Lowell, Ohio & Sharpsville, PA
Building his own dream
Steam locomotives embody awesome power and speed – and the lure of faraway places. They still fill us with wonder when we see them in movies, museums, or tourist attractions. Imagine, then, what you would feel if you grew up seeing them roar by every day with black smoke spewing out of their stacks, wheels clattering, and engineers waving.
That’s the story of Don Stephens, who now lives in Sharpsville. Born in 1915 in a house in Lowell, Ohio, less than a quarter of a mile from the B&O Railroad tracks, he was always fascinated with trains. It’s not surprising that he wanted to be a railroad engineer. What is surprising is the way he fulfilled that dream many, many years later: by building his own steam locomotive.
During the 1920s, Don’s father worked on railroad maintenance crews. He had a much different dream.
“Dad always wanted to be a farmer,” Don said. “I never could understand that. We had a house and a lot, kept cows and raised a couple of pigs every year. He wanted to buy the adjacent farm. It came up for sale at a courthouse auction on January 12, 1929. He went into debt to buy it.”
The timing was unfortunate. Farmers made money in the 1920s by shipping corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other vegetables to Pittsburgh in refrigerated railroad cars. But when the Depression hit, the bottom dropped out.
“We tried to run the farm for two years,” Don said, “but we couldn’t even make enough money to pay the interest on the mortgage. So Dad had to go back on the railroad to hold things together.”
Don helped with the farm all through high school. He graduated in 1933.
“I was second scholastically in a class of 16, but there was no chance of my going to college. I had to help with the farm. My mother and I ran it for two years, and it was hard going.”
The railroad ran right through their farm. Don was determined to get a ride in the locomotive cab.
“Every day this freight train came through town. I kept the engineer supplied with sweet corn and tomatoes all summer. One day in September, I climbed up into the cab and asked for a ride to Marietta. The engineer gave me a real dirty look. He knew he’d been had.”
One day in 1935, Don was riding on a corn cultivator. A car stop at the end of the road.
“It was the principal of my high school. ‘I’ve been talking with your Dad,’ he said, ‘and I’ve made arrangements for you to go to Ohio University this fall.”
That set Don on track to becoming an engineer – not on a railroad, but in electronics. .
“I grew up in a house that didn’t have electricity until 1933 when Dad hired a laid-off electrician to wire it for $20 and a quarter of beef,” Don said. “I didn’t know how a radio worked. But I wanted to study electrical engineering.
On a weekend back home from the university, he met Edna Fisher from Waterford, Ohio. They got married on April 15, 1937. Their first son, James, was born in March, 1938, while Don was still in school.
“I graduated cum laude on June 5, 1939, and went to work the next day at a huge steam-powered plant at Philo, Ohio, for 50 cents an hour.”
Don soon realized that he would never get to use his education there, so he got into the Westinghouse Student Engineering Course. His first assignment, in December, 1940, was in small motor design in Lima, Ohio.
“I liked it in Lima, but I wanted to get into bigger stuff. So I came to Sharon in February, 1941.”
Don worked in distribution engineering until April, 1944. The Sharon Westinghouse plant was starting to make torpedoes with advanced electronic homing systems, but had no one who knew how to design them. Don was selected to go to Baltimore, where such experience could be gained.
“I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t have any choice,” Don said. “It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me because my boss was the man who wrote the book on electronic transformers.”
Another good thing happened to Don and Edna in 1944, after their move to Baltimore. Their second son, William, was born.
After the war, the Sharon Westinghouse plant started making small electronic transformers that had been designed in Baltimore. They wanted Don back because of his Baltimore experience.
“I took a couple of days off to find a house back here. I had $800. I couldn’t find a place I could afford. Then Mayor Myron Jones, who sold real estate, called and said he had a house in Sharpsville. It was in terrible shape, but I could buy it. I put $20 and brought my wife from Baltimore to look at it. We moved in on Labor Day, 1945, and have lived in this house ever since.”
Their third son, Seth, was born in 1948.
Don worked in the Specialty Transformer Department in Sharon until the whole department moved to a new plant in Transfer on April 15, 1952.
“They were changing all the aircraft from 28 volts DC to 115 volts AC, 400 cycles, because you could make transformers a lot smaller and lighter. We made thousands of aircraft transformers.”
They made the first transformer that was used in the AWACS, the Airborne Warning and Control System that uses 30 ft. diameter domes mounted on large Boeing aircraft. All but one of those built in the 1970s and 1980s are still in service.
Don was an eminently successful engineer, with his name on five patents. The last one was for a cost saving manufacturing process he invented with three others. The four co-inventors shared a $30,000 cost savings award, one of the largest given by Westinghouse to that date.
During his last years at Westinghouse, Don started a satisfying hobby: he built a ride-able one-eighth scale-model operational steam locomotive that ran on 7 ½” gauge track.
“I always wanted to be a railroad engineer, and that was the only way I could accomplish it,” he said.
Not satisfied with his first locomotive, Don started a second one in 1979.
In 1980 Don retired from Westinghouse. Sadly, the golden years he envisioned with his wife weren’t to be. She passed away suddenly from ovarian cancer three weeks after he retired.
Living alone, Don had a lot of time to devote to his second locomotive. He worked on it for ten years.
“I lost a couple of years to mistakes – one was my mistake, and one was in a purchased part.”
A less-determined man might have thrown the towel, but Don persisted. He had the first successful ride on his new locomotive in 1989 – and has driven it more than 1200 miles since.
This masterpiece is a replica of the locomotive in which he had his first ride back in the 1930s. It’s only an eighth the size of the original, but it is a genuine coal-stoked steam-powered locomotive. Don runs it mostly on a track in Medina, Ohio, built and maintained by the Northeastern Ohio Live Steamers. Don has been a member of that club for 38 years.
“The club members have only about four or six steam locomotives. Some members are building diesels. We are on about eight or ten acres with about a mile of track. We’re going to double that.”
Don’s locomotive packs a mere two horsepower and pulls a train with passengers about dog-trot speed. Sure, it’s a lot smaller and slower than the real thing, but it is solid proof that determination and persistence can enable the realization of a dream.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007