The steamiest star on the silver screen

Way Back When

Engine: The 1856 locomotive William Mason has appeared in many films, most recently in `The Wild, Wild West.'

April 17, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William Mason, Baltimore's latest reigning film star, is a lively 143-year-old that has eight wheels and tips the scales at 105,000 pounds. When the William Mason (no relation to James Mason), gets steamed up about something, it's usually at 76 pounds per square inch.

And one more thing: the William Mason is really a she: a classic American-Type locomotive that measures 48 feet from the tip of her cow catcher to the coupler on her tender. She's just returned to Baltimore from a yearlong adventure that, along the way, included a $125,000 rebuild at Pennsylvania's Strasburg Railroad shops. It was all paid for by Warner Bros., which is featuring the new cinematic diva in its new Will Smith-Kevin Kline film, "The Wild, Wild West."

"It's a living artifact that can teach and thrill all at the same time," says Courtney B. Wilson, chief curator at the B & O Railroad Museum.

"Considered by many to be the epitome of elegant locomotive design, the B & O No. 25 also is a superb example of the 4-4-0 `American Type' -- the wheel arrangement almost universally used by Nineteenth Century railroads for both passenger and freight service," says a museum publication.

The engine was originally built by William Mason, who is often called the "Father of the American Type of Engine," at his works in Taunton, Mass.

Mason said he desired engines that were "strong workers but also good lookers." He designed everything, from balloon stack to cylinders, from smoke boxes to running boards with that aesthetic in mind.

"The Mason is really something of an American icon and it's exciting to have something from 1856 that is operating in 1999," says Wilson, admiring the engine in its temporary home in the museum's car shop. "The locomotive really has a national presence."

During its restoration, the engine's driving wheels were meticulously striped, its brass-work shined and whistle tuned up. Other major work included boiler, flue, wheel and brake repairs.

For its movie role, old No. 25 emerged temporarily renumbered No. 5 and bearing the stage name of Wanderer (an identity it will retain for a year, in the event that the studio plans a sequel). It was loaded aboard a trailer truck and transported to California, New Mexico and Idaho for filming. There, it pulled a baggage car and an opulent private car built for the film.

"The Wild, Wild West" is just the latest screen work for the William Mason, an old ham when it comes to steaming it up for Hollywood cameras. Her credits include starring roles in such films as "The Swan," "Raintree County," "Wells Fargo" and "Stand Up and Fight" as well as many film cameos.

Her best-remembered role was perhaps in "The Great Locomotive Chase," the 1956 Walt Disney film that starred Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeffrey Hunter. Sent along to nurse and operate the locomotive for six months was 31-year-old Baltimorean Harold Dorsey, a museum engineer.

Dorsey recalls that he and his crew were up at 5 a.m. daily preparing a breakfast of oak or cherry for the wood-burning steamer.

From Dorsey's black leather covered seat on the right side of the engine's cab, he operated the throttle which made her go. Top speed was often no more than 10 mph. A carefully braided whistle cord suspended from the ceiling was pulled to warn cows, autos and errant actors off the track.

On the left side of the cab sat the fireman, keeping his eye on the fire, gauges and the track ahead.

"It kinda got monotonous going back and forth," says Dorsey. The film shoots often extended 12 to 16 hours a day.

Before her recent return to the screen, the engine's last public appearance was in 1962, when she steamed to Annapolis to help celebrate the Civil War Centennial.

Next weekend, the William Mason will be out once again, this time in all her new livery. She will pull the Mount Clare Express from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday from the B & O Museum at 901 W. Pratt St. to the Mount Clare Mansion. Ticket information is available by calling the museum at 410-752-2464.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.