Childhood infatuation | Father worked in the broiler room of destroyer ships
Visitors to the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon do a double take when they walk past a hissing, sweaty steam engine.
At first glance, they see someone with soot on their face, wearing a straw hat, brown coveralls and a big smile. But in this domain often frequented by old men, they soon learn that the operator is Jacquie Gordon, the only active female operator of antique steam traction engines at the museum.
Visitor curiosity and Gordon’s energy and enthusiasm open the door to conversations.
“I’ve heard children say, ‘Look Mom, there’s a girl driving the train,’ ” said Gordon.
She said men will sometimes try to stump her with technical questions about the machines.
“I’ve had men ask me questions thinking that I didn’t know anything.”
During a Culture Day held Sept. 29 at the museum, antique steam historian Percy Halliwell from Prince Albert, Sask., said Gordon taught him aspects of operating a steam engine he never knew.
Always on the go, she’s been affectionately nicknamed Spark Plug by Thom Cholowski, the chief engineer who oversees the operation and maintenance of the steam powered artifacts at the museum’s four branches.
The WDM has the world’s largest collection of North American steam powered traction engines.
“The biggest thing that strikes me about Jacquie is people do a double take,” he said.
“They’ll walk up to her and she’ll engage the people. Her personality and her enthusiasm have done a lot to draw people to learn more about this equipment because they’ll see a woman operating. They’ll literally snap their neck around and then walk over and say, ‘wow, how did you get into this.’ She’ll talk to them and tell them about the history of the machine.”
Gordon said she came by her love of steam and mechanics naturally. She grew up in Victoria in the engines and boiler rooms of destroyer ships, where her father worked as a stoker in the Canadian navy. As a child, she remembers watching old western movies to see the locomotives.
“Steam is pretty well in my blood,” she said.
“I was always infatuated by industrial equipment. When it came to steam traction, oh my God, why didn’t I do this a long time ago, because I have never enjoyed anything so much in my whole entire life as what I do at the museum here.”
Since taking a course at the museum in 2010 and receiving a limited power engineer traction licence, Gordon estimates she’s logged almost 500 volunteer hours operating and maintaining eight engines and helping restore five more.
This has helped with her job as a maintenance service worker at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.
The only female in her department, the job requires a fireman boiler ticket. The volunteer hours Gordon puts in for the museum counts to-ward her career.
“All this time I put towards the locomotives and steam engines, I can use as boiler time in the real world to build up my ticket,” she said.
Cholowski said working with antique steam engines is primal.
“It’s earth, wind and fire. You’re using the natural elements to create power… It’s not like driving a car where you step on the gas and there’s a mechanical disconnect. This (steam engine), when you pull the throttle, you feel the power of the steam at your fingertips,” he said.
“It’s also a sense of history. When you’re operating these things, they are no longer pictures in a book. You are operating it and you’re bringing history back to life.”
That same passion drives Gordon to spend her vacations and weekends around the metal giants that first broke prairie soil and then threshed harvests between 1890 and 1930.
“I feel like I’m stepping back in time when I work with them,” she said.
“I love the sound of steam, the smell, the feel of the heat and watching the mechanical aspects of the machine work.… It’s quiet. It’s just a chuf, chuf, chuf, chuf when it’s running correctly. It’s very soothing.”
Living in a time gone by that was free from the conveniences and trappings of modern day amenities appeals to Gordon, but she is quick to keep it in perspective.
“I would say I was probably born too late, but in the same breath, it’s a good thing I live now because it wasn’t very long ago that women weren’t even allowed in the bar or to vote. So back then I would have been pushed off to the side and wouldn’t have been able to enjoy what I enjoy today.”