire cleaning was a burden.
I once went from Messina to Pietersburg with a driver who showed me how to fire this particular F so that I went the whole 347km without cleaning fire. This normally was to be done in twelve minutes on the passenger link, so you must know, the movements are done very fast. Goods trains had a bit more time, and on the shunt you would make more time!!

Nathan Berelowitz