PRR steam: still haughty after all these years

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Pennsy K4 Pacific 3750 — one of the engines currently in need of restoration at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania — races across northern New Jersey with a westbound train. It's 1929, and concrete footings for the forthcoming electrification are visible at far left. A. P. Formanek Jr.
It’s impossible to keep track of all the steam restoration projects going on these days. Some have the lofty goal of operating under steam again. Others simply want to perform static restorations for the sake of posterity, or even to simply save threatened engines. I can’t think of any that aren’t worthy of support. 

One that recently caught my attention strikes me as having special merit: the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania’s effort to complete the restoration of five engines in its Pennsylvania Railroad collection. 

Located just across the street from the famed Strasburg Rail Road tourist line, the state museum has been around since 1975 and has long since established itself as one of America’s best. Most of its incredible collection is safe inside the museum’s Rolling Stock Hall. 

But five locomotives have languished outside, all of them components of the original larger PRR company collection inherited in 1969, when they were transported to Strasburg from the old PRR roundhouse in Northumberland, Pa. The engines are B6sb 0-6-0 No. 1670, H10s 2-8-0 No. 7688, L1s 2-8-2 No. 520, K4s 4-6-2 No. 3750, and my favorite, M1b 4-8-2 No. 6755. 

Strasburg Rail Road 2-10-0 No. 90 hauls four PRR engines from the Leaman Place connection with Penn Central to Strasburg for storage on August 6, 1969. In order, the engines are H10s No. 7688, G5s No. 5741, H6sb No. 2846, and M1b No. 6755. William Moedinger 
The Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania has launched a fundraising campaign to stabilize the engines in anticipation of placing them in a planned roundhouse. To attract donations, the group commissioned railroad artist Peter Lerro Jr. to create a heroic portrait of all five locomotives, entitled Ready for the Roundhouse. Limited-edition prints signed by the artist are available for donations of $250 or more. 

The organization told the TrainsNews Wire that, to date, it has raised nearly three quarters, or $190,000, of the $250,000 required to have the locomotives media blasted, painted, and repaired on site by an outside contractor.

It’s probably foolish to rate steam locomotive collections, but I feel safe saying the PRR collection is one of the most important. Some of that is rooted in the long shadow PRR cast in its heyday; not for nothing did it call itself the Standard Railroad of the World, a boast that wasn’t without merit. 

What’s really intriguing is the way Pennsy went about preserving its mechanical legacy — and the plot twists that came with it. Rather than simply donate a few engines to on-line communities, or, like its rival New York Central, save almost nothing, the PRR took a different approach. For a little background, I checked in with Pennsy authority and writer Dan Cupper, author of Crossroads of Commerce, a masterful analysis of the railroad as expressed through the work of calendar artist Grif Teller. 

By the time of this February 1976 photo, most of the PRR collection was housed at the new Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Years spent outside would take their toll on M1b 6755 and K4s 3750 (right), and other engines. George H. Drury
“As you might expect from an engineering technocracy, PRR went about its process methodically,” says Cupper. “The railroad set aside one of each major class, from 0-4-0 to 4-8-2. That took foresight and the courage — or clout — to swim against the flow of the scrap-everything mentality, which unfortunately prevailed on many major roads.”

Just who in the PRR hierarchy saved the engines is lost to history, although Cupper says Nicholas Justh, the late superintendent of Harrisburg-area short line Steelton & Highspire and a former employee of PRR’s motive power department in the steam era, credited PRR Chief of Motive Power Howell T. Cover.

“Cover was the classic Altoona-boy-makes-it-big-on-the-PRR story,” says Cupper. “From valedictorian of his high school class, he rose to one of the highest positions on the PRR.” Cover died on April 2, 1960, at age 62, five years after he retired from his 42-year career with the railroad. He’d started out as an engine helper in the Altoona Shops, went on to Penn State, and got the top job in motive power in 1946. 

As steam ended on the PRR, the collection was stored quietly at Northumberland and later moved to the museum. Trouble arose in the early 1980s when the corporate shell of the former Penn Central contemplated selling off the engines one by one to scrape up badly needed cash. Conrail had already absorbed the railroad, but the PC estate still owned the locomotives.

L1s 520 shows the effects of time and weather in this November 2016 view outside the museum. Robert S. McGonigal
It’s a measure of the PC successors’ mendacity — or desperation — that it felt it required the pittance of income it would have received for a bunch of old steam engines. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, the Pennsylvania Legislature stepped in and forgave some delinquent PC back taxes in exchange for conveyance of the collection to the state.

It’s interesting that, in terms of steam-power evolution, the PRR collection ends in 1923, the year of the construction of the first class M1 4-8-2 and the development of the G5s 4-6-0. Cupper explains that during the late 1920s to the late 1930s, PRR steam design marked time while the railroad tended to its vast electrification program. As a result, PRR had hundreds of surplus locomotives in the 1930s, and opted to doublehead existing engines rather than acquire the 4-6-4s, 2-8-4s, and 4-8-4s becoming common elsewhere.

The collection policy also meant that the exciting PRR locomotives of the 1939–1946 era — including its revolutionary duplex-drive machines — are not represented. “Many of these engines were complicated and trouble-prone,” says Cupper, “and perhaps PRR management wished to be rid of any reminders of those failures.” These lost engines include the streamlined S1 6-4-4-6, the Q1 4-6-4-4 and Q2 4-4-6-4, and that amazing racehorse, the rakish T1 4-4-4-4.

Ready for the Roundhouse, commissioned by the Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, shows the five engines to be restored before placement in the museum's new roundhouse. Limited edition prints, signed by artist Peter Lerro Jr., are available for donations of $250 or more.
The group also excluded an unqualified success, the J1 and J1a 2-10-4s. The Pennsy likely ignored them because they were basically knockoffs of the Chesapeake & Ohio’s T-1. It’s a shame none was saved, but I have to grudgingly admire the arrogance of PRR’s motive-power establishment. Even at that late date, if an engine didn’t have that Altoona imprimatur, it didn’t make the cut.

Did that Altoona esthetic ever look more thrilling than in the accompanying photo? Here we see the now-preserved K4s No. 3750 at speed, straining photographer A. P. Formanek Jr.’s focal-plane shutter as it leans in with the westbound Liberty Limitednear Rahway, N.J., on June 20, 1929. Say what you will about the idiosyncratic style of PRR steam, in this image it’s all about power and authority. 

Or, to paraphrase former TrainsEditor David P. Morgan, these engines are “simply Pennsy, which is to say unique and alone and isolated. One either admires engines put together with such a religious disdain for what anybody else did, or one does not. I do.”

I agree with D.P.M. This next effort to preserve and protect that PRR legacy — represented by those five engines sitting outdoors at Strasburg — is worth supporting. That’s why my check is in the mail.

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