PRR 4935, the first true heritage unit

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Amtrak GG1 4935 — freshly restored to its original Pennsylvania Railroad color scheme — basks in the sun on May 15, 1977, before its christening ceremony at Washington Union Station. William E. Hopkins photo
Everybody started pinching themselves several years ago when “heritage units,” resplendent in long-retired paint schemes, began arriving from the shops of Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak. Nothing draws photographers to trackside like word that the NS “Wabash” unit or the UP “Katy” diesel is in town.

It’s been an amazing gesture by all three railroads. UP fielded six Commemorative Locomotives, of them all SD70ACe units, painted in liveries honoring UP predecessors in 2005-06. To mark its 40th anniversary in 2011, Amtrak got into the game with five Genesis units painted in older liveries. In 2012, NS put 20 of its Heritage Locomotives into service, a mix of SD70AC3 and ES44AC diesels, also painted for predecessor lines. Regional carriers like Pan Am Railways and Iowa Interstate have fielded heritage units as well.

Actually, all of these locomotives are late to a party that started in Washington, D.C., 40 years ago this week. That’s because what could be considered the first heritage unit was former Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 No. 4935, unveiled by Amtrak in its fresh PRR paint on May 15, 1977, in a memorable ceremony at Washington Union Station.

Maybe it’s fitting that the title of “first heritage unit” goes to the greatest electric locomotive of them all. I even hesitate to use the word “electric” lest it sound like a qualifier. The GG1s were among the finest motive-power machines ever fielded by an American railroad, period. 

The GG1 legend is familiar: how the Pennsy and GE created it as the standard power for the railroad’s massive 1933-37 electrification expansion; how PRR hired famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to put a svelte new skin on its rivet-studded powerhouse; and mostly how the GG1 racked up an incredible record of performance over nearly five decades. With its ability to transform the PRR’s overhead A.C. current into 4,620 continuous horsepower (and an astounding 8,500 in short bursts), the GG1 was a brilliant marriage of good looks and brute force.  

By 1976, the GG1s were running on borrowed time, with obsolescence in sight as Amtrak moved toward eventual conversion to new locomotives, mainly the Swedish-designed, EMD-built AEM7. Fortunately, the GG1 had friends.

The idea for restoring a GG1 to its former glory originated with Howard Serig, an economist with the U.S. Department of Transportation and a lifelong Pennsy fan. In a November 1976 “Turntable” opinion piece in Trains, Serig publicly floated the brilliant notions that a GG1 restored to its PRR glory was both fitting and eminently doable.

Personnel at Amtrak's Wilmington, Del., shops apply the classic PRR pinstripe livery to GG1 4935 on May 1, 1977. Karl Zimmermann photo
Serig and others organized a group called the Friends of the GG1, or FOGG, to push the idea. Although the original target was Conrail, operator of the largest fleet of GG1s, the group eventually found traction with Amtrak. The group got a commitment and went about raising the $10,000 Amtrak said it needed to pay for the paint job, aided by contributions from NRHS chapters. In the end they easily made the goal.

The locomotive chosen was No. 4935, built in 1943 at the railroad’s Juniata Shops in Altoona as one of the last GG1s. In March 1977, the 4935 went into Amtrak’s Wilmington Shops for the overhaul, which included some mechanical updates as well as the new paint job. A few weeks later it emerged, gleaming in its fresh livery of dark green, gold pinstripes, and red PRR keystones.

I’ll never forget the dedication at tracks 11 and 12 in Washington Union Station. I was there on assignment as the managing editor of Passenger Train Journal, grateful that my boss, publisher Kevin McKinney, could marshal our small magazine’s resources to get me there. I was only 26, and frankly a bit starry-eyed over the proceedings and the high-powered celebrants.

My memory of the ceremony gets lost in the swirl of that day, but I do remember remarks by Amtrak President Paul Reistrup and GG1 historian (and frequent Classic Trains contributor) Karl Zimmermann, and the champagne coronation of 4935 by Mrs. Mary “Tat” Reistrup. Most of all, I remember a brief speech by an elegantly dressed Raymond Loewy, proclaiming the GG1 as perhaps his favorite design project. I loved Loewy’s French accent, and the way he pronounced “GG1” exactly the way Louis Jourdan addressed Leslie Caron in the movie Gigi.

Raymond Loewy speaks from the platform of PRR office car 120 during 4935's dedication ceremony. Don Wood photo
After the ceremony, some of the guests repaired to the regular Amtrak train to which the 4935 was assigned that day, the 3:05 p.m. Murray Hill to New York. The train’s regular consist was distinguished on the tail end by ex-PRR business car 120, the Pennsylvania, owned at the time by Manhattan attorney George Pins, himself a big GG1 fan and legal adviser to FOGG. His car was adorned with a smart-looking “Friends of the GG1” keystone drumhead.

The crowded train was abuzz with dignitaries, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres, but the more observant partiers ignored the distractions and certainly noticed the way the surging 4935 got the train up to track speed in no time flat, just like she always had.

Karl Zimmermann fondly remembers that day. At the time he was working on his book, The Remarkable GG1, and joined FOGG to become the chief liaison with Loewy. The ride into Washington that day yielded this remarkable anecdote:

“As my wife, Laurel, and I chatted with Loewy, I asked him about a widely circulated (and apparently accurate) anecdote, that his first trial commission from the Pennsy was a trash-can design for Penn Station. He pulled a black felt-tip pen from the pocket of his tan blazer (with a Skylab patch, since he’d designed its interior), grabbed a cocktail napkin, and sketched the receptacle. As we talked on, I surreptitiously (I’d hoped) slid my hand across the table toward napkin, souvenir in mind, but Loewy caught me and snatched it away. ‘Too rough,’ he said.

“But he did provide a keepsake of the occasion, inscribing the ceremony program thus:

‘To Karl and Laurel, with gratitude and sympathy, in memory of a great day,’ closing with the recognizable flourish that was his signature. By ‘sympathy’ he of course meant something like ‘fellow feeling,’ more akin to the word ‘simpatico’ that English has borrowed from Italian and Spanish. Sharing the ‘podium’ on car 120 with Loewy remains one of my most cherished memories.”

Since 1983, the celebrity GG1 has been displayed at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Robert S. McGonigal photo
That 1977 restoration of 4935 was only a temporary reprieve, of course. The locomotive continued to fly the PRR flag until October 10, 1980, when it made its last run. It found a permanent home in 1983 at that PRR shrine, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, where it joined sister GG1 4800, the prototype of 1934. Today it remains on display in the Rolling Stock Hall. Happily, 16 GG1s have been preserved.

I should note that another operating GG1, No. 4877, returned to PRR paint in May 1981 courtesy of New Jersey Transit. That GG1 got the Pennsy’s Tuscan red treatment, a nice counterpoint to the 4935. Today the 4877, recently restored to dark green and pinstripes, is in the United Railroad Historical Society at Boonton, N.J.  

It’s unlikely we’ll see another GG1 run. The cost of converting one to the electrical distribution systems used today on the Northeast Corridor would make the average steam locomotive restoration crew blush. Thank goodness we had them as long as we did. Especially on that fine day in May 1977 when No. 4935 showed the world what a heritage unit really looked like.

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