Dispatches from the Boomer, Part II

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, January 30, 2017

A few weeks ago in this space I caught up with my friend E.W. “Ed” King Jr., after a visit to his home in Largo, Fla. The story, posted on January 3, in part described how he came to be known as the Boomer.

It was great to see my old colleague again, and not only because his home seems like a tropical paradise compared with Milwaukee in winter. With Ed, it’s all about the conversation, which is always engaging. Now retired after a fulfilling career on Norfolk & Western, Rock Island, Canadian Pacific, and a few other places, he continues to do writing and research, often on steam locomotives.

And steam is definitely the Boomer’s métier. He spent his career in a diesel world, but saw enough of steam in his youth to spark a lifelong love affair. The fact that he grew up around Bristol, Virginia, on the N&W explains his particular devotion to that railroad’s peerless trio of J-class 4-8-4, Y-class 2-8-8-2, and (his favorite) the A-class 2-6-6-4. The latter was the subject of Ed’s landmark book, The A: Norfolk & Western’s Mercedes of Steam.

Not that Ed is blind to other steam on other railroads. Hardly. He’s also a devotee of steam on the Southern, a subject dear to his heart as a regular contributor to Ties, the journal of the Southern Railway Historical Association.

But he doesn’t stop there. As our recent conversations have wandered from subject to subject, we find ourselves talking about the locomotives we wished we’d seen in regular service. My contribution was easy: having been born in 1951 and missing steam almost entirely, my answer is “anything.” I’m in no position to be choosy.

But Ed’s a bit older than me and witnessed enough of the big show to have cinders in his hair, and not from fan trips. Yet there was plenty he missed, so I asked him to name the top five machines he never saw but wishes he did. They were, in no particular order:

Erie 2-8-8-8-2 Triplex.
• The Erie Triplex of 1914: Looking like something from a Jules Verne novel, the Triplex was an ungainly affair. The Erie had three of the Baldwin-built 2-8-8-8-2s weighing at 853,050 pounds per machine. All six cylinders were 26 x 32 inches, but only the middle set was high pressure; it exhausted low-pressure steam to the front and rear sets of drivers. Their biggest problem was boiler capacity; the feedwater pumps couldn’t keep the boiler full enough to keep up with steam consumption.

Nonetheless, Ed would have loved to seen one of them grinding up Gulf Summit, in southeastern New York just north of Lanesboro, Pa., especially after Erie made some modest improvements.

“Those totally inadequate fireboxes were enlarged, making them capable of sustaining themselves, at least with a short cutoff,” Ed explains. “They would have presented an irresistible spectacle with all that machinery – 6 cylinders turning 24 drivers – working between its couplers!”

Seaboard 2-6-6-4.
• Seaboard 2-6-6-4. These engines didn’t get much attention — the N&W’s A of the same wheel arrangement garnered a lot more fame, thanks in part to the Boomer — but they were highly regarded. With 69-inch driving wheels, they could run fast.

“They were the first successful high-speed simple articulateds,” Ed explains. “Intended for fast freight service, they filled in splendidly with Pullman-heavy sections of the winter Florida trains. These trains weren’t intended to dawdle their way across the railroad – sustained speeds of a mile-a-minute and more were a matter of course.”

PRR 4-4-6-4 Duplex.
• Pennsylvania Q2 duplex. The PRR built 25 of these cutting-edge duplex-drive 4-4-6-4s at Altoona. They were the most powerful ten-drivered engines ever built, ostensibly designed to outperform PRR’s hugely successful J1 2-10-4. But they were complex to maintain and all were retired before the J1s. Not that this affects Ed’s opinion.

“They would have presented a fascinating spectacle, lifting tonnage up the easy grade west out of Fort Wayne. Once over the hill, it would be equally spectacular to feel it shake the ground as it passed, say, Valpo.”

DM&IR 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone.
• Missabe 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone. Other railroads had success with the 2-8-8-4: Baltimore & Ohio, Northern Pacific, and Southern Pacific (in the AC cab-forward mode). But perhaps none symbolized brute force quite as much as the 18 M-class engines on the DM&IR.

“The DM&IR 2-8-8-4s were undoubtedly the most potent of all the Yellowstones,” says Ed. “It was uphill from the dumpers at Superior and Duluth with the empty ore jimmies back to the pits, giving the big fellows more of an excuse to flex their considerable muscles than even bringing 18,000 ton loaded trains back down the hill.”

NYC Hudson.
• New York Central Hudson. Did any steam locomotive capture Americans’ collective fancy as much as the 275 J-class Hudsons on the NYC? Fast, reliable, and handsome, they were arguably the most successful passenger locomotives of all time. The Boomer certainly fell under their spell.

“It would have been great to see a J-class Hudson anywhere between Harmon, N.Y., and Englewood station on the outskirts of Chicago. One of the classiest, most modeled locomotives ever built would have made a fascinating sight walking across northern Ohio or Indiana with the Great Steel Fleet.”

What would I like to have seen? Well, I can’t argue with any of Ed’s choices. Nor anyone else’s. Steam is steam, especially if you never saw much of it.

I suppose if you asked me three years ago I might have said a Union Pacific Big Boy, but it appears I’ll get my chance when the 4014 comes out of Cheyenne in a couple of years. I grew up in a New York Central town, so I’d have to say the Hudson is my number one.

So what engines are tops on your list?





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