I am a gearhead: Silver Creek & Stephenson's Heisler No. 2 confirms it

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Sunday, October 14, 2018

I am a gearhead. All locomotives fascinate me. Diesels excite me. Streamlined cab units are especially a favorite. Electric is good. Steam power is truly a passion. Big steam definitely thrills me. But if you asked me what my most personal favorite is, it would be a geared steam locomotive. Give me a Shay, a Heisler, a Climax. Those strange but powerful backwoods locomotives of the late 19th and early 20th century that slaved away in obscurity. They are my best locomotive buddies. Yes, I am a gearhead.

I was reminded of this Saturday when I went to Freeport, Ill., to visit the Silver Creek & Stephenson, a homespun, volunteer-driven 1.7-mile preservation railroad that features a 1912 two-truck, 36-ton Heisler. The locomotive exudes heart and character: It burns wood, froths steam from all sorts of places, and features a set of antlers perched high above its headlight. All of those spinning gears, the fast exhaust, and the strange appearance are home to me. I grew up near a short line in North Carolina, the Graham County, that featured a fleet of Shays. From Shays, it’s a short walk to other geared locomotives, Heisler and Climax locomotives. These unusual beasts are some of my earliest and most treasured memories. I remember cab rides in the Shays and the Heisler at Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia in 1975. And so many others.

I have seen No. 2 before, once in 1996 and once about 10 years ago, but we actually go back further. Much further. We first met in the early 1970s when the engine was stored at the Graham County in between owners. She sat forlorn on a siding until one day, she was gone. No. 2 went first to Indiana, came to Illinois in 1982, and started running in 1986. Her keepers maintain her boiler to state standards, keep her boiler pressure low (150 psi), and run her eight to 10 weekends a year. Given that the former Milwaukee Road track that No. 2 runs on is flat and mostly straight – one slight curve – and that her train is three covered flatcars with benches and a wood caboose, her life is an easy one. She will be around for years.

So, I wanted to tell you about my weekend delight with this unusual locomotive, and add some perspective. As best as I can tell, fewer than a half dozen Heislers are still in operation in the U.S. – at Cass (actually just up the Greenbrier River at nearby Durbin, W.Va.}, at Sumpter Valley in Oregon, and at Roaring Camp & Big Trees in California. A few more may be about to come or go into or out of service. Given that most geared locomotives were found in mountains or at least forests, I call No. 2 the little Heisler on the prairie (apologies to Laura Ingalls Wilder}.

One other thing to think about: As I wrote recently, 2019 is looking like The Year of the Articulated. Union Pacific will debut Big Boy No. 4014, Western Maryland Scenic will steam 2-6-6-2 No. 1309, Oregon Coast Scenic will outshop 2-4-4-2 No. 7 Skookum, and Black Hills Central will add a second 2-6-6-2T, No. 108. But if those locomotives do nothing for you or you just get tired of the emphasis on the biggest of the big, the Shays, Heislers, and Climaxes are out there. No. 2 and her friends will be happy to see you.

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