Baldwin 60000: oddball in the spotlight

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, June 14, 2019

As the mammoth centerpiece of the Franklin Institute’s Railroad Hall, Baldwin 4-10-2 No. 60000 has been a Philadelphia landmark for more than 85 years. Franklin Institute
It’s interesting to me how often we shower attention on the oddball, the square peg, the brilliant failure. Think of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, the gargantuan wood seaplane that in 1947 almost, but didn’t quite, soar into history. Or the Tucker 48, the innovative postwar automobile that, were it not for a 1988 movie, might have remained obscure.

I put Baldwin 4-10-2 No. 60000 in the same category. A grand experiment by America’s dominant steam locomotive manufacturer, it created headlines when it came out of Baldwin’s Eddystone plant in 1926, ready to shake up the motive-power establishment. But as a piece of technology, it was too much of an outlier and eventually went nowhere.

Well, not quite nowhere. Since 1933, the locomotive has had a starring role at Philadelphia’s prestigious Franklin Institute, one of the nation’s leading science museums. Over the years it has thrilled untold thousands — more likely millions — of school kids with its overwhelming bulk and presence. Oddball or not, as a museum relic the engine has accomplished far more than it ever did in actual service. 

Now it appears the 60000 is destined to grab an even bigger spotlight. Last week, the Institute announced a $6 million grant from the Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, a major new Philadelphia-based charity whose stated mission is to support education. A member of the Hamilton family, S. Matthews V. Hamilton Jr., is the great-grandson of Baldwin scion Samuel M. Vauclain.

The 60000 is already impressive as the centerpiece of what the Institute calls its “Train Factory” exhibit, but it will be even more overwhelming when the new “Treasures of the Franklin Institute" gallery opens. Plans call for cutting away the floor surrounding the locomotive to reveal its steel and concrete support structure, in the process making visible not only the underside of the engine but also a lower-level archival collections area. Talk about a wow factor. 

Baldwin 60000 wears flat gray for a builder’s photo in 1926. Classic Trains coll.
“Wow” isn’t exactly the reaction Baldwin got in 1926 when it built the 60000 and began shopping it around. The company was feeling the heat from upstart Lima Locomotive Works, whose new Super Power technology was beginning to turn the industry on its ear following the impressive debut of its A-1 2-8-4. In the intensely competitive world of steam, Baldwin needed a credible response.

For all the major builders of that era — including American Locomotive in Schenectady — the challenge was to provide what the Class I railroads were asking for: more speed and horsepower. The drag freight era was over. For Lima, the solution was a relatively conventional boiler matched with a much larger firebox, supported by the then-revolutionary four-wheel trailing truck, all of it driving the standard two-cylinder engine.

What Baldwin unveiled in March 1926 went in an entirely different direction. The already obsolete 4-10-2 wheel arrangement might have been surprising enough. But what really set the 60000 apart was its water-tube firebox, its extremely high boiler pressure of 350 psi, and its use of a two-stage, three-cylinder compound engine, with the middle cylinder powering the second set of drivers and providing low-pressure steam to the two outside cylinders.

After running the engine through its paces at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Altoona test plant — where the 60000 racked up 4,500 cylinder horsepower, the highest yet recorded — Baldwin sent the locomotive out on a barnstorming tour that included PRR, B&O, the Erie, CB&Q, Great Northern, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific. But the engine failed to impress, and in February 1928 it slunk back to Eddystone, unable to garner any orders.

The locomotive and tender are eased into the under-construction Franklin Institute in 1932. Barry R. Nemcoff
The 60000 had notable weaknesses. Railroads found the middle cylinder inaccessible and difficult to maintain, and they were leery of what they concluded would be an overly maintenance-intensive boiler. “Its rejection in the marketplace must have been a blow to Baldwin’s pride as well as its sales,” writes William L. Withuhn in American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960 (Indiana University Press, 2019). 

Wounded pride or not, Baldwin regained its momentum and had two more decades of leadership in steam. You might give the company demerits for the 60000, but the ponderous 4-10-2 was only a momentary stumble on the company’s way to building Santa Fe 2-10-4s, Baltimore & Ohio 2-8-8-4s, Southern Pacific cab-forwards, and many more ultra-machines of the 1930s and ’40s.

Meanwhile, the 60000 still has the power to impress. I recall the first time I saw it, in the summer of 1965. I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Philadelphia and they arranged for a visit to the Franklin. I was all of 14 years old, a brand-new reader of Trains magazine, and eager to soak up every last little bit of railroading I could find.

The 60000 knocked me out. Bristling with pipes and looking impossibly long with all those driving wheels, the engine was everything a massive black steam engine was supposed to be. It even moved, powered by a hidden electric motor that eased the giant locomotive along several feet of track every so often (a feature since eliminated, and not planned for the revised exhibit). I didn’t know a water-tube firebox from a Walschaerts, nor was I aware that no railroad considered it worth buying. But I still had a visceral reaction to the beast.  

So, a round of applause, please, for this magnificent oddball. Let the engine stand in for all those machines Baldwin turned out in Philadelphia over a 125-year history that began in 1825. Let it symbolize the efforts of generations of Philadelphia-area employees proud to work in the halls of Eddystone. In that context, the 60000 deserves all the money and attention it’s about to get. 

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