New York Central's steam legacy is in good hands

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, September 3, 2020

NYC steam author Thomas R. Gerbracht poses with a brass model of an early L-class 4-8-2 Mohawk. Gloria Gerbracht photo
I’ve seen a lot of good steam locomotive books in my day. I’m guessing close to 50 percent of the stuff in my library is related to the subject. Looking at the spines I see so many familiar names — Staufer, Bruce, Morgan, Withuhn, Lamb, Drury, Huddleston — it’s tempting to think that everything to say about steam has been said.

Yet nothing quite prepared me for the books that began showing up on my front porch four years ago from the New York Central System Historical Society. A fourth is due soon.

The first came with a title seemingly handed down from a preacher’s pulpit, inscribed in haughty Old English type: Know Thy Hudsons. Chastened, I felt like kneeling.

Over the following years came two more, Know Thy Niagaras and Know Thy Early Mohawks. These are big, lavish books, 848 pages in the first three alone, weighing in at 10 pounds of paper and cloth binding (I know — I put them on the bathroom scale). They’re jam-packed with photos, analysis, data, technical drawings, even splashy foldouts. I can’t see how a fan of any railroad’s engines could ask for anything more.

Early this October the fourth and presumably last in the series — Know Thy Late Mohawks — should be available. This week seemed like a good time to catch up with the author of all of them, Thomas R. Gerbracht.

Heading into the afternoon sun, J-1d Hudson 4-6-4 No. 5373 departs Fairborn, Ohio, on August 27, 1955, with train 447, the daily-except-Sunday mail and express local from Cleveland to Cincinnati. J. Parker Lamb photo
Before I get to Tom, a confession: I’m an unabashed Central fan and a dues-paying member of the NYCSHS, so my appreciation of these books isn’t entirely objective. The collective legacy of designer Paul Kiefer, his railroad’s relationship with Alco, the breakthroughs of the J-1 Hudson 4-6-4 of 1927 and the S-class Niagara 4-8-4 of 1945, Henry Dreyfuss’s streamlined J-3a of 1938 — all have a strong hold on my imagination.    

That’s also true for Tom Gerbracht. Like so many of us, he was strongly influenced by his dad, a railroader on the Central for 43 years. Growing up in Erie, Tom had lots of exposure to the NYC, including cab rides at the age of 3. He’s old enough to remember steam. “Anyone who ever saw Niagaras and Hudsons at work probably never forgot that experience, and I was one of them,” says Tom.

That attachment to the NYC led directly to an education in mechanical engineering, a 37-year career at GE Transportation in Erie, and ultimately the job of managing GE’s passenger-diesel operation. The fact that the author of all these steam books was dealing with diesels his whole professional life doesn’t strike him as contradictory.

“Part of my career in the locomotive business consisted of locomotive testing and performance simulations, and I have retained a keen interest in this subject,” Tom explains. “The amount of drawbar pull that any locomotive — steam, diesel, or electric — can exert on the lead coupler of the train while minimizing the total cost to achieve this performance is the primary consideration in the selection and evaluation of motive power. So, the ‘physics’ of all those forms of motive power, while different, are important to the degree that ownership and operating cost is minimized for the user.”

Niagara 4-8-4 No. 6019 hustles out of Waterloo, Ind., with train 19, the New York–Chicago Lake Shore Limited, as it crosses NYC's Fort Wayne–Jackson (Mich.) line in August 1949. Robert A. Hadley photo
Spoken like an engineer. And, like any good engineer, Tom put a lot of meticulous planning into all four of his books, but not to the point where the details overwhelmed the narrative. That could easily happen in books loaded with minutiae about tractive effort, feedwater systems, or tender capacities. But Tom made the decision to be an author first, engineer second.

“My goal for these books included the best photo and drawing reproduction on premium paper, and a wealth of technical information that modelers and technical readers would find useful,” Tom explains. “At the same time, I wanted a readable book for a non-technical audience, and one that would be used as a primary long-term reference document. And of course, each book should appeal to a more general reader as well.”

Leafing through these volumes, it’s obvious the author spent a huge portion of his time on images, both photographs and drawings, with the main goal to deliver as much visual punch as possible. Of particular note is the extensive use of mechanical drawings, “with native sizes exceeding eight feet in length, for the first time in a railroad book of this size,” Tom adds. 

Gerbracht, who retired from GE several years ago, estimates he devoted about one year per book, working about 40 hours each week. He is quick to point out he got strong backing from a number of NYCSHS associates, including President Dave Mackay and Directors Noel Widdifield and Mike Vescelus. Photographic support came from Director Jim Suhs, as well as Art Peterson of the Krambles-Peterson Archive, John Szwajkart, Jay Williams, and Jeremy Taylor, among others.

Portrait of L-4b Mohawk No. 3129 after arriving in Indianapolis with the westbound James Whitcomb Riley on August 31, 1953. Wallace W. Abbey photo
Tom adds: “Society volunteer Dave Nethery provided thousands of high-quality digital scans from the NYCSHS files, and he and our shipping expert Bob Wasko were major contributors of their time and talent. My wife, Gloria, in addition to proofing each manuscript, was a significant contributor to the arrangement and final appearance of each book.”

At the climax of the steam era, a number of railroads could claim to field the ultimate Big Three — Norfolk & Western, certainly, with its J-class 4-8-4s, its A-class 2-6-6-4s, and its Y6b 2-8-8-2s; or Union Pacific with its FEF 4-8-4s, its Challengers, and its Big Boys. Chesapeake & Ohio partisans could make an argument for C&O’s Alleghenies, its big Hudsons, and the Greenbrier 4-8-4s.

Somewhere in the conversation you’d have to include New York Central, at least if you ask Tom Gerbracht. “My books on the subject of the NYC steam triumvirate resulted from my desire to fully document each design, with at least two of the three at the top of the heap in terms of performance and innovation.” 

I couldn’t let Tom Gerbracht get away without trying to pin him down on a favorite NYC machine. Given what he wrote about the ultra-modern, highly efficient, 79-inch-drivered Niagaras in his second book — “They were the greatest steam locomotive ever built” — I wasn’t surprised.

“It’s the Niagara over a J-3 ‘by a cut lever,’” Tom told me. “Former NYC Trainmaster Halden ‘Pete’ Curtiss thought that Hudsons ‘were just another steam engine, but the 6000's were something special.’ I think he was right.” Good call, Tom!

For more information about these books, visit the NYCSHS website at https://nycshs.org/ and follow the links to the Society’s Collinwood Shops store.

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