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Edition #7, June 1, 2005

Man and Machine

Photographer: M. Ross Valentine


Man and Machine

Daban, Inner Mongolia is the last, large-scale mainline steam shed in operation. Every aspect of this round the clock operation is fascinating. The facility has a working backshop, and virtually every aspect of maintenance is performed here, with the exception of heavy overhauls. Everything can be observed: from replacing running gear to cleaning fires, coaling, watering, and lubrication of engines, machining parts on lathes, even tinsmiths make new oilcans. It was on my first trip to China, and my travel companion and I decided to spend the afternoon just wandering around the facility taking it all in. Two things are striking about heavy steam railroading that seems to have been lost: Steam operations are filthy; everything the hand touches is greasy, oily, or laden with soot. The air you breath is filled with coal smoke, ash and cinders. You can see, smell it, even taste it. It is the working conditions of thousands of shop workers here. The other aspect is the amount of resources it takes to operate them: coal, water, grease, sand, cotton waste, oil, tools, alemite, boiler treatment, nuts, bolts, pins, fuel for torches, kerosene for lamps, everything you could think of gets consumed here, and in huge quantities. More striking is the amount of labor required to make it all happen. While the engineers, get the glory, the majority of what happens is unremarked and paid for in wages that are the equivalent of a few dollars a day. It is back breaking manual labor. Despite all of this, the workers seem to smile, joke around with their colleagues, in conditions that can hit 100 degrees in summer and 40 below zero in the winter. It is a remarkable place, more remarkable are the workers who put the sweat equity of their lives to make it happen.

It is easy to become fixated only on the locomotives, and their care, as this is something seemingly exotic in today's world. However the steam powered cranes that coal the locomotives are also quite interesting. On the evening of February 13, 2003 I was searching for "Glint" light as I was wondering around the steam cranes. The tracks the cranes run on next to the coaling track frequently have huge piles of coal in them, which the flange-ways need to be cleaned to allow movement of the crane so that it won't derail. One worker was tasked with the hard, dirty and dusty job of clearing the flange-ways so the engines could get coaled and sent out to the ready track. I repositioned myself in the center of the tracks where the worker became a striking silhouette. I felt this photo brought what the whole place was about together in one single image: the daunting manual labor required to do a task, working in concert with a machine, the dirty-dusty nature of the place, the clouds of steam, and the bright setting sun of the desert. In many ways this photo for me evokes the work of the great depression era photographers, whose wonderful work left us a fascinating record during an interesting time period that has long since vanished.

M. Ross Valentine

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