Allegheny Central’s Jack Showalter inspired many

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jack Showalter at the throttle of his 4-6-2 No. 1286 in 1979. William E. Warden Jr. photo.
I had a phone call recently from an old friend who had sad news to share. Sally Showalter called to tell me about the passing last month of her dad, Jack, one of the true greats in U.S. steam railway preservation. When the list of folks who kept steam alive between the regular service era and today, Jack’s name will be among those brave souls who put everything they had into making sure that old locomotives would continue in operation.

Jack’s stage was the Allegheny Central tourist railroad, which he, his wife, Mary, and daughter, Sally founded near Covington, Va. It ran along a tributary of the James River over a portion of the former Chesapeake & Ohio Hot Springs branch (the resort at Hot Springs didn’t want the railroad when C&O left, so the tourist line stopped short). Jack left his career as a building contractor to start the 15-mile operation with two Canadian Pacific G5d 4-6-2s, Nos. 1238 and No. 1286 in 1975. The engines had gained a measure of fame as fantrip locomotives under George Hart in the 1960s.

Jack Showalter with Allegheny Central No. 1286 in 1975. John B. Corns photo.
I first met Jack when I was a young teenager. Jack always looked the part of the traditional steam locomotive engineer – he dressed in a hickory striped engineer’s hat, wore a red bandana around his neck, and was always seen in a set of bib overalls. I was impressed that Jack, his fireman, Sally hand fired the stoker-equipped locomotive; the engine didn’t work hard enough to use the stoker, Jack said, and besides, he said, hand firing was more fun. I remembered that. I was also taken that Jack was so welcoming to me and my parents, and the stories he had to tell about steam on the C&O, about working in the shop in nearby Clifton Forge, and about his dream to run his own railroad.

I remember the 4-6-2s both had enclosed cabs built for use in Canada’s harsh winters and how hot they were in the humid Virginia summers creeping along at say 15 mph. I will never forget the day that Jack backed No. 1286 up and pushed his former Burlington Route office car, Blackhawk, over a derail. It was late in the day, and most of his crew had gone home. So, he rounded up two other fans and me to help rerail the car using scraps of wood. It took a while, but we got the rear truck back on the rails. From that effort, I came to know my lifelong friend David Corbitt, who became a CSX engineer, private car operator, and is one of the owners of the Potomac Eagle tourist railroad in West Virginia.

Jack also knew the dangers of the railroad business. He told me about how he’d accidentally set himself on fire working around the engines while wearing oil soaked clothes, and how painful the burns were and how long the recovery took.

No. 1286 strikes at pose at the Allegheny Central station in Intervale, Va., on Oct. 19, 1975. William J. Husa Jr. photo.
There were triumphs, too, like the time in October 1983 when an insurance company, meeting at the nearby Greenbrier Hotel, chartered Jack’s train to run an evening excursion out of nearby White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. To do this, it meant Jack had to deadhead No. 1238 over the Chessie System main line from Covington, Va., up storied Alleghany grade. My friends Jim Fetchero and Chris Bost and I drove up from Charlotte to stand trackside at Moss Run, Va., just to watch the light Pacific tackle the grade unassisted. The engine barked and ate up the grade and the miles; from an open Dutch door, Jack just beamed.

Sometime in the 1980s, time ran out for the Allegheny Central, and the rails were removed for scrap. Jack moved to Cumberland, Md., as the first operator at what’s today the Western Maryland Scenic. Later he returned to the Old Dominion State to operate main line trips as the Virginia Central on the CSX main line in and around Charlottesville. The trips were spectacular with the two passenger engines doubleheading on the main line to Clifton Forge. Alas, that lasted only two years in the early 1990s, and after that the equipment went into storage. The last time I saw Jack was in 1998 in Staunton, Va. I wanted to see if his equipment was still there, and Jack, faithful as ever, was living in a trailer among the locomotives and passenger cars to keep the vandals out.  He was talking about finding a new home for the railroad and starting over once more. Jack, you see, never gave up.

No. 1238 climbs the Chesapeake & Ohio grade near Callihan, Va., on a special main line move, Oct. 2, 1983. Jim Wrinn photo.
When I think about Jack, I appreciate that he preserved the hardware, but he also did something else very important. He preserved the practices that go with the engines. Many alumni of the Allegheny Central went onto play roles in steam restoration and become railroaders with major freight railroads, Amtrak, and short lines. Sam Lanter, chief mechanical officer of the Grand Canyon Railway, is one of them. During his time, Sam worked with Jack in Covington, Cumberland, and finally in Charlottesville. “I worked as a mechanic, boilermaker, fireman, and engineer during my years with him,” Sam told me in an email.  “He was an inspiration for a lot of us that stayed with steam. He instilled a work ethic that has served me well over the years.”

Jack, thank you. Thank you from all of us who benefitted from your encouragement and your hard work to keep steam alive. You’ve earned your rest.

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