Bill Withuhn's book of a lifetime: American Steam Locomotives

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Saturday, March 9, 2019

There is a sad tender full of irony that the late Bill Withuhn’s masterpiece work on U.S. steam locomotive development has been published in the days before we get to see one of the all-time masterpieces of steam, Union Pacific’s Big Boy, on the high iron for the first time in 60 years.

Withuhn, who died in 2017, was the steam locomotive aficionado and curator of transportation for the Smithsonian. His life’s work was this book, “American Steam Locomotives: Design and development, 1880-1960.” He pecked away at it for years, took time off for other projects, so the story goes, and had it pretty well done when he left this Earth. Others, including the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s Peter A. Hansen and others, picked up the torch, along with Bill’s widow, Gail, and saw the project to completion. My former boss, Kevin P. Keefe, wrote a touching introduction and did photo research in our David P. Morgan Library. For all this, we should all be grateful. Bill and those who followed left us with a real gift.

The book, which features one of the all-time great U.S. locomotives, a Nickel Plate Road Berkshire, on its cover, is a highly readable, entertaining, information packed volume. Given UP No. 4014’s imminent debut, I turned to the section on the Alco-made Big Boy, which is grouped with the Chesapeake & Ohio Alleghany 2-6-6-6, that monster (and some say albatross) that Lima turned out. The section is an enjoyable look at what made the Big Boy work so well (a design team well plugged into the railroad’s needs; and Alco copied a hinge for the front engine that gave it superior stability from the Norfolk & Western Class A 2-6-6-4) and what made the Alleghany such a problem child (it was overweight; there was no correlation between the design team and the operating or traffic departments).

I’m not trying to write a book review here, but I see few things missing from the key aspects of U.S. locomotion: Withuhn’s book picks up where his Smithsonian predecessor, Jack White, ended with his book on early steam. Withuhn’s book starts off with the American type and ends with the articulateds. In between you’ll learn about the horsepower race, streamlining, key people (Lima’s Woodard, Baldwin’s Vaulclain, Alco’s Cole, and others), critical research centers (Altoona, Roanoke), and important ultimates: the Hudson, the Texas, and the Northern. For the steam lover, the context is magnificent. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and Withuhn’s book is all about helping readers understand why things happened the way they did.

 As I page through this volume, I can only imagine what Bill might say come May when UP’s Ed Dickens cracks the throttle on No. 4014 takes to the rails westbound against Sherman Hill. I think I know. “Crikey,” I think he would utter, parroting a wonderful Australian expression of surprise, that I heard him say and write often. And then he would launch into a reminder of why the Big Boy was so good.

Bill, thank you for this book. I am truly sorry you are not here to enjoy the publication of your work and the Big Boy. You will always be remembered for helping us remember and understand the wonder, the successes, and the challenges of U.S. steam.



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