Remembering the Chessie Steam Special 40 years ago

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, January 26, 2017

Union Pacific’s steam program rightfully has one. Norfolk Southern’s 28-years of excursions has one (shamelessly, I will have to confess to have authored Steam’s Camelot in 2001). But nowhere will you find a comprehensive volume with the full history of the Chessie Steam Special, the rolling celebration of the Baltimore & Ohio’s 150th anniversary and later in support of grade crossing safety. And that is a shame because we’re talking about 4 years of mainline excursions at track speed with 18-20 cars, up to 1,000 passengers (thanks to many high capacity commuter cars in the consist) behind one of two gorgeous, powerful, legendary 4-8-4s. We’re talking about sacred railroad places like Sandpatch, 17-mile grade, New River Gorge, and Moss Run. We’re talking about a tour that stretched from Maryland to Michigan to St. Louis to Newport News. I mean, come on, this is the stuff of dreams, legends, and it in the real-life-is-often-stranger-than-fiction category, it actually happened.

Just as a reminder of how gutsy this show was i found in our library two photos of 2101: The ground-level shot by two of my favorite photographers, Michael A. Eagleson at Weaverton, Md. on Sept. 24, 1978; and the overhead shot by John B. Corns on a Detroit-Clio, Mich., trip on July 10, 1977.

The Chessie Steam Special is foremost in my mind because a friend reminded me that this is the 40th anniversary of the start of those trips. In May 1977, Reading Co. No. 2101, all dressed up for a party in Chessie System blue, yellow, and vermillion, departed on an 8,000-mile tour of the combined B&O, Chesapeake & Ohio, and Western Maryland system. Over the next 5 years, the train would carry some 25,000 riders per year; the locomotive would meet with a tragic fate in a roundhouse fire, leading to the exchange and restoration of Chesapeake & Ohio 4-8-4 No. 614; and even make a journey all the way to Florida on behalf of CSX Transportation partner Family Lines.

Lifelong steam promoter Ross Rowland, now 76 and hard at work on a new incarnation of the American Freedom Train (more on that soon), told me earlier this week that the idea for the Chessie Steam Special came as the 1975-76 train was winding down. Now retired Vice President Bill Howes recalls that the company had looked at a B&O Ten-Wheeler and a Pacific in the B&O Museum for the celebration, but neither could be restored in time. The Freedom Train was on display nearby. Rowland met with Howes and others who had worked on No. 2101. Howes showed Rowland the railroad's plan, but then Rowland came back with a bigger, bolder plan. CEO Hays Watkins was keenly interested. The proposal also called for a massive renovation of the B&O Railroad Museum.

“The ‘ah ha’ moment came when Bill Howes made a presentation to the operating executive committee, comprised of  Hays Watkins, John Collinson, and a bunch of vice presidents,” Rowland says. “Hays has told this story many times. The vote was 12 against, and one in favor, the one in favor being Hays, so that’s how it happened.”

Chessie Steam Special Chief Mechanical Officer Steve Wickersham, now 64, says that the best experience of the trips was the time spent with three veteran steam railroaders that helped keep the two 4-8-4s in operation, especially when No. 614 was suffering through problems with its valve lubrication. The three were Joe Karel, a Nickel Plate Road boilermaker; Paul C. “Pappy” Housman, a Norfolk & Western East End Shops veteran; and Charlie Reinholdt, Chessie System Asst. Superintendent – Air Brakes. “The Chessie Steam Special wasn’t just about the trips.  It was also about these three men; it would have never happened without them,” Wickersham says.

And the trips brought forth a new generation of steam devotees. Another four men would come out of the program who are still active in steam today, primarily on the restoration and operating crew of Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611: Scott Lindsay, Bob Saxtan, Tom Mayer, and Tim Sposato. Would they have found steam without the Chessie Steam Special? I think not.

Rowland answered two questions for me that I had been wondering about for years. First, would there have been a Chessie Steam Special in 1979 if a horrific fire in Kentucky had not damaged No. 2101? The answer is “yes,” Ross wanted to run that year (although I learned later that management did not). And, second, how did it end at the conclusion of the 1981 season?

 “That is the irony of what happened there. Since the rationale for the 1981 season was to support Operation Lifesaver that was the emphasis: Grade crossing safety. But all over the system, the railroaders, the public relations people, and the Operation Lifesaver people reported back that the press coverage was overwhelmingly about the steam locomotive. So, the decision was made to run, but with a diesel locomotive.”

Today, it would be hard but not impossible to put together a tour like the Chessie Steam Special. But 40 years ago, you could throw a big railroad birthday party, dress up a big robust 4-8-4 in contemporary diesel paint scheme colors, and send it out to wow passengers and spectators in the name of that most elusive commodity, corporate goodwill. Like I said, you could write a book about it. Someone should.


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