NYC 2933’s fresh look is more than just a paint job

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, May 31, 2017

New York Central elected not to save any of its magnificent Hudsons. J-3a 5448, built in 1938 with 20th Century Limited streamlining, stands whitelined at NYC's shops at Beech Grove, Ind., in the early 1950s. Wallace W. Abbey photo
Of all the Class I railroads that got rid of nearly every steam locomotive in the 1950s, perhaps none attracted as much vitriol as the New York Central.

The Central fielded not only an expansive roster (more than 3,600 engines at the end of World War II), it also boasted what many would consider the most famous of all locomotives, the J-class 4-6-4 Hudson. That every last one of these thoroughbred machines was reduced to scrap has, for some, meant a special place in preservation hell for NYC and its management.

I buy into that argument, but only up to a point. Yes, it’s easy to wonder why NYC President Al Perlman couldn’t have found a way to save at least one — just one! — of the 275 4-6-4s Alco built for the system between 1927 and 1938. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Beech Grove was still overhauling steam locomotives in the early '50s, and one of them was Mohawk 2933, seen outside the shops with other freshly outshopped engines before re-entering service. Wallace W. Abbey photo
But put yourself in Perlman’s shoes. Until he and his patron Robert R. Young took over in 1954, the NYC was still strutting around like it was 1925, content to sit back in its Park Avenue headquarters and gloat over its thick passenger schedules, countless hump yards, and a four-track main line. It took Perlman to grab the elephant by the scruff of the neck, wrestle it to the ground, and produce an epochal turnaround. Given the stakes, steam engines were low on the priority list.

But all was not lost. Not quite. In addition to a few small locomotives that escaped intact, two members of one of NYC’s greatest fleets — the Mohawk 4-8-2s — managed to survive. One is No. 3001, an L-3a now preserved at the National New York Central Museum in Elkhart, Ind.

NYC 2933, among the last of the road's 600 4-8-2s in service, works at Indianapolis in 1956. Jeremy Taylor photo, NYCSHS coll.
The other is a glossy, gleaming No. 2933, an L-2d, recently unveiled at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis after a long and thorough cosmetic restoration. 

The restoration has created a buzz in NYC circles, where the 2933 (and the 3001, to be sure) hold an especially cherished status. “Black Beauty” is the headline on the cover of the latest issue of Central Headlight, the magazine of the New York Central System Historical Society. As photographer Ron Goldfeder says in his photo story, “Mohawk 2933 hasn’t looked this good since the mid-1950s.”

Mohawk 2933 basks in the sun after a thorough cosmetic restoration by Museum of Transportation volunteers at the museum's grounds west of St. Louis. Ron Goldfeder photo
The 2933’s pedigree is impressive. One of 600 4-8-2s on NYC’s roster, the 2933 and 24 other L-2d engines were completed by Alco in November 1929 for NYC’s Big Four subsidiary, originally numbered as CCC&StL 6225–6249. Another 50 of the same class were built for NYC proper over the following four months, 2450–2499. In 1936, all of these Mohawks were renumbered in the 2900 series. (The 4-8-2 was a “Mountain” on most railroads, but that name wouldn’t do for the Water Level Route.)

The Big Four and NYC Mohawks were nearly identical, the main difference being the addition of water scoops for the NYC engines; the CCC&StL didn’t have any track pans.

Records show the 2933 established a typically solid service career and operated beyond July 1956, making it one of the last serviceable NYC engines. The honor of being truly the last went to H-7e 2-8-2 No. 1977, whose fire was dumped on May 2, 1957, at Cincinnati. The 2933 stayed on the operating department’s books until August of that year, but didn’t run again.

The preservation of 2933 is a minor miracle that can be attributed to two men. One was Arthur Atkinson, former chairman of the Wabash and by 1962 the chairman of the Museum of Transportation’s board. The other savior appears to have been, of all people, Al Perlman himself.

As a fellow top railroad executive, Atkinson had access to Perlman and was able to communicate with the NYC president directly. As he cast about for artifacts for the new museum, Atkinson asked for famed NYC 4-4-0 999 but was told it had been promised to Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, where it resides today.

As an alternative, Perlman suggested the 2933, which still languished in a dead line. Later, as part of the deal, Perlman threw in Alco-GE S-2 electric locomotive No. 113, built in 1906.

So it was that on June 13, 1963, NYC officially presented both the Mohawk and its third-rail cousin in a ceremony at St. Louis Union Station. An unsmiling Perlman posed with Atkinson, but he was there. Later, at a luncheon, Perlman spoke of the need for constant change on the railroad, citing NYC’s Flexi-Van service and its bold, customer-oriented marketing techniques.

After the dedication, No. 2933 was stored for several years on Alton & Southern property as the museum struggled with finding a new, permanent location. Finally, in July 1969, the 2933 joined a dozen other pieces of equipment in a “hospital train” to the museum site in Kirkwood.

As cosmetic restorations go, the recent work on 2933 has been quite thorough. The effort began about 10 years ago with a contractor hired to remove and dispose of boiler and steam chest insulation, followed by restoration by museum volunteers. Most noticeable was the installation of a nearly entirely new boiler jacket, along with various patches elsewhere on the engine. If you look closely, you also can see new covers on the main cylinder and valve heads; in the last days of steam, NYC stopped replacing them.

The gleaming new 2933 was officially presented to the public in a ceremony on May 20.

Only one other large NYC steam engine survives, Mohawk 3001 at the National New York Central Museum in Elkhart, Ind. Robert S. McGonigal photo
The 2933 is hardly a glamorous engine. With its footboards and spoked drivers, it projects a workmanlike appeal, circa 1920s. By comparison, the recently repainted 3001 in Elkhart is a sleeker machine, its passenger-style pilot, elephant-ear smoke deflectors, and disc drivers more reminiscent of the “steam’s finest hour” era.

But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the 2933 one bit. Credit the museum and its staff for turning this freight hog into a gem of their collection. As Rich Stoving, past president and current Headlight editor for the NYCSHS says, “We loudly applaud the Museum of Transportation for the handsome restoration of 2933, an exceedingly rare representative of the golden age of steam.”

Maybe the 2933 doesn’t quite make up for losing all those Hudsons, but with its glossy new appearance, it comes close. Just ask any New York Central fan.

 

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