Stepping over the threshold onto the first rung of the downward leading ladder can be creepy, but exciting and adventurous too. There is lighting, but it’s not as bright as topside, so shadow pervades during the decent from the daylight filled car deck of the historic ferryboat Eureka, down into the wonderland of the Victorian era engine room. I’ve been down here many times, but the feeling of it never changes.
This vessel was last used in 1957, but when it was new in 1890, it’s engine was of an already venerable design known as a walking beam steam engine. Today, it’s a part of the vessel that is open to visitors only by guided tour. Truly, it is something amazing to see. Still… it can be a challenge to convince all visitors of this feeling. Some are there because they already have a fascination for engineering and historic machinery. Others are there simply because they are with the former people. However, this ferryboat, and it’s titanic engine, are part of a National Park because they can offer stories and meaning to everyone. For some, passion lies not in technology, but in human experience. This too, however, is waiting at the bottom of the ladder. For unlike its modern counter parts, this old steam engine required a significant human element. So, by descending the engine room ladder, you are entering a space that is just as filled with humanity as it is technology. For me, when I enter this wonderland realm, I do not see the two as separate, but as one complete story.
At bottom of the ladder, we are surrounded by piping, machinery, and huge curved steel plates of the boilers. It is cold down here now. But, in its heyday, heat would envelope you in a snug embrace. Noise, likewise, would dominate. Not in an ear slipping racket, but with a constancy that provided the black gang (engine room crew) with comfort and reassurance that everything is right with their world. Off to one side of the ladder the steam powered fuel pumps hiss as they slowly chug back and forth to push fuel oil through piping to provide the boiler fire with sustenance. Early in its past, the ferryboat used coal as fuel for the boilers. Crewmen known as firemen used shovels to supply the furnaces. The call dust got everywhere! Over all the surfaces of the room, the clothing and skin of the crew, and even into their lungs, with all the attendant health problems. After getting off-watch, they’d be covered head to toe. This is how the engine room crew became known as the “black gang”.