It’s back to Ohio for NKP 765

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 7, 2019

Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765 puts on a show at Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway in 2018; the Berkshire will return for the sixth year in a row this September. Jim Wrinn
Is this the most promising year yet for restored mainline steam locomotives? You could make a good case. Obviously the revival of Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 No. 4014 is 2019’s big deal, a prospect that, given the Big Boy’s long legend, will be impossible to eclipse.

But there is also exciting work going on in shops other than Cheyenne: Santa Fe 4-8-4 No. 2926 in Albuquerque; C&O 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 in Ridgeley, W.Va.; NC&StL 4-8-4 No. 576 in Nashville; C&O 2-8-4 No. 2716 in Ravenna, Ky.; Reading 4-8-4 No. 2100 in Cleveland . . . the list goes on.

Meanwhile, from Portland to Owosso to Chattanooga, a number of other operators of large engines already have the right to crow, “C’mon in, the water’s fine!” 

Of all of those groups, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS) might have the strongest bragging rights. Their announcement that they’ve once again agreed to run Nickel Plate 2-8-4 No. 765 this September on Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway (CVSR) is welcome news, and hardly a surprise when you consider all the things FWRHS has accomplished.

The operation of 765 has become so predictable, so reliable in recent years that it seems routine. But there’s nothing routine about keeping this 75-year-old machine in operation, sometimes even in a high-speed mainline setting, as the Berkshire showed on recent forays to Metra in Chicago. The Fort Wayne crew has been at this game since 765 returned to steam in 1979 — a 40-year record of nearly uninterrupted service.

Doing what it was built for, the 765 accelerates a Nickel Plate freight west out of Fostoria, Ohio, in March 1958. C. W. Jernstrom
The engine won’t be making it back to Chicago this year, but that’s fine with the crew. The Cuyahoga Valley is a great place to see the 765 in action. FWRHS Vice President Kelly Lynch calls it “an ideal marriage.”

“For us, the CVSR offers a great venue, a variety of scenery and towns, a major population base to draw from, and a great consist and dedicated volunteers and employees that already run trains the other 11 months of the year,” Lynch explains. “And we’re able to rotate our volunteers through the cab, get our crew more firing and running time, and treat donors, visitors, and VIPs to the engine in a way that would be very difficult anywhere else.”

Although you wouldn’t call it a mainline railroad, neither is the Cuyahoga Valley a sleepy little short line. For most of this railroad’s history it was part of the Baltimore & Ohio. The line was an important B&O freight artery linking Cleveland with Akron and Wheeling, W.Va. It stayed that way through the 1960s.

By the mid-1970s, B&O successor Chessie System wanted out, so the line morphed into a first-class tourist railroad by virtue of its location through the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Today’s CVSR operates a variety of diesel-powered schedules year ’round over portions of its 51-mile line, plus special trips such as the 765.

The 765's "Steam in the Valley" excursions are set for Sept. 20–22 and 27–29 and will weave around CVSR’s regularly scheduled trains. Last year tickets went on sale beginning in July, but officials say that will happen much earlier this year. For updates, check the CVSR website.

Reactivated in 1979, the 765 has racked up one of the longest excursion careers of any locomotive. Here it deadheads to an excursion date on the Toledo, Peoria & Western in 1980. J. David Ingles
The chance to run in Ohio is great for the 765 team, but as Lynch explains, it also helps their host railroad. “This way CVSR doesn’t have to spend time, money, and energy maintaining a steam locomotive and letting that hog its resources,” he says. “Meanwhile, people are seeking engaging, emotional, educational experiences — what better place than behind the 765?”

Indeed, what better place? The 765 has prestige to spare, coming from an elite family of 80 Berkshires credited with saving a railroad. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine any class of steam engines with a greater impact on a single carrier.

Here’s how NKP historian John A. Rehor put it in September 1962 Trains: “A bridge route originating less then 40 percent of its traffic, operating in the most competitive transportation arena in the land, and boasting a freight train operation made to order for the diesel, the Nickel Plate resisted the messiah to the very end. That it was able to do so and to please its stockholders in the process was due largely to the fact that it owned a magnificent breed of Berkshire freight engines.”

Much of that legend was created in Ohio, where NKP had its corporate headquarters and where Lima Locomotive Works manufactured most of those 2-8-4s. As a Van Sweringen road, NKP occupied offices in Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. This year, I can imagine the ghosts of Nickel Plate management looking out across the Buckeye State from up in that tower, and smiling.

In 2016, '17, and '18, Fort Wayne's Berkshire powered high-speed trips on Chicago's Metra. In this view from September 2018 she simmers at La Salle Street Station. Robert S. McGonigal
It was just a few weeks ago that 765’s sister engine, No. 757, was towed by Norfolk Southern from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg 400-plus miles to its new home at the Mad River & NKP Museum in Bellevue, once the operational heart of the Nickel Plate. It was a long-hoped-for Ohio repatriation and constitutes a critical acquisition for Mad River.  

Ohio also has most of the other Nickel Plate Berks. They include 755 on display at Conneaut; 763 at the Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugar Creek, acquired from the Virginia Museum of Transportation in 2007; and the 779, the last of its class, on display in Lima. The only other remaining NKP 2-8-4 is former High Iron Co. excursion queen 759 at the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa. 

As usual, the 765 crew has a lot on its plate. The organization has raised a significant amount of money toward Headwaters Junction, a development that would include an operating headquarters for FWRHS, museum, and recreation area on the edge of downtown Fort Wayne. The proposal is working its way through the usual thicket of local politics. Lynch also hints that other steam trips could yet emerge for this year.

Meanwhile, the September trips on the Cuyahoga Valley should be on the calendars of steam fans everywhere. As Lynch puts it, “Here’s an opportunity to run a beautiful, mainline engine on a well maintained railroad, with a host that fully embraces its public presence in a way that many railroads evade, and create a new, intimate type of experience with a steam locomotive.”

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