Steam Engine Fires Up for Annual New Year's Run

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At the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, one of America's last working steam engines is firing up. Until just a few years ago, it was used to generate electricity for the school. These days, it's mostly run for visitors to see — and for the annual New Year's Eve party. The rest of the year, one man lovingly tends to it: Conrad Milster.


Tomorrow night is not just any Saturday night. It's New Year's Eve, and preparations for big parties are gearing up. The champagne is being chilled. Tuxes are coming out of closets. In Times Square, police barricades are stacked up ready for the crowds eager to see the ball drop.


And they are getting ready to fire up the steam engine at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It's one of the last working steam engines in the US. Until just a few years ago, it was used to generate electricity for the school. These days it's mostly run for visitors to see and for the annual New Year's Eve party. On Saturday night the engine is going to run a steam-powered calliope, just as it does every New Year's Eve, and the rest of the year it is lovingly tended by one man.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Mr. CONRAD MILSTER (Chief Engineer, Pratt Institute): My name is Conrad Milster. I'm 69. I am the chief engineer at Pratt Institute. I've been here since 1958. There are practically no plants left that have steam engines which can still operate, which our engines can do.

The number one engine is very cranky. It can run fine and then all of a sudden it can get very noisy. So right now number one is a pain in the butt. The number two engine, which is the middle one, I feel very friendly toward that one because it doesn't give me any trouble. Now I have had trouble in the past, but right now it's on my good list.

(Soundbite of steam)

Mr. MILSTER: The steam engine has character. An electric motor is a wonderfully efficient device, but I've never heard anybody say, `I love that motor,' but I've heard a lot of engineers say, `I love that old engine.' Many steam engines were named. If they walked about the engine, it was Rose or it was Eleanor or even Sam; it wasn't `the engine.' You babied it, you nursed it, you made the repair.

(Soundbite of steam engine)

Mr. MILSTER: That is as close to a machine making a human sound as you can want. It's almost like a person sighing.

(Soundbite of cat)

Mr. MILSTER: We have about a dozen strays that have just wandered in.

(Soundbite of cat)

Mr. MILSTER: We have Frank, we have Lestat(ph), we have Nicky(ph), we have Handsome, Big Mama, Big Daddy, Two Dish(ph), who just showed up.

(Soundbite of cat)

Mr. MILSTER: Where do the names come from? Out of a clear blue sky.

(Soundbite of steam engine)

Mr. MILSTER: I grew up in a period when you still had all of this old machinery, and I was raised by engineers who were all old-timers. They started making electric power here in 1888, so we're 118 years old, something like that. I'm only the fourth chief engineer in that entire period. That's an irrational concept, but I find it difficult to destroy or discard something that has been there for so long. It's lived there long enough to deserve to stay. You want to put it that way. It has tenure.

(Soundbite of engine running)

BLOCK: That's Conrad Milster, chief engineer at the Pratt Institute power plant in Brooklyn, New York. He's getting ready for the school's annual New Year's Eve party, when the engine is used to run a steam-powered calliope. The story was produced by Jonah Engle of Sound Portraits in New York.

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