Getting wistful about Atlanta & West Point 290

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, April 10, 2017

Doing the job for which it was created, Atlanta & West Point 4-6-2 No. 290 rolls the New York–New Orleans 'Crescent' west of Atlanta in 1946. C. K. Marsh collection
It’s shaping up to be a good year for mainline steam locomotives. This month, Union Pacific 4-8-4 No. 844 is back in action. Just this past weekend, Norfolk Southern drew crowds again with Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611. Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 and Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 both have trips scheduled for summer. Perhaps best of all, Western Maryland Scenic plans to unveil fully restored Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 later in the summer.

Are we back to the go-go 1990s? It almost feels like it. The staff over at Trains is bullish enough about all this it to assemble a special collector’s edition called Big Steam is Back, scheduled for publication in June. https://kalmbachhobbystore.com/product/special-issue/vt-tr2170601

I’m as excited as anyone about all this steam action, and I’m planning to catch as much as I can. But a random encounter with an old movie a couple of weeks ago left me feeling bittersweet as well, remembering some engines that blazed to spectacular life in recent times, only to go cold again. Among my favorites were Frisco 4-8-2 No. 1522 and Cotton Belt 4-8-4 No. 819.

Then there was that movie engine: Atlanta & West Point 4-6-2 No. 290. I’ll get some kickback here when I confess that I didn’t care all that much for the movie, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, which struck me as overly sentimental. But the scenes with 290 were gorgeous.

How could they not be? The 290 is a high-wheeled, big-boilered speed machine, the very personification of passenger steam power from the halcyon 1920s. Even if the movie’s producers kept 290 at a sedate speed, her scenes conjured thoughts of the heavy Pacific in its prime, when she was one of two speedsters assigned to haul the Crescent Limited west of Atlanta.

My fascination with the 290 goes back to one of my first issues of Trains, January 1966, in which reporter Don Phillips wrote “Tug of War Over a Great Lady,” detailing how the Southern Railway and A&WP were locked in a courtroom battle over the fate of the engine. The Southern, enamored of the 290’s similarity to its fabled Ps-4, was thinking of adding the 4-6-2 to its nascent steam program; the A&WP, which had donated the engine to the city of Atlanta for “display only,” had no enthusiasm for the idea. 

The details of the court case are too complex to report here, but the 290 did manage to make it over to Southern’s Inman Yard in Atlanta after being removed from the city’s Lakewood Park, where it had been displayed since it was retired in 1954. Title for the engine eventually moved to the Atlanta Chapter, NRHS.

As happens so often with steam, the 290 had a singular history. Lima Locomotive Works, a builder not often associated with the 4-6-2 wheel arrangement, constructed the engine in 1926 basically as an extension of USRA design. Although it was ahead of Lima’s Super Power revolution by a few years, the 290 had some Super Power features, notably a combustion chamber in the firebox, an innovation that dramatically boosted steaming capacity.

The burly 290 spent most of its service life tag-teaming the Crescent with Western Railway of Alabama No. 190, an identical Lima 4-6-2; sad to say, the 190 was scrapped in 1954. During the engines’ heyday, the A&WP and WofA under the “West Point Route” banner jointly operated 175 miles of mainline on train 37’s and 38’s route between Atlanta and Montgomery. In that 1966 Trains report, I loved how Don said the 290 would “burn the rails” once it turned loose its 47,500 pounds of tractive effort through 73-inch drivers.

A&WP 290, accompanied by a New Georgia Railroad E8, pours it on with a New Georgia train on Dec. 9, 1989. J. D. Jones photo
Fast forward to 1989. For years, legions of 290 fans dreamed of seeing the engine steam again. They got their chance with the emergence of Atlanta’s New Georgia Railroad, a high-profile steam and diesel excursion operation organized in the late 1980s. For the New Georgia, the 290 was perfect: graceful, powerful, big enough to attract a crowd.

I was privileged to be part of that crowd on the 290’s first big weekend of steam, an 88-mile trip out of Atlanta on Norfolk Southern’s former Southern Railway main line to Macon on September 10, 1989. By that time I had logged plenty of miles behind steam, but I was unprepared for how much the 290 appealed to me, looking every bit as heroic as she must have back in her Crescent days.

The trip down to Macon was memorable, with a packed train and a crowded U.S. 23 bearing witness to 290’s exuberant exhaust and whistle. Alas, the locomotive turned up with overly warm bearings upon arrival at Brosnan Yard in Macon, and diesels took the excursion train back home.

I lingered with the crew, however, hanging out at the yard as the 290 simmered. We kept her company until someone gave us a ride back to Atlanta later that evening. It would not have occurred to me that it would be the last time I’d see the 290, so soon into her glorious second act. I remember sitting in the van and looking back at her in the darkness, thinking “I’ll be back soon.”

It wasn’t a pledge I could keep. The 290 continued to run for a while, including a memorable return to home A&WP rails for a Montgomery round trip in August 1992. But some necessary repairs never materialized, despite the best efforts of a volunteer crew that included beloved Southern steam guru Bill Purdie. The 290 was unable to be ready for the 1994 NRHS convention in Atlanta, and shortly thereafter NS pulled the plug on its steam program. Meanwhile, the New Georgia Railroad also shut down. The 290’s best opportunities to run were gone.

A&WP stands disassembled but safe indoors at the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, Ga., in December 2015. Robert S. McGonigal photo
My infatuation with 290 doesn’t necessarily have a sad ending. Today the locomotive is stored safely indoors at the restoration shop of the Southeastern Railway Museum (SRM) in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth. This industrious museum is building a four-track 175-foot-long display building, and has a number of projects on its docket, ranging from a Southern SW7 to a GE 44-tonner to a Western Union wooden boxcar.

SRM’s short demonstration railroad is far too small a pond for a heavy, high-speed Pacific, and the 290 is not at the top of the SRM’s priority list. However, Andrew Durden, operations manager, says there is no reason to give up on the engine. Although work on a cosmetic restoration is currently on hold, the engine did receive some important running-gear repairs in the early 2000s, and Durden says static restoration will resume at some point. 

“As far as actually firing up the 290, there haven’t been any credible offers from other groups, at least not in the past 20 years or so,” Durden reports. “It’s an engine that really needs … to be operated in something resembling the manner for which it was intended, groups that have a well-defined business plan, [and] track on which to run.

“That being said, 290’s restoration will be handled in such a way as to keep the engine well preserved, should the call ever come.”

Anyone who saw the great lady come back to life more than 25 years ago would surely love to see someone, somewhere make that call. Our memories are too fresh. The movie isn’t enough. 

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