What shall we worry about in railway preservation now that B&LE 643 is safe?

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, August 05, 2019

One of the great lingering mysteries in the world of railway preservation has been solved: What will become of Bessemer & Lake Erie 2-10-4 No 643, the powerful (more than 100,000 pounds of tractive effort with the booster cut in) but perpetually stranded (earnest efforts to get the engine to preservation began in the mid-1970s and continued through 1995 when there was a serious attempt to move it to Scranton, Pa., and make it part of the Steamtown collection) Texas type that seemed destined for a bitter fate. Yes, I’m talking about a slow rusty death and then … finally, scrap. But now, its future seems assured. It has been acquired by the late Jerry Joe Jacobson’s Age of Steam Roundhouse, where it can take up residence in the Buckeye State with other castaways in the care of some dedicated and competent people and in a fitting environment. I am truly relieved, and I’m sure there are others out there who are as well. Jacobson and others who have been interested in the locomotive (including the late Trains Editor David P. Morgan) but are no longer with us must be smiling from on high. 

 

But we in the railway preservation world are naturally born worriers. I mean, if we didn’t worry about all this junk it would be come just that, junk. So, we worry, we fret, and we engage in long discussions with our pals over suitable beverages and with total strangers on the Internet. 

 

I don’t have far to go because I (like you) usually keep a short list anyway. Other than the B&LE engine, at the top of my list is the East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad that hasn’t turned a wheel in almost eight years and the Baldwin Sharknose diesels that are locked away in a building on the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad in northern Michigan.

 

The EBT is famed because it is pretty much intact from its 1950s self, from the locomotives, the rolling stock, the buildings. Everything. What’s more is there is only one EBT. It was a coal hauler. It was free from major changes. It lives in a valley that time forgot. But the problem, is that time and the elements don’t give a damn. In fact, they down right hate what we do. They stay up late at night trying to mess with everything you and I find sacred. The owner, Joe Kovalchick, is up in years; deal after deal to sell the line has fallen through; and the price of restoration would be steep. For those reasons, the EBT rises to the top of my worry list.

 

The Sharks, the last two of just over 100 A-unit diesels built by Baldwin, intrigue me. I suspect they’re well cared for — at least they’re inside with a roof over them. I also suspect there’s some permanent plan in place for them. But I just don’t know. So, I worry. I hope, but I worry, too. Diesels like these are unique. They deserve a spot of honor. 

 

There’s a third category, and it could keep me up more than one night in a row. It’s all of those park steam locomotives for which no one cares about any more. It’s well-meaning communities that are loving them, literally, to death. It’s the engines that were once symbols of community pride that are now slowly rusting and deteriorating. Remember the Ten-Wheeler in Port Arthur, Texas, that preservationists tried to save in 2018 when the city was on the verge of scrapping the engine? Local officials stepped in and said they could do the job. Today, it's still sitting there with no salvation in sight. 

 

So, tonight I’ll drink a toast to No. 643’s good fortune and better fate. And I’ll have a second glass, to think about the EBT, the Sharks, and all of those unloved park engines, the faded symbols of America’s industrial might and forgotten civic pride. They’re my new top railway worries. They should worry you, too. 

 

 

 

 

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