Great Northern 2584 and those flying pumps

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, September 25, 2017

Great Northern S-2 4-8-4 No. 2584, displayed at the Amtrak station in Havre, Mont., presents a fearsome visage with smokebox-mounted air pumps and low headlight. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The Amtrak depot at Havre, Mont., isn’t known for its charms — the building it shares with BNSF is a long, rudimentary brick box. But Empire Builder passengers taking a fresh-air break should spend a few minutes at the west end of the station, where they’ll find something more interesting — a thoroughbred horse with the face of a bulldog.

The thoroughbred is Great Northern 4-8-4 No. 2584, built in 1930, a beautiful example of front-line steam power that still had one foot in 1920s engineering and design but was rapidly moving toward the ultra-machines of the late 1930s. Baldwin delivered the 2584 as part of an order for 14 class S-2 engines, the last new steam on GN.

I took in the 2584 last week on a long trip via the Builder that included the long stop at Havre. I enjoyed spending some time with this somewhat neglected-looking 4-8-4. Viewing it forward from the back by the cab, I liked what I saw. The 2584 cuts a nice figure, with its long, lanky running gear, its 80-inch drivers, its roller bearings (added after it was built), and a big uncluttered boiler.

A look beyond the front end of a GN S-2 revealed a handsome example of an early 4-8-4; No. 2588 heads the Empire Builder near Browning, Mont., in 1941. W.R. McGee photo
But there was nothing svelte about its bulldog face, with its pair of cross-compound air pumps hung from the top of the smokebox, as was the fashion for a lot of Great Northern power. It’s an understatement to say not everyone appreciates them.

That group includes the late George H. Drury, who took a dim view of GN power in general in his landmark Guide to North American Steam Locomotives.

“The most generous description of Great Northern steam locomotives is homely,” wrote Drury. “Most had Belpaire fireboxes. The older locomotives had low, straight running boards, domes of an archaic shape, and either rectangular tenders that hunkered down over their trucks or Vanderbilt tenders that were taller than the locomotives. . . . Larger locomotives carried paired air pumps on the smokebox front.” As if the latter was the ultimate faux pas.

Flying pumps were far from the most unusual feature on Union Pacific's exotic three-cylinder 4-12-2s.
Personally, I like the look of so-called “flying pumps.” So, apparently, did a lot of other railroads. Memorable examples abound, especially among articulated locomotives. Think of Northern Pacific’s and Rio Grande’s 4-6-6-4 Challengers, or Pittsburgh & West Virginia’s and Seaboard’s 2-6-6-4s. And who could forget Union Pacific’s positively bestial, one-of-a-kind 4-12-2?

Perhaps the most authoritative critic of flying pumps would be H. Stafford Bryant, Jr., the erudite W.W. Norton book editor who, among other tomes about art and esthetics, wrote the classic treatise on steam design The Georgian Locomotive, published in 1962. Bryant died in 2016 at age 90.

In an April 1956 article in Trains, Bryant characterized some locomotives as “baroque,” which he clearly intended as a pejorative, citing locomotive design that degenerated into the “overripe and overdecorative.” For him, the preferable standard was the simplicity of the USRA-design locomotive, with its uncluttered front end.

As Bryant put it, “You might call the Southern Ps-4 or the Missouri Pacific heavy P-73 the fruit of the high USRA period, and the Chesapeake & Ohio F-19, with all its brilliantly polished apparatus hung over the front end (it certainly has the feel of a Bernini church motif), the USRA baroque — a parallel that is very nearly a large absurdity, except that when you analyze it conscientiously the truth is irreducibly there.”

C&O F-19 No. 490 might be just another heavy Pacific but for its unforgettable front end with Elesco feedwater heater (with silhouette of George Washington), flying pumps, and low headlight. The beastly beauty is being shined up for its appearance at the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York.
Take that, C&O F-19!

It’s only fair to point out that in dissing the C&O engine, Bryant evoked the memory of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the architect behind St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. At least Bryant chose big targets.

There may have been another reason to dislike flying pumps, at least if you were a steam mechanic. As my colleague Ed “The Boomer” King points out, “Whenever you had to get into the smokebox with any tools, you couldn’t get through that little door. You had to take all the piping apart to open the main smokebox door.” Enough of a hassle, I suppose, to send occasional curses floating through the roundhouse.

At least one other highly qualified steam critic, longtime Trains Editor David P. Morgan, didn’t seem to have any problem with a face full of pumps. He was an avowed admirer of one of the most celebrated such engines, Chesapeake & Ohio’s massive H-8 2-6-6-6 Allegheny. When he encountered one with photographer Philip R. Hastings in 1955 in Clifton Forge, Va., he liked what he saw.

Pittsburgh & West Virginia's seven 2-6-6-4s, like Seaboard's ten, featured flying pumps; P&WV 1102 is eastbound between Monessen and Connersville in 1950. Ralph E. Hallock photo
“She looked typically Chessie, subtly Lima — an awesome factory of concentrated energy,” Morgan wrote. “The 1624 was a plumber’s paradise: pumps on the nose, huge steam pipes coiling out from under to hug the running boards, air reservoirs atop the smokebox, a pair of enormous sandboxes. . . and yet, an orderly design notwithstanding.”

“An orderly design.” Well said, D.P.M.

Meanwhile, standing in the shadow of GN 2584 on the windy platform at Havre, I can’t help but like what I’m looking at. I’m not clear on who owns the 4-8-4 these days, or who is responsible for maintaining it, and it badly needs some cosmetic attention. After all, this was an engine long associated with GN’s celebrated Oriental Limited and Empire Builder, passenger trains with unassailable pedigrees.

But even peeling paint can’t hide the 2584’s overall beauty. Pumps and all.

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