Bill Purdy

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Bill Purdy, Master Mechanic – Steam Locomotives, has passed at age 95. He led a full and interesting life, but most of all, he was an interesting man in an interesting occupation. He was a man of good humor, strict expectations, a family man and a believer in God.  Every life is remarkable, yet Mr. Purdy made a contribution to American railroading which is without equal.  In this era of greatests and biggests and bests, Bill Purdy quietly went about his particular anachronistic craft, the steam locomotive.  Bill Purdy would be a key character in the long term railroad preservation movement.

I first fell in love with trains in the 1950’s, and came of age in the 1960’s, an era of railroad failure.  The railroads in the late 1800’s had been the Tech Bubble of their time, growing quickly and without regard to business realities.  America’s railroad capacity would prove to be vital during World War II, and after the war, America’s railroads were simply worn out.  The steam locomotive went away and the diesel was ascendant, but the diesel alone could not save the railroads.

Popular tastes had shifted away from the railroad.  With massive Federal assistance, people now flew in modern airplanes.  Federal assistance also built the highways that took the railroads’ business away.  And it was Federal assistance in the form of the Interstate Commerce Commission that prevented the railroads from conducting profitable business.  With ICC control, the railroads slowly began to fade away.

And, when the mail contracts started going to trucks that operated on Federal highways for a pittance, the railroad passenger train began to fade, too.  The decline of the railroad passenger train also meant a decline of contact with railroads for the average American citizen.  America’s eyes were on outer space and flying the friendly skies.  The railroad began to disappear from American daily life.  Although some railroads continued to operate their passenger trains as they always had done, others actively sought to leave the passenger business.  Declining revenues were easy to establish, for the market was speaking.

Where once there had been six passenger trains a day between Atlanta and Cincinnati, suddenly there were none.  And nobody noticed.  Where once there had been five trains from Atlanta to Washington, DC, now there were only two.  Congress, in a defensive act, formed what would become Amtrak.  Three railroads did not join Amtrak. The Georgia Road had its own reasons for continuing passenger service and the Denver & Rio Grande Western was the Rebel of the Rockies, but the Southern Railway felt that Look Ahead, Look South was more than a slogan.

In part, Southern had always done things in its own way, but keeping the passenger trains was much more than that.  In part, there was the spirit of independence, of keeping the operation of their tracks to themselves.  At the same time, the railroader that was president of Southern Railway also was a lover of railways.  Graham Claytor would keep the Southern independent and efficient, but he also knew that the railroad needed all the public relations it could get.  And on a fateful day, at the back of a steam locomotive, Graham Claytor and Bill Purdy met.  It would prove to be a happy convergence.  Both were dyed in the wool railroaders.

Bill Purdy had come about it in the traditional way.  He had the train bug very early.  As a student at an elementary school that was along the tracks, he always found a way to stand up and watch as each train passed.  An exasperated teacher asked: “Must you get up every time a train goes by?”  And like the most of us, his reply was “I must.”  Had he been sent to the school’s principal, it is unlikely that he would have been punished, for the principal always made it a point to go out front and watch as the trains passed, too.

His father had worked for Southern, and Bill showed a mechanical inclination at an early age.  He worked for the Southern, with a few years off for World War II.  Initially, the military would not take him because his Southern Railway job was important for the war effort.  On the third try, he got into the Merchant Marines and did his part as a mechanical engineer on a cargo ship.  His part included devising a washing machine that was driven by the ship’s propeller shaft using a limited supply of parts that were available.  This may not have helped the war effort, but it earned him the loyalty and respect of his shipmates.

I must admit that I was in awe of Bill Purdy, for he commanded respect.  Yet, at the same time, he was perfectly accessible if the time was right.  The last time that I saw Mr. Purdy was at a wedding reception.  It was the marriage of two railroaders and the reception was naturally held at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta.  The Depot itself is another tale of preservation in the face of doom.  It was a happy moment and the new couple were about to set off on a great adventure.

Bill and his beloved Sara were there, and in a quiet moment, he and I talked.  The wedding was taking place at a time when the railroads were in a clear state of recovery from the dark days of regulation.  Traffic was up, there were new locomotives and, as always with the Southern Railway, the track was level and solid.  It was a great time.

He and I inevitably began to talk about the railroad business.  I noted that things were much better, but he, always the engineering type, noted that there was need for even more improvement.  So typical of Mr. Purdy; things could always stand improvement.  I noted that there was still competition from trucks, especially those with double-bottom trailers.  He looked  at me and said: “They’re as big as a 40-foot box car.”

The evening ended sweetly with Sara talking about how she and Bill eloped to Chattanooga, followed by their friends in a parade of automobiles, horns honking all the way.  As she and Bill checked into their hotel as husband and wife, a grain of rice from the wedding fell from her hair onto the hotel register.  She remembered it as if it had been yesterday, and I saw Bill Purdy as a family man and father.

Two things; Bill Purdy realized that he was in the entertainment business.  At each of the steam train trips, he never was too busy to pose for a photograph with a young child in front of this ancient machine that he cared for.  Every fan trip run-by was staged for a maximum display of the steam locomotive’s spectacular power and character.  People took photographs that they later shared with others.

He was a key player in the railroad preservation movement.  I was at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum on a tour of the locomotive shops.  The 4501 was there for a refurbishing, and I asked one of the workers what happened to all the equipment that Southern had at its Birmingham steam locomotive shops in the 1970’s.  He replied that the equipment had all been sold to other steam locomotive preservation organizations.  The tools were all still being put to use somewhere, but I also realized that the accumulated knowledge from Bill Purdy and others had also continued on to another place.  He also was a preserver of the flame, the knowledge and skills that are required to preserve a locomotive.

In the late 1960’s when he and Graham Claytor had that fateful meeting, the future of the railroads was uncertain, but the future of railroad preservation was also in doubt, too.  The railroads had become so distant from daily life that nobody cared if the past was preserved or not.  Today, it is a different story and railroad historical preservation is doing reasonably well.  But without Bill Purdy and countless others, there would be no operating exhibits.

What I consider to be the most important thing for Bill Purdy is that he got to see his beloved railroads come back from near death.  He had the time to see the railroad return to its natural position, to succeed.  I think that makes it a good thing, but I also realize what Mr. Purdy gave to the industry.  He helped show countless people the railroads that had been.  At the same time, he helped bring them trackside, to see what the railroads are today.  While the diesels made the money, the steam locomotives won the hearts of people.

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One Response to “Bill Purdy”

  1. Gary Says:

    Riley has written a fitting tribute. Bill Purdy’s contributions to railroad preservation cannot be underestimated. I spent a chilly Saturday morning in the cab of Savannah & Atlanta 750 at zero mile post in downtown Atlanta. Bill had helped bring the light pacific back to life with the Atlanta chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. He was a quiet presence fussing around the details as she hissed steam sitting beside the main on the old Georgia Railroad. He was at the throttle as we made ferry moves to and from the old Pullman shops east of the city. He had the look of rare authority handed down from the days when real machines were larger than the men who governed them, the age of machines that will always be visually spectacular compared to the silicon-based devices we govern now.

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