Union Railroad’s king of steam switchers

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, July 2, 2020

Union Railroad's brutish 0-10-2s were unmistakable. Besides great size, they possessed such un-switcher-like features as all-weather cabs, tender boosters, and trailing trucks. Baldwin
Nowhere is the pace of change over the past 20 years more evident than what has happened to U.S. Steel’s various railroads. Once upon a time, the names Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range; Elgin, Joliet & Eastern; and Bessemer & Lake Erie were as emblematic of America’s biggest steelmaker as the belching mills of Gary and Pittsburgh.

Now U.S. Steel appears poised to end its long and celebrated role as a railroad operator. The Trains News Wire recently reported that USS’s remaining rail properties, held by the subsidiary known as Transtar, all are for sale as part of a package deal; the parent company is reported to be on track to lose $315 million in the second quarter amid the roiling international steel market.

Those bigger USS railroad names — DM&IR, B&LE, EJ&E — were divested by Transtar more than 15 years ago. Now the remaining seven are up for grabs, including the venerable Union Railroad, operator of approximately 200 miles of yard track and 65 miles of main line serving heavy industrial customers within a 10-mile radius in Allegheny County.  

The Union was hardly a famous railroad outside of southwest Pennsylvania, but the news sent me scurrying for information about a notable part of its legacy, a machine of superlatives: the monstrous 0-10-2 switcher. Officially designated the “Union,” the 0-10-2 was unique to the railroad. 

What an engine. Like all locomotives on U.S. Steel roads, it was built in Pennsylvania by Baldwin, which turned out nine of the giants at its Eddystone plant from 1936 through ’39. The machine had to meet a very specific need: obviate pushers used at two locations where grades reached 2.5 percent. A ten-coupled engine was determined to be the answer, augmented by a two-wheel trailing truck supporting a large firebox.

Displaced from their native Pittsburgh by a drive for clean air, the Union's 0-10-2s migrated to sister U.S. Steel road Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range in 1949. Missabe 605 (ex-Union 305) simmers at Proctor, Minn., in 1954. Philip R. Hastings
Some other railroads had big switchers — the behemoth 0-8-0s of Indiana Harbor Belt come to mind — but nothing equaled the brutish Union type. It weighed in at 644,510 pounds, with a gigantic boiler that could muster a starting tractive force of 90,000 pounds, with another 17,150 pounds available if the booster was cut in. It was reputed to generate 3,600 h.p.

All this in an engine just 70 feet long, abbreviated on account of turntable length and other restrictions, and accomplished in part by dispensing with a lead truck and making the tender a rather short but tall affair. If it was ungainly, the Union made a style concession by extending the boiler jacket to the end of the smokebox.

The 0-10-2s put in nearly a solid decade of faithful service before the Union was obligated to join the wholesale movement toward dieselization in Pittsburgh, borne of the smoke-choked city’s push for cleaner air. Still way too useful to scrap, the nine Unions in 1949 were transferred to the Missabe at Proctor, Minn., where they went to work on the Iron Range for another decade. 

The burly Union type didn’t escape the attention of notable railroad writers. In his sprawling 1959 book Steam’s Finest Hour — a monument to thoroughbred road power if there ever was one — David P. Morgan reserved a special place for switchers in a closing chapter called “Lest We Forget.” Noting that “not quite all the builder’s art was lavished upon road power,” Morgan enthused over the 0-10-2’s ability to pack all that muscle into such a compact machine.

The Union type got more attention in the November 1989 issue of Trains, in a brief essay called “Born of Smokestack America,” written by Gary W. Dolzall in support of a classic BLW builder’s photo of the class engine 303, fresh from the works at Eddystone.

Always a fan of ore-hauling railroads, Dolzall remarked on the Unions’ encore service on the Missabe: “There, the deep, throaty voices of the hulking 0-10-2s (renumbered as Missabe Road 601–609) will echo across Minnesota’s ore country, dragging empties up Proctor Hill and pushing little jennies full of raw ore onto the Duluth docks, for the better part of another decade.”

After DM&IR dropped its fires, No. 604 was moved back to the Pittsburgh area for preservation. Since the 1980s, she's been displayed at the Greenville (Pa.) Railroad Park & Museum, where volunteers keep her looking good. Dennis A. Livesey
Although most of the Union engines were scrapped after their DM&IR service, the 304/604 was saved and stored for several years at the B&LE roundhouse in Greenville, Pa., alongside Bessemer 2-10-4 No. 643, now in the collection of the Age of Steam Roundhouse in Sugarcreek, Ohio. The 0-10-2 finally found a permanent home when it was donated to the city of Greenville in 1985. 

Today the 304 (alternately numbered DM&IR 604 on the fireman’s side) rests comfortably at the Greenville Railroad Park & Museum on the city’s northeast side, where it is displayed with an ore jenny and a caboose, along with other paraphernalia on the grounds. The park is generally opened by volunteers from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, but like everywhere else the Covid-19 pandemic interferes. You can call the park for an update at (724) 588-4009, although the current message says the park will be closed for all of July and most likely August.

Whenever the park opens again, the engine is worth a visit. It looks good with what appears to be a regularly refreshed paint job, detailed in shiny aluminum leaf. Signage explains the development of the 0-10-2 and visitors can walk up some stairs to see the cab. More than anything else, you get the sense that the undisputed king of steam switchers could only come from a place called Pittsburgh, home of U.S. Steel.  

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