Erie’s memorable machines

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, July 31, 2017

One of the best-remembered products of GE's Erie plant, a Milwaukee Road 'Little Joe' electric, leads a freight at East Portal, Mont., in August 1972. Photo from Dan Pope collection
I’d visited a number of big railroad facilities by the time I first set eyes on General Electric’s sprawling factory complex in Erie, Pa., in the late 1990s, but I was still awestruck by the view driving along E. Lake Road in the city’s Lawrence Park neighborhood.

There, spread over hundreds of acres, were more than 20 separate buildings, some of them gigantic, all linked in various ways for the singular purpose of building locomotives. It’s what I imagined Baldwin in Eddystone might have looked like, or Alco in Schenectady, back in the heyday of the steam locomotive.

Erie and GE had steam-era longevity, that’s for sure. The company began manufacturing at the site back in 1910.

The tour I enjoyed on that visit revealed a company at the peak of its powers, enjoying its new status as the nation’s top-selling locomotive builder as it cranked out the Dash 9s and AC4400s that were beginning to dominate the American railroad. GE’s old rival, Electro-Motive, had been vanquished. Erie looked like it could last another 90 years.

Now it appears that won’t happen, not after GE Transportation’s announcement last week that it plans to move the remainder of its Erie locomotive production to the company’s new plant in Fort Worth. Although GE says other design and development functions will remain in Erie, it acknowledges that more than 575 jobs will be eliminated.

GE shook up the railroad world in the early 1960s by entering the U.S. road diesel market with the U25B. Early U25Bs like Erie Lackawanna 2509 (at Binghamton, N.Y., in November 1972) had distinctive one-piece windshields. J. David Ingles photo
The threat of moving work has been hanging over the heads of the Erie workers since the non-union Fort Worth plant opened in 2013, and the United Electrical Workers Local 506 has been running a “keep it made in Erie” campaign for years. Alas, that campaign has apparently failed.

I’ll leave analysis of the company’s move to reporters with better GE-watching credentials than me. Just the same, I’m troubled to see another industrial icon leave so many proud and skilled employees in the lurch. They deserve better.

Meanwhile, maybe it’s a good time to take a moment and look back on what GE and its Erie work force accomplished over more than a century. Some of their products truly were revolutionary. Others, frankly, were mostly idiosyncratic. One model that carried the nickname “Erie” wasn’t even truly a GE product. For me, coming up with this list meant they mostly had to be memorable. To wit:

The 44-tonner: Call it the Cadillac of critters. When a 1937 labor agreement stipulated that a locomotive could operate without a fireman so long as the engine weighed less than 90,000 pounds, GE answered. The 400 h.p. 44-tonner, introduced in 1940, became a standard workhorse for short lines and industrial operations everywhere.

Pennsylvania Railroad GG1: The monarch of electric locomotives is usually identified with PRR’s Altoona Works, where most of the 139 GG1s were built. However, in point of fact, 14 were built in Erie, Nos. 4801–4814, and prototype 4800 received its electrical equipment there.

Fairbanks-Morse's 'Erie-built' diesels were memorable if not particularly successful; Santa Fe's entire fleet, a single A-B-A set, is near L.A. Union Station in 1956. Gordon Glattenberg photo
FM Erie-builts: When Fairbanks-Morse entered the road diesel market in 1947 with its A1A-A1A dual-service locomotive, it lacked the necessary manufacturing space at its plant in Beloit, Wis., so FM turned to GE. Although not terribly successful, the so-called “Erie-builts” — 82 cab units and 29 boosters — looked good in their Raymond Loewy-designed carbodies, especially in Santa Fe’s Warbonnet garb.  

Union Pacific gas turbines: GE built only 56 of these giants in various guises between 1948 and 1961 (Alco was a partner on the earliest units), and for most of their lives they were confined to UP’s main line across Wyoming and Utah. They guzzled huge quantities of relatively cheap Bunker C fuel oil, and that appetite eventually put them out of business. But for a brief season, Sherman Hill resounded to a very distinctive thunder.  

Pennsylvania E44: Closely related to the Virginian E33s of 1955–57, the E44 fleet numbered 66 units, built for PRR 1960–63. The E44’s brutish profiles briefly gave electrified freight railroading a more contemporary look, even as they were handed down to Penn Central and then Conrail.

Among the most memorable locomotives to come out of GE's Erie plant was the Union Pacific's 'Big Blow' gas-turbines, one of which leads an eastbound 20 miles west of Las Vegas, Nev., in 1962. Gordon Glattenberg photo
Milwaukee Road “Little Joe”: One of the good things about the Cold War is that the 20 streamlined EF-4 electrics GE built for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union never left the Western Hemisphere. Instead, a dozen of the 5,100 h.p. locomotives wound up on the Milwaukee’s Pacific Extension, where they were a photogenic counterpoint to the railroad’s old box-cabs. Of the remainder, three went to the South Shore, where they were known simply as the “800s,” and five to Brazil.  

New Haven EP-5: Known as “Jets” for the roaring sound of their blowers, the 10 EP-5 rectifier units were designed for a very limited assignment, hauling passenger trains between either New York’s Penn Station or Grand Central and New Haven, Conn. They ultimately fell victim to deferred maintenance under NH and PC, but for a time they looked splendid in the railroad’s forward-looking McGinnis-era orange and black.

U25B: Plain Jane in both appearance and performance, the U25B of 1960 would belong on this list simply for the fact that it put EMD on notice there was a new kid in town — or a familiar kid in new clothes, anyway. But the first U-boats also were good engines, known to be relentless pullers once they loaded. At 2,500 h.p., they were the most powerful four-axle power on the market at the time. EMD might have laughed at first, but not for long.

Only 10 in number, New Haven's EP-5 fleet enjoyed high-profile assignments out of New York's two big terminals; here, No. 377 heels to a curve at Cos Cob, Conn., in 1956. T. J. McNamara photo
C30-7: Built by the hundreds from during 1976–85 as the natural successor to the U30C, the six-motor 3,000 h.p. C30 played a key role in making the Powder River coal boom possible. Most importantly, in 1983 it pushed GE past EMD to take the sales lead for the first time, something that later would become routine.

So that’s my list of GE’s most memorable products, compiled in a spirit of tribute to five generations of men and women who’ve labored in those vast halls of Erie. Feel free to add some choices of your own, or argue with mine. Either way, Erie deserves all the accolades now coming its way 



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