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Dragons of Sugar Island

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Colin Garratt director of Milepost 92 ½ – picture library and photographers to the railway industry – begins a series of features derived from 40 years of expeditions to document the last steam locomotives of the world.

The Southeast Asian expedition of summer 1974 was amazing by any standards; it concentrated on the vintage types surviving in Java and Sumatra along with an array of American engines on Negros Island in the Philippines.

After a night in Bacolod, I journeyed a few miles along the coast to the great sugar plantation of the Hawaiian Philippine Co. – one of the island’s larger sugar concerns, well known for having some splendid green Baldwins with huge cabbage stack chimneys.

The factory, set deep in the plantation, was surrounded by a community known as the company compound; here, houses, shops, a bank, a hospital and other amenities provided self-contained living for employees. I was made to feel welcome within minutes of my arrival at the main gates and was taken to see the company administrator Mrs L. Arceo Samaniego – a personage well-endowed with traditional Filipino charm. She told me, ‘we in the Philippines are the most hospitable people in the world.’ This remark was well borne out over the ensuing weeks.

Painted red

Anxious to see the engines, I was soon being escorted through the compound to the depot. I had been under the impression that there were no red engines on Negros. I had often thought this a little strange, especially as the plantations are predominantly green and, if only for safety reasons, red engines would have stood out in better relief.

Imagine my amazement when upon reaching the yard, an immaculate Baldwin 0-6-0 was seen done out in red with yellow lining; in the background stood another engine in comparable condition. The entire roster had been painted in red just two months previously and, as the season was just beginning, the engines were spotless – having lain dormant under repair since April.

Previously, all Hawaiian Philippine engines had been green, but on account of their being difficult to see out in the cane fields, the manager had given instruction for them to be painted red – an action which greatly assisted the photographer, too!

The locomotives looked like a collection put together as a tourist attraction; like big painted toys with more than a hint of fairground engines about them. It was hard to believe that they were part of a large company operating stringent production and economic control.

Referred to as ‘Dragons’, all engines were in radio contact with the control office, so enabling their movements throughout the plantation to be properly co-ordinated. Although milling had just begun, the Dragons were hard at work with three shifts daily; out at 8am returning 1pm, leaving again at 3pm until 7pm, departing again at 9pm and coming back around 3am the following morning: seven different lines being worked, each with a different name. No cane was loaded on Sundays – a day put aside for servicing and cleaning.

Hiding the Dragons

The company began in 1920. In the previous year, two 10 inch Baldwin 0-6-0s were delivered numbered 1 and 2. Once work was under way, Baldwin supplied some straightforward enlargements with 12 inch cylinders – No.s 3-6.

In 1923, an engine was built by Henschel – presumably as a result of their far eastern sales campaign. Ostensibly, she was identical with the Baldwins but had 13 inch cylinders enclosed in rectangular casings in contrast with the characteristically rounded American versions; other minor differences divulge this engine’s origin and make her something of a pretender.

The German engine is a 20-tonner, as against respective 10 and 18 tonne Baldwins. A further engine numbered 7  and identical with No.s 3-6 came from Baldwin in 1928 and the total complement was made up 20 years later when two 15-tonne 0-6-2Ts were transferred from Hawaii.

The original Baldwin 10 inch 0-6-0 had since disappeared and her number is carried by the Henschel. All except No. 2 have a driving wheel diameter of 2ft 10 ¾ in. Dragon 6’s roller-bearing tender gives an infinitely superior ride when compared with the brass-bearing tenders of other engines, especially over rough track.

When the Japanese occupied the island during the Second World War, Dragons 1-7 were hidden to prevent them being destroyed or taken away.

When the invasion was imminent, the engines were steamed up and run to the end of a mountain line; a special extension track was then laid to lead the engines into deep undergrowth; this effectively hid them from sight by land or air. After they had literally been steamed into the scrub, the extension track was lifted and all signs covered up. Here the Dragons remained safely for three years – no Japanese patrol ever locating them.

Crimson flames

It was enthralling to be out with these engines as they tripped around the plantation; the entire system seemed like an enormous adventure railway being run solely for pleasure.

On a morning of diffused sunlight, two labourers circled an area of plantation from which cane had been cut a few days previously; all that remained were the dry brown leaves lying several inches thick on the ground. The men dropped lit torches into the field; the leaves instantaneously ignited – an absence of rain having rendered them as dry as tinder.

Crimson sheets of flame shot upwards in minor explosions. Crackling like distant machine gun bursts, the fiery tornado swept across the plantation within seconds, producing a liquid heat haze. Small mammals and the occasional bird darted in advance of the encroaching flames.

Those unable to escape became part of the blackened and charred expanse which, like the depredations of a victorious advancing army, lay behind the front-line. With the blaze at its height, a locomotive whistle rang out and, looking through the flames to the field’s edge, I witnessed Dragon 6 rolling by with a trainload of empty wagons. A less careful observer might have assumed that an errant spark from the engine had caused the fire, for despite the Dragon’s elaborate spark-arresting chimney such happenings are not infrequent during dry periods.

The morning had dawned clear after a night of rain and although a cumulus cloud was beginning to form, the sun was shining brilliantly as we left the yard on Dragon 6 with empties for the Magasa line.

Our engine, freshly overhauled, made good progress and soon we were out in the wilds surrounded by acres of cane either side. After about eight miles, a radio message ordered us to sidetrack – a factory-bound train needed to pass.

Steaming into a passing loop we reset the points, put a green flag by the trackside and left the main line clear. The crew took the opportunity to have lunch and, sitting alongside our quietly simmering engine, a marvellous meal of fresh shrimps and rice was spread out on the grass; a repast completed with soft fruits and locally grown coffee.

Copper bell

A throaty exhaust, delivered crisp and clear from perfectly set valves, heralded the mainliner’s approach. The engine’s copper bell clanged with a lovely musical resonance followed by a gloriously undulating wail of chime whistling – a shimmering sound reminiscent of Casey Jones’s famous ‘Whippoorwill Whistle’. The engine was working hard, yet a gentle sigh of steam could be heard issuing from her safety valves.

The rapturous sounds drew closer until Dragon 4 loomed into view; the sounds, combined with the engine’s appearance, produced a feeling of ethereality. She swept past oscillating violently over the rough track and, for several minutes afterwards, her bell and chime whistle remained audible, animating the silent plantation with golden tones.

We reset the points and continued the journey. The muddy and swollen rivers bore testimony to the previous night’s rain. Later that day, we scuttled homewards with a loaded train against an ominously dusky sky – the tail of a typhoon which was later to cause considerable damage on nearby Luzon Island.

Fairground Attraction

The fairground atmosphere was really brought out by a pair of engines at the factory interchange; the 0-6-0 having just arrived with a train as the Hawaiian 0-6-2T prepares to assemble it. All the company’s engines burn bagasse, but at the beginning of the campaign there is not always sufficient to go round thus certain engines temporally consume oil: the necessary tanks being sunk into their tenders; stovepipe chimneys are also applied.

It is difficult to believe that Dragon 7 is identical with her cabbage-stacked sisters, so different does she appear on account of her stovepipe chimney.

9pm on weekday evenings finds all the engines within the factory confines. The shed is a hive of activity; watering, oiling up, minor repairs, bagassing and other sundry duties needing to be completed before the fleet can leave for the plantation.

In the transport manager’s office, a trip/collection schedule is being finalised after a detailed collation of information from all parts of the system upon the whereabouts of wagons, both loaded and empty. Friendly exchanges between crews, the odd driver or brakeman on the carpet over a derailment, frenzied phone calls from planters demanding urgent delivery of empties and countless other routine incidents, all culminating into an exciting flux characteristic of the five-month campaign.

By 10pm all is quiet and the Dragons assemble at the head of their trains; one by one they disappear into the far corners of the 100-mile railroad network; another night-shift is underway.